Andrews University Seminary Studies, 27.2 (Summer 1989) 97-119

Copyright @ 1989 by Andrews University Press, cited with permission;.

digitally prepared for use at Gordon College]







                                                 WILLIAM H. SHEA

                                         The Biblical Research Institute

                                             Silver Spring, MD 20904


Part I of this article furnished an introduction to the discovery,

context, and general nature of the eleven Deir cAlla Tablets; gave

attention to the matter of decipherment of the script of the three

tablets that were inscribed with texts; and discussed in some detail

the text of the first two written tablets. This leaves for the present

study the discussion of the text of tablet III and the integration of

the information obtainable from all three of the inscribed tablets.

Before proceeding further, however, we first repeat here the

transliteration and translation of tablet I as a basis for relations

with the other two texts that follow. The transcription and linguis-

tic comments given on the text of tablet I stand as they were

presented in Part I of this article. Also, a new "Table of the Letters

of the Script of Deir cAlla" appears on the next page, updating the

listing given in Part I.


Text I: Pethor Smitten

(Deir cAlla No. 1449)


Transliteration and Translation


lkm / mk. / wtm.y / whm / mk. /ptr

(1a) "To you (have come) a smiter and a finisher,

            (1b) and they (are) the smiters of Pethor."


Text II was also transliterated and translated in Part I of this

article. It is the most difficult of the three written tablets from Deir


            *Editor's Note: Part I of this article appeared in AUSS 27 (1989): 21-37. Part II

continues the sequential numbering of footnotes and sections given in that earlier

portion of the study. The figure depicting the script of Deir cAlla is, however,

renumbered as "I" inasmuch as it represents simply a revision of Figure I in Part I.


98                                            WILLIAM H. SHEA



Figure 1.  Revised Table of Letters of the Script of Deir cAlla

DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                    99


cAlla to work with because it has suffered the most damage, having

many cracks on its written surface. These cracks confuse the identi-

fication of the letters that were originally written because, in some

instances, they appear to provide additional strokes with those

letters. Since Part I of this article was finished, further progress has

been made in distinguishing the original letters from extraneous

marks due to damage.

While much of the epigraphic and linguistic discussion of this

text given previously still applies, some corrections need to be

made to it. The results of these improved readings have been

incorporated into the transliteration and translation of text II pre-

sented here. These new readings also affect, the historical applica-

tion of this text. As a basis for this new treatment of text II, a new

and more accurate line drawing of it is provided here.


5. Text II: Pethor's Smiters

     (Deir cAlla No. 1441)


Transliteration and Translation


(1) csr / wywbbq / mk

(2) czwvt /pt.’m / mk


(1) "There was a damming up and the Jabbok (became) a smiter.

(2) Mighty (shocks) suddenly (became) a smiter."


The Line Drawing:



Since text II was written in boustrophedon order, it is difficult

to determine which of its two lines should be read first. The order

of the lines in this text have been reversed here in comparison to

100                                         WILLIAM H. SHEA


my previous treatment of them. The reasons for this are developed

after text III has been translated and interpreted.


Analysis of the Text

of Line 1

The first word of the first line begins with a clear occurrence of a

half-moon shaped cayin. A yod was previously read following this cayin.

This yod should be rejected now. There is a vertical stroke here, but

further examination of the photographs indicates that a triangular wedge-

shaped stroke extends to the right from its mid-shaft. In addition, a

horizontal stroke of short length was incised across the top of the vertical

stroke. This form resembles that of the dog-legged-shape sade in other

early alphabets, and as utilized here that letter contributes to the identifica-

tion of an intelligible word.

Further examination of the photographs also indicates that a circular

letter was incised above the head of the sade. This circle is faint in the

published photograph, but a copy of that photograph with its lines dark-

ened brings this circle out more clearly. This circle is rather flat across the

bottom, it is pointed in its right lower quadrant, and it contains a t-shaped

incision angling down towards the left within its circle. All of this gives

this sign a head-shaped appearance, which identifies it as a res. This res is

comparable to those that have been identified in text III below.

In conjunction with the previously recognized cayin, these two new

letters make up the word csr. In Hebrew this verb means "to restrain,

retain, shut up, stop." It may function here either as a Qal perfect or a

participle. Its subject should be taken as an indefinite third person, for the

next word is separated off from it by a waw which serves as a conjunction.

The word that is connected in this way is the name of a river (see below).

Since a river is restrained, retained, or shut up when it is dammed up, such

a damming up appears, therefore, to be that to which reference is made


This type of event is known to have happened in this region when the

Jordan River was temporarily dammed up by earthquakes that knocked

in its west bank near Damiyeh, biblical Adam, in 1267, 1546, 1906, and

1927 A.D. If a damming up of the Jordan was located below its confluence

with the Jabbok, then such an obstruction would naturally have had a

similar effect upon the Jabbok River too.

The first three letters which follow the word divider have been read

correctly previously as w-y-w. This combination may be taken as a con-

junction followed by a consonantal yod and a vocalic waw. Thus this

word begins with w + yo-. Two vertical strokes were written following the

second waw. The first one curves downwards to the right and the second

one curves upwards to the right, but they both look like the same letter,

which has simply been oriented differently in the two positions. At one

DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                101


time these two letters were read as gimmels, but the gimmel in text III has

a head that makes a 100° bend to the right, whereas these two letters angle

only slightly at their upper and lower ends. This suggests that these letters

differ from that gimmel. If the curved ends of these letters were expanded

into triangular heads, as has been done with dots for the beth in btym of

text III, these 1etters could easily be read as beths. My suggestion is that the

scribe of this text, working with a somewhat different orthography than

the scribe of text III, wrote these two beths here with this form.

At first glance, the last letter in this word-box looks like a trefoil sign

pointing upwards. This was previously identified as a kaph, but closer

inspection reveals that the part of the stroke that extends upwards to the

right also curves around and bends back towards the left upstroke. That

makes this letter one which consists of a quasi-circular head with a short

tail extending to the left. There are four main letters with closed heads and

tails in the early alphabets: beth, dalet, qoph, and res. Beth, dalet, and res

have been identified elsewhere in these texts and this letter does not look

like them; therefore, by a process of elimination this letter should be

identified as a qoph, its first occurrence in these texts.

From these letter identifications the word written after the conjunction

in this word-box can be identified as ywbbq. This corresponds rather

directly with the way in which the name of the Jabbok River was written

in the biblical text, with only two minor variations. In the MT the beth of

this name was doubled with a dagesh, but here it appears to have been

doubled by writing out the two letters. This was an irregular practice not

continued in later inscriptions. Given the early date of the alphabetic

writing of these tablets, however, experimental irregularities like this are

only to be expected. The second variation is that this word was written

with an o-vowel in first position while the Massoretes pointed it with an

a-vowel. Since this text is two millennia older than the Massoretic point-

ing, however, the o-vowel should be taken as more original.

The final word of this line, mk, refers to a "smiter," and should be

identified linguistically as it was in Part I. The proper name which

precedes it identifies that "smiter," i.e., the Jabbok River after it was

dammed up and overflowed this area. Text I mentions, but does not

identify, "smiters" of the region. Text II reveals that the river which

overflowed after it was dammed up was one of these smiters.


Analysis of the Text

of Line 2

The first word of the second line remains the same linguistically,

czwvt. This is the word for "strong, mighty," with a feminine plural

ending. Previously I interpreted this word as referring to human forces or,

more specifically, Israelite troops that came from Pithom in Egypt at the

time of the Exodus. Since the next word can no longer be read as Pithom,

102                                         WILLIAM H. SHEA


however, this interpretation must be abandoned. My new reading of the

next word now indicates that these "mighty" ones, whatever they were,

came upon Pethor "suddenly." Text III, discussed below, indicates that

when these mighty ones came upon Pethor so suddenly, they caused the

collapse of houses there. Since human attackers could be fended off for a

time at least, they do not fit this description very well. The suddenness of

the disaster and its effects suggest rather that the mighty ones that affected

the town in this way were shock waves of an earthquake. Given the

location of this site in the earthquake-prone area of the Jordan Valley and

given also the archaeological evidence for earthquakes found in the ex-

cavations, such an occurrence here seems quite reasonable.

Three of the four letters in the next word stand as they were read

previously. The problematic letter is the third one. The clear portion of

this letter consists of a vertical stroke with a triangular wedge extending to

the left from its mid-shaft. In Part I of this article two horizontal strokes

extending to the left were also read as connected to the superior and

inferior poles of the vertical stroke of this letter. These additional horizon-

tal strokes should now be discarded as not connected with this letter for

they appear to be cracks in the tablet due to damage.

An epigraphic indicator for this revision comes from the mem incised

above and to the left of this letter. If a horizontal stroke extended to the left

from the superior pole of this vertical stroke, the right-hand downstroke of

the mem would have crossed it. This is unlikely, for this crossing could

easily have been avoided and does not occur anywhere else in the three

tablets. Thus the faint line here is more likely a crack due to damage and

should not be taken as a part of the letter. The same can be said for the

crack extending to the left from the inferior pole of the vertical stroke.

Without these horizontal strokes, this letter cannot be a he or heth. It

still remains, however, to establish the real identity of this letter. If its

horizontal wedge were extended across the vertical stroke, and the superior

and inferior margins of that wedge were separated, it would resemble the

form of the ‘aleph in other early alphabets. In view of that resemblance

this letter should be taken as an ‘aleph here, the first occurrence of the

‘aleph to be recognized in these texts. The third word in this line can be

read as pt’m, "sudden, suddenly." Whatever occurred by means of the

actions of the "mighty ones" should have taken place "suddenly." This

suddenness strongly suggests that the "mighty ones" are to be identified as

the shock waves of an earthquake. The description of the disaster which

follows in text III fits well with a disaster of this nature.

The word, mk, which means "smiter," stands at the end of this line as

it was previously read. Thus these strong shocks which suddenly struck

Pethor constituted the second of the two smiters mentioned in text I, the

"finisher" referred to there. The reason for this ordering of the statements

in text II is discussed further below.

DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                            103


The revisions I have proposed for the statements in text II might be

summarized here as a complement to my previous study of this text. Six

letters have now been identified more accurately: the sade and res in the

first word of what is now the first line, two beths and a qoph in the second

word of that line, and an ‘aleph in the second word of the second line. In

addition, these two lines have been reversed in order from the way in

which they were presented previously.

The revisions now set forth provide a transliteration and translation

indicating that the smiters which struck Pethor were not human forces like

the troops of Israel or King Og of Bashan. Rather, they were the forces of

nature that were unleashed against this site, first by the nearby river and

subsequently by an earthquake. These were the two "smiters" of text I, the

first identified there as a "smiter" and the second as a "finisher."


6. Text III: Pethor's State

   (Deir cAlla No. 1440)


Transliteration and Translation


(1) mkk / btym / dry / ccym

(2) wcyn / ngr / mksmy / wysym

(3) zcm


(1) "The houses have fallen in heaps of ruins,

(2) and the spring has poured out covering them,

(3) and a curse has been placed."


The Line Drawing:

104                                         WILLIAM H. SHEA



This final written tablet is in mint condition. Its writing is

very clear. The third line consists of one word written along the

bottom edge of the tablet. Line 1 is the bottom line on the face of

the tablet, and line 2 is the top line on the face of the tablet. The

reason for following this order rather than the reverse is syntactical.

The bottom line begins without a waw, whereas the two statements

in the top line both begin with a waw. These waws should serve as

conjunctions to join their statements to those that have gone pre-

viously. It seems likely, therefore, that this tablet was meant to be

read from bottom to top rather than the reverse.


Analysis of the Text

of Line 1 (Bottom Line)

The first word of the bottom line begins with a broad v-shaped mem

and two trefoil-headed kaphs. These two kaphs have tails, whereas the

kaph in the top line of this text does not, an irregularity in this scribe's

writing. The second kaph is rotated 90Ί in comparison to the first, another

irregularity in this text, but there are parallels to this type of irregularity in

text II. In spite of this rotation, both of these letters are readily recognizable

as kaphs. The Hebrew word mkk means "to fall down, sink down, settle

in." It is used in Eccl 10:18 to refer to houses that fall into ruins due to

neglect. But the houses here were hit suddenly according to the second

text, so their collapse into ruins must have been more abrupt than in the

biblical case.

The subject of this verb follows as the second word in this line, and it

is the plural noun btym, "houses." The beth consists of a three-point

triangular head atop a vertical unbent tail. The taw is standard in form for

this text. The yod has a dotted head. The yod is used four other times in

this text, and the mem of the plural ending is only one of five examples of

that letter in this text. An interesting feature of the btym here is the

presence of the yod, representing the i-vowel of the plural ending -im.

The third word of this line begins with a dotted triangular head that

has no tail. This is similar to the dalet of the later scripts, with which it

should be identified. The second letter is taken as representing another

occurrence of the head-shaped res. It can be compared to the res with

which ngr ends in the top line, even though slightly different in shape.

The most common use of dr or dor in Biblical Hebrew is as a reference to a

"generation." This idea is derived from the root idea of a "cycle" or

"circuit." As a verb, dor means "to pile up," and the noun "dwelling

place" is also derived from this root. Anyone of the foregoing meanings

could make sense here, but the idea of a "circle" or "heap, pile," of ruins

fits best. The final letter of this word is a yod, which serves as an indicator

DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                            105


for a construct relationship of a masculine plural noun. This word should

thus be taken as in a construct or genitival relationship with the word that

follows it. It is striking to see the yod of this relationship written out here,

in contrast to the practice of scribes who wrote later inscriptions.

The final word of this line begins with two vertical half-moon shaped

cayins. These are followed by another yod and another mem. This form

corresponds well to the biblical word for "ruins" in the masculine plural.

In Biblical Hebrew this word was written with one cayin and two yods,

while here it was written with two cayins and one yod. Presumably, these

cayins were intended to be read or pronounced with i-vowels, and the

yod here represents the i-vowel of the plural ending.


Analysis of the Text of

Line 2 (Top Line)


The first word of the top line begins with what is, for this text, a

normally shaped waw with a semicircular head. This should serve as a

conjunction connecting the second thought in the text with the first

thought written in the line below. The waw is followed by the vertical

half-eye cayin. Next come the dotted vertical stroke of the yod and the wavy

vertical line of the nun. Thus we have here the word cyn. In Biblical

Hebrew this word can mean either an "eye" or a "spring." The latter

meaning makes better sense in the context here, especially in conjunction

with the verbs that follow it.

The nun which begins the second word is virtually identical to the

nun with which the first word ends. This is followed by a gimmel with a

curved head, and then a head-shaped res. The Hebrew word ngr means "to

flow, pour, gush forth." In 2 Sam 14:14 it is used of water being poured

out, and it is used for wine in Ps 75:9. As a feminine singular perfect (or

participle) in the Niphal, it probably was pronounced with a final a-vowel,

but that vowel was not written out here.

The broad v-shaped sign of the mem occurs twice in the next word,

and its first occurrence is followed by standard forms of the kaph and

samek. The word ends with the vertical stroke topped by a dot to make it a

yod. The kaph-samek combination at the heart of this word provides the

root ksh, which in Biblical Hebrew commonly means "to cover." With a

mem preformative, this form looks like a participle in the Piel, the con-

jugation in which this root commonly occurs. The second mem of this

word should be taken as a masculine plural pronominal suffix inasmuch as

a plural ending on the participle would not fit with the gender or number

of either the preceding subject or verb. The antecedent of this plural

pronominal suffix would most logically be the "ruins" of the "houses"

mentioned in the preceding line.

The yod written after the pronominal suffix may represent an old case

ending. An archaic survival of a similar old case ending appears with the

106                                         WILLIAM H. SHEA


same suffix on the same verb in the old poem of Exod 15 (v. 5; cf. v. 7).

There this verb was used for the action of the waters that covered the

chariots of Pharaoh and his men. Here it was used for a similar action

of a covering by waters, but in this case it was waters from a spring

that covered ruins of the houses of a town. Evidently the earthquake

which struck this area and toppled houses also fractured the water table

that supplied the spring of the town, thus causing it to pour forth in


The initial letter of the next word is a waw, which should be taken as

a conjunction. This is followed by a word containing two yods and ending

with a mem. The vertical strokes of the yods are undotted. Between them is

a vertical bow-shaped sign of the sin/sin, which Cairus distinguished from

the nun. In Biblical Hebrew ysym parses readily as a third person mascu-

line singular Qal imperfect of sym, "to put, set, place." It is interesting to

note that the central yod of this middle weak verb is written out here.

This verb cannot stand alone. It needs something to go with it--a

subject, an object, or more. The search for such a complement leads to the

word on the edge of the tablet, its third line. Presumably this word was

written there because there was not enough space left on the second line of

the text written on the face of the tablet. According to Franken's study of

the scribal methods employed in writing this text, this was the last word

written on the tablet. It should, therefore, complete the statement that

began with ysym.

The word written along the edge of the tablet was zcm. The cayin and

the mem have been seen previously in the body of the text. The sign that

precedes them is a vertical box-shaped letter with a number of crossbars.

This looks most like a heth, but that letter does not fit well here preceding

an cayin. Cairus has suggested that this sign should be identified as a zayin.

In favor of that identification is the fact that some of the crossbars incline

downwards at an angle to the left, as does the crossbar of the later zayin.

In Biblical Hebrew zcm means "to curse." This word appears, for

example, in a speech made by Balaam of Pethor in which he described

Balak's instructions to him (Num 23:7). Thus it seems quite appropriate to

find the same word in this text from Balaam's home town. As a noun, this

word on the side of the tablet serves well as the subject of the verb at the

end of the second (upper) line on the face of the tablet. The whole phrase

wysym zcm thus translates, "and a curse has been placed." Either the scribe

who wrote this text saw the events that had taken place as the result of a

curse, or a curse was placed upon the site after it was affected in this way.


Summary of Text III

The falling down of houses referred to in the first line of this

text is interpreted here as being caused by an earthquake, presuma-

bly the same earthquake mentioned at the end of text II. Knocking

DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                107


down the houses was the first destructive action of this quake,

hence it was mentioned first on the tablet. The quake also fractured

the water table of the spring at the site causing it to overflow upon

the ruins of the fallen houses. This was the "covering" of "them,"

i.e., the ruined houses mentioned in the second line of this text.

The final line of this text refers to the curse, either that from which

these effects resulted, or that which was pronounced upon the site

after its destruction.


7. The Language of the Texts


With the script of these texts deciphered and their contents

translated, the language of the texts can now be analyzed in some

detail. Even though we have only three short texts with which to

deal, they provide a surprisingly large amount of linguistic data,

some of it quite extraordinary for texts from so early a date.

Six verbs occur in these three texts-two in tablet I (nkh and

tmm), and one of these (nkh) is used over again in tablet II. Tablet

III adds four more verbs (mkk, ngr, ksh and sym). Perfects and

participles occur, but only one example of an imperfect (ysym) and

no infinitives or imperatives appear to be present. Four different

conjugations are represented: the Qal, Piel, Niphal, and Hiphil.

All of these roots and forms are readily recognizable from Biblical


Five nouns are present in these texts-the words for "curse,"

“strong (ones)," "houses," "heaps," and "ruins." The first of these

is in the singular, the rest are in the plural. One of the plurals is

feminine, and the others are masculine. One of the masculine

plural nouns appears in a construct form. There are no recogniz-

able occurrences of the article with the nouns in these texts, a fact

consistent with the early date of writing. All five of these nouns are

well known in the vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew. Two toponyms

occur, the place name of Pethor in text I and the river name of the

Jabbok in text II.

Three pronouns occur in these texts, two of them independent

and one of them suffixed. The second person and third person

plural are represented. The pronouns correspond in form with the

forms used for similar functions in Biblical Hebrew. The waw used

as a conjunction appears in all three of the texts--twice in text I,

once in text II, and twice in text III.

One of the more remarkable linguistic features of these texts is

that they appear to be vocalized in part. The main letter or sign

108                                         WILLIAM H. SHEA


that was used for this function was the vertical stroke of the yod,

either dotted or undotted. This appears to have represented mainly

the i-vowel, but in one case of a masculine plural noun in construct

it may stand for e. The most obvious vocalic use of the yod is in the

plural masculine ending on nouns, -ym or -im, which occurs with

three words in text III. In one instance--ysym of text III--the

second yod appears to represent the middle weak radical of the

verbal root. In one instance, in mksmy of text III, the yod following

the pronominal suffix may represent an old case ending that may

be compared with the related archaic forms in the Song of the

Sea (Exod 15:5, 7).

In two instances in text II the waw appears to have been used

to represent o-vowels. The more obvious case of this is with the

feminine plural ending -ot. There it is accompanied by an un-

dotted vertical stroke. This appears to be an indicator for the use of

a vowel letter rather than representing a vowel or consonant itself.

The other use of the waw as a vowel letter appears in the name of

the Jabbok River. No cases have been recognized in these texts in

which representation of an a-vowel or u-vowel was attempted.

The conclusion from these linguistic data is that either these

tablets were written by Hebrews, or they were written in a Trans-

jordanian dialect of Canaanite that was very close to Biblical He-

brew. These two possibilities are examined further, following a

discussion of the potential historical connections of these tablets.


8. Historical Geography


The major contribution which the Deir cAlla Tablets make to

historical geography is to locate Pethor of Num 22:5 at Tell Deir

cAlla. The reading of this name on tablet I is reasonably clear and

direct. Locating this text as part of a series of tablets that were

found at that site makes it more likely that this text was written

there rather than brought from elsewhere.

In another direction, this discovery provides an explanation

for another major find at the same site, the eighth-century-B.C.

plaster texts from the walls of a later building. These texts, written

in red and black ink on the plaster walls, were discovered in 1967,15


15 See H. J. Franken, "Archaeological Evidence Relating to the Interpretation of

the Text," in J. Hoftijzer and G. van der Kooij, Aramaic Texts from Deir cAlla

(Leiden, 1976), pp. 3-4, for the circumstances of the discovery.

DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                109


and they were published in 1976.16 They were found in a very

fragmentary condition, and much scholarly ingenuity has gone

into their reconstruction and study.17

            The central character in combination I, a narrative dramatic

text, is Balaam the son of Beor. His name and patronym appear in

broken or complete form in at least four places in the first six lines

of this text. His title is given with his name in the first instance-

i.e., "the man who was a seer of the gods." There can be no

mistaking that the individual named and described here is the same

person as the Balaam whose actions are set forth in Num 22-24.

The rest of combination I relates Balaam's experience. The gods

revealed themselves to him in a night dream or vision, and in-

formed him about a coming disaster involving both a "fire of

chastisement" and a convulsion of nature. Combination II is even

more fragmentary and the nature of its contents is obscure.

A. Lemaire has asked the question, "Why were these literary,

probably religious, texts copied on the plaster wall of a room at

Deir cAlla?"18 His answer is that there probably was a sanctuary

nearby. This appears to be correct, but is only part of the answer.

Now, thanks to the Deir cAlla Tablets, we can recognize that this

locale was where Balaam’s home sanctuary of Pethor was located.

Of all the places in the entire Near East where his memory might

have been preserved, this location is obviously the most likely

because of its being the very spot where he lived and exercised his


16 See the entire report of Hoftijzer and van der Kooij mentioned in the pre-

ceding note.

17 One Ph.D. dissertation has been written on these texts, that of Jo Ann

Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir cAlla (Chico, CA, 1984). Other studies include

A. Caquot and A. Lemaire, "Les textes aram'eens de Deir cAlla," Syria 54 (1977):

189-208; B. A. Levine, "The Deir cAlla Plaster Inscriptions," JAOS 101 (1981): 195-

205; P. K. McCarter, "The Balaam Texts from Deir CAlla: The First Combination,

BASOR 239 (1981): 49-60; Victor Sasson, "The Book of Oracular Visions of Balaam

from Deir cAlla," UF 17 (1985): 284-309; idem, "The Language of Rebellion in

Psalm 2 and in the Plaster Texts from Deir cAlla," AUSS 24 (1986): 147-154; J. A.

Hackett, "The Dialect of the Plaster Text from Tell Deir cAlla," Or 53 (1984): 57-65;

A. Lemaire, "Fragments from the Book of Balaam Found at Deir cAlla," BARev 11

(1985): 26-39; J. Naveh, "The Date of the Deir cAlla Inscription in Aramaic Script,"

IEJ 17 (1967): 256-258. On Balaam in general, see Jo Ann Hackett, "Religious

Traditions in Israelite Transjordan," in Ancient Israelite Religion, ed. P. D. Miller,

P. D. Hanson, and S. D. McBride (Philadelphia, 1987), pp. 125-128.

18 Lemaire, "Fragments," p. 38.

110                             WILLIAM H. SHEA


prophetic ministry. How appropriate, then, that a narrative text

from him or about him should have been preserved at this site.

The identification of Tell Deir cAlla with Pethor also aids in

clarifying a problem in biblical geography. In Num 23:7 Balaam

introduces his first oracle of blessing upon Israel with the remark

that "from Aram Balak brought me, the king of Moab from the

eastern mountains." This statement is commonly assumed to be a

reference to northeastern Syria or Mesopotamia. Support for such

an impression has been found from a remark in Num 22:5, which

says that Balak called Balaam from "the river." Since the unmodi-

fied term "the river" is commonly used in the Bible to refer to the

Euphrates River, this reference in Num 22:5 has been considered as

referring to that river valley and that Balaam was called from that


In light of the new information available from the Deir cAlla

tablets, however, the foregoing proposal deserves reexamination.

Both "the river" and "eastern mountains" (Num 23:7) could fit just

as well for Pethor at Tell Deir cAlla. In this case, the river would be

the Jordan River and the eastern mountains would be those of the

eastern Jordan Valley leading up to the plateau.

The major obstacle to making such an identification is the

reference to Aram, which should be Syria to the north, not Canaan

to the south. A rather direct solution to this problem lies in posit-

ing a very small and simple, but significant, scribal error in the

transmission of the biblical text. Two out of three of the letters in

the names of Adam and Aram are the same. They differ only in the-

dalet and res. These two letters were written in a very similar

fashion in the pre-exilic Hebrew script. Dalet had a large triangular

head and a short vertical tail, while res had a smaller triangular

head but a longer vertical tail. In Iron-Age Hebrew, Phoenician,

and Aramaic inscriptions these two letters are commonly very diffi-

cult to distinguish.

My proposal for resolving this problem is that while the origi-

nal author wrote "Adam," a scribe later in the course of textual

transmission miscopied it as "Aram," either through misunder-

standing the reference or through an inability to distinguish the

correct letter in an earlier manuscript. The scribe who copied Deut

23:4 went even further to gloss in "Naharaim," i.e., "of the two

rivers," to go along with the already miscopied "Aram." In this


DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                111


way Pethor came to be located in Mesopotamia when in actuality it

was located near Adam by the Jordan River and by the mountains

of the eastern Jordan Valley.

Balaam could be called from both Adam and Pethor, according

to the text, because Adam was the residential town in the area and

Pethor was the specific site of the sanctuary there, where Balaam

carried out his prophetic ministry. Excavations at the latter site

have demonstrated its religio-sanctuary nature.


9. History


Interconnections between the Tablets

Before potential relations between these texts and external

sources can be explored, their own internal relations need to be

established as firmly as possible. The translations developed above

indicate an interconnection of all three texts in that they all dealt

with the same theme, a disaster of natural origin which overcame


Within that framework these texts can be set in order quite

readily. Text I provides a general introductory statement about the

disaster, text II identifies the factors or "smiters" which brought

about this destruction, and text III concludes the series with a brief

description of the state of the site after these "smiters" struck. The

lexical and thematic relations among the three texts have estab-

lished this as the proper order, and it would be difficult to alter it.

Tablet II has been the most difficult to read, translate, and

understand. It is also the one most difficult in regard to determin-

ing the internal order of its own statements. Because it was written

in boustrophedon order, the tablet can be turned in one way and

read in that order, or it can be turned upside down and read in the

alternate order. The question here is, Which should come first, the

line with the flood or the line with the earthquake? The tablet itself

does not appear to give a clear-cut indication of which direction of

reading was intended, so one must go to its connections with the

other tablets to establish the order of its statements.

While one might suspect that the earthquake of tablet II should

have preceded and caused the river flooding mentioned in this text,

that order cannot be established directly from the text. Text I refers

to two "smiters," an initial "smiter" and a "finisher." Tablet II

112                                         WILLIAM H. SHEA


identifies two "smiters," each connected with that specific word in

the singular. It is logical, therefore, to take the two smiters identi-

fied in tablet II as the two smiters mentioned by tablet I. Thus the

flood and earthquake of tablet II should be taken as separate and

distinct "smiters," they were not seen as two phases of the same

event. In other words, the earthquake was not mentioned here as an

indication as to why the river flooded, but was mentioned to point

out that it too was a smiter of Pethor.

The question of sequence remains, therefore, and it still needs

to be determined whether the flood was the initial smiter and the

earthquake the finisher or vice versa. Tablet III appears to provide

the best answer to this question by describing the final events at the

site. Its description of the final destruction there is one of an

earthquake, not a river flood. This was the occasion upon which

the houses fell in ruins and the spring at the site poured out over

these ruins. The finality of this sequence of events is emphasized in

tablet III by the mention of the curse at the end of this tablet's

recital. Regardless of whether this curse was a reflection back upon

the course of these destructive events or an active imprecation at

their conclusion, this act of cursing surely was the last event in the

sequence narrated by all three of the tablets.

Applying this information to the question with which we are

dealing indicates that the earthquake was the "finisher" as a smiter,

and therefore the flood of the river should be taken as the initial

smiter of the two. Thus the first tablet mentions the two smiters of

Pethor, the second tablet identifies them by their nature, and the

third tablet sets them in order by indicating which of them finished

the site off. It also describes the state of the site after that finisher

got through with it.

The conclusion here, then, is that the first statement on the

second tablet should be identified as the one that deals with the

flooding by the Jabbok and that its second statement should be

taken as the reference to the mighty shock waves which struck

suddenly. Thus tablet II does not say that the river was dammed up

as a result of an earthquake, nor does it say that it was not dammed

up by an earthquake. It simply does not address that point. If it

was dammed up by an earthquake--something which one might

suspect on other grounds--then that shock wave was an earlier one

of less intensity than the final one that finished off the destruction

of the site.

DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                113


By way of conclusion to this point, these tablets may now be

translated together and in order:


Text I              To you have come a smiter and a finisher,

and they are the smiters of Pethor.

Text II             There was a damming up and the Jabbok became a smiter.

Strong and sudden (shocks) became a smiter.

Text III            The houses fell in heaps of ruins,

and the spring poured out covering them,

and a curse was placed.


A Potential Connection to Biblical History

In Part I of this article a connection with biblical history was

proposed, mainly on the basis of a misreading of two words in the

difficult text of tablet II. It is now evident from improved readings

for the letters in these words that the biblical connection pro-

posed--with the Israelite conquest of Transjordan--cannot be sus-

tained. That conclusion does not mean, however, that no potential

connection between these tablets and the Bible is available. It

simply means that to address that issue one must look elsewhere to

determine whether such a connection is possible or not.

The nature of the events described by these tablets leads rather

directly to another series of events described in the Bible. This

series, recorded in the book of Joshua, begins with the crossing of

the Jordan River by the Israelites and ends with their conquest of

Jericho. Jericho was in the southern Jordan Valley and Pethor in

the mid-Jordan Valley, both of them thus being located near the

geological fault that runs north and south through that valley. It is

natural, therefore, to expect that they would also share somewhat

similar fates whenever earthquakes struck the region. If the epi-

center of such an earthquake was near enough to Jericho to knock

down its thick and heavily supported and defended walls, it could

easily have had sufficient force to knock down the thinner walls of

houses at Tell Deir cAlla in the mid-Jordan Valley.

Josh 6:20 describes the way in which the Israelites gained

entrance into the city of Jericho. The walls of the city fell down on

that occasion. Even though the Hebrew text does not use the

specific word for earthquake here, the net effect of what is described

can be referred to as an earthquake. Regardless of whether this was

naturally or supernaturally induced, some sort of quaking of the

114                             WILLIAM H. SHEA


earth is the best mechanism through which to understand how

these walls fell. And this quake must have been one of considerable

magnitude in order to accomplish the extent of the destruction at

Jericho. As such, it should also have had sufficient force to damage

Pethor farther north in the Jordan Valley. This would fit well with

the quake mentioned in the second line of the second Deir cAlla

tablet, the effects of which are more fully described in tablet III.

Another event took place near Jericho prior to that final de-

struction, however, and it too could be expected to have had direct

effects upon the region of the mid-Jordan Valley. Josh 3:13 speci-

fically states that this particular region was affected by a damming

up of the Jordan River at the time the Israelites crossed over the

river from their camp at Shittim. The waters of the Jordan were cut

off at ancient Adam, modern Damiyeh, in order to make it possi-

ble for the Israelites to cross over. The biblical text conveys the

Israelite's viewpoint and participation in these events. Their in-

terest was in being able to cross over the river, something they

normally would not have been able to do at this time. But we must

also take into account the view of the Canaanites who lived on the

other side of this blockage, north and east of Adam. It is reasonable

to assume that conditions were not very congenial for them at that

time in that they most likely experienced a considerable amount of

flooding in their settlements. That is what text II says happened

at Pethor.

The river most important to the Israelites in their quest to

cross from one side of the valley to the other was the Jordan, hence

that is the river referred to in their description of these events. As

the river nearest to Pethor at Tell Deir cAlla, on the other hand, the

Jabbok was of more concern to the residents there. Any damming

up of the Jordan should have affected the Jabbok in a similar way,

so long as the blockage was located south of the point of their

confluence. Text II does not specifically state that the Jabbok was

the only river dammed up at this time. It simply says that there was

a damming up and that the Jabbok became a smiter of Pethor as a

result. The actual point of the blockage could just as easily have

been on the Jordan, and the course of events in more recent occur-

rences of this type suggests that it probably was so in this case too.

The relations proposed above can now be outlined by citing

from both sources in parallel:

DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                            115


Deir cAlla Tablets                                                                              Joshua.


I. To you have come a smiter and a finisher,

    and they are the smiters of Pethor.

II. There was a damming up and the Jabbok struck,                        = Josh 3:13

     (then) strong and sudden (shocks) struck.                                 = Josh 6:20

III. The houses fell in heaps of ruins,                                                   “    “  “

      the spring poured forth covering-them,                                         “    “   “

      and a curse was placed.                                                   = Josh 6:26

    (at Jericho)


It should be noted here that the biblical text puts a minimum

of two weeks, and probably more time than that, between the

crossing of the Jordan in Josh 3:13 and the conquest of Jericho in

6:20. These brief statements on these tablets do not address that

issue directly, they only indicate that the events occurred in succes-

sion without indicating how long an interval elapsed between


Another aspect of the chronology involved here is the question

of how long a period elapsed from the time these tablets were

written when Jericho and Pethor were destroyed to the time the

tablets were sealed in the later destruction of the sanctuary at

Pethor. Two main dates have been proposed for the conquest of

Jericho by those who hold a historical view of the events narrated

in the book of Joshua. One view dates this conquest to the end of

Late Bronze Age I, ca. 1400 B.C., while the other dates it to the end

of Late Bronze Age II ca. 1230 B.C. My personal preference favors

the Late Bronze Age I date,19 but the difference between these two

dates is not a major consideration here. The date selected simply


19 A date of 971 B.C. for the accession of Solomon, as established by E. R. Thiele

in The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Grand Rapids, MI, 1965), p. 55,

by fixing Solomon's death in 931 B.C., dates the commencement of the construction

of the temple to Solomon's fourth year, 967. I Kgs 6:1 extends 480 years back to the

time of the Exodus, and 40 years should be subtracted from this figure to allow for

the wandering in the wilderness. These figures date the conquest under Joshua to

late in the fifteenth century B.C. Judg 11:26 supports such a date by indicating that

the conquest took place some 300 years before the time of Jephthah. If Jephthah is

dated to about 1100 B.C., the conquest would be dated to approximately 1400 B.C., or

essentially the same time that I Kgs 6:1 would date it.

116                             WILLIAM H. SHEA


determines the length of time these tablets would have been pre-

served in the sanctuary at Deir cAlla. If the earlier date is correct,

then those tablets would have been preserved there for approxi-

mately two centuries. For a thirteenth-century conquest date, the

tablets would have been preserved there less than a century.

A distinction between earthquakes is important here. From his

excavations at the site, Franken determined that the Late Bronze

Age II sanctuary was destroyed by an earthquake.20 The inscribed

tablets were found in this destruction level. Obviously, the earth-

quake referred to by the tablets could not be the earthquake that

caused the destruction in which they were sealed, or they would

have had to be written and stored in the sanctuary simultaneously

with that earthquake. The earthquake to which the tablets refer

must therefore be one which hit this site sometime earlier in the

Late Bronze Age.



With these tablets pointing to an earthquake antedating the

one which finally destroyed the site, the question arises as to how

specific one can be in connecting that first earthquake and sur-

rounding events with those that are mentioned in the Bible in

connection with the fall of Jericho. Since there were other earth-

quakes in this area at this and other times, perhaps these tablets

refer to an earthquake and related events other than those which

took place in the time of Joshua.

The reference to the damming up of the river makes the course

of events much more unique and specific, however. While there

have been many earthquakes in the Jordan Valley throughout

history, only a few of them have been of sufficient strength or


The most recent work on the pottery of Jericho is that of Bryant Wood

presented to the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research in

Boston in December of 1987. In his as-yet-unpublished paper the author demon-

strates that the excavator, Kathleen Kenyon, has missed indigenous Late Bronze I

pottery mixed in with the Middle Bronze IIC pottery from the last strata of Middle

Bronze- Late Bronze Age Jericho. This discovery has the effect of bringing the time

of the destruction of the last of those strata down from Kenyon's date of 1550 B.C. to

Wood's date of ca. 1400 B.C.

20 H. J. Franken, "The Stratigraphic Context of the Clay Tablets Found at Deir

cAlla," PEQ 96 (1964): 73-78.

DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                117


proximity to dam up the Jordan River near Adam/Damiyeh. In

recorded historical times this has only happened on four occasions

since the thirteenth century A.D. It also occurred in the time of

Joshua, according to Josh 3:13, and now these tablets give us a

reference to such an occurrence prior to the end of the Late Bronze

Age, i.e. in the same era in which Joshua lived and fought. That

connection brings these two sources close together in time.

It should also be stressed that these tablets take our knowledge

of this kind of phenomenon two millennia farther back in time

than was previously the case from extra-biblical sources. From the

damming up of the Jordan by the earthquake of 1267 A.D. these

tablets take our knowledge of this kind of occurrence all the way

back to the Late Bronze Age. It appears that an event of this sort-

or in any case our knowledge of such events-is a rarity.

There is the matter, as well, of the distinctive nature of the

sequence of the events recited by these tablets, as translated and

interpreted above. The earthquake which caused the destruction of

the site was not the shock wave that caused the damming up of the

river, if it was dammed up by an earthquake at all. Tablet I

separates those two events, and tablet III indicates that the more

destructive quake came later. So we have here a damming up of the

river first, and then of the more destructive quake that damaged the

site so badly. This unique order of events is all the more unlikely at

other times, but it just happens to fit precisely the order of events in

the biblical record.

Thus there are four major factors which point to a connection

between the events narrated by these tablets and those described in

Joshua. First, the damming up of the river along with an earth-

quake emphasizes the rarity of the events described by the tablets.

Second, the archaeology of the site places the events of these tablets

prior to the end of the Late Bronze Age, the same age in which

Joshua was active. Third, the contrast with later historical records

adds further emphasis to the rarity of these events. And fourth, the

sequence of the events described in these tablets is the same as the

sequence in the book of Joshua, a factor making them even less

likely to have been replicated at some other time. The conclusion

here, then, is that there is sufficient specificity in the narration of

the events in these texts to connect them with those described in


118                                         WILLIAM H. SHEA



A final question remains: Who was at the site of Deir cAlla

when the tablets were written? There are two possibilities, and they

have already been raised at the end of the discussion of the linguis-

tic data from the tablets. Either these tablets were written in Hebrew

by Israelites or they were written by some non-Hebrew residents of

Transjordan who spoke and wrote a dialect of Canaanite that was

very close in form and content to Biblical Hebrew. Historical

contexts can be suggested for either of these possibilities.

An Israelite authorship could be posited from the following

circumstances: The portion of Transjordan settled by the Israelite

tribes was conquered and distributed before Joshua led all Israel

across the Jordan River (Num 32). Pethor at Deir cAlla could have

been part of this conquest and temporary settlement. The Trans-

jordanian tribes promised Moses, however, that they would not

permanently settle upon the lands distributed to them until the

Cis-Jordan tribes had inherited their lands too (Num 32:18-20). In

fact, they were supposed to cross the Jordan and accompany the

Cis-Jordan tribes in the latter's battles of conquest. They might

very well, however, have left a small garrison behind at this strate-

gic site, and one of the soldiers stationed there might have written

up this account after the fall of Jericho.

A non-Israelite authorship can be suggested from another set

of circumstances: This place was Balaam' s headquarters, and he

may not only have composed his prophetic oracles in poetry (Num

22-24) but may also have written them down. We cannot attribute

the writing of these tablets to Balaam himself, however, for he was

killed before the Israelites crossed the Jordan (Num 31:8); but the

nature of the Deir cAlla site as a religious center would imply the

existence there of other literate persons or prophets. Most likely

there was something resembling a non-Israelite school of the proph-

ets, the staff of which included Balaam for a time; and someone

among the other literate persons could have been responsible for

the writing of these tablets.

Even though no final conclusion has been reached in this

matter of authorship, it still is evident that the texts were written in

Hebrew or in a dialect very close to Hebrew: As translated and

interpreted above, they also indicate that their writer had a knowl-

edge of events in the mid-Jordan Valley contemporary with the


DEIR cALLA TABLETS                                119


Israelite crossing of the Jordan River and the conquest of Jericho

under Joshua. They simply reflect a perspective of someone located

elsewhere in the valley concerning the way in which the people

there were directly affected by those same events.



I had originally intended to discuss in this second installment

of my article the dotted, unwritten tablets, as mentioned in Part I.

But the study of these tablets is still in a very preliminary state,

and therefore my comments on them will be reserved for another








This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Andrews University

            Berrien Springs, MI  49104

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: