[The story first appeared at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-determined-executioner/]
Numbers Fiction: Matot
The Determined Executioner
“And Moses sent them, a thousand of every tribe, to the war, them and Pinhas the son of Elazar the priest, with the holy vessels and the trumpets. And they warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew every male. And they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian; Bilaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword.” Numbers, Chapter 31:6-8
“When the wicked Bilaam saw Pinhas the priest pursuing him, Bilaam cast a spell and flew in the air. Immediately Pinhas pronounced the Great and Holy Name and flew after him…” Targum Yonatan, Numbers 31:8
Pinhas the priest stood in a puddle of blood. He disliked the stickiness of the liquid between the toes of his sandaled feet. It had a different texture than the blood of animal sacrifices. Three Midianite foot-soldiers jumped at him from behind the piled corpses of their brethren. In one fluid motion Pinhas cut the neck of two assailants and stabbed the third in the stomach. Pinhas was mindful not to get blood on the Holy Ark five feet away.
“Have we found them?” Pinhas called to Caleb across the carcass-strewn battlefield. He was thankful that all the victims were Midianite.
“Yes. All five kings have been found and executed,” Caleb called back. His sword dripped blood over his red-stained robe. His grim smile grew wider as he impaled a Midianite sneaking behind him.
“What about Bilaam? He is the most dangerous. He cannot be allowed to escape,” Pinhas said.
“There are reports of an old black-robed sorcerer skulking around. I have heard nothing further.”
“The kings are dead. The kings are dead,” the remaining Midianites repeated throughout the battlefield. The few surviving Midianites fled. Freed from combat Pinhas scanned the horizon for signs of Bilaam. Low lying grey clouds absorbed the rays of the afternoon sun.
In the distance he saw a shadowy figure jumping from corpse to corpse avoiding contact with Israelite soldiers. Pinhas ran, sword in hand, jumping over the dead Midianites to intercept the man. The man was Bilaam. Bilaam froze, sensing the priest’s approach.
Pinhas ran faster, leaping over mounds of dead. The satchel slung over his shoulder bounced lightly against his right hip. A scabbard bounced on his left. Pinhas looked at Bilaam’s face. Bilaam looked back with one eye. The other eye was covered with a golden patch. Bilaam held a tall staff in one hand. A sword was strapped to his back. Bilaam muttered a few words and levitated ten feet above the corpses.
“Your sword is not long enough, Priest,” Bilaam called down to Pinhas. “My reach is much longer.” Bilaam pointed his staff at Pinhas.
“I don’t need a sword to kill you, cursed one.” Pinhas grabbed a fist-size stone and hurled it at Bilaam. The stone hit Bilaam squarely on the forehead. Bilaam twirled backwards in the air. After a full revolution he faced Pinhas again, unmarked.
“It will take much more than an earthly force to hurt me, little priest. I will not be as easy to dispatch as the Midianites. They were useful puppets, but I shall find other nations to do my bidding and then destroy you Hebrews.”
“All your plans will come to nothing, evil one,” Pinhas shouted. “I will put an end to them today.”
“You are a pitiful, laughable creature, Pinhas. You do not realize who you are up against.”
“So why are you afraid?” Pinhas closed his eyes, clenched his fists and intoned a few words with a powerful tune. He rose ten feet into the air and reached Bilaam’s level, just two sword lengths away. Bilaam’s eyes and mouth opened wide. Bilaam turned his back and flew higher. Pinhas pursued.
Bilaam reached a low lying grey cloud and disappeared from sight. Pinhas backed away from the cloud to get a wider view.
“You cannot reach what you cannot see, Hebrew,” Bilaam’s dissipated voice emerged from the cloud. “Give up the chase. Do you know what power you are opposing?”
“You villains always think you are more powerful,” Pinhas spoke to the cloud. “You are only more destructive. You delude yourself with dreams of power but in the end it is ephemeral, like a cloud.”
Pinhas blew lightly. The cloud moved away and then disintegrated. There was no one there.
“Young fool,” Bilaam laughed from a different cloud. “You have some talent, but you don’t have my centuries of experience. Join me. I can teach you a thing or two.”
“What could you teach me?”
“I possess the secrets of eternal life, of indestructibility, of divination. I’m still working on turning lead to gold, but I’m close. Just a few more decades and I think I’ll get it. Does your Moses know any of these? Leave that charlatan and join the real men of power. His days are numbered anyway.”
“One day with Moses is more valuable than a lifetime of whatever you might teach,” Pinhas spoke to the clouds.
“Perhaps. But from up here I have a wonderful view of all his people. I think this may be a propitious time. I should be able to get all of them with one curse.”
Pinhas inserted his sword into the scabbard, took out a gold-plated headband from his satchel and tied it to his forehead. God’s name was inscribed on the golden headband. The rays from the setting sun reflected off the golden headband and lit up the surrounding clouds. The clouds burst outward.
“Ahhhhhh,” Bilaam yelled as he fell from the sky.
Pinhas flew quickly behind him. Bilaam crashed into the ground forming a man-sized crater. Dust flew up around him. Pinhas landed softly at the edge of the crater.
Bilaam jumped high out of the crater and kicked Pinhas in the face, knocking Pinhas to the ground. The golden headband clattered off his forehead. Bilaam reached for the headband. As he wrapped his hand over the headband his skin sizzled and smoked. Bilaam let go of the headband, his palm charred, with a broad band of burnt skin.
“Not so indestructible after all,” Pinhas noted as he got back on his feet, picking up the headband and retying it to his forehead. “Holiness doesn’t agree with you.”
Bilaam spat on the ground. “I think we have different definitions of holiness.”
“All the more reason for you to die,” Pinhas said.
“You will have to try much harder,” said Bilaam as he raised both hands, palms towards Pinhas.
Pinhas rolled past Bilaam, and turned around behind him. He took a long swath of cloth from his satchel and wrapped it around Bilaam’s throat.
“You are wise not to touch me,” Bilaam rasped. Pinhas pulled tightly on the cloth. Bilaam’s eye bulged. He clawed at his neck until he collapsed, breathless, face down on the ground.
Pinhas kicked the body until it rolled over. He unwrapped the cloth from Bilaam’s neck. A ring of dark red covered Bilaam’s neck. Pinhas took a coil of rope out of his satchel and bound Bilaam. He then removed a large bronze ladle from his satchel. It was filled with lead. Pinhas gestured at the lead. Slowly, it heated up until the molten metal glowed in the ladle.
Suddenly Bilaam coughed, opened his eyes and said: “I told you I wouldn’t be so easy to…”
Pinhas poured the molten lead down Bilaam’s throat.
“AAAAAGGHH!” he screamed, clutching his neck.
Bilaam writhed and coughed up pieces of solid lead. “No gold?” Pinhas asked.
Pinhas lifted several boulders and dropped them on the bound Bilaam until only his neck and head were uncovered.
“I cannot be killed,” Bilaam wheezed. “I am immortal, indestructible.”
“You said that already.” Pinhas removed his sword and sharpened the edge with a whetstone. “You are still a man though. There must still be some human element in you.”
Pinhas placed his foot on Bilaam’s neck. “I know you are an extremely powerful sorcerer and there are probably much of the dark arts you could teach, if you were so inclined. Let me tell you about my expertise. I am very good at slaughtering.”
Pinhas held the sword with both hands, locked his elbows and placed the tip of his sword on Bilaam neck. He swung it up and down lightly, confirming the arc of the sword.
“You are wasting your time,” Bilaam rasped. “Why don’t you just pray to God to strike me down? Why are you resorting to the crude sword?”
“You are not worthy of God’s attention. I will kill you as I would an animal.”
“You will fail.”
“Since I was a young man, I’ve been slaughtering animals. I have learned to slaughter them quickly, efficiently and with minimal fuss. True, you are more difficult, but now I have worked on the inside and the outside of your neck. Perhaps now we will succeed.”
Pinhas raised his sword and brought it down with a mighty stroke.
“Ugh,” Bilaam groaned. A thin sliver of red on Bilaam’s neck was all Pinhas got for his effort.
“See,” Bilaam spluttered, spitting blood. “Not so easy.”
“Amazing,” Pinhas muttered. “Very impressive. What makes you such an ornery fellow?”
“A healthy dose of nastiness, mean-spiritedness and frugality go a long way. I make sure to indulge all my vices and I have so much hate in my heart that I refuse to die.”
“Is that it? That is your secret to immortality?”
“Someone has to keep up the hate, and I have filled the role exceptionally well. Now come closer so I can at least lay a curse on you.”
Pinhas took a step back. He removed his satchel and placed it over Bilaam’s head.
“I knew something was missing from your head gear. You look much better this way. Now let’s think together how to end your miserable existence.”
“Waste of time,” was Bilaam’s muffled response.
“You cannot be too comfortable right now,” Pinhas said. “You must be in some pain. You cannot move. Cannot indulge those vices of yours. Cannot do anything in fact. What sort of existence is that?”
“Someone will come for me.”
“We can prevent that. No one will know you are here. You will have disappeared from the world with no trace and no memory. It will be as if you died, but you will suffer eternal anguish, pain and misery thanks to your immortality. That is actually a fitting punishment. I shall make the arrangements.”
Pinhas walked away.
“You are cruel,” Bilaam called from under the satchel. “You accuse me of evil, yet this punishment is most horrific. How can you bury me alive? How can you leave me to eternal suffering? Don’t you preach morality and goodness? Aren’t you a priest, the grandson of the great Aaron? How can you do such a thing? I would rather die.”
Pinhas ran back to Bilaam, sword still outstretched and stood above Bilaam. He brought it down vigorously onto Bilaam’s neck. Bilaam’s head rolled away and fell into a ditch.
“Your wish is granted,” Pinhas replied.
* * * * * *
Notes: Ever since I read the Midrash of Bilaam flying and Pinhas flying after him I wanted to write a story about it
The key sources I quoted in the beginning to give the background.
Moses said to Pinhas and the men of the army, “I know that the wicked Bilaam is there. Set a trap for him. If you see that he is performing sorcery and flying in the air, show him the headband of the High Priest, on which the words ‘Sanctified to God’ are inscribed, and he will fall.” Bamidbar Rabbah 22:5
Pinhas flew after him. Pinhas grabbed his head, lowered him to the earth, drew his sword and killed him. Bilaam entreated Pinhas…. Pinhas answered, ‘I cannot let you live any longer’. Targum Yonatan, Bamidbar 31:8
They carried out the four death sentences against him: stoning, burning, slaying by sword, and choking. Tractate Sanhedrin 106b