Last year a billboard emblazoned the conviction that the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. Surely, by now, every father has figured that out although, given human weaknesses, it is not always possible. Certainly love is a big subject. For the rationalists, Dante, reflecting Aristotle, declares in the lst line of The Divine Comedy that love makes the world go around. For the romantics, King Arthur by way of Camelot insists that the way to handle a woman is to love her, love her, love her.
Additionally for Christians, while love is not God (as some assert), we do believe that “God is love” (1 John 4:16).
In any case, when I get to heaven (notice the assurance of pardon!), I am going to spend the week before Valentine’s Day every year with a bunch of lovers who can be identified by the big hole in their ear. (I grant that Orpheus, going into Hades after Eurydice, also qualifies as a great lover, but he figured he could sing his way in and out. Probably a tenor.)
The hole-in-ear lovers are described in Exodus 21:2-7, where the Lord gives Moses instruction about slavery. A Hebrew slave is to serve his master for six years and then goes free in the seventh year. If the slave is married when he enters slavery, his wife goes free, too. However, if the master gives the slave a wife and she bears sons or daughters, the wife and children belong to the master and the slave goes free alone. However, if the slave wants to stay with his wife and children, then his master shall bring him to God, and to a door or doorpost; and his master shall bore his ear through with an awl; and he shall serve him for life. For the ear-hole guys the family choice was “awl or nothing” and they chose awl.
This passage raises many difficult issues, but for the slave who marries and has children before manumission, the choice is clear. In the seventh year he can go free leaving behind his wife and children. Or he can say, “I love my master, my wife, and my children: I will not go out free,” and remain a slave for all his life. Now I suspect the slave would have to cross his fingers behind his back when he said, “I love my master,” but in principle at least, everyone would agree with Crito speaking to Socrates 400 years before the birth of Jesus, “No man should bring children into the world who is unwilling to persevere to the end in their nurture and education” (Crito 45c). Everyone who reads a book like Fatherless America must lament the tragedy that tonight 40 percent of the children in America will go to sleep in a home where their father is not living.
This passage in Exodus troubled my friend, John Calvin, for two reasons. First, in issuing these instructions about slavery, God seems not to condemn but to accept slavery. Calvin concludes that we are taught the Hebrews were a people so hard of heart that even God could not abolish, but only regulate, slavery among them. (Apparently, there is one area where Calvin thinks God is not absolutely sovereign!) Second, Calvin insists it is completely unnatural that a husband should forsake his wife and children. Thereby, Calvin says, a man rips himself in half. Loving your wife and children does seem a perfectly natural and normal thing to do, but the cruel choice here is (1) to forsake wife and children and become a free man or (2) to stay with them and remain a slave for the rest of your life.
Clearly, these awl-too-human guys rejected Byron’s cynical words, “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart/’Tis woman’s whole existence” (Don Juan I.141). They could not face love’s last adieu with their Donna A. Mobilay since “Age cannot wither her nor custom stale/Her infinite variety” (Antony and Cleopatra II.3.240-1).
This wonderful womanly trait is abundantly evident in two splendid ladies of my acquaintance. (Actually three, but I shan’t describe my Valentine.) The first is the lovely Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice. Since Fitzwilliam Darcy is rich, he is presumably expected to provide her with both necessities and luxuries. In addition, Elizabeth tells him, “My good qualities are under your protection, and you are to exaggerate them as much as possible; and, in return, it belongs to me to find occasions for teasing and quarreling with you as often as may be.” Now there’s a deal no real man could refuse.
The second is Beatrice of Will Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Compared to her, Juliet is a sloppy, sentimental teen-ager. When Benedick finally admits he loves her, Beatarice immediately demands that he kill his best friend for her and is furious because he hesitates. What a woman! Marriage to her might be hazardous to your health, but it would never be dull.
In conclusion, I suspect those Exodus guys, like Benedick and Darcy and some of the rest of us, figured out that living with a really interesting woman is as endlessly fascinating as having your own monkey island — and that’s worth awl.
Guest commentary by Charles Partee