A couple of weeks ago, I received an embargoed press release announcing a radical new interpretation of the ninth century Mesha Stele, which a team of researchers now claims could represent the first and only independent confirmation of the existence of King Balak outside of the Bible (Numbers 22-24). I honestly don’t care whether Balak existed or not, but I found the reasoning used to make the claim to be somewhat lacking.
The Mesha Stele was erected to record the history of Mesha of Moab, a king mentioned in the Bible. It was discovered in the nineteenth century, but after its discovery, part of the inscription flaked off. The research team reexamined the damaged section using a copy made in the nineteenth century.
Now that the embargo has long passed, let’s take a look at what the researchers claimed, courtesy of the press release:
A name in Line 31 of the stele, previously thought to read בית דוד, ‘House of David’, could instead read ‘Balak’, a king of Moab mentioned in the biblical story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24), say archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein and historians and biblical scholars Prof. Nadav Na’aman and Prof. Thomas Römer, in an article published in Tel Aviv: The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University. […]
The reasoning here is circular. All they really have to work with is the letter B and two other unknown consonants. They then used the Bible to look up names that might fit, and, having found one, turned around and suggested that the stone proved that Balak really existed.
It’s funny that the authors simultaneously propose the identification with “due caution” but then, based on their own conclusions allege that the Bible writers “must” have drawn this king’s name from life.
I will put this out there: The name could be anything. Since we know almost nothing of Moabite royal names, we have no idea how many kings were named Balak, or how many other B-names they had. So, even if the stone records a real name, and that name was Balak, there is no way to know that it refers to the same Balak as the one in the Bible. Is it possible? Sure. Is it a conclusion that we “must” make because it is “most likely”? No. At best it is a possibility that needs more evidence to support.
The claim was itself disappointing, and the media coverage that leveled out the story into straight-up “proof” of the Bible was worse.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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