Image: A donkey (pixabay)

In 1967, at Deir Alla, Jordan, about 8 km east of the Jordan River, archaeologists found an inscription with a story relating visions of the “seer of the gods Balaam, son of Be’or.” It was a startling find, since “Balaam, son of Be’or” is the central figure of Parashat Balak in our Torah. However, instead of being a prophet of the Hebrew God, in the Deir Alla inscription he is associated with a number of deities, including “the Shaddai gods” and the goddess Shagar.

In the inscription, the gods tell Balaam that the world will be destroyed. The disaster is explained to him via animals: birds shrieking, animals of the field and herd disrupted.  He is able to avert the disaster, although the details are lost to damage to the inscription.

While there are many important differences between the Balaam of Parashat Balak and the Balaam of the inscription, one striking similarity is the communication with animals. In Torah, the seer has a donkey who speaks to him. In the inscription, birds communicate the news. In both cases the subject matter is deadly serious: in Torah, a curse to be put upon the Israelites, and in the inscription, news of the end of the world.

In the present time, we also receive messages from the natural world: warnings in the migration of polar bears, warnings in the shifting of fish in the sea. Like the ancient Balaam, whoever he was, we ignore those messages at our peril.

This d’var Torah appeared in a recent issue of the CCAR Newsletter.

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