They are living a benign dream in Goshen, Egypt. Jacob’s seed have yet to encounter Balaam – the name would mean nothing to them. It will be hundreds of years before it does, and then it will be contiguous with trouble. Balaam will be more than known. When a stored up grievance gushes out he will entice the tribes into calf worship and internecine killing. He will make God want to wipe the whole lot out. There will also come a time when the Israelites parody the clown God made a donkey make of him. In a roundabout way Balaam will have the last laugh. The nation he set out to curse and got paid a king’s ransom to curse, recites to this day the divine blessing he gave it
Is there nothing, people ask, that Balaam can’t be or can’t do. Yet to look at him…That crooked back and missing eye and weak knees that bend under the strain of a corpulent belly: surely Balaam, son of Be-or the beast, son of Laban the swindler must be hard put to swat a fly.
A knack for dire mischief making has brought him together with a priest from Midian and a magnate from Canaan and the King of Egypt. They have to make the fate of a multitude, grouped into thirteen prolific tribes, fit their crime. Egypt had offered the circumcised Hebrews a helping hand. They took half the body and corrupted the soul. Jacob’s brood have turned Goshen into a Hebrew enclave. The king assembled a brains trust to approve the remedy that came to him in a dream.
He kept three wise men waiting half the morning in a stifling anteroom ill served by an unapologetic under-butler. To make the ordeal tortuous, each one had scant respect for the reputation of the other two. By the time the great doors opened and the chamberlain signalled them into the interview chamber, their brows beetled with hostility.
How copper coloured and puerile Pharaoh is, like a figurine on dry parchment; how liquid his flat grey eye. There is a crowd of attendants behind the royal chair; at a signal from the king they retire to different corners – adult goats protecting a kid. Slow finger motions beckon them to three chairs around the slippered feet. They feel at pains not to disturb the quiet when taking their seats. The king inclines his head and the Chamberlain melts backwards out the door.
Pharaoh inspects his fingernails. ‘Long travels, ‘he says. You weren’t expected so early.’ He waits for some gratifying reaction. The brains trust nod, taking it for granted that he knew how long they had been waiting.’ Well, he says, ‘the conditions were favourable – I’m glad.’
Camels. Dry wells. Sand storm. Desperate bandits. They’d set out half a week ago – not that they complain – at the king’s summons.
The chairs are marble, with the Pharaoh image inlaid in gold. He’s the new Pharaoh, the one who forgot Egypt’s two hundred year old debt to Joseph. He has forgotten but not forgiven the son of Jacob for bringing the whole family up from Canaan to settle Egypt. To him it feels the whole country is occupied, but he means Goshen, the part that a Pharaoh of old promised Abraham to compensate for kidnapping Sarah; a fertile country watered by the Nile for a stolen wife.
The meeting begins obliquely, as formal meetings can do. Balaam is an object of Pharaoh’s curiosity. He can’t keep his eyes off him. Balaam chuckles as he jabs a finger in his fiery eye socket. ‘Your majesty, the Philistine who gouged it out did me a favour.’ The king shrinks back. ‘Don’t feel sorry – it’s been a help rather than a handicap.’
Job leans forward to take a closer look. Now he’s got everyone looking at him. “I tell no lie,’ he says. ‘For my trade the left eye is all I need.’
Job gives the eye a close look and shakes his head. ‘What do you mean all you need?’
‘My lord, the right eye is for seeing the good side of character, and that has the effect of weakening a curse. The left eye discerns the bad in people, and the effect of that gives strength to a curse. Not one curse has flopped since the eye came out.’
Jethro sternly says, ‘No more clients for blessing, I’ll be bound.’
‘They, my lord, were never a big part of my practice.’
Jethro is disgusted. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I understand why you are so pleased. It takes more work to do good than to do evil. Your supplier is who – Ashmedai, king of the demons?’
The two don’t get on. The problem is their commonality, both outcasts from the family tree of Abraham. Jethro – Reguel the Priest they call him in Midian – is from the spawn of Abraham’s concubine, Katura; Balaam, a Moab, is from the incestuous spawn of Abraham’s nephew, Lot.
But their host is getting fidgety. ‘Look now my lords,’ says the king when he’s got their attention, his voice playing up and down the scale. ‘You know the situation. It has got out of control. You know the Israelite. Give him a hand and he takes your arm.
‘And that’s the best that can happen,’ Balaam says.
The king likes it. ‘My lord, you learnt well on the knees of your grandfather.’
‘Twenty years, your majesty. Twenty years Laban employed and set up Jacob – who then decamped even with an idol collection. I wasn’t born yet.’
‘If only you had been, my lord. Jacob would have gone through life cursed instead of blessed.’
‘The crux, your majesty, of your population problem.’
Pharaoh smiles. He has a pert mouth and red lips, like a girl’s. ‘It will test your powers to the utmost.’
‘That bad, your majesty?’ Job says.
It is worse, and Pharaoh lays it out. The tone of the pubescent king modulates between high, broken and thin. Goshen, he says, is blocked with Israelites and their animals. It’s a plague of epic proportions. Egypt is a heartbeat away from an insurrection. In the best case. The worst case would be the Israelites aiding and abetting neighbouring kingdoms. The new census presents a frightening picture: three million not counting the young. That birth rate can’t be allowed to go unchecked. The wives drop litters every time. Hebrew speaking loiterers jam entire thoroughfares – a miraculous life force.
Job the business genius says, ‘Harness it. Your majesty put that force to work. You got a precious labour resource. Projects and more projects. Make Egypt a showcase; and keep the breeders too hard at work to want to procreate.’
The double-hit scheme was so good it took a while to get over the shock. In the quiet Jethro’s self-protest was audible.
‘Of course,” Balaam says, master Job is not advocating forced labour. Nothing like slavery. It would be a test of fealty to Pharaoh, of gratitude to the host country. No one hurt and all benefit.’
Job adds, ‘You’d start the breeders on a trial project. Get the feel and reaction. One baby step at a time.’
Jethro sits bent, studying the floor at his feet and cracking his hairy knuckles. Job puts a hand on his shoulder.
‘Come outside you two,’ Jethro hisses
‘Your majesty,’ says Job, ‘could we break. My lord Jethro suffers giddiness. A turn in the gardens …’
‘I thought it would come to this,’ Jethro says as they follow the river walk.
‘Nevertheless you came,’ Balaam says bitingly.
‘Not to nod at everything you and the boy king want.’
Job says, ‘Do we really want to cross Pharaoh? His mind is made up. Kings must have their way. You might as well try turning a donkey cart in a tight alley. What good will it do, backing down? We’ll be thrown in prison. Going with the plan might allow us to modify the gaudy bits’.
Balaam who never liked modifying anything, displays a set of grey square teeth. ‘Let’s be clear. What made you, my lord Jethro, obey the king’s summons? Was it popularity you wanted, or to be useful? Pull out now and you forfeit both.’
A flash of anger. ‘What made me? I hoped to stop an enslavement. God made a promise to Abraham. His progeny would become like the stars in the universe. Not the king and not you, dear Balaam, can void a promise God makes.’
Consider the compacts that hold him together: the compact between Balaam and kings; between them both and armies; between Balaam and God, who counts up the dirty vices and works of spite that make Balaam a by-word for dark powers. Imagine him debating a fatherly priest who believes in God the just and the merciful. Never mind that. Balaam and the landowner Job whose god is buying low and selling high inhabit different planets. `
The palace gardens are alive with heat-maddened beetles and hunting horns echoing through brakes and thickets. High Priest Jethro, whether knocked by the sun or conflicted into paralysis, has sagged into a bundle of clothes. The contest of wills has proved too demanding. Jethro falters and trips over his walking stick. Job grabs an elbow. Steadies him. They sit him down on a low wall. A drain of ditchwater runs behind it. In the near distance the Nile simmers like hot water.
‘Easy now,’ says Job, bending to the lionized face. ‘Balaam – some foot rest for our man. But he levers the stick like a maypole to get back on his legs. After a minute they’re heading back to the palace. The tread of the priest is heavy. The hair on his neck is bristling like a mastiff being led to a bear.
‘Come now,’ Balaam says cheerily, ‘that’s not how to face down the king.’
‘I assure you, no way do I intend to face him down,’ says Jethro, hitching up his robe.
“What – you intend to sit on the fence?’ Balaam says. ‘I doubt it will be too comfortable.’
‘More comfortable than where you’re going, endorsing slavery.’
‘Not to hell,’ Balaam says. ‘I trust not. What do you think, master Job? Are we headed for hell?’
‘Balaam, I haven’t your power to access the Almighty’s mind,’ says Job, speaking truer than he could ever dream. Balaam takes Job’s rudeness to launch out at Jethro.
‘So,’ Balaam says, ‘You object to the labour project because you can’t live with your conscience?’
‘No problem with that?’
‘The Israelite problem?
‘What do you want to say?’
‘Will you let me finish if I start?’
‘Well, Balaam says, ‘your compatriots had a lot to do with how the Israelites came to Egypt. Joseph the hated brother was sharing a pit with vipers and scorpions. Along comes a caravan of Midianites – your people. They buy Joseph from the brothers and haul him from the pit. They sell him onto Ishmaelites who go to Egypt and sell him there. Joseph became Pharaoh’s appointed Viceroy. After saving the country from famine he uplifts the whole family from Canaan and settles them nice and comfortable in Goshen. The seventy were the breeding stock. What is the number now, the king told us? Three million. Adults, my lord, Jethro – not counting the baby boomers. That’s all I wanted to say.’ Balaam’s face, a mask of malice, has brought Jethro to a dead stop.
‘It’s a hard thing Balaam,’ Job says, ‘to make lord Jethro account for compatriots of a long dead generation.’
‘You always did have a bone to pick, Balaam, but you never hallucinated,’ Jethro says, ‘I can make you account for the Israelite problem, if you want to play this game. Your own kith and kin enabled Joseph more than I did. Your grandfather Laban married a daughter to Jacob who fathered Joseph with her, and who got Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to relocate. Outcomes you see can be managed. Outcomes can even be massaged. All that comes to pass, passes by God’s design, and our bitter foibles make use of the outcome. The King of Kings writes the story, we pick out the pieces that suit us. I am astonished at you Balaam, though not disappointed.’
When crossed Balaam can widen to fill an opponent’s vision. Different dimensions are available to his body. ‘My point, Lord Jethro, he says, ‘was not to pick bits from history that suit me.’
‘Well, what is it?’
‘Don’t mess with God.’
Jethro laughs. ‘You talk about the Creator as if he’s a neighbour you go to for sharing a flagon of homemade wine.’
Balaam bends his close at him. ‘Let’s be clear. God, for better or worse, made a covenant with Abraham. Remember the bris bein habetarim, the covenant of parts. So one of the parts decreed a bitter exile for Israel. Abraham accepted the terms meekly – why he didn’t bargain for lives like he did when God was about to destroy Sodom, I never understood. But there it is. The chosen people are going to be enslaved in Egypt. God makes Pharaoh the instrument for that. So don’t tamper. My grandfather tampered. He made deal after deal with Jacob. The flocks of his greasy son-in-law grew and grew and grew.’
‘Oh, but that’s different,’ Jethro says. ‘Laban cheated. My motive is moral. I seek to prevent a cruel bondage. Make God angry? I can’t see it. God made beatific promises to Abraham, He blessed Jacob to father tribes – only for them to be turned into slave termites? God will punish me for wanting humane treatment for man made in His image? You believe that? I’d spit on anyone who did.’
‘That might well be,’ says Job the man of business. ‘But thwarting what the king’s set on doing we are thwarting – as Balaam said – we thwart what God needs to happen. Who are we anyway, to define cruelty? Maybe the Almighty has a different notion of it. Second guessing God is to play God.’
‘Yes,’ says Balaam. ‘But anyway God, remember, decreed a reward for the slaves. They’re going to inherit the land of Canaan. Picking out one event in the whole story invites faulty thought.’
‘True,’ Jethro says. ‘But when God promised Abraham that his seed would inherit land, He had Canaan in mind. Canaan, Balaam, not Egypt. Egypt is the exile. The Israelite Patriarchs and Matriarchs lie in Machpela on the plains of Mamre. Burial always cements inheritance. There’s no famine now in Canaan. Let the Israelites go up from Goshen to settle it. If you believe the revelation, why wait for the suffering and death ordained by it? And Job – you’ve got land enough to hold three million, with more to spare. ‘Make Pharaoh an offer.’
‘It’s too late for that,’ Job says. ‘The Israelites have become too useful to let go, and too dangerous to let free. Bondage would solve both of Pharaoh’s problems. The die, my friends, has been cast. Now’s the time to skip for those who can’t live with hard facts. There’s nothing to stop them making a run for it.’
He and Balaam re-enter the palace without Jethro. He disappeared before we knew it, your majesty. Have him found and arrested.
They partake of drinks arrayed on a vast table. The butler, an Ishmaelite with the eyes of a cow, invites them to review a bewildering array of drinks, concoctions of everything from dandelion wine to a jug into which the neck of a horse has been stuck .The drinks are of every shade from mauve to taupe. Of a subtle potency, they are served in every sort of container, from ceramic tumblers to gold and silver goblets.
Job lapses into a mindless acquiescence. Dusk had come on low-lying Luxor. A cacophony of croaking fills the head. From the dark river bullfrogs seem to croak the words: Covenant. Decree. Exile. Bondage. Suffering, suffering, suffering.