Numbers 22:5 (MT) reads:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֨ח מַלְאָכִ֜ים אֶל־בִּלְעָ֣ם בֶּן־בְּעֹ֗ר פְּ֠ת֠וֹרָה אֲשֶׁ֧ר עַל־הַנָּהָ֛ר אֶ֥רֶץ בְּנֵי־עַמּ֖וֹ לִקְרֹא־ל֑וֹ לֵאמֹ֗ר הִ֠נֵּ֠ה עַ֣ם יָצָ֤א מִמִּצְרַ֙יִם֙ הִנֵּ֤ה כִסָּה֙ אֶת־עֵ֣ין הָאָ֔רֶץ וְה֥וּא יֹשֵׁ֖ב מִמֻּלִֽי

sent messengers to summon Balaam son of Beor, who was at Pethor, near the Euphrates River, in his native land. Balak said: "A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the face of the land and have settled next to me. (NIV)

Specifically, the phrase אֶ֥רֶץ בְּנֵי־עַמּ֖וֹ is interpreted in one of two ways:

  1. It means a native land (either of Balak or Balaam)
  2. It refers to the land of the people of Amaw

As noted by the Cambridge Bible Commentary here, some versions (e.g. the SP here) have an alternate text, which reads ארץ בני עמון, the land of the Ammonites (Wiki entry with a map can be found here).

...The Sam. , Syr., Lucianic LXX. , Vulg. and some Heb. MSS. read ‘Ammon, for ‘ammô ‘his people.’

While reading does have various merits (including the shortened/easier journey, less-awkward phrasing), how could this possibly be correct in light of the fact that the previous words describe it being near "the river", which most assume refer to the Euphrates?

Would it be plausible to suggest that this is referring to a different river (the only one that could make remote geographical sense would be the Jordan, as Arnon and Jabbok are referred to as נחל, not נהר)?

This is further complicated by Balaam's declaration that he came from "Aram" and the "Mountains of the East", as well as Deuteronomy 23:4, which also places this city elsewhere along the Euphrates, both of which cannot refer to Ammon.

Note: I do not consider the resolution of the Cambridge Commentary that "near the river" was written by E and "in the land of Ammon" was written by J to be satisfactory to resolve this, since a second author would not introduce clearly contradictory statements into the same sentence without at the very least erasing the other option.


1 Answer 1


After some searching, I have found some indirect answers to this question (in the sense that those discussing the issue were unaware of this variant, but provide a solution nevertheless). While I'm not convinced by either suggestion, as "the River" almost certainly refers to the Euphrates, I'm glad to see that there is at least someone who has proposed something along these lines.

  1. Dr. William Shea (pages 109-111, found here) suggests that the site of the Deir Alla Inscription corresponds with the Biblical Pethor. In doing so, he identifies the "River" as the Jordan, the "Mountains of the East", as the eastern Jordan valley. He suggests that Balaam's reference to Aram was actually a reference to the town of Adam (see Joshua 3:16), and that due to scribal errors, not only was it replaced with Aram here in Numbers, but the Deuteronomist expanded on this mistake to claim its location was "Aram Naharaim", or Mesopotamia.

This is slightly strange in that Adam is certainly not a well-known landmark or area, and (despite Shea's comments in the article) I fail to see why it would be chosen as a reference of Balaam's hometown rather than Pethor.

  1. According to this website (VI, 1a), Bryant G. Wood suggests that the "River" refers to the Jabbok River, and that the "two rivers" (Naharaim) in Deuteronomy refer to the Jordan and Jabbok. He does not provide an original suggestion to explain Aram, but rather references Shea's suggestion above.

This is particularly weak, since Jabbok is always referred to as a Nachal (נחל), not as a Nahar(נהר), which is the Hebrew terminology used here.

Feedback and additional answers welcome!

  • Maybe פתר = פטרה and scribers omitted the ן as the dictionary suggest?
    – A. Meshu
    Jul 2, 2018 at 19:50
  • @A.Meshu I don't quite follow - what are you suggesting?
    – user22655
    Jul 2, 2018 at 20:31
  • Sorry. I suggest that Bilaam was from פתורה maybe today פטרה (old nabatian city located in todaya Jordan). And that the Amonian ruled on when the story last written.
    – A. Meshu
    Jul 2, 2018 at 21:55
  • @A.Meshu The Samaritan Pentateuch has פתרה instead of פתורה.
    – Alex
    Jul 2, 2018 at 21:58
  • 1
    @A.Meshu Petra is the Greek translation of the Edomite name סלע (rock)
    – b a
    Jul 14, 2018 at 18:51

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