Job: Why God wrecked a man seemingly blameless and God-fearing

Job, brought down brutally, had been the Noah of his time. Both were righteous men in their different milieus. Job was living in Babel when the people took on God and built their tower. He gave the daredevil project a wide berth. Of the two, Job, for abstemious habits, clearly got the Almighty’s nod. The reward was great. Abraham himself did not escape life’s ups and downs like he did. Contemporaries could see that God would always protect and never test Job.

At the height of his career writs in the heavenly court are moved against the man envied from Babylon to Ramses. Job is accused of success. He is accused of taking God’s beneficence for granted. He is accused of fair-weather piety. How would he cope with a reversal of fame and fortune? A sentence gets handed down. It is open-ended: angels have carte blanche to act as they see fit. Job, they reckon, can be brought to book. He will be prodded and tormented until he blasphemes.

In quick time a localized apocalypse envelops Job and family. Deprivation, death and a skin disease are their lot. The mystique of a charmed life peels off with the ease of the skin of a snake. Everyone can see it’s not another bad luck story. Nothing is normal about the sequence of hits that convert a great magnate into a pauper. Pustule-ridden from the neck down, Job in a mourner’s sackcloth squats on a bed of cold ash. He has been taught the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.

What occurs there in the city of Uz is not the common misery that catches up with mortals high and low. What makes it different is that it took longer than with others to catch up with Job. Still he’s up to the test. Against all odds, and the cajoling of a demented wife, he won’t curse God.

Great blessings, he tells her on her low stool cursing him for not cursing God, great blessings and great curses are two sides of one scale. The wife spits into the grey coals. From a household of more servants than they knew by face, they are left faring for themselves. Fate bitterer than bile is crammed down their throats.  

The pauperising process began with ordeal by theft and killing. Marauders came from Sheba and Kasdim; took the livestock and put workers to the sword. If it was any consolation the criminals were human. Not so the bolt of lightning that followed, eradicating every animal the raiders had missed. What precautions can you take against a bolt from the blue? He’s been felled by a double hit. The natural and freak occurrences have wiped out every movable asset to his name.

He tries to solace. “What God has given,” he tells the wife, “God can take away. If He made me a landowner and business magnate, He can make me a beggar.”  

She (people speculate about her real name and background) hugs herself and rocks. Bereft of property her spouse is no more that corporeal gent who caused people to step aside to let him pass. Overnight he walks and sits bent and lopsided. But the family is intact, and that is worth more than property.  They have ten sons and ten daughters.  

A note is on the way, a full day ride on Jezebel the retired mule, partially-sighted and forelegs that buckle at the mere prospect of hill or dale. The siblings have to be told. Their share of the estate must be sold to pay off debt and provision the different households. They will take it badly. The weekly feasting they take in turns to host, the bawdy entertainments, will become a fond memory.

There is something wrong when you send out a lame mule but a perspiring steed thunders up to your front door. A servant of one of the sons: out of nowhere a sirocco wind came and collapsed the house where feasting was in progress. All twenty children have perished under rubble.

Yet Job will not surrender. Belittled, he won’t blaspheme. Such fortitude counts for little in the court where sentences of life and death, of success and failure are handed down. It’s not proof enough of Job’s steadfast faith. The angel of death has taken the prosecutorial task. ‘My Lord, test your servant more. See if he won’t blaspheme.”

Fortitude has counted against the accused. Often he would ask friends, ‘Why are things the way they are? Why always perfect?’ As a precaution he sanctified the siblings daily. He would rise before dawn to offer burnt offerings for each, in case one of them had despised God in words or deeds. Apparently they all did – and too badly for roasted meat to make amends.  Twenty children in one swoop gone to purgatory.   

Even now the court has not finished with Job. The seal on the punishment is hideous as it is humiliating. The down-and-out mourner gets smitten by an ailment of the skin which alone would have tested the faith of Abraham. He squats on a pile of ash to absorb the discharge of wet pustules below the waistline. Dry sores higher up make him tear in frenzy at his torso. There is no separate discomfort he can pick out. He is tormented all over.   

The wife is made of stronger stuff. Calamity can be boiled up to make passion. When he holds off from berating God she flays him wordily, even as the deranged man pleads with his Maker to put him out of his misery. At the end of her tether she summons three close friends to share the nightmare.

They come prepared to sit with a household in mourning, not to be tossed into bedlam. When last together at the mansion, the hearty host warmed his back at a blazing fire. He was wearing a silken robe over a snow white undergarment fastened at the waist by a gold-brocaded belt and buckle stamped with the legend, ‘House of Job.’

“Holy smokes!” Entering the door hung with black fabric they are pitched into Gehenna.

“A man must have done…what!” hisses the first man to enter. “God would never chastise …” Their friend presents a contemptible sight squatting and fretting, moaning and crying. “May the day of my birth be dark. Why did I not die from the womb?’

Confronted with such morbid suffering it’s no wonder the mourners lose patience quickly. God, they tell him mercilessly, is waiting for a confession. “Confess?” he says. “Confess what?” “In his place,” whispers Bildad the Moabite, “I think we’d all be in denial.”

The visitors wolf down a boiled capon on the table, some oat cakes and mugs of beer. They cannot empathise until they get to the bottom of the misfortune. Earnestness makes them cruel. It’s no wonder. Eliphaz is a grandson of Esau; Zofar hails from the city of Naam where a victim gets worse treatment than the villain. Bildad as a Moabite is worse: Jacob’s seed, by God’s express command, may not marry into his nation.      

They tell Job the same thing. If God is just then evil befell the family because of guilt on their souls. To spare his feelings would be to spoil his chance for repentance. The wife dabs her mouth to cover glee. She swears at them under her breath, “You’re a big comfort to a house of mourning.” Her accomplishment has been to drum rebellion into Job’s skull and cruelty into her own, which gourds her to finish him off.  “Life in your condition, Sir! What use to anyone are you!” By ‘anyone’ she means herself. Job’s got nothing to give her now. “Renounce your faith. Blaspheme and die quickly. It will be better than enduring a prolonged existence of poverty and distress.”

The patriarchs could not have stood up to this. Job does. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken back. The children and property were given to me. It’s the Giver’s right to take them back. I was born naked and I will return to the earth naked.” Heroic. The test he has passed could be the most severe since Abraham introduced the world to one God. Dark yet steadfast, he is close to being superhuman.

He would have been had he kept it up. The problem is what Job feels. Feelings are inborn. A  donkey feels resentment when made to suffer. At heart Job blames the constellations. The star he was born under is at fault. To the visitors he curses the star on the day he was born for ruining him. A touch of bad luck. It would be better had he blamed God. Idolater. They nod at one another. He gives the stars power over events. At heart he renounces God. His thoughts have blasphemed.

Here was victory, of a sort, for the spouse. By cursing his luck and sins, he spares himself from prolonged misery. God terminates the life of a sinner quickly – a preferred end. Let purgatory greet him in the afterlife.

This whole dogma of reward and punishment has pitfalls. Those of simple faith take comfort that destiny, the oldest enigma, is controllable. Behave well to be blessed, behave badly to be punished. It makes life easy to understand, though it’s not what life really is.

Bildad, clearing his throat, goes at Job like a dog gnawing a meatless bone. “If you are righteous, which you say you are, why are you being punished?” The answer, “I told you what has punished me,” draws murmurs of protest. That wrong star business! 

Should he be told the truth? Would Job hate them for it? The righteous and the wicked suffer alike. Everyone has some of both in them. But there’s no telling it to someone down and out. Let Job blame his unlucky star, the lesser evil. Cursing God would be the greater. It’s a prickly predicament for a man who fears God. He is caught in a cleft stick. He must either believe that God allows the constellations to supervise the world, or that God is capable of punishing a blameless man. Which of the two would get His goat the most? Or would they be equally heinous?

“Let me be sure I have it right,” says Eliphaz grimly. “It’s beneath the Almighty to look after His lowly creatures. I think that’s what you said. Divine Providence over man, according to you, is not possible. God’s is infinite and cannot be interested in the problems of an individual. Hmm…How proper is it to believe that?”

Zofar is the pugnacious one. He goes right up to Job on the bed of ash, and looks down at him. So – God knows nothing of our deeds. Is that it? But look at you my friend. Every day you got up in the dark, trudged to your fields, slaughtered a fatted calf, let your servant string the carcase over your private altar. Every day a burnt offering. Every day you knelt. ‘Lord, pardon my sins. Pardon the sins of my family. Pardon pardon pardon.’ Not good enough for Almighty God?”

“Don’t do that, brother,” Bildad shouts. “Gently now. He is not to blame for the children dying. They had weekly feasts. There was too much levity. God took them out of the world.”

“A little harsh, Bildad?” Eliphaz has a moment of clarity. He says that reward comes to those who seek God with sincerity and not hypocrisy. Suffering first, reward later. You pay for reward with suffering. God makes it all worthwhile. If indeed Job is free from sin, as he insists, God has made him suffer so that He can reward him. The amount of prosperity at the end will be greater for the suffering. If Job lost twenty children and eighty thousand livestock, God could be waiting to repay him three times over.    

Eliphaz fails to see the stupidity. Is it really how he understands Providence? How can it possibly be? The wicked get prosperity for a punishment, the righteous get tribulation for a reward. Can the world be run so perversely? And how can two identical happenings – suffering – lead to different results? Like a wild storm that blows off both fruit and leaves from a tree, so God chastises both the wicked and the righteous. It cannot be.

There are all kinds of people,” says Bildad when Zofar makes that point. “There are people who do all kinds of evil which God rebukes with all kinds of punishment. Job – what do you think?”

Job thinks like a heretic. The saga of the wrongly punished. He doesn’t fear Divine punishment since he’d done nothing punishable. He’s been humbled and frightened into an obedient brain-dead beast for nothing. He now makes up a rule that no one there had heard before. It is better, he says, to deny Providence than to call God unjust. He has a clever answer to everything. He berates Bildad, shocks Eliphaz, and makes Zofar walk out in disgust.

Why are they hammering at me? says Job. Even if he had transgressed, it was not proper for God to be heavy-handed with the rod. And what about some leniency when the evil done had not been deliberate? To err is human to forgive divine.   

In fact they know more than they’ve said. The problem is they understand why Job has been brought so low. He had sinned not directly but by omission. How could they tell a mourner in his situation? They’d heard it from Balaam, who knew firsthand. At the time he and Job had Pharaoh’s ear. What should be done about the Israelites in Egypt? Bondage or expulsion? Balaam voted for bondage, and for tossing baby boys into the Nile. Job kept his tongue. It was his silence that marked him down in God’s book. 

The truth is – and they don’t blame Job for not knowing it – God expects man to intervene to frustrate the decrees He makes. Like a game. A man is judged favourably if he intervenes and guilty if he doesn’t. That a Divine decree is unstoppable means nothing. God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. The bitter bondage would be implemented come hell or high water. Job’s sin, strange as it may sound, was to let God do what God meant to do.

So it was with the sale of Joseph by his brothers. Though God had decreed that the brothers would sell him, they were punished for selling him. Job lost everything by letting the Divine decree, the bondage happen. He was powerless to nullify it, but he sinned by failing to try.  

The visitors give the sufferer a fleeting grin. He doesn’t know why.

“Come and visit after the mourning period,” they say.

“Why my lords?”

They purse their lips. They don’t explain.


“No hurry. Come when you’re mended and know better.”     

Turning synagogues into mausoleums makes no sense.

Global pandemics aren’t new, but the way Jewish communities are responding to this one is brand new. Rabbinic authorities in turmoil have kept shuls under lock and key. Allow-don’t- allow Jews to congregate causes sleepless nights given the mess we’re in today and the unknowable of what tomorrow might bring. The Coronavirus pandemic cannot be taken lightly.

To develop a framework for reopening scores of shuls that have been standing like mausoleums, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa enlisted a team of pandemic specialists. I avoid the term ‘experts’ because the team is a cut above that breed. There must have been a plague of experts even in the 1930’s for D H Lawrence to write, “When science starts to be interpretive it is more unscientific even than mysticism.” What, we must wonder, would Lawrence write if he knew that a thousand epidemiologists gave masks and social distancing a thumbs-down while they gave anti-Semitic mobs lobbing bricks through store windows a thumbs-up.

One reason why a specialist often makes a better human than an expert is because in the main the former is well-meaning. But Judaism, if I’m not mistaken, gives credit for actions rather than intent. Well-meaning specialists can and do cause unintentional harm. The same goes for well meaning leaders of a community.

To quote the panel: “Shuls can reopen when the rate of new infections in the country is on the decline. Right now, the models we are relying on…..” So they invested faith in the tried and distrusted flattening of a curve, raising two problems.

One, an authentic curve describing the rate of new infections must be drawn from authentic data. ‘Iffy’ data will produce an ‘iffy’ curve. The other problem is more fundamental. It supposes a link between the infection rate of a country and the infection of shul- goers. What has one got to do with the other? Are they linked, (the technical term is ‘correlated?’ Can the infection rate of a population predict how many shul goers will be infected? I don’t see how it can.

Take South Africa, a country of two worlds: a third world in which most of the population lives, and a first world in which shul-goers live. A report on first world Israel could put the lid on the mistake of linking the rate of infection to the risk synagogues pose for spreading the virus. In Arutz Sheva on July 7th a study revealed where Israelis picked up the virus. Two thirds of infections were picked up at home while a mere 2.2% ere picked up in synagogues.

Such an outcome can stir up a hornet’s nest of problematic unknowns. Before you command and control when and how shuls can reopen you need the bigger picture. For one thing, what is the chance of being infected in shul compared to the chance of being infected –
(a) At home
(b) Buying groceries
(c) Eating out
(d) Visiting friends and family
(e) Working in the office?

Why target shuls? For all the controllers know, people could be at greater risk at home or going to work or eating out or shopping till they drop. Making only shul attendance difficult amounts to giving a thumbs-down to davening and a thumbs-up to minutiae in the greater scheme of life.
The pandemic may be epic but we don’t have to lose perspective. The Asian flu of 1957 killed 116,000 Americans when the population was 172 million, a little more than half what it is today. For the population today it would be equivalent to 222,000 deaths, compared to the far lower toll of some 135,000 deaths attributed to coronavirus.

Counting fatalities presents a really sticky problem for advisors worth their salt. For good reason the Chief Rabbi’s advisors are not tracking the data of deaths from the virus. South Africa’s public health system is shambolic, and conditions in state hospitals are inhuman. BBC exposé A Covid-19 patient denied food for days on end died, and probably was added to the tally for virus-related deaths.

On top of all, the command council directing the Covid-19 fight-back is a den of manipulation and corruption. Any scientist worth his salt would look at the data released by it and sniff a rat. But not the Jewish media (radio and press) which blithely quotes government data verbatim, and scares the wits out of the community.

Scaremongering lies at the heart and soul of the dilemma of when to open shuls and what health protocols to impose. When the media screams, “heading for the eye of the storm” it makes the community somewhat meshuga. We read of women physically sound and no more than middle age sentencing themselves to solitary confinement for a third of the year. Jews both play the media fear cycle and get caught in it.
Losing your head at a time like the present comes naturally. “Choose life” the Torah commands. Coping with coronavirus and choosing life puts us in a cleft stick. We mustn’t be reckless, but neither must we cower at home month after month waiting for a vaccine to come to the rescue. Life is for living.

Attending shul involves risk, public health crisis or not. How many shul-goers have died in terror attacks compared to how many have died from being infected with the virus in shul? I don’t know, but my bet is around 100 to 1.

A team of pandemic professionals not just advising but helping to make policy is on shaky ground. Science is one thing. Making policy is another. Putting safety first by making conditions difficult for holding shul services is a policy matter. The Chief Rabbi and his team are making communal decisions, not going by halachah. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains the difference.

In making communal decisions, instead of absolute values there are a multiple of conflicting considerations. The UK’s former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption spells out what they might be. “There are no non-negotiable absolutes,” he says, “not even the sanctity of life.” If you argue with that then you must argue against allowing people to drive cars knowing that thousands of people are certain to be killed or maimed.

So then, is the policy for reopening shuls a good policy? The answer to that is another question. Is taking up a bazooka to kill a cockroach a good plan? In public health matters if you don’t let common sense prevail you can end up killing the patient with the cure.
For shul services let protocols of common sense prevail. Why control from a command post? No one is forced to attend shul. A disclaimer on notice boards and email notices could do the trick. “The committee is not responsible…Congregants of susceptible age and health are advised to consult their personal doctors…”

Let Jews, singly or jointly, weigh up the odds. Attend shul or stay away.


A grave to die for

“The world is ready for new explanations,” to quote Zadoc. The puzzle, you see, is that I   explained the meaning of the King’s flyaway bird with the utmost plainness. The disappointment was in finding nothing near the events foretold by my oracle bird when the time came. The monarch pished and pughed at first most terribly – I had a good name for telling the future. The event would happen in two hundred and ten days, to have faith in my prophesising. Well, the time had come and gone, but no sign of the army on our borders. In the King’s chamber we went over the prophecy again and again with great application, studying every word and every letter of it through and through. Still we could make nothing of it that way.

“Perhaps there is more meant than in the plain words?” said the king. “Your bird, Mr Balaam, wouldn’t speak of armies or give dates for nothing. Study the mystic and the allegorical sense. Here is a quiet room. Ask for another audience when you are ready.”

Now, I find it needful to add that, with the prodigal gifts I owe to God and to merciless conditioning, went the gift of verbal criticism. Imprisoned in a chamber until I could explain the failed prophecy, I got out my pocketknife and tried experiments on the words and letters, to see if I could not scratch better sense into, or out of them. “Pshaw! One letter more.” I thumped my fat rump to urge on my defeated brain. Mystic meaning – come, come…”It would not. I snapped my fingers in a frenzy of despair. “God damn – I marred a whole word! Scratched it clean out!” I held the leaf to my eyes – bit my lip – tore up the leaf in a passion.

Here – why here rather than at another time in my captivity I am not able to tell – came the clank of the door bolt. A servant stuck his head in and cocked it impertinently. At his heels going clickety clack I solaced myself down the long passage with two possibilities; one that the walk would end at the chopping block or, two that the king would receive me, tired of my vaunted tricks; I would be humiliated before being shown the door. I go no further with similes that when I entered the hall, Balak’s eyes were greater than his known appetite, his zeal greater than his known pomposity. A runner, a lithe ragged Hittite, was being hurried out as we hurried in, causing a quick scuffle, to the amusement of my rivals lounging at a messy table. Balak with a cup halfway to his lips, told me not to stand staring unless I wanted the last of goose liver to go before I came to my hungry senses. The positive mood put fire in my head.

I had one side of the table to myself. The two court wizards opposite chomped and sipped at leisure. The king unfurled a scroll on a space cleared of plates, decanters, scraps. I sat vigilant and attentive.

“Don’t be shy!” Zebulan shoved an oval platter at me. “There’s enough there.” Gad, next to him, slid a plate of baked wafers across the table. They had already had the missive read to them, by the way all eyes were on me. This reading was for my benefit. Balak, let me say, was not my idea of monarchy. My choice of king would not lisp or squint or talk loudly, or lick his lips or pick his teeth or speak through his nose or blow it with his fingers on coming to a significant sentence. There were many such.

Old Jacob was dead. All of Egypt mourned. Pharaoh led a procession of thousands with Joseph, the favourite son. The embalmed patriarch was carried all the way to Canaan, a walk of 77 days.  He was going to be laid to rest in the cave of Makhpelah facing Mamre, bought by Abraham, bequeathed to Isaac. (The spat between Isaac’s twins, over the birthright, was about to raise its ugly head after decades of peace, even as the coffin of one of them, gold, encrusted with jewels, adorned by royal vestments, was about to enter the ground). Jacob’s twelve sons took turns to carry the bier.

You can only dream to be put into the ground in Makhpelah. Royalty and riches will not help. You’ve got to be born for it. Three couples lie there in the ground: Adam next to Eve, Abraham next to Sarah, Isaac next to Rebecca. And these elite of the elite are not like ordinary dead. The bodies, some believe, do not lose their looks. And now Jacob was going into the ground next to Leah – though many would have to die for it.

Balak said, “Your great enemy lying with your great aunt, Mr Balaam.”

Self-importantly – “Yes, my lord.”  The diners across the table shifted irritably. They understood I was a gesture-maker, a flaunter of high family.

“You know Makhpelah?” His fluey lips seemed to want to suck and taste the words.

“I do, sire.”

“Perhaps you wonder who wrote to me? An old and very good ally. King Angias of  Africa.”

I showed no recognition, and Balak resumed reading.

When the funeral procession came to Bramble Barn at Mamre, a combined force assembled to prevent the burial was waiting for it.  Every king in the land of Canaan had joined with Jacob’s twin, Esau and Abraham’s son, Ishmael and his son Keturah. Esau even at a hundred and thirty seven retained the ruddy look and dogged bearing of a hunter. He approached the sons of Jacob at the head of the mourners. Confrontation was always a theatrical event for Esau. He addressed the twelve sorrowfully, as the heartfelt brother of the deceased.

“My nephews, God should comfort and bless you with long life.” The sons returned the sentiment. Now Esau put aside family formalities and spoke haughtily.

“You head for the Village of Four, named to honour the four couples meant to be buried there. Three couples already are. The two remaining grave plots must be divided equally between my father’s two sons. Your father Jacob buried Leah in one; therefore the last plot is reserved for me.”

The sons were stunned. “But our father owned the cave. He bought it from you.”

Esau shook a finger at them. “Uh, uh. Jacob bought my birthright. That is all. Our father Isaac left the cave to both his sons. I am part owner.”

“No! Uncle, you sold everything to your brother.”

It appeared that Esau had anticipated this argument. He immediately asked for the deed of sale. Of course the brothers had not brought it with them. They pondered mightily. Eventually it was decided that Naphtali would run back to Egypt to fetch the document. Even for a runner as swift as the young brother it was a four day journey, return.  Meanwhile Jacob lay unburied – an affront to the mourners. To God. A grandson, Chushim, would not have it. “How can you let my grandfather lie there in his coffin! A disgrace!” He drew a sword. Before anyone could stop him, he charged at Esau who had his back turned. In a fit of fury the zealot swiped the head off old Esau. The head fell right onto the coffin. There it was, staring at the mourning crowd. Not everyone was horror-struck. The cock-a-hoop grandson yelled that Jacob had opened his eyes and saw the head of his twin. “The saint rejoices to see vengeance. Jacob washes his feet in the blood of the wicked!”

The words butted into my thoughts as I stared at the window with a hard gaze, trying to master my stomach spasms and the knotted whirls in my heart. Balak’s eardrums seemed to pick up the clues, the beat of my blood, rhythmic and quick and abuzz with family feuds. He looks at me approvingly, “Did you hear, young man, Jacob and Esau are no more. Now the sons go at each others’ throats.”

Me nodding, “Yes, my lord.” The king, grinning, returned to the text and read.

Well, pandemonium broke out in the mob of mourners. “Ai Ai, they’ll kill us all – you see if they don’t! They took the head and buried it before Esau’s family saw it. With the torso the brothers were not quick enough. The family of Esau spotted the torso lying in the field and  attacked the Israelites with demented fury. Their allies joined. A hundred and forty against twenty five. God must have been with Joseph and brothers. They killed eighty without suffering even one casualty. A grandson of Esau, Tzefu, with fifty others they took prisoner. Joseph had them chained and marched to Egypt. The survivors grabbed the torso of Esau and ran off.

Balak’s reading began to falter as I began to fidget. “Mr Balaam?”There are frowns around my eyes and tufts of moustache between my lips.

“Sire, I am staggered by this account, I am digesting where it may lead. Sire, you had me brought here – so I thought for my prophecy failing to happen.”

“You were brought for that,” sniggered one of the full bellied seers opposite me. “Let the king come to the end he’s coming to.” They were glad for me to be a false prophet because that is what they were. So far so good. But did they want to steal, or at least have a claim to some final success? But who looks into the finer points when he’s hungry and anxious?

The king said, “A little patience, young Balaam. I’m doing my best for you, if you’ll allow me to continue?’ There was glad whispering among my detractors sitting opposite.

So, read Balak, three days later Jacob was laid to rest in the cave of Makhpelah, the very day his twin was buried on far away Mount Seir – or the torso of Esau was buried, to be exact. Now all the men of Seir joined with the men of Eliphaz to form a huge army. It headed to Egypt, to wage war on Joseph and to rescue Tzefu. Joseph and brothers, joined by Pharaoh’s  army, went forth to battle. They killed one hundred thousand of Seir’s men. Eliphaz and the remnant of his army fled. Joseph’s army caught up with them, and killed more, making the few survivors disperse in panic.

After their heavy losses, a great argument erupted between the men of Seir and the family of Esau. “You caused all our mighty warriors to be killed by the sons of Jacob. We no longer want you in the land of Seir. Go to Canaan. That is where Esau lived.  What do you want in our land?”

The Esau clan did not want to leave Seir, and a running battle ensued.  I, King Angias, was a close ally of the family. I got a message that the Seirites were going to drive them out.  Could I send troops to fight with them? I did: my 500 infantry and 800 cavalry reinforced the men of Esau. But the Seirites also made a plea to their allies, the men of the East. My spies got hold of the message. It read –

Here Balak drew breath and looked at me, to warn me to be wide awake. “Balaam, listen carefully now. The message I am going to read was written five days before what you foretold would happen on our border. You will hear that it is dated 18 Tishrei, which was three days after Jacob’s burial in Makhpelah.” And Balak read the message as if my life hung on every word. Still, I did not guess what was coming; not even when my sour companions got up and begged the king to excuse them – some unavoidable business. They knew from  the first reading; they had heard what was coming, and left me to my triumph. I moved to a chair nearer the king.  “Young man,” he said, “this is what the Seirites wrote in their message for assistance.

“You know of the evil that the sons of Esau did to us. They dragged us along to fight Jacob’s sons, and all our best men were killed. Our Seirite army was going to march on Moav, depose King Balak and rule the land. Now we have no army for it. We ask your help to take revenge on the army of Esau.” Well, the men of the East sent 800 expert swordsmen. The two armies met in the Paran Desert. On the first and second days the Seirites prevailed and killed 258 of my troops helping the Esau army. When my men saw how so many fall they regretted joining  them and went over to the enemy. The men of Esau asked me for reinforcements.  Again I obliged. With 600 extra troops the Esau army took the offensive and killed thousands of Seirites, and decimated the enemy. They fled, with the army of Esau in pursuit. The latter took the city of Seir and massacred every living soul. They divided the city into five parts,, one for each of Esau’s sons. They appointed my fellow African king, a very wise man and expert in world affairs, the King of Seir.

Here Balak paused to blow his nose like a victory trumpet. My prophecy was borne out. My inner ecstasy knew no bunds.  Balak’s enormous nose blow however signified something quite different. He leaned forward at me to whisper, “Bela ben Beor.”

“My lord?”

“The name of the king they appointed King of Seir. The name, Bela ben Beor.”

I laughed. What?

“Another one from your father’s loins you never knew?” The king spoke with a ring of sadness. Poor me, so badly brought up. I could see that he wondered why I did not resent it. “Don’t you worry. I intend to bring you to King Bela ben Beor’s notice.”

He could do want he wanted. I was flattered by the power of prophecy I had shown.

“Well, well, so the army I predicted, the one that would come to threaten Moav, Sire, turned out to be the Seirites. If your ally had not sent his troops to help the army of Esau defeat them, the Seirites would have massed on our border on 23 Tishrei, the day I foretold.”

“You got it right. Good god, if this is not something in your bloodstream –”

For the first time I felt I was not overstepping the boundaries of what God permitted me to do or know or be. The terrible twins were dead. The conflict between Jacob and Esau had passed to the next generation. I felt certain that my life was fated to be crossed with Israel – the name by which the descendants of Jacob were coming to be known. The king must have been feeling the same – that new forces in the world were in play. “Born on the same day, buried on the same day, eh Balaam. That was Jacob and Esau. From womb to tomb at each other’s throats.”

I let my secret out. “I used to think, sire, that when Jacob died I would somehow reclaim the  ancestral property he swindled out of my grandfather. I’m thinking it now. I would have spat on Jacob’s corpse before he went into the ground.”

“He was the ruin of your family. You have the right to ruin his.”

I got the feeling that Balak’s words were meant to excite me and make me eager to  act. He wanted me to say that I felt capable of killing and destroying. Well I did. I had often tested the idea in my mind. and felt good about it. No guilt. None. I would love to destroy Israel. But I said no such thing to Balak. In a different context I remarked that it was only a matter of time before I would meet my new bastard sibling. the King of Seirite. A melodious title.

House with a difference

 The body cart had jerked away over the baked clods, and we looked on as the workers pounded the site level with their spades. The palace had sent a prince to represent it. In thrall at a notable’s violent death he blew his lips and stamped muck off his kidskin boots and flicked specks off the lapel of a spotless tunic. After the interment we three stood about on a morning dark with lowering clouds. I had lent Zadoc my father’s old army cloak and his black beaver cap, and he bobbed intermittently over the grave like drops of tar. The prince, with a rough face from a youthful case of acne, collected the royal ensign used to drape the body carts conveying heroes to their rest, doffed his cap at the grave and to us then sauntered off to his pony grazing on one of the old graves reclaimed by tumbleweeds and briars.

“Well – Beor’s gone to his hate,” Zadoc said grimly to me.

“He had the grace to exit quickly,” I said. It would not leave me, my outrage and humiliation when I learnt how my father paid the price he deserved. I hurled a metaphorical brick at Zadoc for the way he maintained a neutral deportment, neither of sympathy nor of satisfaction. “Beor’s carcass should’ve been left in the street for the rats and dogs.”

“Correctly, your father deserved no burial rites. You have a right to hate him.”

“Sir, he lived as he died.”

My one support in the world bent his head. “The end was ugly.”

“He took my money. My father spent what I earned before I saw it. He drank and engaged in a sick profanity. That little prostitute paid the price.”

Zadoc flicked with his boot at a lump of dug earth. I did not bother to ask why he held back, why he refused to condemn his partner in my punishment. I knew it was for my sake.

“An angry spirit has gone out of the world. Son, don’t let your heart rejoice – it’ll warp the powers you learnt from cruelty. Beor got what he deserved. Leave it there – feeling good at a death isn’t the way.”

“I don’t feel good, I feel free. I never hated my father – mostly he scared me. When I was too young to know I admired him. When Beor returned from wars I believed he had fought in them. I compared him to legendary Abraham – a fearless trailblazer who fought and won against all odds. Call me naïve, I was playing with toy armies at that age. When I grew up I understood that my father hero went to war for money. No, he didn’t – he saw no combat. He got paid for giving advice! Mostly his payment was in kind: he got a share of the loot. I doubt Beor went near enough to a battle to run away from it.”

Prior to Beor’s final disgrace, Zadoc, who would not hurt a fly, had tried to bend my spirit away from physical conflict. “No one in your family engaged in combat,” he would remind me. Old Lot, great grandfather Besuel and grandfather Laban – none went to war. This is how they fought – from up here.” I can see him tapping the cliff face that was his forehead. I dig back in the debris of my youth for the mentor’s words, and his face when he said them. “Balaam, your father once told me that his ancestors put together won’t amount to the powers of your mind.” Zadoc had cast a furtive look at the swollen lip and cut cheek I got from asking my dreaming father why I could not get circumcised. “It is hard being a father’s sacrifice to a god. But you think other sons don’t have fathers who treat them like half slaves, half scapegoats!” Zadoc’s scolding was as naked and ruthless as love. I heard myself saying, “Thanks, but I survived and he’s dead. What’s your lesson?”

“You already know that. You paid the price when I agreed with your father that you have a destiny. I didn’t know of a painless way for you to realize it.”

I was in the time of life when the later action of heredity begins, the blemishes of ancestors appear – a spot of vanity, or the lick of greed, or touch of cunning, making me prise flattery out of Zadoc. He took the bait and talked of my potential and Abraham the legend in one breath – feared, elevated, turning whatever he touched into gold. As we talked over the fast despatched remains of my daydreaming father I felt nostalgic knuckles kneed my collarbone. Zadoc told me the world was ready for new explanations and alternative realities. “To give Beor his due, it made him proud just to dream to me what you’d become.”

I clicked. “Proud!  I never saw it in him.”

“You didn’t have to. After his father’s humiliation by Jacob, Beor lived to see you rebuild the family reputation. He had a wistful hunger for glory, even if it had to be glory from sadistic acts.”

“A sadistic act killed him, sir. Anyhow, the glory he dreamed for me and the glory I want are far apart.”

“But a friend to me, Balaam. Rooted in himself. But a driven heart. Like your stepmother. You got it from them.”

Hard as Zadoc tried I saw my father as he had been in the final years – sullen, impotent, resentful, remote, cruel. In his pain Beor wanted to bite everyone near, even himself, like a dog in a trap. Meanwhile I took the lesson and made gold from it. My idea of glory set me on a road Beor would have despised because it was beyond his talents and powers. He was a man of strong impulses and perhaps faith, but he lacked clarity of vision – something I would prove I had, in abundance. Now I lost no time deploying it to advantage. Two moons after Beor was gathered to our people I was in the business of giving men a taste of paradise. The cruelty I had suffered for my father’s crude vision gave me the flight of fancy, the inspiration, to build a business that minted money.

Before my fifteenth birthday (I was a late developer when set beside the girls in our family, Rebecca and Rachel, who married and were doing God’s work shortly after they could walk) I had grasped that my father’s delight in driving the little prostitute mad with a scorpion was a surrogate for the sexual fulfillment denied him by the symptoms of his gonorrhea. Cruelty allowed Beor to escape his pain for a while. And this made me think. How was it different from worship? It would have horrified Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to think of holy devotion and whoring as two parts of one thing: escapism. Gods are worshiped to forget hardships, to make fraught lives bearable, and how is visiting prostitutes different? Devotion and copulation give release to the body and the spirit. For that matter, nearly all men worship or copulate in nearly every place nearly every day, and it is a funny thing, but they seldom like to do them at home. I think back to the fateful day I took my dear brother to worship Baal on Mt Peor. Had I not tackled and taken the life of that cruel herd boy, my brother would not have disported in the tent for group copulation. Then he would not have died from a lung infection. Then our father would not have dunked his sorrow in drink; and drink would not have led to his whoring, which led him to take revenge on the prostitute; which led to his murder. Did everything go back to my fault?

But you know the brothels? They are in every town and city today. I invented the business of quiet, orderly houses where men can pay to evacuate the sexual energy that makes a man, whether crook or paragon, jittery and do it discreetly, and keep his doings private and reputation intact. There are benefits for girls that choose to work in my houses. They are fed and clothed and taken care of until they are too old, when they are kicked out. There are rules and discipline. Everyone wins. At the end of the day there is money for the girls, a wage for the tough, fair madam I put in charge of each house and, at the end of the day, a percentage for me. Everyone served and satisfied.

The Israelites were. They flocked to the establishments I set up for them in the dessert. In forty years of wandering and sinning and punishing and repenting, fed by the manna and led by the Shechina or Cloud of Glory, the liberated people complained and hankered for the fleshpots back in Egypt. They had escaped from bondage. Who would not fall, in that bleak and boring dessert, for the allure of another escape? Clients were mainly the airev rav, the quick converts who had bunked out with the two million Israelites pouring through the gates of Egypt. Mainly but not all.  Not a few proper Israelites were tired of subduing niggardly individuality to the new commandments and traded the wrath of God for what the whorehouse offered. Pharaoh had broken their backs for two hundred years. Liberated they wanted their private space and license to go with it. Cometh the need, cometh the service – what could be more businesslike?

For now dream-explanation kept me busy. Living alone should have given me freedom to cut loose, but I was mesmerized by the transformations taking place in my life, and doing whatever I wanted seemed hard to do. I looked different and I thought differently. I denied that tears in my eyes were for the death of Akai’s pony Seth, the last living memory of my brother. No: curse that I said. Not for Akai. They were for his pony, mauled one night by a Caracal. I had a tender heart but looked rough. Light orange fuzz appeared on my chin which, like my broad face and beetling forehead, looked brutal. Protruding upper teeth made my lower lip almost disappear beneath the upper. My large, dark, spirited eyes simmered like the broth of my soul. With long arms and a stumpy figure I had a sense of absurdity, walking with mingled desperation and high style, covering the town in my swing as I called on clients who were tormented by dreams.

As a dream merchant I met more competition than I met as a whoremaster. Actually, I was the first and only operator of brothels in the east. On the other hand I was one of many seers using the bird method. By manipulating the forces of tum’a or ritual impurity, we make birds from a mix of metals to reveal secrets of the future. After interpreting the dream of the old soldier at the inn, through a prophetic state reached by meditation, I turned to the simpler art of bird-making. I got a smithy to fashion a bird’s head from gold, the beak from silver, the wings out of copper, and legs and feet of brass. The separate parts were quickly assembled. Each time you need the bird to speak you insert in its mouth the tongue of a real bird.

How it worked. Put the artificial bird on the sill of an open window, to face the sun by day and the moon by night. Wait seven days, and the tongue begins to make a tinkling sound. Then pierce the tongue through with a golden needle, and the bird begins to talk. It can be used to interpret a dream or divine what the future holds. Before putting my bird to use I pilot tested it on the dream of my first client, the demented army officer. Sure enough, .my bird came up with the interpretation I had given, word for word. I tell you no lie, a lot of satisfied clients spread the word about the validity of my interpretations which, by the way, did not come cheap.

As happened with Jacob’s favorite son imprisoned in Egypt, my powers eventually came to the attention of a King. And this was odd. Because Balak ben Tzippor (the name implies, “King Balak, who can divine the future by means of a magic bird”) was more expert than anyone at using bird magic. His bird revealed to him secrets no one else knew, among others, that he, a Midianite, would one day be crowned King of Moav. And it happened. Yet one day the king seer was stumped for meaning. While bowing to his creation and offering it incense, the metal bird spread its wings and flapped out the window. No bird had ever used its wings. As if this was not mad enough, Balak’s bird returned, not like Noah’s dove after forty days, but after three hours and a half. It flew back in ahead of a fiery flame and settled on the window sill. At the window the flame did an about turn and swept up to the sky. When the king touched the bird’s tail he burnt his fingers on the metal. What did it all mean!

As Pharaoh of Egypt had done when he had a troublesome dream, Balak summoned his wizards to the palace. Each gave a different interpretation of the miraculous event. Vexed,  the king asked around. A palace official knew another official whose future I had prophesized correctly using my bird. The king sent for me. I arrived with it under my arm, and had him repeat the behavior of his bird. “A week, Sire,” I said getting to my feet. “No later, Mr Balaam, I shall have your head if you are.”

I went home, selected a quail from the aviary, wrung its neck, removed the tongue, and inserted it in the beak of my metal bird. On the seventh day after the tinkling sound the oracle spoke. “The king’s bird,” it chirped in a lower key falsetto, “flew away and came back two hundred and ten minutes later with a burnt tail. So it will be in the days of King Balak. He will feel threatened, two hundred and ten days hence, by an army beyond his borders. Should he dispatch his army to do battle, he will not prevail and his army will flee back like his bird, damaged and disabled.”

By now, though behaving oddly, I felt confident, clairvoyant and cheerful. I had a mean old woman in to clean the house, to clean it to the bone. To let her get on with it, I moved into the tool shed and got the farm worker to fire up the old forge. I found that I could cook my boiled and fried meals quicker on the forge than I could on the kitchen stove. I did not have to wait for the coals to heat the stove. The bellows forced quick flaring heat from the coke. I wondered why I had not thought of it before. And I laid a bed of straw wide and long enough to sleep my Sheba and me. In the vacated house, the woman dug grease out of the stove that had cumulated since my brother died. She leached the walls of a brown shiny nastiness deposited by cooking fat and oil lamps. She pickled the floors with lye and soaked the blankets in soda, complaining the whole time to herself.

“Men – dirty animals. Pigs is clean compared. Rot in their own muck. Look at oven – lard from Methuselah.”  When finally she grumbled away from the shining house I stayed in the shed and lived in a kind of savage filth, taking satisfaction in allowing her work to turn back to dust and decay. What I had vaguely in mind was to offer the house to Zadoc for the winter. I mentally composed him a letter.

Dear sire, Of course you have to be loyal to me. I was your experiment. You and Beor said I was going to be great. I was tortured but also flattered by your heartfelt commitment. You gave me what I deserved. I am overcome with happy pride from my late ventures. It means my life as an abused boy did not ruin my talents or sympathies. Where does greatness come from? How do I get some? I long to give you what you and my father wanted. For your attentions to me I want to repay you with human sympathy and greatness.   

As it turned out, I wasn’t far from doing so. The commission is almost upon me and great things await.          

Beware of tyranny more than Covid-19

To fight a pandemic responsible for fewer deaths than the Asian flu of 1957-58 we’ve been schooled to think and behave like abject subjects under tyrannical rule.

We let bureaucrats decide for us what businesses are more important to society than others.

Without a squeak we acquiesce to being put under de facto house arrest.

We don’t bat an eye when troops are deployed to enforce lockdown orders

People believe they’re doing their duty by reporting on neighbours

Passively we observe our right to protest neatly cut off when public gatherings are outlawed in the name of social distancing

We accept the obligation to go bankrupt and hungry as the cost of beating the virus, yet our taxes keep the law-,makers responsible for our plight in clover.

Allowed to shop for a barbeque but forbidden to buy a barbeque chicken weremain faithful to the cause.

That the chance of death in lockdown due to hunger, addiction, depression, neglect, etc., is far higher than dying from the virus matters not one iota to the commissars of lockdown.

No one thinks to question the motive for ordering a whole nation to stay at home.

With bovine servility we greet every inroad into our private lives by law-makers who too often have a rotten past.

We are blind to the political basis of the divide between those who advocate keeping the economy closed until the cows come hone, and those desperate for the economy to reopen.

Though we may see it, we fail to grasp that the deliberate destruction of the socio-economic fabric is about exercising power over people instead of a life or death imperative.

Bureaucrats on the back of the media blame not their lockdown orders but the pandemic for destroying lives by the billion.  “The World Food Program suggests that 130 million people around the world could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.   Our herd mentality gives us no pause to think: ‘Virus deaths number no more than a quarter of a million worldwide. Lockdown policies instead of he virus starve the millions.’ The damage is self-inflicted.



The skin deep Zionist leaders of South Africa

Skin deep Democrats are fools, but can Zionists sometimes be their equal? Are all Zionists necessarily wise?

Evidence that  replies with a resounding ‘No’ is ample. Zionist leaders, from America to the bottom tip of Africa, pick fights (it’s what they are paid to do) by groping for the nearest blunt instrument. This compels them to pick a second fight when the opponent, betting his good luck will continue, gives as good as he gets – or better. The ultimate victim? That would be all the Jewish bystanders who had nothing to do with voting their ham-handed, perpetual leaders into office.

Take South Africa and the latest fight picked by two unaccountable communal bodies acting as one – the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Zionist Fed. Like almost every fight they’ve fought, the latest one is against an anti-Zionist government acting in cahoots with BDS. The fight, drawn out and ongoing, is over a looming left-right punch: a government that singlehandedly made bedlam of a near perfect country, wants to downgrade its embassy in Israel, then follow it by sending Israel’s ambassador packing, “to the Dead Sea.” (Is that an echo of Hamas and its old threat to send Zionists packing to the Med?)

Fighting this fight, like they’ve fought others, Zionist leaders, to be polite, have been ham-handed. One, they forgot the obvious maxim, that you hit the opponent where he’s weakest. Instead, the Jewish Board’s Zev Krengel called his opponent names. He picked on the lady driving the government’s Israel-bashing, and called her names – called her Jewry’s “single biggest enemy in government.” How she loved it. With her backers and the anti-Zionist media in tow, the “biggest enemy” accepted Krengel’s gift with alacrity. Call an anti-Zionist a ‘racist’ and you’d better take care you don’t open a door to be saluted back, with interest on top.

Floored by the knock-out tag, ‘racist,’ and by diatribes on Israel and ad hominem attacks on him in the media, Zev Krengel lies spread-eagled with a bleeding nose on the canvas. A cartoonist would seize on the image. There’s the Zionist leader flat on his back, bleeding, yet claiming victory: “Our voice has been heard,” he croaks from the canvas…And is echoed by the local Jewish paper. There it is, headlined on the front page; Krengel’s hollow triumph: The Zionist “voice has been heard.”

It would be difficult, you’d think, to find a worse case of tom-foolery. Think again. Year in and year out the same Jewish Board and Zionist Fed have flattered to deceive their rotten government. They’ve lost no opportunity to tell hard core Israel haters they can “play a role in the peace process.” The Jewish Board chanted their nonsense again last week. It “appealed to the government to use its experience in peace building…to resolve the (Palestinian) conflict. Did you ever! Is it possible that Zionists, of all people, can be the opposite of smart? The government, soaked in evil, rode its luck. President Ramaphosa (his own son was caught with fingers in the till and snout in the trough) told the Jewish community his government “will continue to play a meaningful role in negotiations aimed at achieving a lasting peace in the Middle East.”


  • The word, “continue.” The ruling party of South Africa has never played a role, nor will it or could it ever be a role player, meaningful or not, in the cock and bull morality play titled “the peace process.’
  • “Experience in peace building.” The Jewish Board knows better than you or I that the country had one brief peace building government in twenty five years. The era of Nelson Mandela is old old history. Two successors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, took a different path – the path of harping on white privilege and white monopoly capital and Israel the oppressor. There’s peace building for you.
  • The Jewish Board, said their statement, “reaffirms the right of its elected leaders to criticize” (the government). Suppose you were that government. Would you understand that the Board was elected by the Jewish community by popular vote, so that the Board speaks on behalf of the community? I think I would. The truth is quite different. The communal bodies are run by perpetual leaders, neither elected by the community nor with a mandate to speak on the community’s behalf.

It would be surprising were unaccountable leaders not self-serving, arrogant, foolish people.

Take the ultimatum they gave to an associate body: remove Steve Apfel from your list of attendees or be denied entry to our Board meeting. Then there was their fight with the Freedom of Expression Institute. This Institute, manned by anti-Zionists, made mincemeat of the Board, again because it neglected to hit opponents where they hurt. I stepped in on my own – it was quite obvious the Institute was violating its mandate, and was dependent on corporate donors. Presented with the acid proof, the Institute backed off, quiet as a mouse. The Jewish Board never forgave me.

I guess I should’ve known better than to offer to identify the Achilles heel of the government and its BDS tail. The Board and the Fed never acknowledged my offer.

It would be bad enough if communal bodies stopped at such leadership; but they are resource hungry as well. Some foolish donor must have thrown money at the Zionist Fed, because it now seeks to grow – a job spec for a CEO tells.

Alas, Democrats have no monopoly on foolishness. Zionist leaders in the Diaspora are a far cry from the visionaries and intellectuals of old.

A dream to launch a dream career

It was some time in the summer of the year when Midian was taken by the Seirites – or about twelve years after my father decamped from the broken up House of Laban in order to lay the foundation of a haphazard career and a family in the country of Moab; when he was one day getting our dinner with me sitting behind him at a table observing his lame attempts at frying quarters of fowl. The place had never been gay. Now, lived in only by the two of us it took on a forsaken, dingy decay. The stone floor had grown sticky and damp. The kitchen walls were lacquered with grease. The lamp hanging by its chain from the rafters cast a yellow circle over me. A good fire  in the hearth was all the proper light. The once brilliant pewter pots hung upon the chimney were tarnished and dusty. Weekly scourging by Orpah had kept the dirt down, and after her departure I had swept the floor and wiped here and there, and left the kitchen none the cleaner.

A father and son living alone will be always on the verge of fighting, as well I know. We saw too much of each other and not enough of anyone else. The clipped words we exchanged, though civil, dripped with malice and were fraught with peril.

“How’d the woman keep it clean the way she did?” Beor asked me. “Can’t we get it the same?”

Respectfully – “The dirt settles down, father. A bucket of lime, another of boiling water and scrubbing wire should remove it.”

“So – give it a try why don’t you.”

I nod, pursing my chapped lips (I have grown not just slovenly but none too careful with hygiene.) My father grimly – “I ought to look around for someone. Even if I’m no bargain there’s women could do worse than this place.”

“No word from Orpah?” I ask, knowing there had been none, but keeping away from another squabble caused by the housekeeper departing one morning; with a bundle on a pole, to sell at the market, so we thought. Beor grumbled his feelings about this.

“Father — run away, ill or dead: until we take steps to track her down we’ll never know.”

He moved like a caged leopard in front of the pan. “Fates like that take everyone – what’s it to me?” He shovelled the overcooked, crisped quarters onto plates.

“You don’t miss her?” I said close to condemnation. “Have you made a plan for someone to look after yout?” – Contempt welled in me when I looked at the palsied wobbling of plates.  “I hope you’ll hink about it.”

“Hand me the iron.” He knocked ashes out of a fiery log and settled the plates on them to warm. Then he broke four eggs into the hot grease. The eggs spluttered and fluttered their edges before settling down.

I went to the open doorway and stared out. It had never been a pretty place. Scraps of wood and tin lay scattered on the ground. The door of the outhouse hung on its hinges. The iron lean-to for storing the marrows and melons growing wild behind the stalls, doubled as a woodlot. Our rundown, unkempt place which Beor thought would attract  women was built for cooking and for shelter. By now we had given up using linen and slept between blankets. Our slovenly ways got us up when the sun was halfway up the sky. Only on the nights we went tavern crawling did we bathe and put on clean clothes. It was a place and a life unloved and unloving, and Beor remembered, quite fancifully, the time before his young boy died as the happy time, and he wanted it back.

What a chapter of chances, I thought at the end of the day, do events lay open to us. What a lucky chapter of chances this day turned out; for Israel never would have known the power of my blessing and cursing; and the story of that blessed and cursed nation would 1not be the story I made for it.  We were despatching the bad dinner when the door was knocked at and opened one after the other, to admit the landlord of a tavern we visited more than its rivals. He had come for help with a difficult patron who’d had a bad dream.

“I think he is of the army,” the landlord said. “He took to bed in my upstairs room three days since and has never got up, after a dream which apparently upset his balance of mind.”

It is not my role to dip my quill in the landlord’s opinion – much could be written on both sides of it. In my history, all that concerns me is to relay matters of fact and let readers decide.

Beor wanted to know how the devil could he know anything about dreams…which by the  by, begged a different question: what could make a dream so particular for a landlord to make a visit in the middle of the day when he could’ve waited to ask Beor that night in the barroom?

“Sire,” said the landlord, deaf to these insults, “I am prepared to pay for your son if he could help the raving gent occupying my room. His wandering words make me think of the safety of my family.”

“Balaam?” said my father with a new interest.

“I believe,” the landlord added, “the poor fellow might rally were his dream interpreted. I’m thinking it might set his mind at rest. I entertain, mister Beor, a high opinion of your lad. I felt there was something more than common in Balaam when I overheard him discoursing at the bar one night. He was explaining Philistine behaviour – how they plugged up the wells they relied on just out of hate for your family ancestor.”

“ Abraham!” Beor exclaimed.

“Sire – favour me by letting your son come now – do, sir. If Balaam can help my lodger with his dream, I’ll make it worth his while – to get the lunatic out of my house.  Patrons are keeping away.”

“Sir, your cause is worthy. We’ll drink the poor fellow’s health in your barroom. Allow us to get dressed, and you may expect us in no time.”

“Son,” Beor said after the landlord had shut the door, “Bind up your unruly hair, get on a clean robe, and we’ll pay a visit.”

On the way to the tavern I asked, “How shall I manage it I wonder? What if the dream is quite as raving as the dreamer? If I can’t get the meaning, what then? If we’d only asked the landlord to tell us the dream –”

“Son, leave it.” My father tapped his forehead. “You got a power up there. Under that dirty mop lie talents, my boy, faculties bursting to be put to good use. My bones tell me that our visitor will be a godsend.”

Not since that day have I encountered fear and disbelief in myself. When we arrived at the tavern it was, I admit, with a faint heart. What if, after hearing the description of the dream, no vision came into my head? What if I could not enter a man’s demented head? My discomposure grew on being admitted into the room by the landlord, wherein a ghastly countenance met us. The occupant clutched the bedclothes and our entry made him draw them up to his wide-open eyes. The landlord drew up two chairs to the bedside before he bowed out, taking us and, by the looks of it, the dreamer by surprise.

Trembling, the bewildered fellow stuck a hand from under the bedclothes in a half-greeting. As the horror passed from his face it gave way to a pall of shame. Beor encouraged him to take a drink from a flask on a bedside table. Whatever it contained, he gathered enough wit to recount the dream which had immobilized him for three days.

‘A mild coming we had two days out from Nineveh. It was the best time of year for journeying. The road was dry and the weather mild. Summer palaces sparkled from slopes. A free and easy time we had of it. At noon on the third day our camels ascended to a cliff looking down on a valley. We had looked forward to this part of the journey, to friendly villages and familiar taverns. The camel drivers had got themselves up. They were scrubbed and dressed and ready for their liquor and their women. Such were the expectations we had. Then…”

His troubled eyes moved to the window. His hands dropped and he fell silent. Before my father could speak harshly I leaned out and touched the poor fellow’s arm. He turned his head back to me.

“Oh dear, I thought I was at home,” he sighed. My brain’s confused.”
I made an understanding nod.

“So,” he continued, “we looked down on a beautiful valley. Then – before our eyes it changed to – to a commotion. The devil’s work!” he moaned, wringing his hands. I don’t know the words to tell what we were looking at. Baal can be my witness: one moment our road down there ran through a peaceful, verdant valley; the next moment it changed to the netherworld. That carpeting in the valley could be nothing else. Well, what was there to do? There was no way else to journey. On getting to the bottom our road along the valley turned into a writhing heaving mass. There are some sights that the brain refuses to  transmit to the eye. It was a good while before we understood what was there. Blindness then would’ve been a rich blessing. The valley bottom was a sea of crows – birds of black and red. And in every spare space four-legged scavengers were running in and out of the commotion of birds. On the air we caught such a flapping and a yapping there never was. All the while, the prospect undulated and heaved. The devil, we thought, had cursed the earth with pestilence.”

I cast a glance at Beor seated beside me. He was white and staring. By now the distraught man in bed had exhausted himself.  He blew his lips like a sea urchin which the surf washes up.

“Friend, take more of this,” I said, offering him the flask on the table. He dispatched the contents in a gulp. He dabbed his forehead with a sleeve, and prepared to martyr himself again.

“You can imagine, our beasts were as reluctant as we,” he said. What could we do? We had to journey on. There was no skirting that furious feasting through the length and breadth of the valley. I could do no more than trust that the feasters and scavengers would give way to our caravan. They did – dropping away right and left. ‘Gag!’I cried wildly to my riders behind me. I reigned my horse as if the stench was a wall in front of me. It was. I felt the impact. ‘Gag, gag!’ I dismounted to get a robe out of my baggage I wrapped my head around up to the eyes. A right foolish thing to try. I might as well have waved a palm frond at the putrefying human remains. A thick wet rag to the mouth and nose would not have kept that  stench at bay. One inhalation could fell a man like an axe.” He fell back on the pillow, his mouth open, breathing in quick gasps. Beor mumbled into my ear, “Bit his tongue I vouch.”

I put a finger to my lips. The patient summoned the will to go on.

“I tell you, misters, our trials got worse. When the sun dipped behind the mountain darkness came quickly. Half the night we traversed that valley of death. The gore was impossible to avoid. Our animals had to be coaxed over pieces of torso or lengths of intestine or mangled limbs and what else I don’t know. I – I dread falling asleep. I fear the dream will continue. It won’t stop tormenting me.”

“Mister, a sound sleep would do you good,” said Beor tapping my arm, I suppose to start me on working out the meaning.

I despaired of being able to give the demented fellow some intelligence that would bring him rest. This much the landlord had told us on the steps. His guest was in the King’s army; he had arrived at the tavern on a borrowed horse – which too ill to proceed, (to join, I suppose the regiment) he had dismissed the morning after the dream. It presented no problem for me to divine that the dream had to do with a conflict, past or to come. I whispered this to Beor.

“You’re right to think of that, son,” he said; upon which he left the room and stepped down, I guessed, to fill time in the barroom.

I sat on, with not a word good or bad, to comfort the stricken man. Then reflecting on the ways of Uncle Abraham, the one true prophet before my time, I understood that clarity was the reward of contemplation. Only when the mind has been prepared to allow the light of pure intellect to enter, can a man think with clarity – prophetic faculty, some call it. If I was to interpret a dream of such evil I would need prophecy – a vision, a union of the human and the divine intellect. Dismaying my client, I asked to borrow the bedclothes. I spread them on the floorboards and sat with the body posture I had heard was used by the mystics of my day. Shutting my eyes to all sights and sounds, I exercised the lungs and commenced a rhythmic breathing. After a passage of time I felt as if bolts had been shot back and seals taken off. A door opened inside my head to let in sheer light. The vision began, the symbolic value of the dream. I babbled, not to the fraught man in bed, but to no one and everyone in that room. I heard him shift his weight.

“What are you talking?” I heard him ask. “That is magic talk; what’s it to do with me?”

Born and raised in a family with visions (grandfather Laban, chasing after runaway cousin Jacob, had a visitation from God) I found myself telling the bed-confined man what his dream meant. “This is the interpretation of it. The three days on your journey mean three moons in time. After three moons Babylon will storm Canaan and wage war. The valley of human remains stands for the unprecedented extent of fighting. The birds of prey gorging on cadavers mean that Babylon will render Canaan desolate. Hyenas and jackals running in and out of the feast stand for the victorious soldiers taking spoil, sparing not a man, woman, child and beast on the defeated side.”

Beguiled and comforted by the interpretation I offered, the captain burst from his bed and took my hand before I had time to come back from the vision, and pumped it with both his hands while I stared up, bewildered, from the floor. “Mister, who are you! Where’ve you hid yourself! All the fake seers are not your equal. You have saved our king and country! Long live the Moab people.”

To have actually saved my king!.But from what! Whom…? Well, who was I to argue. Gold was better than getting visions, for now.

“Is that him?” Beor asked, as bleary eyed as I remained. “Coming down the steps? He looks better.” My father forgot to ask what happened. He only breathed on me and turned back to his companions propping up the bar. The breath nearly felled me; it was a distillery in one.

I never got the chance to ask him for my promised gold.

I staggered home and into my stale blankets. I woke with the sun, and with appetite for a wholesome meal to celebrate my achievement. The house was quiet. I peered into my father’s dank room. He wasn’t in his cot; there weren’t the clothes he’d worn the night before, strewn about the floor. Perchance he was outdoors, I looked. In the storeroom there was the same  pile of wood, sacks of meal, and implements, But something was different: on the shelf stood the square cage which housed Beor’s specimen stingers. Normally he kept it in the shed by the stalls. For some reason he had moved it here. And the aperture gaped open – there were no creatures to keep in. The cage was empty.

This vexed me greatly. Were the scorpions loose indoors? I waited till midday for the tavern to open, and went to ask the landlord. The man was entirely different from our visitor the day previous. I found him supervising a servant in the barroom, cleaning up from the night previous.

“You want your father, mister!”  He sizzled – turning on me with lips like a rabid dog.

Taken aback I mumbled an apology. “You see, he didn’t come home. I came –”

“Does he treat you the way he treated my establishment? I try to keep an orderly place. Beor’s riding for a fall mister interpreter of dreams. What do you know about the events here last evening? One incident? Two maybe?”

Before I could ask his meaning – “What gives your family the right to use my house, that’s been good enough for people of higher standing than you, for twenty years – what gives Beor the right to make bedlam, up there (he jerked a thumb) and down here?”

I turned my back on him to look at the furniture and floor – by way of commiserating with him. “I can’t see of what you speak; and, sire, I’m sorry but your anger, doubtless from good cause, doesn’t mean I have to be its target.”

My appeal to victimhood, in the way it usually works, pacified my adversary somewhat; his colour toned down from livid scarlet to washed pink; and he began to explain his ire. As a landlord of long standing he knew two ways of looking at a quiet drinker: either the drinker was a wise man or he was a dangerous one. In Beor’s case he picked the second type. The way Beor’s hand had kept creeping to a pouch on his belt, hidden by his coat, caught the landlord’s eye more than once. “You see, mister Balaam, I got a room up there for patrons if it’s more than drink and talk they’re wanting. Regulars know I get damn fine girls, very young, very clean; not like other taverns – unhealthy places with dirty girls, sick girls. Also no rough business in my house, you understand.”

I did; but when would he come to the whereabouts of my father? I started to remind him.

“Mister, mister…listen to me. Your father, God bless him, took the five pieces I paid for your kind and professional help with that pitiful lodger; he bought time with the fair creature doing duty last night.”

It was my turn to go livid scarlet. I formed words my lips refused to utter. My dumbness allowed the landlord to come to the point sooner than he would perhaps have done.

“I showed him up and took his order – for late hours my patrons like a basin of mulled wine.’ The landlord, being one, would also have his patrons like a basin of mulled wine for early hours.

“Well, going out with another request, a Hubble-Bubble pipe, I went back down. Being a very busy night for my servants, I was not surprised when your father came down after an hour, yelling at me for his order. Before I could apologize he told me to go to blazes, and he stormed out.”

“Yes, okay!” I intervened, finally out of patience, and also ashamed to hear of Beor’s behavior. “But, you see, he never came home. Sire, look, I came sire, to enquire of Beor’s whereabouts.”

To my consternation the landlord searched my face closely. I asked what he thought he was doing. God – I should not have spurred him on!

“Sorry that you have to hear this mister Balaam. Not quarter of an hour after Beor left my place, this room echoed to a stampede down those steps. A demented shrieking followed. A body tumbled to the bottom of the steps. I ran there; at my feet the girl was clutching and tearing at her head, moaning softly.

‘Hallo, you,’ I heard men around me shout, “what in thunder’s going on?”

What black art did he play on the girl?” I said, half to myself. Men wanted to know who I meant. The poor thing lay on the floor, writhing and clutching her hair. To look for some scalp wound I knelt down to part her tangled locks. My fingers touched something hard. With a yell of horror I snatched my hand away. A braver man took it upon himself to search the  thicket of hair. When he got to the scalp there it was – a large grey scorpion, In dumb terror, I watched him take a piece of cloth from his pocket and dislodged the critter. A new commotion surrounding the girl brought everyone there. The demented girl tore at her hair as though she would yank it out by the roots.

‘God spare ye, girl” I heard, “Oh, let God spare ye.” People stood on tables to get a better sight. “Where’s the devil who did this?” men were screaming. “Gone out not ten minutes ago,” I told them.

“Who is he and what’s he look like?” they demanded. Mister Balaam, I described your father. Some rushed out to look for him in the roads. Well, lad, we got the girl into a chair and someone with a pocket knife cut her hair all around to expose her scalp. I saw it was very red and swollen. Someone came up with the idea of rubbing spirit onto the spot. It seemed to add to her pain. How the girl screamed! I got her to swallow some brandy. When the shock of it wore off a little we carried her up. She fell asleep on the bed. There she is now, quiet and perhaps better. You’re not to go up, though. Let her be. And that’s been my painful duty to tell you, mister Balaam.”

I make no comment. Beor was found the next day in a side alley off the market. His head was crushed in. I needed the strength of an ox to remember and put this all down.





Eye for an eye

And there was – all of that, and more; though not everything that day was for Baal-Peor worship. Caught up in the wonderment of boyhood’s first taste of abandonment, Akai allowed himself to be pulled inside a public tent where the fragmented multitude unite to carry the current of ecstasy onward and upward. “Let him be,” I thought, “who cares?” Thing was, I had my secret fetish. Sheba, cropping grass and buttercups in the stockade where the animals of worshippers were confined for the day, had a devoted master in me. Writing of this, confined to my womanless cot by a lapse of health, I feel the two currents carrying me along: desire on the one hand – reckless desire after the surprise wore off that a man could find fulfilment in bonding with a quadruped – and something close to self-contempt on the other hand. Correction! On Mount Peor that day, aroused by the brute of an assault on the gentle creature, a wave of tenderness displaced my degraded conscience.

Correct, ever since that day on the mount, I have put my head down at night in Sheba’s homey barn, ever heedful of an explanation that will liberate me from a fantasy and a fixation. For a normal attitude in love, reflection tells me, two parallel feelings ought to come together: tender affection and sensuous feeling. Sad to think – the marriage of the two is an all too rare occurrence. When we love we have no desire, and when we desire we cannot love. Am I to consider myself the average torn and tortured man? Plain and simple, are my sensuous yearnings fixated to my debauched fantasies? I think about it often. What explains my pre-occupation with a browsing beast? And please don’t tell me I ask for trouble by bowing to idols. I Balaam, a son of the world-first God-fearer and his lot, have dedicated, do you really think, my growing up to believing in blocks of wood and metal! ‘A pagan!’ you ridicule, ‘A primitive merely!’

I do see that defecating with primitive pagans before a handmade figure is indeed an incriminating act. Yet I do it for God. You are amazed; but then I am not, you see, one of your scared to hell landowners at the mercy of the elements, or your shaky king fearing for his throne. I’m a God-fearer who grasps that everything is in the Creator and He is in everything. The Divine energy is in that Baal idol just as it is in my cot and in my donkey. Right now my body is lying on God (whom I love because I fear Him) and through God I love my Sheba snorting in her sleep in our quarters. Why would I take her for a wife unless I felt that confluence of different currents when we are together? I know Sheba feels it as well! In her own way she told me so.

What did it for me was that day I took brother Akai to the mount of worship and left him in the tent where homage to Baal-Peor is paid with sexual abandon. If the girls in our family (Rebecca and Rachel were striplings when they began married life) were ready, physically and emotionally, to explore the facts of life, well – so did my brother of eight years. Meanwhile I strolled over to the paddock to check on our two animals; in time to catch the dirty bony Midianite who earned tips from caring for the transports, tormenting three donkeys with his whip. Their sin, it looked, was to have strayed into some lush area he had reserved for the steeds and ponies of worshippers of means. As the cutting throngs of the whip landed about the necks and heads of the hapless creatures, they brayed in distress even as they tried to back out of the way of the cruel throngs brandished with obvious  relish which only grew with every cut that landed on target. For a moment I could do nothing but stare. Then one animal – God! It was my Sheba! – opened its mouth in supplication for the wounding to stop. The next crack of the whip curled throngs into and around her open jaw.

I thought I knew what I would do. I meant to grab the weapon and whip its wielder and push him to the ground and whip him, and land kicks on the prone pain-lover, and so on until he had learnt a lesson. I would lead off my Sheba and Akai’s Seth, fetch my brother, and ride off home.  The first thing I did was to hail as loud as I could. It brought a sudden halt to the game. A smile filled with good teeth marked my unhurried approach. It was not a bothered smile.

“Is the young lord going off now?” asked the bold fellow, smiling like a toothy wolf.         “Yes – and I’ll take this!” I panted, jerking the whip out of his hand. I knew what I meant to do, but I didn’t know about myself, because in all my life I had never protected anybody, nor been loved unconditionally. I thought I only meant to punish the scoundrel.

After two lashes the whip was not enough. I dropped it to the ground and used my fists on the cowering bent form. My breathing came out in squealing whines. The coward did his best not to fall. He tried to duck my threshing fists, or at least make them ineffective; but then fear overcame him and he tried to run. I leapt on him and brought him down, and by then my fists were not enough. My frantic hand found a stone on the ground, and a roaring red wave burst through my reserve.

Later I looked down on the beaten face. I bent to listen for a heartbeat, but heard nothing over the thumping of my own. Two separate thoughts ran through my head. One said, “Have to bury him. Have to dig a hole and put him in it.” And the other cried like a child, “I can’t stand it. I couldn’t touch him.” Then the sickness that follows rage overwhelmed me.  I ran from the place, leaving the whip, leaving Sheba and Seth. I blundered away up the hill, wondering where I could hide my sickness for a while.

No question was ever asked of me. For days on my supposed sickbed I continued to act like an invalid. Dear Orpah, who sat dutifully beside me when not cleaning and cooking, made me drink cups of hot limewater with honey. Beor in a voice like a broken vow told me, “So, you have told the woman you want to die. Very well, good; then do it and stop bugging me and everyone.” And Akai rushing in with cloudy eyes, “Never mind, big brother, you’re going to be just fine and better than ever, just come back inside your head.” And later on, “Never – never PLEASE! not tell our father about the grownup’s tent I went into!”

So it was not long before I went back to being tutored and tested by Zaidoc and tormented by Beor to think lighting fast on my feet. Never more did I let temper come near me. Anyone who can’t learn from experience is a fool, I told myself. Ever afterwards I felt a kind of self-respect. I had never known that the impulse to kill was in me. I told Akai nothing, blaming a thorn bush for the cuts around Sheba’s neck and head. Under Zaidoc the healer’s supervision we applied aloe nectar to her wounds, and the harmless affectionate creature healed within a week.

But I cannot half tell what a dismal house we shortly had. My sprite of a brother caught a cough (from intimacy in that infernal tent I let him enter?). Zadoc ran fingers over the tortuous breast heaving like a frightened bird. “Damn unlucky, but let me get some boiled roots into the little man,” he said. In the passageway I overheard him tell Beor, “No doubt of it, the lad’s got spoilt lungs.”

“By heaven and hell!”father cried out. “What dark angel has dropped, sir, upon my house?” I dragged myself out of my guilt and pressed cold cloths to brother’s forehead. Orpah hummed spells and spooned broth into her darling’s mouth. He looked at her with a wan wistful face, “Don’t fret, mother, indeed I am quite happy!”

But the day came when Zadoc stepped up to my father and croaked, “My friend, your woman bore you a beautiful gift. Now, I must tell you, the pulse is nearly gone. This night will probably finish him. Don’t make yourself mad. It’s the will of powers beyond our ken.” The poor soul; till an hour before my brother expired, the gentle mien and happy heart never failed him.

From then on, father let me fall wholly into the hands of the tutor. Provided he saw me being taught and never idle, Beor was contented, as far as he thought of me. For himself he grew more morose by the day. It was black sorrow of the kind that will not lament. He neither cursed nor prayed. It was clear enough that he was defying God and man to do their worst. He had plenty of wickedness to prove; it seemed, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation. Orpah had to bear his tyrannical conduct, for she had not the heart to leave me alone. Beor’s bad ways drew bad companions. Rarely did they enter our door; mostly they joined company in a popular tavern. These were desperate men who worked the trade road from Tyre to Ramses and drove their caravans through our city market.

Beor once gave me the honour of meeting some of his companions. On a dreary night as I kept Orpah company in the kitchen, with our supper pots bubbling over a peat fire, heating us into a semi coma, the door banged open, admitting Beor with a pelt of cold air and stinging rain. He hadn’t the mind to shut the door after him; she got up to do it.

“Agreeable entertainment!” – stamping boots dry but letting his cape drop puddles on the stone. No time for removing it, he displayed a wild beast’s fondness by jerking me up by the arm.

“You can warm yeself at the inn. Time you mixed with men, and I want you should hear what’s being talked of.”

I avoided Orpah’s look, those great hollow eyes fixed on me in terror, her mouth trembling and her hand wandering to her throat. Yet I let myself be bullied – except to throw an oilcloth over my coat and step into lined boots, of which Beor tried to deprive me.

They were a strange assortment gathered in the tavern, grouped around a scruffy Hittite in the bar room. They straddled the stools and sprawled and leant against the wall, or slouched beside a table; and one or two, of heads or stomachs weaker than the rest, lay full length in vomit on the floor. Behind the smoky drifts they were phantom figures having no place in the day-to-day world with their ragged shrouds for clothes and their heads of matted hair. What with the stale drink smell and the reek of tobacco and the air of crowded unwashed bodies, I felt a disgust rising in my throat; I felt it would come out and pass my lips shortly. After the first hilarious outburst, the first stare, the shrug of a shoulder and a faint chuckle, Beor introduced me. Luckily, given a chair on his far side, I avoided sniffing the worst of the toxic chemistry.

Beor slapped down pieces on the counter; the barman, wordless as well, poured toddies all round. ‘Drink it as hot as you can stand it,’ the barman told me. ‘That’ll take the chill out of a man-midwife.’

To your health, young sir!’ a grizzled Chaldean saluted me. I felt a nudge from Beor.

“He came way down, son – Alexandria,” he said to my ear. Then in my ear in a lower voice –  “I been there – on King of Midian business; watched army movements.”

“A city on the make,” said a sunken-eyed Hittite. You can hear a Babel of tongues in Alexandria.”

“Surely, sir, not Hebrew?”Beor said in the thrall of his hot obsession. “Heaven and hell, you didn’t hear that spoken! Not Jacob’s family up there?” Always Jacob; all the Jacobs, and nothing but the Jacobs kept father going. In his quest for unattainable vengeance he would bring Israel into the remotest topic – like now, to the raucous amusement of his companions. Over the din I heard the fellow who had seemed occupied with his own circle, shout to Beor, “Come on mister; leave the Israelites and make happy like the rest of us fellows.” Beor confronted the idea; then he boomed above the din, “No dammit, go to the devil and leave me to my game!” Others, who had never met such singleness of purpose, clapped at his vinegary temper.

“There’s the man you must ask about that,” said the Chaldean, pointing at a man who regarded him with a glint in the eye. “He’ll tell you tales that’ll redden your ears more than they are now. A terrible liar, a really bad type, so don’t let him talk too long. He’ll make your head spin with scurrilous accounts.”

Yisro (I learnt the name later) had a mop of silver hair and a nose like a hornbill. He looked as if he might be someone, and so it turned out: he was the High Priest of Midian.  He came up to Beor.

“Mister, so you want to know what the Israelites do in Egypt? Well, I can tell you; they are getting close in numbers to the Egyptians born and bred. When Jacob came with his family of seventy, he settled in Goshen. Three generations have gone by. Pharaoh wanted to know what he could see by looking. He ordered a census to be taken. What do you think the Israelite population is today? Go on – make a guess at the number.”

I saw that it did not need the medium of a number, or a guess at it, to make Beor sick. The statements were quite enough to make his ears burn and his face to go deadly pale. Overcome by anguish he hazarded a number. “Seventy times seventy hundred?”

The hornbill nose scoffed, “Take a breath of air, mister. Forget your hundreds; the census counted a thousand times a thousand thrice. On top of that number the Israelite women grow it by ten to fourteen each time they give birth.”

Beor’s ashen look and stunned muteness emboldened the informant to fire up my father with an exorbitant summation. “It’s war by numbers, sir, you mark my words.  They’ve got Egypt in their sights.”

I was to meet Yisro again – in Egypt this time. And with one other – a wealthy Israelite by the name of Job – we met in the palace, the heart of Pharaoh’s seat of power, and he, the God of Egypt, sought our council: what should he do about the Israelite problem. It was left to me to give his idea the thumbs up; I was all for dealing with Egypt’s peril by means of enslavement.

But I race ahead. Events must be recounted in their proper place, and at their proper time. Because how I got to be advising Pharaoh the mighty, post-dates the ugly, but to think of it, the poetic death of my unloved, tortured father.

Donkey love, Baal worship

So from the beginning my education bred taut feelings in the barn. The endurance of unrelenting peril warped us – Beor, Zadoc and me – in different ways.  My father made enormous demands on the tutor’s accommodating good nature.  He would make Zadoc sit up till midnight developing a new test for me while he ranted about the injustices meted out to our family. They were now very thick; but the healer hated my father and, to say the truth, I did the same. I had matured enough to catch him out; to understand that Beor was not super wise; that his judgements could be faulty, his thinking selfish, his dedication to me not the expression of paternal love. With the fall of my god went all safety.

One thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall little by little. They topple and shatter. To build them up again is the devil of a job, and gods anyway never shine the way they did before they crashed. A boy’s world is never whole again, and he grows into an adult aching and angry. What I endured made Zadoc furious. He cursed my father for persecuting a harmless boy, as he called me. At my young brother’s death, which happened at the end of my programming, I had learnt to regard Beor as an oppressor rather than a father, and had contracted a gutful of injured feelings.

Contrary to his crude ways and rapid judgements, Beor, enigmatically, could surmise connections more shrewdly than anyone I know. I remember the instance when he set me, through a protesting Zadoc, a problem more teasing than any so far. We were in the barn, in our usual habitat and positions, when Zadoc, after giving my father a dirty look, addressed me:

“Boy, you be careful. Attend closely. See if you can take your mind off that – that thing on you. Ready your mind for a problem close to your father’s heart.”

I half gleaned what it was going to be – the fundament of Beor’s collected gripes about the brotherhood of Abraham snubbing its nose at the men folk of our family We were only good enough, my father understood, when Abraham’s lackey and Isaac’s brat came looking for wives. Beor’s grandfather Besuel and his father Laban were there to produce daughters for the Hebrews to marry. I told myself I’d have to counter this impertinence to win the right to be left alone, to be unfettered from the tortuous threat of being stung to death. Through a fog of apprehension I heard Zadoc put the problem to me.

“Your family’s always been there for the Abrahams’ – you agree?”

“I agree, Sire, I agree.” Sweating, I could’ve murdered the one man who loved me. Zadoc looked affirmatively at his accomplice. My father nodded sombrely.

“Well, then Balaam,” resumed Zadoc, “Listen now. Isaac, the chosen son of Sarah and Abraham, was matched with Rebecca, a daughter of Besuel, your great grandfather. Correct?”

I pursed my lips and nodded impolitely.

“So, in other words, Isaac did not marry a born Hebrew?”

“No. Clearly not, Sire.”

“Then tell us, boy – how did Rebecca come to be a Hebrew. When and how did it happen? What conversion rite did the lady have to go through, as a male must go through, to join the house of Abraham?

Zadoc swam before my eyes. My father, out of sight at my left shoulder, bore my degradation pretty well, according to the low chuckle I caught.

My faint, quivering voice: “Rebecca? I don’t believe she got circumcised.”

My father, breaking down with a guffaw, took the unwitting jest well. As for Zadoc I saw his spare frame fold as if to express, ‘Lad, you sail too close to the wind!’

“So Rebecca did not convert,” pursued my interrogator. “Well, lad – then what did she do?  How was it that Rebecca, a daughter of your family, got accepted into the house of Abraham?”

I fought not to yield to a fiendish temptation to glance back and glean whatever clue might be written on Beor’s face. I stammered, “Sire –


“Nothing.  Sire, Rebecca didn’t do a damn thing, if I’m right. Abraham believed his daughter-in-law was selected in heaven for Isaac. Abraham and Sarah considered that no rite of passage was needful,”

A deadly quiet fell in that chilled barn. Time hung for an eternity. I imagined the scorpion, a tail length from my drop earlobe (a legacy from my family) waiting on Beor as keenly as I waited. There was Zadoc, eyes sunk more than ever; it gave me a start to be looked at by eyes hidden from me. At my back a porky hand jerked me so that I stumbled forward.

“Hey, clever young fellow! What you don’t know! My word – who taught the boy wicked truths like those? God be with you, son!” My father close up with leering scorching eyes, blocked my squinting vision. It took a few moments before I observed the critter clutched in his leather mitt – my reward for the daredevil answer. Imagine, if you can, my sudden joy. Imagine with what speed the nightmare fled from my thoughts, as I bathed in the extraordinary way I had acquitted myself.

And Beor, close to loving me, let Zadoc decide. “Sir, what do you think? We let the prodigy tell us more truths without the help of this thing?”

Zadoc put on his hat. Without a word he made for the door.

“Hi!” Beor, distraught,  Zadoc, hand pushing open the barn door, looked back long and hard. Beor – “Where you going in a hurry?

Zadoc, vinegary – “Death doesn’t like being played with too much. Enough’s enough.”

Beor: “Enough? What is?”

I crying out: “No – Come back; Sire. Do. Not cruel… It made me see things. No harm done. Thoughts are luminous to me now. Don’t stop. Give more questions.”

This brave outrageous claim was, in fact borne out by immediate events, because Zadoc resumed his role of interrogator, and I, giving way to a devilry which had been lurking inside of me, spoke more truths about the brotherhood of Abraham, which set me on a road at which end there’d be a confrontation with the Lord Himself.

So back on his box Zadoc got me to divine the ultimate truth dear to my father’s heart – if he knew it. Rebecca was no Hebrew – so much was clear. But what did it mean for Jacob, born from her? Completely, stunningly free from imminent agony, I applied myself to the question like a runaway carthorse.

“Sire, from mother to son. How could Jacob be one of Abraham’s when his mother carried the despised blood of our family?”

Beor with intensity not healthy for the abused vital organs in his body, prod me on. “And?” –   Coaxing me with hands atremble.  “Tell boy!  What follows from it? Don’t get shy now.”

You may ask: you an eleven year-old?  Yes, but. You say: can a wet behind the ears lad unravel  the genealogy of a family that criss-crosses boundaries and even nations? Even allowing for the truth of your supposed miraculous mind, can we believe that an urchin spoke like a sage with a beard? I say, maybe not so wet behind the ears, considering what my father did to spur my thoughts – the way he afflicted me. Anyway, not all children in our family were children.  Beor’s great aunt Rebecca was less than half my eleven years when she hit on the idea of Isaac for a mate. The precocious skittish Rebecca divined that her cousin was her match made in heaven. So certainly – I do fall within the realm of possibility. Maybe the words poured out of me from a terror-purified sub-conscience. Maybe this is what did it for me.

“Jacob’s four wives?” I said to Beor’s ferocious injunction.

“Ay, ay – they have to mean something further. Boy, don’t stop till the finish, boy. ”

I knew Beor knew the meaning as well as I. His overwrought mind I could tell, wanted me to know, and to speak the meaning which, to placate my father, I did.  All of Jacob’s four wives, I reminded both men, came from the house of my grandfather. Not one of them came from Hebrew stock. Rachel, Leah and their handmaidens, Bilpah and Zilpah – none entered the brotherhood of Abraham through any rite of passage. So what of the twelve sons they bore Jacob, himself from half and half blood stock? And here, I’m sorry to say, I revelled in my wisdom. Jacob, I concluded boastfully, bequeathed all Israel the blood of his detested uncle Laban.

The son of Laban – my disturbed father – who had been tramping to and fro like an endangered hen, stopped in his tracks. His cry of, “Israel!” startled Zadoc who was pulling on his riding boots now that the proceedings, as he thought, were over.

“What now, Beor?” he said with pique. “What’s Israel done to bother you?’

“What – I tell you what. Israel’s busy, if you hadn’t heard, making Egypt its own. God confound the nation. Seventy times seven times Jacob’s plague has multiplied at the cost of the host Egyptians. Like father like son. As Jacob paid back my father who gave him shelter and a new life, so the children of Jacob are paying back Pharaoh.”

From this fanatical drift in our damp smelly barn, I skip a moon to preparations and a journey to serve Baal-peor, our diarrhoeic idol. The summer shone in full prime; it was a morning to make the city of Ar into polished brass, and the stone point on distant Mount Peor to stand up clear against the west. There was a glow on the land, and red wall flowers burned the air around them. Ponies rolled in green pastures and fowls made a dreadful gay racket. It was so magic a day that Beor, who took pride in his ugly mood before noon, greeted the servant in the kitchen. For his two boys it was the day of truth and, since my brother Akai and I were to bear the brunt of it, Orpah cooked us a hot breakfast.

Rarest and most improbable prize of all, Beor sat me down for a blessing. Making me stare into the crotch of his brown stained breeches, he laid unwashed hands on top of my dark curls.

“Balaam – you, all my family living and dead shall acknowledge.  Your hand will be at your enemies’ nape; kings will prostrate themselves before you.”

Oh, we were contented brothers, Akai and me. Though the blessing left us bemused it was a favour and eminence we could hardly bear. But my poor Akai – I must tell you that there are certain things in which he did not believe, against all possible evidence to the contrary. One was in a good father, another was in his blessing me. The fact that he had seen both did not make him believe them one bit more. His soul must have crawled with horror, for how can you believe in something that does not exist? For a punishment our father sending us to Mount Peor for the new moon rituals would have been cruel; but as a prize, a gift it was an honour. We felt more solemn and golden than at a good funeral. .

Our pilgrimage started by the pony stalls; it should have ended there but did not. All in good time though….On this perfect morning we are pampering and harnessing Akai’s piebald pony Seth and my coquettish donkey Sheba to a state of readiness. I made the farmhand rub the harnesses and polish the brass till they reflected the sun. With a tender touch I braided a red ribbon into Sheba’s mane, and made a red bow for her tail. I helped my brother do likewise with his pony. It may be that we bestowed on the animals the loving care our father never gave us. Rather than out and about here, Beor, not a man patient of his injuries, real or imagined, skulked about the dank house thinking and doing God alone knew.

How different Seth and Sheba were! Of peaceful, placid natures with not a jarring element, our pets had scarce heart to retaliate upon a fly. “Go!” I said to an overgrown one buzzing about her nose. I was eleven at this time. Whether my action was in unison to happy feelings at an age of pity, or to some unknown harmony in tune with mercy, I know not. The lessons of goodwill to animals I learnt from Sheba never wore out till the day I played games with Almighty God. I could bear most cruelties, but the mere thought of a donkey in distress speared me through the heart.

We had stitched conical leather hats together. Orpah stuffed into our saddlebags lumps of cheese and strips of salted pork, and bunches of beets and fig rolls with walnuts, telling me what she wanted us to complain to Baal on her account. I had described to young Akai the spectacle ahead of us. It had been a time of plenty for farmers, their flocks and their herds, so no child sacrifices would be burnt on the altar. We could look forward to nothing but sensuous and amusing rites. It would be my second ceremony on the mount. While we trotted along I made Akai picture the cursing and swearing in the name of Baal;, opening the bowels in front of the idol, offerings of beet-reddened excrement; wild, mixed togetherness of strangers. Baal, I warned him, selected pilgrims for blessings with no apparent logic or consistency. Some who had served Baal month in and month out, afterwards died horribly, whilst others attended upon him once after a record of utter neglect, yet went away to live long, bountiful lives.

We were by no means early arrivals. Pilgrims from distant parts had been gathering on the heights since the day before. A part of the melee was munching on beet; others, having eaten this obligatory red root, were spread out on their haunches before the temple, robes above hips, defecating in divine and sacred duty to the golden idol on its mahogany dais, his arm stretched upward. We covered our noses; the reek had a way of offending you and making you wretch .Worshippers by the hundreds attended nature’s calls in rows of gullies, mingling in a congregation of dark red waste. And flies! Clouds of excited buzzing flies over steaming heaps, pests along with pilgrims celebrating with freely-given offerings to the God of Opening.

There was the din of ribald chatter which non-believers wrongly construe as irreverence. Outside of their tents celebrants had set up tables laden with cheeses, jars of wine, melons, roasted fowl, meat pasties, shared around smoking fires with neighbors. Groups of laughing girls strolled about, arm in arm, smiling sideways at potential partners, and boys, pretending to ignore them, stood about in knots, gesticulating and waving their drinks. `Priests swarmed together, discussing points of worship with immense gravitas, their grey beards augmenting the patriarchal effect of gold chains and flapping white robes.

But in truth the scenes of merriment, indignity and ecclesiastical debate were a disguise for the anxiety of everyone there who anticipated, who feared, to witness the inexplicable – the trepidation of mortals waiting to witness the breaking of the veil between this world and the next. The nervousness swelled into a tightening of the chest and a susceptibility to tears when a bell tolled for a quorum of ten priests to chant the communal dirges. But then – a rude disruption. A hefty swinging fellow broke away from a group of obvious-looking Israelites. Before the priests standing behind the idol understood what was happening, the fellow had leaped onto the dais, turned around, raised his rear end to the idol, and lifting his robe high, wiped himself on Baal’s thick nose.

A deathly hush, caught from those nearest the temple, spread out and behind. The silent shock wave reached Akai and me on the fringe of the crowd. We heard the roughness of tongues, of whispers rising in rebuke. Whereupon the Israelite, emboldened by the outrage he had caused, turned on the mass and denigrated its beliefs. Fists were shaken, cussing broke forth. A quiet fury may acquire more power than a loud one. The quiet forced the gathering onto the gesticulating offender, who stood between ten priests, idol and murmuring horde. Hands reached out towards his legs to yank him off the dais. This was the story that reached me, trying to balance my brother on my shoulders, to give him a view of the eye of the storm. “Do you know what gives? Hey, brother, what’s going on?” – I shake with the struggle to stabilize Akai’s dangling legs. But now the gathering applied itself to pulling the Israelite down by the legs; but a hand he stuck out had managed to grab hold of the idol, and would not be detached. The god rocked on its base. Baal seemed about to topple. In the hot afternoon seized by a demonic muteness an improbable, spontaneous cheering erupted. My brother, shouting down at my head, informed me that a circle of priests had the offender in their midst and were chanting while they skipped around him. Then the cheering broke into a roar.

“And now?” I shouted up at Akai. He laughed and laughed. “Tell me or I let go!” I screamed.

“Balaam – a priest’s wiping himself on Baal’s nose. Like the man did. God almighty – a line’s forming for the chance to do it!”

My eyes, standing halfway out of my head, had salty sweat dripping into them, Given the circumstances, I saw that a carnival of singing, praying, excreting and fornication would be natural and inevitable.