Reward and punishment - Part 7 of Balaam's curse

A crouched killer on your shoulder will do wonders to fire the brain and jolt the memory. You will want a quick head on you, not a grave head. There it was on each boy while Beor interrogated; a scorpion skulking on the shoulder, tail with a sting tickling the neck. The effect, as you may imagine, was electrifying. The study room rang with furious attempts at questions which had no right or wrong answers; there were only good answers, and if Beor liked an answer then it was good. Never were schoolboys tested with such vigor, and with their lives at stake. There was no call for the stick which, to master and pupil alike, is hurtful and insulting. A beating yields nothing more positive than mutual hatred. Fear, to be productive, should unite people, not drive them apart. I know; sometimes I was in the school room when father and sons went through torment together, sweated liked pigs together, learnt together, and rejoiced in unison after a morning without mishap.
What, you may ask, was Beor’s working recipe? How did the system operate? He recognized that reward, the second half circle that makes the learning cycle go round, should be commensurate to penalty. Where fear is terrible, reward must be wonderful. To his credit Beor made them perfect counterparts. Wearing mittens fashioned out of thick and woolly sheepskin, he would deftly remove, in strict order of merit, the scorpion threat. The boy first with an answer that Beor liked was first to be relieved of his deadly burden. He was followed by the boy with a wrong answer, who was followed by the poor brained one who volunteered nothing at all. Invariably Balaam was the first, Balak the second and Pior, unlucky for him, always the last to be relieved of his torment. One day, as it was bound to do, Pior’s slowness proved fatal. The surviving sons made Beor proud. They soon acquired knowledge as broad as it was deep. And they developed the habit of thinking fast on their feet at an age when their friends were pants-wetting pups. Before Balaam was eight he could turn a bellicose mind to anything; and do it with the rapidity of a heartbeat and with the peril of hell.
Balaam, his father saw, was more gifted than his brother. Indeed, he was turning out a real protégé. Quite what Beor was educating his sons to be, he probably never knew for certain. What he did know was that they must not follow him. His life had not been terrible as a military advisor to the king and a sought after foreign mercenary. Expert advice and daring exploits had brought their rewards. Beor had fleeting moments of fame, and in the upper echelons of society enjoyed a status high enough to have made him one or two powerful enemies. But he wanted better for his boys, especially for his little protégé.
It would be another of nature’s cunning traps that Balaam had the innocent face of an angel. His hair was golden and lustrous. His dark wide-set eyes with lids that drooped made him look sleepy and mysterious. A little eagle nose which curved between high cheekbones, and a finely carved chin lent him the looks of a craftsman’s model. Oh, and a detail I almost forgot – Balaam had a strange habit of talking through white small teeth as if to open his mouth was too great an effort. There was yet one other peculiarity, though you couldn’t put a finger on it. Balaam left people in two minds. They were drawn to inspect the beautifully formed boy, wanting to understand what caused the disturbance he seemed to emanate. But looking at him left people with a feeling of unease. The boy seemed to carry a nameless danger. You felt there was something foreign, or other-worldly, about this grandson of Laban, the departed swindler of note.
One afternoon in late spring Beor told his last born, now a precocious eleven-year-old, to walk with him. He liked nothing better than to offload his mind in the back of beyond. Nature seemed to loosen him up. A light wind had gone from the west, and what remained of it stirred. The sun, dipping to a low mountain ridge, was about to bring an end to a burning day. They stopped at a well. Here and there in lonely bunches, stood tall stalks of goose-foot, willow herb and thistle topped with flowering tufts. The land here was flat and treeless. Blackened tree stumps were scattered about, the long surface roots forming hollows in which a man could repose as comfortably as in a cot. Beor grunted pleasurably as he fitted himself in a hollow, the way a cat nestles into a recess. Balaam went to draw water. The afternoon quiet was broken by the clanking chain as the bucket came up. It was hard work for a slender knock-kneed youth. He immersed the water skins in the bucket and plugged them, and was about to let the bucket down when a wind stopped him. It was not a climatic wind but the human kind, and it brought, if it is possible, a frown and a smile to the lad’s face. It was no crude habit of Beor’s. He passed wind the way other men shake hands or swap greetings, to put others at ease. Beor broke wind to break down barriers, leaving the fumes aside, and people were not offended by the idiosyncrasy of a man who’d probably had his guts crushed in a fight. The routine never embarrassed his sons, though it made them want to laugh. But no one ever laughed in their father’s face.
“Come, why don’t you sit here,” said Beor in a dry cracked voice. Balaam had taken a spot some way away. “No matter then; let’s talk.” Now he became tongue-tied, and some deep struggle cast lines on Beor’s crimson face. It was a problem that people were starting to pick up. They had to wait for the war-torn soldier to remember what he meant to say. It was thought that Beor’s decaying mind was the result of the venereal curse the goddess Kubaba had brought on him, burning his urine and making it drip to the ground like raindrops. The son, unforgiving, waited upon his father. There was no help, nor empathy, in those remote wide-set eyes. From the way he looked, you couldn’t tell what thoughts Balaam was thinking, or whether he took any notice  of you.
“I always liked this spot,” said Beor distantly. “I think of the first time I took you hunting. That was before these woods were cut. We hung a brace of ganders on a tree and went off to stalk deer. When we came back for the birds there were only blood spots and feathers. It was the last time you howled that I can remember.”
“I remember it, sir,” Balaam answered.
Beor dipped his eyes at him. “Get your brain here young man, and listen carefully,” he croaked. “I’ve done all I can for you and your brother. I invested time and money in the education of my sons. I hoped that when they were adult enough they’d want to stamp a bigger mark on the world than their father stamped. You have come to that point now, I believe. Your brother – well, I’d say he’s got a little more to do. You’re quicker, not just with growing up. Young man, you want to start thinking about the mark you’re going to make. But don’t you leave it too long. I see things you can’t. You’ve grown up in a time of peace, but don’t go thinking it’s the normal condition. Men hate stability. It makes them feel uncomfortable. It feels wrong not to be plunging the world into chaos. Do you follow what I’m saying?”
“I do, Sir.”
Beor went on in his hectoring manner. “I’ll be short, because that’s what people know me for. I’m no gabber, and I thank whoever made me a doing man. Listen to what I say. Forces of war gather. Who can tell what will be. Make up your mind before it’s made for you.”
“War, sir?”
“Ay, what of it?” said Beor, eyes lighting up. “We’re speaking father to son now. Straight talk, you understand. We’re not in the schoolroom.”
“No sir.”
“Well then?”
“Do you mean war with Jacob’s people?”
“I mean, lad, that vast plague called the Ivri. You call them what you like. Your grandfather stopped using the name Jacob after his precious nephew ran off with an entire household after twenty years under your grandfather’s roof. Like father like sons. For eighty years Jacob’s offspring have taken Pharaoh’s hospitality as their god-given right, only to complain when told to do some work for the country that gave them succor. What other people would I mean if not the trouble-stirring grabbers who, our eyes and ears in Egypt tell, are reproducing like locusts. An ill omen. It’s what I was telling you. Make up your mind before circumstances do it for you. I’ve come to see, you’re not military material. You’re too clever for that.”
Balaam said, “Must there be war, sir? Are not Moab and Ivri people from one patriarch?”
It’s the kind of question Beor likes. “I know, yes – you want everything to add up, don’t you. The world, lad, was created with irreconcilables. Not all people are meant for co-existence. I could talk a whole day about this, and still you won’t know the truth. From one family born enemies may come. Remember Jacob and Esau; remember where you come from.”
“I do, sir.” But now Beor is in full stride. “Moab’s foes are pre-ordained. Destroy or be destroyed. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not your mindless destructive type. Look at me – a warlord, yet I prefer destruction of the other kind, the clean and decisive kind. You know what I mean, don’t you – spiritual destruction. This needs a far higher power than military might. Today no nation can boast this power. Think of that.”
Balaam likes his father in this mood, and grows careless. He realizes his mistake right after speaking. And he speaks brazenly. “What if our menfolk were circumcised? Would it make a difference? Would co-existence be possible?”
His father is offended. Balaam feels thankful this is not a crazy scorpion class. With his chronic burning throat Beor could not raise his voice above speaking level. He colored a deep purple instead, and perhaps this made a greater impact on people than if he shouted.
“Boy, you forget the lessons you took with me. Circumcise! Remember what the sons of your Jacob did to the men of Shechem. That’s right, they told them to circumcise themselves. You can then live among us, the evil ones promised. And? With the deed done and the men of Shechem weak and helpless, the murdering scum set upon them. There’s your co-existence. There’s your weapon called circumcision. Religious rites do not make or unmake the enemy; they identify him. You listen carefully now. Don’t look for causes where they can’t be found. Especially don’t let your heart go out to devilish Ivri rites. Come, it’s time to go.”
Beor, panting audibly, made an effort to rise. Balaam wet his lips. “Pass me my walking sticks,” his father barked. Balaam did so, and impulsively he quoted a Yidon with a high reputation.
“Sir, Mikulitin goes around teaching that the foreskin makes all the difference.”
“The man’s a fake!” Beor spat. “Lad, it will do you no good hanging on to the words of every old man who happens to have a big grey beard. You’re too believing. Jacob, since you want to call the bastards by that name, is a nation of legends and exaggeration. Have you learnt nothing?”
“I learnt, sir.” Balaam feels the hot breath of his father on him.
“You learnt – well thanks be for small mercies! Remember founding myths? Remember their power and importance for national cohesion? A skin cover on the member and you fall for the lie about some cosmic power. Ay, a cunning move. Love or hate the Ivri, they’ll twist the devil around their little finger before making a fool of him. Look how they make others feel inferior.”
With a belch and a jet of flem, Beor stood up. Taking hold of the stout sticks which helped him walk when an old hip wound gave trouble, he went off at a rapid limp. Balaam called after him in fright. What flood of rage or violence might his words unleash? ‘Go after him and explain,’ he thought. ‘Father, I have found you out.’ Oh yes that would really do him good. Into Balaam’s young head there entered the bright image of some unsettling knowledge. It told him that his father did not have divine wisdom, that his judgment was not solid, or his facts true, or his schemes selfless, or his methods of punishment fair. In one moment all safety went, and Balaam no longer saw the world through the eyes of a youth. There is one thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall lightly; they crash, and a boy’s world comes tumbling down with his god, and his world is not the same for ever more. It now looked to Balaam all too possible that the brothers’ months and years of cruel study and hard training had no reference to anything in the world except the crazed pre-occupations of a sick soldier. He and Balak and poor Pior had been put through hell for no purpose more real than to allow their father to vent his angry theories on life. They, Beor’s own flesh and blood, were a pet project.