Garden of Evil -a story for this week's Shabbos Project
Garden of Evil -a story for this week's Shabbos Project

I commence from where it began, nine hundred years before I entered the world as Balaam to play my designated part. A chronicler worth his salt puts forthrightness before discretion, so let me begin that if you thought I was rocked by scandal, it was nothing next to my shameless forebears. All told they were a scandalous crew. The part of Lot in the saga is nothing to that of his incomparable uncle, Abraham. Yet the nephew had his moments. Lot witnessed the end of mankind; so that what happened afterwards in a cave was pardonable. While the uncle made base camp in the dry Negev, more fabulous or fabled pickings (well then – greed) drew Lot to Sodom on the Dead Sea.

It is 360 years since Noah disembarked on one dry peak, and God’s renewed faith in mankind is being dashed in five wicked cities where conditions, after Adam fell out with the Creator, had never been so ideal...In Sodom most notably. As I know it, recalling what my decrepit mentor taught, turning over old notes, the written statements of wayward characters in the testament of  Moses, this hub of humanity was famed for 2 P’s: Prosperity and Perversity – P2 a consequence of P 1, as drunkenness is to drink. The locals were rich beyond dreams and mean beyond words.

In case freak beginnings are taken to be the key to my character, to what tore my desires and brought on my predicaments, to what made me into a curser, a deviant, a plotter against Israel, a prophet on a par with Moses; a question: to be very good or very bad: of the two a man would find which more difficult to be? As one who cut his teeth on both I would answer, Bad. There’s the real struggle; to be bad – and to relish it like a good vintage. If so, then maybe the people of Sodom and Gemorah deserved a fate better than fire and brimstone?

The Egypt (Mitzrayim to the Hebrews) I knew had abundance of bread and idleness, making me not unfamiliar with the perversity the sons of man can rise to when God leaves them to it.  But my Egypt was not in the Sodom-Gemorah league.

Think of it; in their backyards people scraped up gold nuggets and rubies and emeralds by the bucketful. That soil! Press a dry twig into the ground and you’d have a new tree heavy with fruit before the season ran out. Livestock too: goats sheep cattle doubled in mass in eight and forty hours. As for the people! Women wore sumptuous finery every day of the week. A humble boot maker’s family might employ three servants. Every meal in every home was a feast, and the lowest swanked about like aristocrats. For high living no place ever equalled. the Sodom-Gemorah complex on the plain.

It came at a cost, however. To safeguard freak prosperity you’re asking for freak behaviour. Pounding where the heart should be, people had an organ calibrated for cruelty that outsiders forgot at dire peril; that made lawmakers ransack their wits for ways to protect the good life. Never in the annals of man have such dastardly codes been devised.

Blame Noah for taking a demon with earthly creatures aboard the Ark. Sodomites were possessed by a vengefulness they believed was human nature, elevating cruelty and viciousness to the level of an art form. Merchant travellers, with or without an entry pass obtained at great trouble, bore the brunt more than most. Getting into the city was one thing, where to put the feet up or the head down was more difficult, and sometimes fatal; for hospitality was forbidden on pain of death. For the passer-through who wanted to bed down it was the pavement or nothing. Woe betides the local who offered a traveler food or shelter.

Lot, Head Councillor by appointment to the King – even my forebear paid the price for showing kindness. He had a daughter, Pletith, who did something that uncle Abram would have applauded. This goodly young woman took pity on a starving traveler. Each day she would go to a remote well and leave morsels for the desperate man. This went on for a time. .It was her misfortune that law enforcement bad him under surveillance to make certain that a non-Sodomite succumbed to hunger. And here was one not only surviving but putting on flesh. Someone had to be feeding him. The trail led to Pletith. Caught in the act, she was taken in, dragged before the court, and condemned to burn alive in public, to instil the mantra, ‘Be kind at your own risk!’

Also more barbarous variations of what befell Pletith. The felon was stripped naked, coated with honey from top to toe, then trussed up on an anthill. This afforded onlookers hours of entertainment while ants eat the body to the bone. Nor were the lower forms of life forgotten. Trees on public land were pruned down to bare branches to deny birds fruit and seeds.

The law of the land was double-edged: at the same time cruel and designed for decadent fun, making Sodom a haven for every kind of pervert and swindler. It was a civic duty to check entry papers, and if deficient, to relieve miscreants of everything, down to the shirts on their backs ...Upon which further sexual indignity was inflicted. 

Believe what I’m telling. Moses the Teacher was no yarn spinner. In that place of moneyed crazies, perverted penalties plumbed the depths. Such warped cruelties the human mind can devise! Hospitality was another value turned on its head. Procrustean beds were kept for tired travelers who, just getting comfortable, would be rudely interrupted by a squad of trained torture experts. If tall, the guest was given a short bed so that his protruding legs needed to be sawn down until he and bed were of equal length. On the other hand god help the guest shorter than a bed. Four burly men, two by the arms, two by the legs, pulled and pulled until the body fitted the bed. You entered Sodom at peril of life and limb.

There’s no denying the creative atrocities, the ingenuity of the pumpkin heads in that capital city of the warped – a city fated to be short lived for fifty two fairy tale years. It seems to me that buried deep in such Neanderthal animosity lay no ordinary wickedness. I mean, look at the warped commercial practices. Here were five cities and a meandering river cutting them off. To get from one place to another you took the ferry at one gold piece a ride. Otherwise you could wade across and pay double – two gold pieces for getting wet. Another case: should a man beat a pregnant woman and make her miscarry, he had to live with her until she got pregnant again. To sick minds what’s fair is fair.       

…Yet Lot, would you believe, married a native of Sodom. Bluntly the wife was a true-blue miser. In the family mansion there was penny-pinching at every turn, and none more than with salt. It drove Lot to despair, but Eris wore the pants – a remarkable thing given that her husband stood out, even in that hell-bound place, for his promiscuous deal-making. Salt: enough to throw back into the saltiest waters on earth, lapping not a league from city gates. Salt for anyone to shovel into a container on the seashore; enough of the commodity  for human needs from the Nile in the south to the Euphrates in the north. Yet Eris hoarded and monitored her stock. The cook had a weekly ration weighed out, and the butler was under orders never to put a dispenser on the table. You had to ask for salt, and when brought it would have enough for one plate of food and no more.

The day her husband brought home two solemn guests willing to brave the risks, Eris ran to bully the cook on how to stretch the ingredients for four dinners to make six. It was typical of Lot’s reckless arrogance, thinking that as the king’s right-hand councillor he was above the law...Even after a daughter had been executed for breaking it. “Man with no idea of right and wrong,” grumbled Eris.

At the table Lot eyes the subdued beardless brothers (so they looked) picking at their food, delivering what he knew would be a thunderbolt. ‘Wife, is not the mutton a bit under-seasoned? Ring for salt, will you.” Two virgin daughters watch through the safety of their white mantillas. Kitchen and food lockups  were their mother’s uncontested kingdom.

Eris giving Lot a curt look, ‘Our order, dear husband, is late. We’re clean out of salt. One minute while I run to borrow some from the neighbors.’ But she runs to tell that visitors are dining under her roof. There and then God seals the informer’s salty fate.

To what extent the Lot family gave ancient taboos the thumbs down we half know...Though it would not have taken them long to shed inhibitions, had they started off with any. After all,  cavalier promiscuity took no more than a generation (fifty two years) to permeate the five cities, until a holocaust rudely terminated the party.

Think of it. Half a day’s journey from the sweltering heat of the plain was an oasis with cool salt-free springs, shady copses and citrus groves. Every July the people of the five cities – Sodom, Gemorah, Admah, Tzevoyim and Tzoar – flocked for a week-long carnival of eating, drinking and reveling, the latter with no regard for marital status or family connections. Adultery, incest and same sex coupling were commonplace, even the main attraction.      

We all know (though I’ve yet to hear it well explained) how Lot offered his daughters, his own flesh and blood, to a mob baying for entry at the front door. Thanks to a law-fearing wife the family mansion had come under siege. Vigilantes demand that Lot’s guests come out to pay the price. Torn between the habits of Uncle Abram and the codes of  Sodom, Lot bargains.

‘Look people, I’ve two daughters right here!Let me bring them out. I did wrong; I brought visitors to the house – against my better judgement. The family had nothing to do with it. Let the men go and they’ll leave town forthwith. You have my word.’

‘Stand back!’ Mob leaders hammer at the door and hurl abuse. “You’ve got a nerve smuggling your clients in. No one shelters the needy.  You, though a foreigner, know the custom as well as we. Some example you set for a Chief Justice to! Give them up and we’ll leave your family alone.”

Grappling hooks are thrown onto the roof, jolting the rafters. Then a battering ram is brought to the door. Excited rage at the sodomy in prospect puts the mob in fits, making them indifferent to Lot’s pure daughters. The intruders offer better sport. The city was peopled, you see, by hell bent characters.

Lot is pulled back by insistent hands, which then point at the door bulging  on its brackets. Imprecations are heard. The chaotic din outside drops to nothing.  Te sound of scuffling and faint perplexed oaths as the mob, flailing and falling about, are blinded by cataracts.       

Who are the two guests now making a token wall between the mob and its prey? They are the Archangels Gabriel and Raphael come to rescue Lot. They come from consoling pain-filled ninety-year old Abraham after his covenant-sealing circumcision. They are  God’s eyes and ears, sent to check out wicked goings on in the five cities. They come to bring out Lot’s family before the heavens open and hellfire plummets down. To the vigilantes the guests are harbingers of an immigrant plague.

The lunatic horde goes eerily still. Every man jack of them (every male, young and old is there) fight to locate the door, falling over others who have gone down. At the sound of the door opening they inch forward, though too late. The brazen family and guests, so it is believed, have made their miraculous escape.

The writer is a prolific author of novels, non-fiction, opinion and essayist. His works are The Paymaster, 1998;Hadrian’s Echo, 2012; Contributor to ‘War by other means’, Israel Affairs, 2012; Enemies of Zion, (ready for publication early 2019); and Balaam’s curse ( novel in progress) His works have appeared in many sites and journals.Steve blogs at Enemies of   Zion