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.

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