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The Trouble with Men

Trouble with Men

A Scriptural basis of men's spiritual struggles.

(Taken from Solange Hertz's book Come Down Zacchaeus: Adventures in Scripture, and often refers to the previous chapter, The Trouble with Women.)

THIS chapter is bound to be shorter than the last one, because I really don’t know what is the trouble with men, not being one. I realize that it’s all right for a man to be baffled all his life by women without losing his place in society, but a woman is supposed to be able to figure out any given man in five minutes, read his mind, and then tell him how to live. Well, I can’t, even with the help of a husband and three sons. I just live among men as best I can.

For a long time I refused to believe that they are as simple as they appear. (Compared to women, they surely seem uncomplicated.) After twenty years or so, wives tend to lose interest in men as a sex and go on about their business, forgetting that their business is men, that woman was created for man, as St. Paul said. That, I tell myself, should be enough to make men very interesting to any woman. Then, too, their very simplicity should be interesting, if only as a reflection of a Divine attribute. God, who is Supreme Simplicity, will fascinate us for eternity. So why not men?

Come to think of it, it’s men’s simplicity that is the most fascinating thing about them. Generally, with men, you press button “A,” and you get reaction “A.” Button “B” gets you reaction “B” and so on. This is utterly amazing! With women, you might also get reactions “A” and “B,” but then again, it might be “A 2” or “B 3” or even “AB” or “BA” or on some days “ZXY.” If a small boy lies to his mother, she can expect he is probably telling her the exact opposite of the truth or something invented out of whole cloth to suit his purpose. If a girl lies to you, you can be sure it is either just a trifle to the left or right of actuality, and there will be as much truth as possible mixed in. You can also bet you won’t find out the real situation until it’s too late. Women baffle even women.

Scripture, which is full of information useful to anyone seriously interested in coping with either sex, certainly bears me out. We must remember that Holy Writ not only reveals truth otherwise inaccessible to our intelligence; it also reveals many truths well within the scope of natural reason, but which we may be too stupid or too preoccupied to discover on our own. A married woman who doesn’t read the Bible just likes to do things the hard way.

For instance, let’s go back to the Phutiphars—but not all the way back to Egypt. Their home can be found in any suburb upper-middle-class enough to breed servant problems, and where the wife, well-dressed, charming, and left to her own devices, is married to a spineless husband “concerned about nothing except the food he eats.” Scholars suggest that this phrase is merely Hebrew idiom meaning he didn’t care about anything. I’m not educated enough to argue this point, but there is after all no reason why an idiom can’t mean occasionally just what it says. If what it says isn’t the essential point, how did it get to be an idiom? Nothing grows from the bottom up if not an idiom. In this case, I do believe Scripture means just what the words say, only more so.

Men care about food. They are more sensual than women. To them, physical appetites are very important. When all their other responsibilities fall away in this life, responsibility to their stomachs remains.

Men care about food. They are more sensual than women. To them, physical appetites are very important. When all their other responsibilities fall away in this life, responsibility to their stomachs remains. It’s the last to go. Dear me, could any woman resist noticing that even the mortified St. John of the Cross was “at supper” when the young lady importuned him? She couldn’t have been much of a Bible reader if she thought she could make any headway with a man by interrupting his dinner. Men must eat. Not only must they eat, but they care about eating.

This is a very simple truth, and therefore a very great one. We have every right to expect to find it in the Bible. I confess this is absolutely all I have ever been able to learn for sure about men, but I suspect that it’s the key to everything that can be known about them. It ushers in the whole of theology — creatureliness, redemption and transfiguration. Not being a theologian, however, I shall confine myself as much as possible to the lower periphery of speculation, which lies somewhere in the kitchen.

Men care about food. This truth is one we hear from the cradle up, because the cradle is the first place men let us know they are hungry. Even so it’s extraordinary how many wives don’t act on it. Like its Author, however, the Bible stoops to our lowliness. Over and over, in the humblest terms, it continues to bombard us with the enormous implications of the obvious, and this truth about men and food is very obvious.

Like many women, Mrs. Phutiphar allowed herself to be repelled by her husband’s sensuality, a force whose strength she could never have felt as a man feels it. (Temptations we never have get pretty short shrift!) I suppose that after Joseph took over, the Captain still turned up for meals, no doubt getting very bad-tempered if dinner was late or not to his liking. This was Mrs. Phutiphar’s last chance, but she evidently muffed it. If a pork chop had become the only bond between her and her husband, well, she had had enough: She lost interest in his food, in his sensual life, and Phutiphar lost all interest in her.

This indifference is fatal for a wife, but not just because it’s poor psychology on her part. It’s a sin of spiritual pride. Because women are the spiritual sex, they fall easily into spiritual sins. They feel superior at the drop of a hat, and especially superior to sensual men. Mrs. Phutiphar, I’m afraid, must have fallen into that.

But all men are not as sensual as the Egyptian Captain. Shouldn’t we amend our great truth to read, “Men of Phutiphar’s type care a lot about food”? No indeedy, not if I read the Bible correctly. Scripture teaches that just men care about their food too. You can’t get anywhere with a just man either, unless you feed him.

The first woman to discover this was the first woman. Adam was in full possession of integrated nature, as “just” as just men have hardly been since, yet he ate when Eve handed him the forbidden fruit “good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for the knowledge it would give.” Intellectual hunger is hunger too, but I have determined, as I said, to remain on the outer periphery of this subject! I shall content myself with remarking that it was Adam’s stomach, real or figurative, that caused us all the trouble we have ever had.

“But Eve ate the fruit first!” I can hear the men say. (I’ve played Battle of the Sexes a long time.) So she did, but she wasn’t the head of the human race and she was deceived by the serpent. “Adam was not deceived,” says St. Paul unequivocally. He “ate” in full possession of the facts. Furthermore, Eve’s sin, like Mrs. Phutiphar’s, was more spiritual than sensual. She ate the fruit, not only because it was “good for food,” but because she wanted to be like God, as the serpent had promised her, and she wanted her husband to be like God, too! All Eve’s daughters constantly repeat her sin in one form or another. Only one, the Immaculate One, broke the pattern, and when she did, the door of hope in the valley of Achor was opened for all mankind.

Joseph’s grandmother Rebecca mastered the truth about men very early too. Planning to trick her husband into giving Esau’s blessing to Jacob, the better qualified second twin, so that he might supplant his brother, how did she go about it? Very simply. Scripture says that she instructed Jacob first of all to “go to the flock and bring me two choice kids that I may make of them savory food for your father, such as he likes.”

She didn’t say, “Bring me that new Chinese cookbook so I can tryout on him that chicken, honey and cashew concoction I ran across the other day.” She was too smart for that. She planned to make some savory food “such as he likes.” That probably means “with potatoes and brown gravy.” Ah, the narrow gate is so often missed because it’s so plain! Cooking what a man likes can be very dull, but it’s also a school for virtue and the exercise of intelligence. It requires mortification of tastes, submission of judgment, obedience, humility, long-suffering, and heaven knows what all. Rebecca proved right there that she deserved to be the ancestress of the elect.

“Then bring it to your father to eat, that he may bless you before he dies,” she told Jacob. This gambit proved completely effective. Although his father Isaac was blind and on his deathbed, he was not dead yet, and still cared about the food he ate. Jacob got the blessing.

In fairness to Jacob and Rebecca, who might be censured for these underhand methods, we must recall that Esau had already sold his birthright to his twin some time ago. For guess what? A plate of bread and lentils. The account reads, “Once when Jacob was cooking some food, Esau came in from the field famished ... Esau said to Jacob, ‘Let me have some of that red food, for I am famished.’

But Jacob replied, ‘Sell me first your birthright.’

Esau said, ‘I am dying, of what use to me is the birthright?’ “

The exchange was made in short order, proving that even men know that men care about food. Being men, however, they don’t operate like women: they are inclined to use food not as an inducement, but as a weapon. Men strike out, not in.

Hunger is a powerful weapon. Satan used it mercilessly against our Lord when he tempted Him in the desert, and the reprobate Esau will continue to sell his birthright under its threat. What we see today in totalitarian states was predicted by Dostoevski precisely in these terms: “A time is coming when men will say, ‘There is no crime, there is no sin, there is no guilt; there is only hunger.’ And they will come crying and fawning at our feet, saying, ‘Give us bread!’”

An unscrupulous woman using the full power of feminine radar to discover a man’s weaknesses can subject him to herself and rule him utterly by a constant, vicious, and determined catering to his appetites.

Unfortunately for men, bad women seem to master the finer points of this technique faster than good ones. Didn’t our Lord note that the children of this world are wiser in these ways than the children of light? An unscrupulous woman using the full power of feminine radar to discover a man’s weaknesses can subject him to herself and rule him utterly by a constant, vicious, and determined catering to his appetites. In this systematic debauchery, food “such as he likes” is only the elementary ploy.

The Bible warns men about this, showing them how a bad woman goes about emasculating a husband. It shows them Jezebel, for instance. Compared to her, Mrs. Phutiphar looks like a blushing schoolgirl in pigtails. With Jezabel’s help, Achab distinguished himself as one of the worst kings of Israel, yielding to her to the point of sinking his entire nation into idolatry. Scripture says of him, “Now there was not such another as Achab, who was sold to do evil in the sight of the Lord: for his wife Jezabel set him on, and he became abominable”

The name Jezabel, incidentally, probably means “unhusbanded” in Hebrew, and very apt it is. She herself fell prey to Eve’s basic temptation—the desire to rule and stand on her own two feet. She is the acme of the disobedient wife, a real man-hater who enslaves men by pleasing them, gradually usurping all their prerogatives. I’ll wager Jezabel never wore slacks. That form of appropriation was too crude for her. My guess is that she specialized in ruffles, teetery heels, cream pies, and sympathetic conversation. No man who for one minute gave in to his inclination to shirk responsibility could have withstood her long. Jezabels must be faced boldly at all times, but especially at the dinner table by candlelight. Thoroughly masculinized in their psyches, they use woman’s weapons with deadly aim, as men would.

Jezabel’s tactics can be inspected at close range in the matter of Naboth’s vineyard. Achab, a sensual man, like all men, and no doubt encouraged in his sensuality over the years by his wife, coveted this particular vineyard, which happened to be handy to the palace. He wanted to turn it into an herb garden. (That’s what it says. Don’t tell me Achab didn’t like his food just right!) Unfortunately, Naboth refused to sell his patrimony, and King Achab, “angry and fretting,” threw a classical childish tantrum. “Casting himself upon his bed, he turned away his face to the wall, and would eat no bread.”

He wouldn’t eat! It doesn’t take a Jezabel to realize that this was serious. Achab was really unhappy about that vineyard, and if his wife was to rule him, he must be kept happy at all costs. Do you have among your acquaintances a husband thoroughly dominated by his wife? If you do, you know he never suspects for an instant that he doesn’t rule the roost, because he’s always kept tame and satisfied, like a gorilla on exhibition. He is never presented with annoying problems, and assumes that he governs the house well because everything is always just as he likes it. So as not to bother him, his wife makes all major decisions, but rarely neglects asking his advice on the color of the new drapes.

In the matter of the vineyard, Jezabel saw immediately an opportunity to make herself indispensable to Achab and to consolidate her command. She told him not to worry about a thing, poor dear, she would handle the whole vexing situation. Achab, for years a shirker who liked to throw his weight around, asked for nothing better. Jezabel told him, “Thou art a great authority indeed, and governest well the kingdom of Israel. Arise, and eat bread (!) and be of good cheer. I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth.” You have to assert yourself, Achab, says she, proceeding to do it for him. “So she wrote letters in Achab’s name, and sealed them with his ring,” says Scripture. She ordered Naboth stoned to death on the testimony of false witnesses and dutifully presented Achab with the confiscated vineyard so he could get on with his desired herb garden.

I guess St. Ignatius wasn’t far off. Theologically there’s no reason why the devil couldn’t be a woman as well as a man. Being pure spirit, the devil is not so much sexless as both masculine and feminine. Come to think of it, Jezabel cuts a fine figure of the female aspect of the devil, the very arch-adversary of the just man destroyed by false witnesses. Deceit, alas, is what women excel in.

In all fairness, it’s probable that from the beginning neither Jezabel nor Mrs. Phutiphar had much to work with when it came to husbands. Neither man could have been exactly uplifting company, but that’s no excuse for making bad worse. Lots of women have it as bad as they did. Take Abigail, for instance. Married to a bad-tempered miser called Nabal (which means “fool”), she managed to hew to the path of virtue in spite of him.

Her story is in First Samuel. At sheep-shearing time, David and his men begged food of Nabal in the wilderness. Although Nabal’s flocks numbered in the thousands and he could well have afforded to be generous, his reply was, “Who is David? ... Servants are multiplied nowadays who flee from their masters. Shall I then take my bread, and my water, and the flesh of my cattle, which I have killed for my shearers, and give to men whom I know not whence they are?” Nabal, I’m afraid, would have insisted that charity begins, and stays, at home.

David vowed vengeance on this inhospitable man, who had never been in any way molested by him or his warriors, but he reckoned without Nabal’s wife. Described as “a prudent and very comely woman,” she brought five donkey-loads of food to the hungry David and his friends while her husband was busy feasting in his house and getting drunk. She made excuses for the latter, and asked that his iniquity be laid to her account, “for according to his name he is a fool, and folly is with him,” she admitted. (Mrs. Phutiphar, alas, never thought of taking the Captain’s sins on herself.)

David, a typical man, was abruptly mollified by the sight of a pretty woman with so much food. He told her, “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who sent thee this day to meet me, and blessed be thy speech: and blessed be thou, who hast kept me today from coming to blood and revenging me with my own hand!” So great is the power of food at the right time and place!

The next morning, when Abigail dutifully told Nabal what she had done to avert disaster, “his heart died within him and he became as a stone.” He had been accustomed to high living, and I daresay this may have been a heart attack brought on by overeating and the sudden thought of the “two hundred loaves, two vessels of wine, five sheep ready dressed, five measures of parched corn, a hundred clusters of raisins, and two hundred cakes of dry figs” which his wife had seen fit to squander on a band of desert ruffians while he was too drunk to know what was going on. He died ten days later.

“Thou Fool,” says Truth, “this night do they demand thy soul of thee; and the things that thou hast provided, where will they be?”

The minute David heard of the Fool’s death, he proposed to the rich widow. Being a woman who always placed first things first, she accepted. See? You never can tell where feeding a man will lead.

Then, there is Esther. Since she managed to wind up as queen of Persia, we can trust Esther to give us good advice on getting ahead with men. We know that, after becoming queen, she used her feminine charms to save her people from the persecutions of the king’s evil counselor Aman, who had been instrumental in promulgating an edict ordering the destruction of the Jews.

Faced with the problem of persuading King Assuerus to revoke the noxious decree, how did she go about it? The same way Eve, Rebecca and Abigail did, of course. She asked him to dinner. This might have seemed unnecessary, for the king was obviously head over heels in love with her, as we can see:

“And the king said to her: What wilt thou, Queen Esther? what is thy request? If thou shouldst even ask one half of the kingdom, it shall be given to thee.”

But Esther didn’t take any chances. She replied, “If it please the king, I beseech thee to come to me this day, and Aman with thee to the banquet which I have prepared.”

So the king and Aman came to the banquet which the queen had prepared for them. And the king said to her, after he had drunk wine plentifully: What dost thou desire should be given thee? and for what thing askest thou? although thou shouldst ask the half of my kingdom, thou shalt have it.
Esther didn’t think the time was ripe, however. She asked him to come again to dinner the next night. Apparently even beloved queens have to be careful.
So the king and Aman went in, to drink with the queen. And the king said to her again the second day, after he was warm, with wine: What is thy petition, Esther, that it may be granted thee? And what wilt thou have done? Although thou ask the half of my kingdom, thou shalt have it.

This time, judging him to be sufficiently softened—putty in her hands, I’d say—she asked Assuerus to revoke the decree. As we could easily have predicted, he did so. Aman got hanged.

Leaving Persia, we can go to Bethlehem and look in on Ruth the Moabitess. As you will recall, Ruth was a young widow in search of a husband, who eventually set her sights On the rich and charitable Booz, her late husband’s cousin. As near next of kin, he could be held responsible for her under Mosaic law, but Ruth was a foreigner, and maneuvering him into dutifully marrying her required finesse.

Luckily she had the able help of her experienced mother-in-law Noemi, who wasn’t born yesterday. Noemi had had a husband and sons herself, and she knew men. She told Ruth how to go about catching Booz, step by step, even before the thought had occurred to Ruth — let alone poor Booz — finally making it plain to her daughter-in-law that he would have to be proposed to.

Now, I am quite certain that this sort of thing happens far more frequently than we ladies intend to admit. It might therefore not be amiss to note here a secondary truth about men to be found in the Bible: they can be rather obtuse upon occasion. Because they have less intuition than reason, they must often have situations spelled out to them where people are concerned. Certainly a clever woman can become adept at revealing them their own minds, as Ruth did for Booz. Apparently he wanted to marry her all along, but he didn’t know it until she told him.

Before this final throw of the dice, however, Noemi told Ruth to put on her best clothes and pretty herself up. Then she added this emphatic warning: “Do not make yourself known to the man before he has finished eating and drinking!” and cautioned her to let him go to sleep.

The docile Ruth did as she was told, and in no time at all Booz was hooked. Already aware that she was a woman of great good sense, he was now confirmed in his opinion. He told her, “May the Lord bless you, my daughter!” and complimented her on not chasing after younger men. (His mature qualities were being appreciated.) In a high good humor, he went the limit, just like King Assuerus: “I will do for you whatever you say; all my townspeople know you for a worthy woman!”

“Ah, who shall find a worthy woman?” we ask with Proverbs. She’s priceless!

Booz found her, but only because she found him. “The heart of her husband trusteth in her,” who is able to appreciate how simple a man can be. We would know their marriage was serenely happy, even if Scripture didn’t tell us so.

“Kissin’ don’t last; cookin’ do!” say the Pennsylvania Dutch.

“Best way to a man’s heart is through his stummick,” says practically everybody.

If only Mrs. Phutiphar had realized this and had got really physical! As long as Phutiphar had a stomach, she still had an entry into his heart, and might have awakened him to a sense of duty. We can’t help pondering what heights of spirituality that benighted Egyptian might have reached, had his wife been Ruth, insinuating her noble aspirations into him via that humble organ. A woman who builds her spiritual house on her husband’s stomach builds on bedrock.

Mrs. Phutiphar, alas, was too proud. She wouldn’t cater to the animal in Phutiphar, and she lost her soul and his too. He was beneath her. Maybe she considered cooking beneath her. Food is so sensual!

And so holy.

“Blessed are you who hunger now,” says Christ to Mrs. Phutiphar. “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart.”

When He rose from the dead, one of the things He asked His friends was “Have you anything here to eat?” for He was the simplest of men. “And they offered Him a piece of broiled fish and a honeycomb. And when He had eaten in their presence, He took what remained and gave it to them,” lest we should think that men and the Son of Man are disembodied spirits who are not concerned about food.

“As long as they care about food, there’s hope!” offers Rebecca, speaking from experience.

“The belly will devour all meat,” interjects Sirach, that wise old moralist, “yet one is better than another” (Ecclus. 36:20).

“That’s what Rebecca means,” rejoins Esther the queen. “You have to start somewhere. As long as a man really cares about what goes into him, the rest is up to you. First you give him steak and potatoes, then maybe poetry, then steak and potatoes again, then a dash of dogmatic theology, then ...”

“Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it,” promises the Holy Spirit (Ps. 81:11).

“Oh, come now,” sneers Jezabel.

“Show me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest,” muses the Bride, languishing and gazing off into the distance as usual. “Let my beloved come into his garden and eat the fruit of his apple trees” (Cant. 5:1). The Bride is way “up there.” Understanding so much more about men and their food than the rest of us women, she has terrible difficulty putting it into words. Her beloved “feedeth among the lilies.”

“Neither is man independent of woman,” says St. Paul. Woman plays God’s feminine role toward him by cooperating in generating his children, and by nourishing him. “For as the woman is from the man, so also is the man through the woman, but all things are from God,” both male and female (1 Cor. 11:11, 12).

“I don’t know about all that,” says the ever-practical Ruth, “but when a woman loves a man, she caters to him and feeds him when he’s hungry. You might call it a kind of gift of self.”

You might. The Man who was God considered food so important that He became Food so as to give Himself.

“For My Flesh is Food indeed, and My Blood is Drink indeed. He who eats My Flesh and drinks my Blood, abides in Me and I in him ... He who eats this Bread shall live forever.”

“Does this scandalize you?” He asks Mrs. Phutiphar.

“It’s a hard saying. Who can listen to it?” replies that lady, whose husband was concerned about nothing except the food he ate.

“I am the Living Bread that has come down from heaven,” He tells her again (Jn. 6:51), persistently making His way to men’s hearts through their stomachs.

Solange Hertz

An established writer before the Second Vatican Council, Solange Hertz wrote for most Catholic periodicals and had five books to her credit, one a selection of the Catholic Literary Foundation. When she refused to adjust her theology to the new “Spirit of Vatican II,” her manuscripts almost overnight became unacceptable to her former editors.
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