Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Balak 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Balaam's Oracle and Semitic Languages

Dr. Zvi Betzer

Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages

Ancient Ugaritic texts, dating from the 14th to the 12th century, B.C.E., were discovered in 1929 in northern Syria. Ugaritic is generally viewed today as a northwestern Semitic language, but there is still some controversy as to the exact branch of Semitic tongues to which it belongs. These differences of opinion stem from the fact that Ugaritic has many aspects. Lexically, as far as the stock of words, it resembles Canaanite languages, especially Hebrew, and therefore could be viewed as a Canaanite language; grammatically it belongs to the northwestern Semitic languages; phonologically (its consonants and vowels) it closely resembles Arabic, and in this respect could be viewed as southwestern Semitic. Be that as it may, there is no controverting the striking similarity between the Ugaritic vocabulary and that of biblical Hebrew, especially biblical poetry. This similarity, which is also evident in its idioms, metaphors, parallelisms, etc., was noted by various scholars as early as the 1930's and '40's. [1]

Bible exegetes, from Saadiah Gaon through the last of the later medieval commentators, attempted to clarify the meaning of words that occur uniquely in the Bible (hapax legomena), [2] to this purpose even turning to post-biblical strata of the language (primarily Mishnaic Hebrew, or "the language of the Sages"). In the writings of these commentators one finds expressions such as "some say," and "so-and-so explained." These references, which apply not only to unique words, indicate the difficulties the commentators encountered in etymological and semantic clarification of various biblical words.

The discovery of Ugaritic, and especially of its affinity to biblical Hebrew, opened the way to explaining enigmatic passages in the Bible in the light of a sister tongue to biblical Hebrew, a tongue that was not known to our classical commentators. Needless to say, a new understanding of the meaning of a word, in any text whatsoever, can shed fresh light on the entire text and its ramifications. These new insights have redoubled importance when it comes to enhancing our understanding of our holy writ.

Biblical poetry abounds in archaic linguistic forms. Suffice it to mention a few (all taken from Balaam's oracles): the form yiqtol used to denote the past tense, as in: Min Aram yanheni Balak melekh Moav [From Aram has Balak brought me] (23:7); addition of a vav to the construct form, as in beno Zippor [=ben Zippor, son of Zippor] (23:18); lamed-yod verbs conjugated as full root verbs, as in ki-nehalim nitayu [nitu, like [gardens] planted [by] streams] (24:6); prepositions in an original plural form, as in alei nahar [=al nahar, beside a river] (24:6), and others. [3] Archaism is manifest not only in form and syntax, but also in the lexicon.

The suggested interpretations presented below are based primarily on the conclusions and innovative ideas of my mentor, the late Professor Shelomo Morag. [4] We shall present interpretations of four words in Balaam's oracles by comparing them with Ugaritic or Akkadian, and offer these interpretations as one facet of the "seventy facets of the Torah." [5]

1. Ki me-rosh tzurim er'enu u-mi-gevaot ashurenu -- "As I see them from the mountain tops, gaze on them from the heights" (23:9)

Tzur occurs dozens of times in the Bible in the sense of a large rock or boulder, and hence figuratively also in the sense of a fortress or place of shelter, and once with the meaning of tzor, a flint stone or hard rock. [6] In contrast, the Ugaritic word cr (etymologically the same as the Hebrew tzur) is used in parallel constructions with gbc (= geva, hill, in Hebrew). Thus the parallel use of tzurim and geva'ot precedes the more common parallelism of harim - gevaot (mountains and hills) found in the Bible. The language in the poem, representing an ancient stratum of the language, reflects the original meaning of tzur as a hill or mountain. The comparison with Ugaritic substantiates this possibility.

2. Darakh kokhav mi-Ya'akov, ve-kam shevet mi-Yisrael -- "A star rises from Jacob, a scepter comes forth from Israel" (24:17)

As we shall see below, mi-Ya'akov (from Jacob) is not the complement of the verb darakh, rather an attributive of kokhav (star). In other words, what we have is a parallel construction or distich whose two sides are as follows:

Darakh (predicate) kokhav mi-Ya'akov (subject)// ve-kam (predicate) shevet mi-Yisrael (subject).

The syntactical status of the verb darakh is somewhat peculiar. In the dozens of times that it occurs in the Bible it generally appears with an object or adverbial clause of place, as in purah darakhti levadi ("I trod out a vintage alone," Is. 63:3); ve-darakh al bamotei aretz ("and stride upon the heights of the earth," Micah 1:3). In the first example, purah is the direct object of darakh; in the second, al bamotei aretz is the adverbial clause of place. In our verse there is no such modifier. Darakh here does not fit into the above pattern either in terms of its meaning (tread, trample, stride), or in terms of its syntax (as shown). A similar difficulty is presented by another occurrence of darakh, interestingly, also in a poetic passage, The Song of Deborah: Tidrekhi nafshi coz ("March on, my soul, with courage!" Jud. 5:21). [7]

In Ugaritic the verb darakh appears in the sense of 'to rule, govern'. This appears to be the meaning of the word in the two poetic occurrences cited, one from Balaam's oracle, the other from Deborah's song. This early meaning apparently developed metonymically: insofar as the ruler is the one who treads on his subjects, or keeps them under foot, this verb became synonymous with the verb "to rule." This sense was preserved in biblical Hebrew poetry, but disappeared from biblical prose. Thus, the verses at hand can be understood as follows: Darakh kokhav mi-Ya'akov (// ve-kam shevet mi-Yisrael) = a star from Jacob (// scepter from Israel) shall rule. [8] Tidrekhi nafshi `oz = Rule, my soul, with courage!

3. Mi manah `afar Ya`akov, u-mispar et rov`a Yisrael -- "Who can count the dust of Jacob, number the dust-cloud of Israel?" (23:10)

The classical commentators interpreted rov`a as revi`ah (mating), or as zer`a (seed), or arba`a (four [standards, camps]; cf., for example, Onkelos, Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides on this verse). In Akkadian literature (Assyrian and Babylonian) this word occurs with the meaning "dust". It also appears in this literature as part of the parallel construction 'afar -- rov`a, indicating that these words are synonymous. This raises the possibility that in Balaam's oracle the word rov`a is also used in the sense of dust. This meaning of the root rb` occurs in various Aramaic and Arabic dialects as well. [9] If this is indeed the case, then the word rov`a that occurs in Balaam's oracle joins the category of hapax legomena.

4. Kum Balak u-shema, ha'azina `adai beno Zippor -- "Up, Balak, attend// give ear unto me; son of Zippor!" (23:18)

There are only two instances in the Bible where the verb he'ezin requires the preposition `ad: the text at hand, and Azin `ad tvunoteikhem ("I have given ear to your insights," Job 32:11). The necessary complement to the verb he'ezin usually joins the verb directly (without an intervening preposition), or follows l- or el ("to"). Indeed, the Septuagint and the Peshitta did not view `adai as a preposition, rather as a noun related to `edut, testimony.

In Akkadian, the word `ad occurs in the sense of "oath" or "covenant." In view of these facts, various scholars have suggesting viewing `adai as a noun meaning one of the following: witness, testimony, covenant, oath, undertaking. Morag has suggested the meaning "admonition, warning". He explains the word as a plural of `ad (a noun of similar form to `av, cloud, and the like), with a suffix indicating a possessive pronoun referring to the speaker. Morag basis his interpretation on such phrases as ha`ed he`id (Gen. 43:3, "The man warned us") and ha`ed ba`am (Ex. 19:21, "warn the people"), and others, whose meaning is to warn or caution.

Accordingly, we can explain the verse as follows: "Up, Balak, attend; give ear unto my warnings, son of Zippor". Indeed, the words of warning follow, Balaam cautioning Balak against lack of faith: "G-d is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change His mind". [10] Israel trusts in the Lord.

[1] Cf., for example, W. F. Albright, "The Oracles of Balaam," JBL 63 (1944), pp. 207-233.

[2] Cf., for example, F. E. Greenspahn, Hapax Legomena in Biblical Hebrew (SBL Dissertation Series, 74), Chico, California 1984, and the survey by G. Rendsburg, "Greenspahn's Hapax Legomena," JQR 75 (1984-1985), pp. 410-412.

[3] The language of biblical poetry has been studied extensively, [1] in addition to the thorough descriptions of it in scientific grammars of biblical Hebrew. Cf., for example, the thesis by Avi Hurvitz, Nituah Balshani shel Leshon ha-Shira ba-Mikra ( M.A. thesis under the direction of H. Rabin), Hebrew University, Jerusalem 1961, and the bibliography there.

[4] Shlomo Morag, "Rovdei Kadmut, Iyyunim Leshoniyim be-Mishlei Bil'am", Tarbiz 50 (1981), pp. 1-24.

[5] For a comprehensive study of this question, cf. C. Cohen, "Biblical Hapax Legomena in the Light of Akkadian and Ugaritic", (SBL Dissertation Series, 37), Missoula, Montana 1978.

[6] Cf., for example, Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Brown-Driver-Briggs), Concordance of Even Shoshan, and others.

[7] `Oz serves here as an adverbial clause, b'oz, "with courage," the absence of the preposition b (=with) in this case not being unusual in Semitic languages, including biblical Hebrew.

[8] This interpretation fits in well with Rashi's commentary on the verse. Morag, following others, suggests viewing "a star from Jacob" as a "descendant of Jacob." Cf. Morag, note 4, above.

[9] In Arabic the letter ayin in the root is ayin2,, but this is not the place to discuss the relationship of ayin1 and ayin2 in Semitic languages. Cf. note 29 in Morag's article (note 4, above), where there is also a reference to Ginzberg.

[10] This explanation does not lend itself easily to the text in Job 32:11.

Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.