How much of the Bible can be treated as historical documents and how much is just fan fiction?
Take, for example, King Balak. Previously, there's been no mention of this person outside the Book of Numbers, the fourth book in the Hebrew Bible, so was he actually a real monarch or just a character in a mythical tale? A reevaluation of an ancient inscription stone might hold the answer.
Archaeologists have recently noted an inscribed tablet dating from the 9th century BCE, known as the Mesha Stele, might contain the name of Balak. The stone, which has been heavily chipped and cracked over the centuries, is written in the ancient language of Moabite. Dating back to 840 BCE, the black basalt stone was unearthed around the ruins of the biblical town of Dibon in present-day Jordan in the 1800s. It’s now held in the Louvre art museum in Paris, although Jordan has demanded its return.
Its 34 surviving lines tell the story of how King Mesha of Moab triumphed over the Kingdom of Israel. In fact, it is also one of four known contemporary inscriptions containing the name of Israel. Reporting in Tel Aviv: The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, archaeologists are now unsure about whether conventional interpretations may have mistranslated the name of a monarch in Line 31. Previously it was assumed to read “House of David,” but the researchers now cautiously argue it could actually read “Balak.”
The confusion is largely due to the crumbling condition of the Mesha Stele. So, the researchers used new high-resolution photographs of the stone that better highlight the original lettering. The new images appear to show that the name on Line 31 has three consonants, the first of which is the Hebrew letter "beth," which sounds like "B." The team can't be too certain this correspondents to Balek, however, this king was mentioned as being a rival of Mesha.
If their hypothesis is on the money, this would be the first reference to Balak outside of the Bible, suggesting he was a real historical figure.
“The new photographs of the Mesha Stele and the squeeze indicate that the reading, 'House of David' – accepted by many scholars for more than two decades – is no longer an option," the authors conclude.
"With due caution, we suggest the name of the Moabite king Balak, who, according to the Balaam story of Numbers 22-24, sought to bring a divine curse on the people of Israel.”
“Thus, Balak may be a historical personality like Balaam, who, before the discovery of the Deir Alla inscription, was considered to be an 'invented' figure."
The story of Balaam and Balak is told in the Book of Numbers, in the Old Testament. Balaam, a prophet, is invited by Balak to curse the Israelites, but refuses to do so as God has not done so. However, the story also involves a talking donkey, so make of that what you will.