Pharaoh calls up 3 wise men for advice on the Israelite problem     

They wise men were Jethro, Job and Balaam. Below is Balaam's one-eyed view of what happened, based on midrashic sources.

Steve Apfel, | updated: 23:29

Judaism Ancient papyrus with Egyptian hieroglyphs
Ancient papyrus with Egyptian hieroglyphs

Bereft of an eye I undertake to make Jacob’s seed pay for betraying Egypt’s hospitable hand. I don’t pretend to know how it will turn out. I know only that revenge will do my soul no good. I can live with retribution in this life. In the hereafter prospects, even to a prophet who is privy to moods in the heavenly sphere, are pot luck. Hence I will need iron in my spine when I slip the idea of bondage for Israel into the head of the new Pharaoh – who could already have it in there.

The Almighty, for good or bad, made a bris bein habetarim with Abraham, a covenant that decreed bitter exile for the seed of the believer. Why Abraham accepted the terms meekly, and did not bargain for lives, as he did before the Lord ordered Sodom to be flattened, we’ll never know.   

But that is Israelite business. Revenge is mine. Now, with the eye left to me, I’m going to bring you into a chamber where my quest commences, in Thebe on the Nile, at a time when they, the Children of Israel, have made Goshen a teeming enclave, in the third generation after their father Jacob was gathered to his people.

You shall discover that Pharaoh called up more than one eminence to apply wisdom to a plague of human, though epic, proportions.  The stakes couldn’t be higher: anarchic insurrection or a prolific people aiding and abetting enemies. He hand -picked three men with diverse talents, to deliver Egypt from doomsday. 

Some million and a half potential turncoats had to be neutralised – plus their birthing rate! Hebrew-tongued loiterers blocked entire thoroughfares. The women are comparable to crawling insects dropping litters at a time. Pharaoh, to the credit of his young years (a teen still), wants to turn this miraculous life force to the good of Egypt. 

An afternoon breeze becalms our trio there as we bide a wait on chairs of marble inlaid with gold leaves – ornamentation of no help to my angular buttocks and ribbed back. I envy the ram-rod builds of my two colleagues who are not tormented by bones jutting where they were not designed to be.

A high archway leading onto a portico looking out on a stretch of river ventilates the room no better than the marble chair supports my body. A scent of sandalwood from the new floor mingles with the aroma of potted lavender on the portico, spraying the walls of it in mauve stalks.   

Only austere talk passes our lips. We’ve had nought by way of sustenance; jugs of limewater and red wine are set on a table behind a carved screen. Insult or not, our host caused men with irons in many busy fires to come post haste, from Midian and Canaan and, where the eye injury had laid me up, from my family seat in Charan on the Euphrates.      

I doubt that Pharaoh could have brought together luminaries so different from one another, physiologically and in talent. There is a high priest of stately bearing; another with a bristling head of hair, owner of land and business ventures; then me – a waddling part-sighted wreck. My two colleagues little imagine how my spirit draws encouragement when I behold their demeanour under beetling brows.

The tall stately one, who had been keeping a stern eye on the wing doors carved with medallions of miscellaneous gods, was the first to succumb to the mood. Eyes full of black fire he turned on the pugilist who, visibly the least conflicted, had been vocal in speculating about Pharaoh.                              

“Job, make an end of it and admit you’re going to support him. Your thoughts are carved as bold as the idols on the doors.”

This was no indictment for a man who’d turned Canaan into a private venture. Not to be caught smiling at a victory, complacency came over Job’s ruddy face and put a milder look into steely eyes as he filled a cup.  

“Ah, did anybody taste the like,” he said, swilling the wine and dipping his nose to the cup. “A flavour so delicate I can hardly tell it from the taste. Not from my vineyards, I can tell you. Well friends, here’s to a quick meeting and our release before the sun goes down. May Pharaoh be blessed to serve Egypt fittingly.”

“Ay, that’s the way,” Jethro said. “Make a virtue out of expediency. You’re going to agree to anything the king has a mind to do.”    

“It’s called protocol, I believe.”

“I ought to have guessed.” 

“I won’t deny it. You read my thoughts in bold,, Jethro. Practical thoughts are like that – hiding nothing from anyone. There is nothing to hide. We need to be real.”

“Real?”said Jethro, cut by the patronising commoner. 

“Pharaoh will have his way. We may’s well try to turn a donkey cart in a tight alley.”

“Hark to that!” Jethro got up with a ferocity that I feared heralded an assault. Job seemed to get my notion, the way he put down the cup in the trance-fixed state of a seaman alerted to a boiling wave rolling in at his boat.

But the stalwart priest, whose magnetism mustered multitudes to Baal pageants, stalked out to the portico where, so to speak, he lobbed the tirade he meant to deliver into the Nile. By the time he came back he was prepared to win Job over with sarcasm.

Fortified by wine and a platter of victuals that a butler had since brought in, he said, “Is it not the case, Balaam? A councillor who lets the king have his own way has no better excuse for making his life as free from trouble as it can be. Only, Job, don’t set your heart too strongly on any good you will get from letting Pharaoh do that. I doubt he prefers commoners who try to be agreeable to him. We should be clear what we are bent upon: popularity or usefulness – or we may happen to miss both. I think that our more famous colleague won’t argue with that?”

I winced. We could, I knew, come out with the two together: popularity and usefulness. Yet I dare not annoy the spiritual head of Midian. Jethro’s people were allied closer to Moab than to any other. We shared enemies and idols. I had to be as delicate as a lily hopper in crocodile rapids. 

To add to my dilemma I doubted that the priest was cut out to apply a clear mind to the scourge that was eating Egypt alive. Who let the Children of Israel come there to do it? Jethro’s people!  Had not jealous brothers sold Joseph the trouble-maker to a caravan of Midianites, who in turn sold him to Ishmaelites, who in turn sold him in Egypt for Potiphar’s slave, Joseph would have starved in a pit lined with vipers and scorpions.

Had not Midianites pulled the dreamer out, the seventy kith and kin of his doting father Jacob the noted deceiver of a twin brother and blind father, would not be swarming over Goshen with their broods and animals, treating it as God-given feeding land. The pioneer family came down from Canaan at the instigation of Joseph, then Viceroy of all Egypt. Count on Jethro the Midianite not to underplay the plague his people had made? I struggled in combat with the dilemma.

“Argue? I repeated. “In your one statement, Jethro, you have explained our differences. They are not differences at all.” I wiped my hands from dates oozing their honey. “You and Job contest over two sides of one coin. Where is the split of opinion, if we let God let Pharaoh have his way – which God will, depend on it. He’s not given to making decrees lightly. The Covenant of the Parts he made with Abraham promised that Pharaoh will be the slave overlord, do what we may.” I sunk my eye socket conspiratorially at Job. “Our colleague speaks in the practical words that a man of business likes. Right, Job?”Let the ruler of Egypt have his way.” 

“Right – of course,” Job said, a little fussed. He picked at the tiny dried fishes in shoal formation on the plate. The priest of idol cults, who silently despised the wooden gods that he made congregants bow to and chant to, turned over my words, as it were, on Job’s turned back. 

“Well.!We’re to leave everyone to play parts ordained from on high! Is that it? Whatever happens is by covenant – which you know and I know, Balaam, is the way pagans bind themselves to do this that or the other.”

I spread my hands. “Jethro, we don’t know what curse we may bring down by sticking noses into plans and sealed decrees. Don’t tamper with God. Look at my grandfather, Laban. He tampered. The flocks of Jacob, the greasy bridegroom, just grew and grew and grew.”    

“Oh, but that was different. Laban tried to cheat. We want to prevent a very cruel bondage. Would that incur wrath from on high? You want to tell me that the God who made beatific promises to Abraham, and allowed Jacob to father thirteen tribes, did it for their seed to be turned into working termites? Cursed for wanting human treatment for humans made in the image of God? You believe that? I’d spit on you if you did.”

“It might well be,” I said, “if we start thwarting the will of God. In any case who are we – indeed who is man – to know cruel from kind? The Creator may have a different notion of them. Second guessing God is to play God.”

The effort to see eye to eye had brought us as close as we’d get. Long before our fraught meeting Job had no time for any god that the priest or I would have recognised – unless accumulation qualified as a god. The only trouble which pestered the man was that he knew he had to stop his property compounding, or be made a slave to it. How to stop it was the problem. 

“Nothing prevents us leaving,” said Job breathing hard. “The door is unbolted, and no guard is stationed on the outside. Could Pharaoh have forgotten that he ordered us down to Egypt?”

“Really, it’s impossible,” said Jethro, regarding the door as a barricade of bad omen. What if it opened suddenly with a herald of horns, followed by a bevy of guards and royal attendants? To satisfy himself he lurched on those high legs over to the door.   

I take pride in reading outward tokens of a man’s inner conflict. When I see a trim triangular beard quiver I know to discount the bearing of the sturdiest rival. “What did he want,” Jethro said, “bringing me down to his country of intrigue and superstition?” With his resolve, his clothes collapsed: the immaculate robe in which he had arrived dropped over the broad shoulders like a shroud.       

‘Oh,” I said, “he needs respectable partners in his project. And we are very ready to drink the  host’s wine and feed on his delectables. He wants to hear what three wise men think of a new king and his sly schemes.”

“I’d never have guessed he had fixed on any,” Jethro said before taking a swallow of limewater as if it had been medicine.  

“When a man has nothing solid to be proud of,” Job said, “he is proud of the cruelties he can inflict”.  

“Was it worth a two-day journey?”  

“In my case three,” I said. “I came to advise Pharaoh on many things. A waste of a day is not so important for me. I don’t want to push him into the arms of my vicious rivals. You go. Don’t worry if you are missed. You left at my bidding.” 

Jethro said, “Why would Pharaoh keep us waiting? What motive could he have?”

‘Poor wretch,’ I thought. ‘You have nerves the same as your common idolaters. You won’t blind one-eyed me. I’m tempted to put your cold feet, which die to quit the palace, to the test.’

“I never find motives very rewarding to pry into,” I answered lightly. “Young kings will be prey to whims. Palace wizards may have given him other ideas. Motives can be tricky. Remember what my patriarchs and matriarchs got up to. My great aunt Rebecca defrauded a blind, dying husband and a twin from her womb. Was her motive as pure as she made out? Or my grandfather Laban. When he deceived Jacob with a bride, what was his motive? Impure as Jacob made out? Dig and you begin to realize how low human minds can sink.”

Jethro had never liked who I was, where I’d come from, and why I’d left. “What complex heroes your God created for teaching mankind the ways of right and wrong,” he said.

“Faith in any god sets problems.”

“None quite like your God, Balaam. That covenant is full of them. He decreed a terrible fate for the seed of the world’s one believer. They’re to inherit Canaan – but first many have to die or endure the cruellest bondage in human annals. What is a pagan like me meant to learn from such a heartless trade-off?”  

“Picking out events in isolation invites confusion, Jethro.”   

“Then, Balaam, explain what sin the Israelites have committed to bring down that fate on their heads.” 

“Go back over the doings of the father and grandmother of the tribes. Jacob and conniving Rebecca were no angels.”  

“I’m not qualified to talk about that,” Job said. “But can’t the Israelites follow the example of Abraham? When God promised that his seed would inherit the land, He had Canaan in mind. Not Egypt. Egypt is the exile. Patriarchs and their wives are laid to rest in Machpela in the plains of Mamre to cement the inheritance. There’s no famine now in Canaan. Let the Israelites go up from Goshen to settle there. If they believe the revelation, why wait for the suffering and death promised by it?”  

“Well, Job! You’ve got land to spare,” said Jethro harshly. “Make Pharaoh an offer.”

“The truth of it,” I said, “is that the Israelites have left it late. They’ve become too useful to let go and too dangerous to keep. Slavery would settle both Pharaoh’s problems. He won’t be turned aside. If you are going to skip, now’s the time.”

No sooner had I offered my advice than the door banged open and in came a steward bearing a tray, and a mute shouldering a table followed.  My companions regarded me with indignation. 

“For shame, for shame!” Jethro hissed angrily. You are worse than ten spies. You poisonous fiend!”

“You think I spoke to get you caught?” I said.

“It looks like it,” said Job. “I shudder at your duplicity.”

In the moments of silence we observed the drinks being arrayed on the table..The steward, an Ishmaelite with hypnotic eyes, invited us to review the most bewildering array imaginable.     

There were concoctions of everything, from pomegranate juice to dandelion wine, and from rosewater to a horse’s neck. They were of every shade, from mauve to taupe.  Many of subtle potency, they were served in every sort of container, from cut glass tumblers to silver goblets.  

The steward and mute withdrew, brushing by Jethro asking them if Pharaoh would follow.

“Well, I declared when we were alone, “If I’m leagued with Pharaoh then, my friends, decide for yourselves.  I leave you to your warped suspicions.”

How long they would have persevered in nursing them, I cannot say; they had short time to recant. Dusk came onto low-lying Luxor before we knew it. A cacophony of frogs filled our heads. From the portico Jethro scoured the river up and down. Then he muttered his goodbyes and slipped out like a criminal. Still Job lingered in two minds. 

‘Is he sorry for his conduct?” I asked myself. ‘Well, I shall let him come to the point as he will.”  No, what concerned him was saving his skin. Pharaoh had not forgotten us. A firelighter soon came to flame the torches on brackets around the walls. 

“You know,” he said at last, “I’ve waited for a conversation with a free-thinking Hebrew for a long time.”

“I wouldn’t call myself that.” 

“In Canaan I’m alone with my own thoughts.  I have a large family who enjoy the life and the objects that wealth brings. They can be content, I suppose.  I can’t. I’ve thought a good deal about God. And free will.”   

“Free will?”

“What God meant humans to have.”

“I’m not the last word on that, you know.”

“I’ve got to thinking that God cheats.” He helped himself to more wine, disturbing a moth with the wing span of a bat on the wall. It swooped and settled above another torch. ‘To jump to the heart of what really troubles me, if Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites then free will counts for nothing. You told Jethro that God decreed it.”       

“I can’t say you’re wrong.” The more removed you live from God, I thought just then, the clearer you see the problems that belief presents. “Job, I often feel I was born to be led by the nose. Where’s the free will I’m entitled to? My cousin Jacob had good reason to ask that question. He had to love Joseph more than all his sons and make them jealous. Joseph had to bring their father evil reports about the brothers, and make them mad with hate. Dreadful behaviour all round. But it led the family to descend to Egypt. Are people accountable for doing what God needs done? Did those acts and events have to unfold that way? I don’t know. God – the behaviour you force on people!” 

From the dark river frogs seemed to croak with our hollow words: covenant: decree: exile: bondage: free will: suffering, suffering, suffering... 


 . The exile in Egypt, and the bondage will occur in one way or another, even if the details develop in a different way. The way events actually happen, with the free will of all concerned, help in realizing God’s decree. The hatred of the brothers for Joseph was blameworthy and punishable. There is a link between the hatred and the bitter exile.  The first caused the other, allowing for free will .So with the sin of Jacob. A father commits evil by favouring one son over others. Because of this the brothers hated Joseph, and sold him and brought about the Children of Israel going down to exile in Egypt. God causes good events to be brought about by worthy deeds, and bad events by unworthy deeds. The events themselves, whether good or bad, are not dependent on the person who will cause them, but the person who causes them is either worthy or unworthy, depending on the events which he sets in motion. The hatred of the brothers towards Joseph was unworthy, and brought about a bad event – the bitter exile in Egypt.   

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