The Hedge of Thorns
By Patricia Backora, author of Tough Love in Christ’s Millennium
Proverbs 13:22; Isaiah 5:6; Hebrews 6:8
The righteous wield the Word of God as a sharp sword against the devil. Devils pervert the Word of God to wound the righteous. A certain man lived long ago in Judea. He used Proverbs chapter 31 to bully his sweet-natured wife. Caleb was highly respected by his neighbors as one of the pillars of his local synagogue. How far he’d come in life, rising above the abuse which had filled his boyhood home_or so everyone thought.
To all outward appearances, his own home was a picture of domestic bliss. The only visible marks of abuse on his wife were her sunken, bloodshot eyes and the tired grey pallor of her face. Leah’s impoverished parents had other children to worry about. They had done all human reasoning could do to secure their eldest daughter’s future. All anyone seemed to notice were the silver ornaments she wore as a walking advertisement for her husband’s business. She had bettered her lot in life, they said, and should be thankful he’d taken her in.
The week-long wedding celebrations had barely ended when Caleb let Leah know what he expected of her. She was to be an example of “the virtuous woman”, who was always busy doing things to earn her own keep, and taking on extra money-making projects to lighten her husband’s burden as the chief breadwinner. Furthermore, she was to give him as many sons as possible to propagate his lineage.
For the first few months Leah coped, with her Maker’s help. She rose before dawn, cooked, cleaned, washed, ground grain, kneaded dough, carried water from the well, made clothes. In her spare moments she sat at her loom weaving cloth to sell to the outdoor merchants. She had virtually no time to visit with her girl friends or her family. People began to think Leah was unsociable. But now she was nothing but Caleb’s slave.
The man enjoyed wielding power over her. Whenever she failed to meet her production quota during her 12-to-18-hour days, he threatened to beat her, but usually stopped short of physical aggression. After all, he must not wreck HIS image before the community. Instead, he let her know that she was on lifelong probation, and he would divorce her if he failed to meet his expectations. After all, some expositors of the Law claimed that divorce was permissible for just any conceivable excuse.
Brave girl that she was, she concealed her sorrow from her mother whenever she encountered her in the synagogue. Caleb was so mean that he begrudged Leah the few hours of respite she gained by observing the mandatory Sabbath Day rest. If I had MY way, Caleb thought, the Lord would have exempted women from that rest requirement. He always resented dining on the cold Saturday afternoon fare which had been prepared the day before.
It wasn’t long before the surly man was tempted to throw her out and seek a fresher-looking face. No amount of cosmetics could restore vitality to his wife’s wan complexion, which once had been rosy-cheeked and comely. And she was beginning to disappoint him in bed. Only the announcement of an impending birth caused him to ease up on her just a bit. For the sake of his unborn child, she must be handled more discreetly than before. But it had better be a boy!
I’ll get rid of her after the baby is born, Caleb thought. If it’s a boy, the community will let me have him after a certain age. Never let it be said that Caleb can’t produce a son!
Leah suffered from pernicious anemia. In those days, its debilitating effects were often confused with deliberate slothfulness. One day Leah fainted at her loom, for she had scarcely eaten all day because of her morning sickness. Instead of showing compassion, Caleb gave her a warning blow across the back with a broom handle and demanded that she work harder. He complained about the big pile of half-finished goods strewn about, then demanded that she get up and cook his lunch. He was in an especially ugly mood because right when they were expecting a child, his silver business was down. A drought had depressed the local economy, and he wanted Leah to boost her daily output to contribute more to her own support. A virtuous wife, Caleb said sanctimoniously, must never eat the bread of idleness.
Leah might have gone back to her parents, but could not bear the thought of being stigmatized as a divorced woman. And her well-intentioned parents had gone to such lengths to procure the prosperous silversmith as her husband. She was so desperate she prayed to die.
The very realization that she’d prayed thus shocked her. How selfish of me, she thought. I have a child to consider. I have to live_for him. Please forgive, me, dear God.
On the night of the birth Caleb paced outside the front door, waiting, just as any other Jewish father-to-be would have done. A son! he thought. God, please grant me a son! Leah had laid down her loom for a day or so, but at least she was being productive.
It seemed like hours before the midwife emerged from the door to make the long-awaited announcement. But something was definitely wrong. Her head was bent, and her face was very sad. Furthermore, Caleb could not detect the cry of a newborn infant. “Woman,” he asked, “what is the matter? Was a son born to me?”
“Yes, my lord,” she whispered. “There is a time to be born, and a time to die. Your wife is dead, sir.”
He brushed off her last comment, for he knew he could hire a nurse for the infant. “Well, what of the boy? How does he fare?”
“He is with her, sir,” she softly replied, backing away from him, lest he lash out at her in revenge.
Caleb flew into a rage. “That slattern! Ever since I married her, she has cheated me out of a full day’s work, and my rightful pleasures as her husband! And I even went to the trouble of having my sister Judith assist her with her chores, just so she could conserve her strength against this hour! What a waste! Why has the Lord afflicted me thus? From now on I must lower myself to draw my own water from the well and bake my own bread! Just like a woman! Moreover, she has even taken my son to be with her in the world of the dead! She is a thief and a murderer, as well as a frigid sluggard!”
The few friends and neighbors who had kept Caleb company throughout his long vigil shrank away from him in horror. News of Caleb’s appalling outburst spread throughout the community. He gained the sympathy of a few men who were as hard-hearted as he was, but most decent folk let it be known that their sympathies lay with his dead wife. He was left a childless widower, and for the rest of his days he would remain so; for no respectable man in the vicinity would condescend to give him one of his daughters to be his new wife.
Caleb died a lonely death, preceding his hoary-headed father who still lived in robust health. His neighbors said it was all so sudden, like a swift stroke from the Hand of the Almighty. People considered Caleb accursed because he had been caught taking inventory on the Sabbath Day. He had violated the Day of Rest in his heart, though his hand had not touched any of the items he counted.
Caleb was ushered by demons to the abode of lost souls in Hades. Across a great chasm he could see Leah enjoying the Paradise of the Righteous with their son Reuben, who, in spirit form, had matured to young manhood. Leah seemed so well now, so radiant and beautiful, clad in a white robe, her hair adorned with flowers. She seemed not to notice her former husband, nor even remember him. Caleb could discern that she and Reuben were in the company of Abraham and Sarah, the progenitors of the Hebrew race. There was much merriment and rejoicing among the departed saints, for they knew that their Redeemer lived, and someday He would resurrect them all to immortal life.
As the saints in Paradise enjoyed their sweet fellowship, Caleb labored under an intolerably harsh regimen set for him by his demonic captors. He paused in his toil and shouted across the yawning abyss: “Father Abraham! Please have compassion on me, and use your influence with God to get Him to release me from my heavy bondage!”
“And did you have compassion on my daughter during your mortal sojourn?” replied Abraham. “If your ox or your ass had fallen ill, would you not have spared them from bearing burdens?’
“Yes, Father Abraham,” admitted Caleb. “But Leah was a woman, my wife. The Book of Proverbs proscribes a multitude of tasks which a woman must perform on a daily basis, in order to be accounted as virtuous. No such requirements are stipulated for beasts of burden.”
Caleb cited all the tasks listed for women in Proverbs 31, and added a few of his own. “Don’t you remember, Father Abraham? Women are supposed to get up before the rest of the household to begin their daily round of cooking, grinding grain, kneading bread, baking, shopping, cultivating grapes, spinning, weaving, sewing, and selling their products to the merchants. Furthermore, they are supposed to sit up way past their husbands’ bedtime and keep on making things to sell. All that scripture requires of the man is to sit in the city gate and engage in discussions of the Law.”
“Not true, Caleb,” replied Abraham. “That same scripture passage exhorts a husband to give his wife due credit for the blessing she is to him. In your greed for gain, all you ever did was complain there weren’t enough minutes left in the day for Leah to cultivate her own vineyard.”
“Well,” said Caleb gruffly, “the Scripture must be fulfilled, and she fell well short of its requirements.”
“Caleb,” inquired Abraham, “were you a sandal-maker during your lifetime?”
“No, Father Abraham, replied Caleb, whose shoulders ached beneath a load of burning sulfur blocks he was struggling to haul up a steep hill. “I never made a single pair in all my life. I was a silversmith.”
“Then neither did you abide by your own interpretation of the Scriptures,” said Abraham.
“WHAT!” Caleb cried. “Father Abraham, I never stole anything from anyone. I always paid my sacrifices and Temple taxes on time. I never even cheated on Leah. What lawbreaking do you speak of?”
“Caleb,” explained Abraham, “that scripture enumerates many of the tasks a virtuous wife is capable of performing during the time God has allotted to her on the earth. Some women specialize in growing grapes, others spin wool for profit, and still others make silken sashes to sell to the merchant. Many others devote much of their time distributing alms to poor folk. And there are even occasions where a woman is so eager to finish a piece of sewing for a special gift, that she will labor late into the night to complete her task after the rest of the family has gone to bed. But nowhere does the Law stipulate that this practice is required of women each and every night. If any woman claimed to be able to perform all possible virtuous tasks within the space of just one day, would she not be claiming equality with God, Who took six days to create the earth and its firmament, and rested on the seventh day; yet Who alone can be everywhere doing many different things at the same time?”
“I suppose so, sir,” admitted Caleb grudgingly. “But what has that got to do with me?”
“Caleb, in the world of the living there are innumerable ways a man can earn a living: as a shipwright, a tent-maker, a shepherd, a merchant, a carpenter, a potter. Yet you happily settled for only one task_silversmithing. Even so, you had many hired helpers in your shop, whom you likewise oppressed and paid grudgingly. You also failed to perform the full range of tasks possible to human hands within the space of only one day. No, you did not put the same yoke of bondage upon yourself that you placed upon your poor wife. You demanded that she toil in the garden, manufacture clothing, spin, weave, haul water a great distance from the well, sit up late working, and get up before you to begin the same grueling routine all over again. I never treated my own bondservants so cruelly.”
“Father Abraham,” whimpered Caleb, “I did not enslave Leah. I married her. It was her choice to stay with me. She could have run away if she didn’t like me.”
“Caleb, the honor of her family and the integrity of her marriage vows meant much more to her than her own well-being,” replied Abraham. “Although she could neither read nor write, she knew you well enough to want to avoid the malicious writ of divorce you would have drafted against her. And, doubtless, you would have demanded that her poor family refund your paltry dowry payment. Also, she felt that there was nowhere else in the world she belonged, except in her own home, which you turned into a place of torment for her. Therefore, you are now enduring the torments of Hades, and in death you are denied the tranquillity of soul you denied her in life.
“You were not a poor man, Caleb. You knew your wife was not well enough to do all you demanded of her. But you refused to hire even one young girl from the village to help ease Leah’s burden. The virtuous woman of Proverbs had several servant girls to assist her in her duties. Had she been your wife, she would have died young from sheer exhaustion, as Leah died.”
“But she died of childbirth!” protested Caleb. “Father Abraham, you cannot lay the blame for that on me.”
Abraham stared at him sorrowfully. “I would never have treated the lowliest of my servants in such a despicable manner. You say you often engaged in discourses on the Law; yet you failed to observe the Foundation of the Law and Prophets: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul, AND YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. You cannot love God and despise the apple of His eye. And who is a nearer neighbor to a man than the wife of his own bosom? Would YOU have desired the same treatment you meted out to Leah, Caleb?”
“It matters not what I desire, Father Abraham,” groaned Caleb. “I am receiving torment aplenty now, and there is no prospect of deliverance from it.” Even as he stood speaking, his demonic captor loaded extra burning sulfur blocks onto his back, increasing both his agony and weariness, and nearly causing him to collapse from the sheer weight of them.
“Father Abraham!” he cried. “Must I be punished above measure? My father made me the man I was.”
The Patriarch had little to say in defense of his wayward descendant. “How dare you, being condemned in your sins, complain that your burden is too heavy! You are only bearing the same grievous load which you placed on the shoulders of all the innocent people you ever oppressed. It is written that every man shall be held accountable for his own sins, and the sins of the father shall not be laid to the account of the son. You must answer for your own sins, and your father shall also be weighed in the balance and found wanting once his days expire. Indeed, his punishment shall be far worse than your own. Had your own son lived, you would doubtless have schooled him in your evil ways, just as your father did you, and his father did before him.”
“I would have passed on a thriving business to him, Father Abraham. But,” Caleb scowled, “my foreman Asher got the business instead.”
“It could not have been otherwise, Caleb,” said Abraham. “It is written: The wealth of the sinner is laid up for the righteous. This godly man patiently endured your vile temper, as well as the way you often short-changed him of his rightful wages. In the interest of efficiency, you increased the quota of bricks your slaves had to produce daily, even as your own burden is being increased. Asher appealed to the Righteous Judge, Who vindicated His servant.”
“Father Abraham,” argued Caleb, “you have just compared me with Pharaoh, who oppressed our people in the land of Egypt. Now you are castigating me because I kept my wife and my servants under proper subservience to their own master. Are you, then, advocating lawlessness in the earth?”
Abraham was tired of trying to reason with such a stupid man. Rather than dignify Caleb’s last outburst with a rebuttal, he drove home a bitter lesson to the condemned man: “Did not Pharaoh enslave my descendants and make their lives bitter with hard labor, so that they cried out to God in their affliction? Your wife much prefers this intermediary state of bliss to the captivity you held her in. She had no earthly Promised Land to flee to. Only God was her Refuge and Strength in time of trouble, and He took her from you, even as He delivered my descendants from bondage. Even as the Egyptian army perished in the Red Sea, you have drowned in the sea of your own sins. Now you are languishing in your own appointed place.”
Abraham turned away from Caleb and began to fade into the distance. Terrified of his utter aloneness, and the thick choking blackness all around him, Caleb cried out: “Father Abraham! One last word!”
Still faintly visible in the waning light, Abraham looked over his shoulder to listen to Caleb’s frantic plea.
“Please, sir, as one of your many sons, I possess certain rights!”
“Caleb,” asserted Abraham, “you are no son of mine, and the Scripture you twisted never enjoined you to afflict my daughter.”
“But I can trace my descent back to you!” argued Caleb, panting from thirst and exhaustion. “Am I not a Son of the Covenant? Do I not have the right to share in the blessings promised to your seed?”
“You, son of Pharaoh, never were of my seed,” replied Abraham. “If you were, you never would have grown into a hedge of thorns reserved as fuel for the fire.”
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