A crazed upbringing - Part 6 of 'Balaam's curse'

Balaam was born and grew up in a compound where families connected with the king were quartered not far from the palace in the capital Aram. He grew up with two older half brothers, none of whom knew anything of his mother. All they knew was that they must have different mothers because they looked so unalike, while their father, the siblings couldn’t help knowing, went from woman to woman. Beor the son of Laban, told his boys to be thankful that their well being was in the hands of a devoted servant and a tutor who came with royal references. They were given to understand that being motherless brought no shame, nor did they lose by it. Fathering not mothering was an old rule in the family.  

Balaam came a few months after Beor, a soldier of fortune, went off to help an allied king repel invading clans. He was nearly three by the time his father returned with one eye, a body wracked and ruined and a face inflamed by fierce heat and cheap drink. He also brought home a spoil of war. For all his bad health Beor retained vigor. He needed a woman’s body. And he needed to be nursed when he was laid up after bouts of drunkenness. He brought back a young captive, a girl of fine Edomite stock with long heavy braids, an olive skin and the sinewy delicate frame of an egret water bird.
Back home it was soon apparent that Beor was prone to spells of mania. It may have been a symptom of his syphilis, not only common, but a proud symbol among foreign mercenaries in those heady times. With his wild nature Beor loved the freedom and gambling and whoring that went with foreign escapades even more than he reveled in the bloodletting. He loved all the pointless roaming about the countryside. And he enjoyed the license to help oneself to whatever a combatant desired – anything from fowls to family trinkets. He could have women at the click of a finger, but Beor loved the sport of chasing half willing foreign girls into haystacks.
With their father’s bouts of crazy temper the boys learnt when to approach him and when to stay out of his way. Sometimes they could not avoid him, especially when, unfit for any soldiering for a while, he looked about for an interest to fill his empty days. He decided to get involved in the education of his boys. The three were under the wing of a celebrated tutor named Gimazetin, who complained all over town when Beor, a self-taught brawling drunkard, as the tutor described him, began meddling. Perhaps ‘removing and adding’ would be more correct.
He let the tutor get on with the prosaic disciplines of literacy, numeracy and Moab ritual, while he took upon himself subjects that gave an educator more license: occult arts, religions of the East and war studies. To these Beor added a class on ‘physics,’ his name for drilling the youngsters into a hardy condition. In the forested part of the compound he put them through their drill. Twice a week he took them out hiking, making them go up and down hillsides while carrying backpacks loaded with big stones. He worked on their marksmanship, and they competed for spearing wild boars or small antelope. But their father was more than an educator stuffed with military discipline. He believed in a strong mind in a strong body, and that intellect and toughness were companions. In fact he was an authority on the Ivri, and twice the academy had invited him to speak on the beliefs and practices of Abraham’s people. The God of Abraham was said to have created man in his own image, and that was how Beor wanted to turn out his own sons: in their father’s own image. Pior, the first born was now thirteen, the second son Balak was nine, and Balaam not yet five.
Duress, some believe, can be put to good purpose when handled the right way. Beor thought so, anyhow. He believed that boys develop faster and further when they go through torment, and the more torment the better. The system he devised proved itself with spectacular results, though it did claim a casualty; but then no matter how good, no system is completely foolproof. Balak and Balaam, under acute conditions, soon developed razor-edged minds that worked at the speed of lightening. It was Pior, the slow-witted one, who paid the price. After the cremation the father, half blaming himself for the death of his first born, took the family atop Mt Shiva where they scattered the boy’s ashes on the sacred summit. To mark the tragedy lessons were halted for a week. To Pior’s traumatized brothers Beor spoke kindly about life's cruelties. “You have no idea. I cannot talk about it now. I break down when I try. Sons, life is unforgiving. In time you’ll come to understand this better.”
Within himself Beor could not help being delighted with the innovative regimen of his own making. You could say it was more a regimen of torture than of education. If so, it improved the result. He considered the two – learning and torment – to be complementary. There is nothing new about the stick and carrot method. Fear and reward drive the world. God’s creation works and thrives on the duality of stick and carrot. Do what is bad for healthy development and pain will come; do what helps development and expect a sweet prize. Schooling is built on penalty and prize. Beor understood this well. He adapted the stick and carrot idea to lift the stakes to a whole new height, relying on a born killer to both impart the fear and dangle the prize.
Beor had an old fascination for the scorpion. That its venom and sting resides in the tail was the aspect that enthralled him more than anything. While fangs administer the poison of snakes and spiders, a scorpion attacks with the tail. It does have fangs, and grasping pedipalps to pin down its prey. But death comes from an unexpected quarter: a venom-injecting barb at the tip of a coiled-up tail. Imagine a foe that comes at you with three weapons, and you don’t know which of them he will kill you with. And how well calibrated is the creature’s killing blow. The scorpion kills fast and it kills economically; precisely the right amount of venom for the right size of prey: a weak dose for rodents or insects, heavier doses for mammals. The scaly body not only kills efficiently, it preserves equally well. When food is scarce the metabolism of a scorpion drops close to death, allowing it to survive on a single insect for as long as a year. But in the blink of an eye - or seven (two eyes atop the head and five fronting the armor-plated body) the look-alike corpse, to the cost of unlucky prey, will spring to life.
As a child Beor had kept scorpions in wire cages, and he would study their habits for hours on end. He favored the green and yellow kind that look like painted dummies. He would feed day old chicks or mice into the cage, and count down the seconds of their lives. He observed how many males would come calling, and how few a she scorpion would favor. He recorded gestation and births, notching up to fifty at a time, all carried on the mother’s back for five months! Once, in the grip of severe weather, he froze four of his pets for two days in ice and then watched what happened when the rigid bodies thawed. To his amazement they revived and, none the worse for wear, the mini monsters stalked away good as new.
It was the brothers who suffered when their father’s fixation hit on a new outlet. An impatient man has no business being an educator. Beor was not a father who waited for his boys’ gradual development. The sooner they could make their mark on a tough world the better. He detested quiet orderly respectful conduct in a boy, because that was the slow type. To his way of thinking a quick learner is a scared learner, and a scared learner is alert and active, and these are the fruits of fear. They are also the qualities of a soldier. Beor’s schooling methods were shot through with combat ideas. To abbreviate the learning process he made use of fear. One thing he did not do, and perhaps it was clever of him. He never made himself, the educator, an object of fear. He never wielded a stick or cracked a whip or manhandled a boy. He let scorpions do the talking. He let scaly aggressors panic the boys into shape.