IN THE WILDERNESS It wasn't easy finding him after all these centuries.
It took journalistic enterprise, confidential sources, biblical research, a good roadmap and mainly imagination.
But eventually, somewhere east of the Jordan and west of the Euphrates in the land of Moab security regulations prevent me from pinpointing his exact location there he was, Balaam himself, the fabulous prophet of Hebrew Bible fame, or rather infamy.
The old man seemed comfortable enough in anonymous retirement, much like a crime boss in the Witness Protection Program. He seemed surprised to have a visitor but not inhospitable. Dressed in comfortable shorts and one of those garish Hawaiian shirts, he put down the gin-and-tonic in his hand and swung open the door to his screened porch. The ceiling fan hummed soothingly, the old-fashioned glider in the corner beckoned.
"Balaam, son of Beor, I presume?"
"Call me Balaam," he said. "All my friends do, not that I have any left. I don't get around much anymore. It's been centuries since I lived in Pethor, and I certainly didn't leave any forwarding address. Between disappointed customers and jealous husbands, a man can't be too careful. I'd just as soon folks believed that story about my meeting my end with the Midianites. Think of it as another failure of Israeli intelligence. Reports of my death, as you can see, have been greatly exaggerated."
He was shorter and thinner than one might have expected, and not at all imposing. Could this be the great Balaam, mighty prophet and seer known to all the peoples of the ancient East? This leathery old coot? It was if he'd hung up his prophet's girth and garb for the duration. His voice, which must have been stentorian in his heyday, now was just high-pitched.
"Haven't had any company in a couple of millennia," the old man mused, easing himself into a rocker next to the aspidistra. "Except on business, of course. There's always a market for a hired prophet. Political pollsters, market analysts, racetrack touts, weather forecasters, commodity traders . . . I hear from 'em all. Even when I tell 'em I'm strictly a Death-and-Destruction man, it doesn't put 'em off. There's always a market for D-and-D. Or at least a fascination with it. Had some Hollywood types come by to ask if I'd consult on their next disaster flick, but I'm not much on high-tech. Your standard earthquake or flood is good enough for me. Although I used to do a good business in blight, too.
"Yeah," the old man mused, looking off into the middle distance, as if remembering old times. "But some things never change. Come, curse me Jacob, they keep repeating, come, curse me Jacob. It's one of my stock numbers, and it never goes out of fashion. Like slacks-and-a-blazer or the simple little black dress. Now it's all I hear from Tehran to Damascus. The more this business changes, the more it stays the bloody same. Anybody I can curse for you? The price is right."
Not that I wanted to seem ungrateful, but I had something else in mind. I wanted to know how the current unpleasantness in the Middle East would turn out, and what it would mean for the future of the region, in the event it had one. Was this just a lull, or the beginning of a real peace?
"You still don't get it, do you?" the old boy said, not unkindly. "It may surprise you, but with me it's not the money. The money is just for openers, a sign of respect, earnest money, just to show you know you're not dealing with some two-bit hexer. I'd do this pro bono. It's when I'm most alive, when I'm prophesying. Like a Rembrandt at the easel, that's me on the high places before the altar. It's what I do, what I have to do. I was I am! an artist. Not just a prophet.
"Even when I came to curse the Israelites and blessed them instead," he continued, "the words the words! would become one of their prayers for a thousand, two thousand years. Forever. How beautiful are thy tents, O Jacob/thy dwelling places, O Israel. But all you people want is political analysis, some kind of fortune-telling. Well, you've come to the wrong place, my friend. You're looking for a magician, or maybe a visiting expert, somebody Charlie Rose might interview in that terribly serious way of his. What I do is art ."
"That's all? That's it? Can't you tell me how this is going to turn out? What will come next? War or peace? Neither or both? The world wants to know."
"You might try the witch of Endor down the road," the old man suggested. It's right on your way, and I get a small finder's fee. But be prepared: You might not like what you hear, or rather see."
I told him I'd pass. Consumer Reports said there'd been some customer dissatisfaction with her.
I thanked him for the interview, much good as it did me.
"No trouble," the old prophet-despite-himself said, pleasantly enough. "It isn't the first time an ass has insisted on talking to me."