St. Augustine thought that the seven pillars meant the Seven Churches of Asia identified in the Revelation of St. John. Joseph, definitely, was known for his great wisdom during his lifetime, first by the pharaoh who raised him from the prison house to the throne of the grand vizier.
It is quite easy to identify wisdom after the fact-—after it has been attested in value by the corrosive attacks of purging acids of time and change and particularly skepticism. While Joseph abode among this brothers in Ken’an, wisdom in him was despised and held with the greatest contempt by them.
He was hated, all the more since he was wise as a young man.
Foolish, in a sense, to reveal wisdom to swine, who then turned to trample Joseph, he suffered the fate of all those who seek to deliver mankind from folly and madness.
Perhaps, he lacked the eighth pillar, which might have spared him much distress if he had known better—but, then, all that we value most in his life would not have taken place as it did!
Indeed, the reason for his going to Sela of the Edomite-Nabataean nation, which had become the seat and emporium of the far-ranging, wealthy trading Nabatean Arabs, was to find a place to settle and think things out.
Knocked by God from his camel mount on the road to Damascus a few weeks before, his whole life had been turned upside down, for he had been, until that moment, an ardent Jewish persecutor of all those who “renegades,” as he knew them, who had deserted Judaism to follow the Way of Yeshua of Nazareth, the one the Jewish and Roman authorities in Jerusalem had lately put to death by crucifixion.
A bright light had struck him off his mount, and he had lain on the ground, eyes helplessly staring upwards at the Man in the heavens who was calling to him, asking him why he was persecuting Him. How so? Yet he had persecuted the followers of Yeshua, and This celestial Man could only be Yeshua!
Taken in hand by his companion and led blind to Damascus, he followed Yeshua’s instructions, and by and by the man Yeshua named came to him and laid hands on him, prayed, and Saul’s blindness was cured. Even before the cure, Saul had fasted, praying God with all his might for revelation. Who are You? He had cried hour after hour in his room. Show me, O God, Thy Holy Self, and banish my darkness!
As Saul rode his donkey to Sela in the caravan, or walked alongside it, he thought over and over about how God had answered his weeping prayers and not only healed his sight but revealed Himself. He, indeed, was Yeshua, whom he had persecuted with all his might all across the land and even into foreign lands like Syria. He had plans to follow Yeshua’s disciples and round them all up, and when he had dragged them back to Jerusalem, see them judged and stoned to death, but Yeshua Himself had intervened.
This great question seemed to echo in all the deep ravines and broad desert wastes through which the caravan traversed. Though Saul covered his head, it felt to him like the whole world was staring at him and knew everything about him. “Now what will you do, O Saul”? every solitary pelican or eagle seemed to say as it rose up with a squawk or a scream as the caravan approached too near to its wilderness roost in the high rocks of the cliffs.
He would have liked to remain in Damascus and continued preaching the Way of Yeshua to the throngs in the markets and to the brethren in the synagogues. But what fights broke out everywhere as He upbraided the people for rejecting the truth of Yeshua, Who had thrown him from his mount by the brightness of His glory.
“How can you know that this Yeshua you speak of is truly the Son of the Highest?” he was challenged again and again. “We hear many madmen speak of lofty things in the markets, just as you have done, and they have no proof. Where is your proof, Saul of Tarsus?”
Saul always pointed to his eyes. “I was struck blind, as men here can testify, and the Lord God healed my sight! He is the Same who appeared in the heavens to me, Yeshua of Nazareth!”
This testimony always enraged his Jewish hearers, for they could not deny the testimonies of fellow Jews like the good Ananias, who was well-known in the Jewish community of the city. Yet Ananias had not preached so boldly as this foreign Saul, and they were anxious to shut him up if they could. He was disturbing the whole city end to end. The authorities, from King Aretas IV on down to the city clerk, were liable to send troops to quell the disturbances, and Jews could die. Yet Saul would not shut up! The more they tried to confute him, the more forcefully he argued his case for believing in Yeshua as the Son of the Highest and the Messiah—he went that far!
In the midst of a riot when Saul was preaching (though he was pulling beards and punching his detractors at the same time), his own fellow believers in Yeshua grabbed him and dragged him away. Later, when it was time, they let him down in a basket from the walls just as soldiers and a mob were coming for him to stone him.
Fortunately, Damascus was full of caravans, and Saul had no trouble in getting away with one of them. He had just enough money to give the headman, who allowed him a place in line. Sela the capital of the merchantile Edomites—-their destination—-was just as good as any to his mind since Damascus, apparently, had decided to kill him on sight.
Several times he almost turned back, determined to preach Yeshua no matter what the people did to him, but he felt strongly impelled to keep quiet and continue with the caravan.
“On what pillars does your house stand, O Saul?” came to him in still, small voice. “Wisdom cannot stand on your folly, or it will perish with you.”
Saul could not deny it was the Lord, Yeshua, speaking to him once again. He was struck speechless, unable to contest the matter with God.
All sorts of things he could not put together whirled in his mind and soul. He felt as if he were going mad at times. Perhaps the men who attacked him in the markets and synagogues of Damascus were right: he was mad!
Yet he could not deny his experiences—-they had really happened to him. The heavenly, blinding Light, the Voice from on High, Yeshua’s own face peering and speaking to him, the miraculous healing of his sight through Brother Ananias’s laying his hands on him and praying. What did it all mean though? Wasn’t he to tell his fellow men, particularly his fellow Jewry? Why was he being driven away from Damascus into the wilderness?
Wisdom? Pillars? He thought of the Seven Pillars the rabbis had identified to him, specifically under the tutelage of the great teacher, Gamaliel. Gamaliel had rather doted on Joseph, the Sixth Pillar. Yet Saul, recalling the teacher’s words, couldn’t compare himself in the least with Joseph’s example. He had not forgiven a single soul anything, and had beaten and stoned and imprisoned any man he thought was a sectarian Jew strayed from the path set plainly forth by the Pharisees and scribes. Joseph and Saul of Tarsus had nothing in common except Abraham as a forefather, he confessed to himself. What other pillars could he possibly claim then for his spiritual house?
Adam? Noah? Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? Judah? He recalled Gamaliel’s teachings about each forefather and could not claim any such quality or goodness. His hands were stained with the blood of innocents! He had lived in a violent way, doing violence to man, woman, and child. He had presumed he was doing good, but he had treated people with great cruelty, he knew. The forefathers would all judge and condemn him for that, he knew now in his deepest soul. He had no defense, now that Yeshua had thrown him off his mount. Indeed, he had lived a life of folly, pulling down the Seven Pillars with his violent, cruel acts. What could such a man as himself do?
Grief-stricken, miserable with guilt and shame, he implored his new Lord Yeshua’s forgiveness all the way to Sela, the rose-red city hidded deep in a cleft of the Edomite mountains.
Through tear-blinded eyes, Saul gazed at the great caravan city of Sela, thronged with traders from all the East, its palaces and splendid tombs testifying to its wealth and power. Here even the all-conquering Romans did not venture with force of arms, and the Nabatean king reigned without fear of her legions. The reason could only be the extreme difficulty of the sight. The caravan could only reach the hidden city by way of a narrow defile in the ravines, wide enough for a single man and a single camel or donkey. Anything more could not pass. What legion was foolish enough to try such a narrow, well-defended gate? It would perish if it tried! No wonder the city remained safe from the Romans so long. Rome had no taste for throwing away whole legions to gain a single city, no matter how rich this one happened to be.
Wandering in the teeming markets of the city, Saul inquired for lodgings, hoping to find a fellow Jewish trader. He found many, but none would take him in, fearing a lone man such as himself was a thief. Finally, he was about to give up when his listener clapped a hand to his and cried, “You really were a disciple of Gamaliel the Great Teacher? Why, my father Jehucal the son of Abdeel told me of him when I was a boy, and I always wanted to go to the Holy City and sit at his feet! Welcome to my home! Follow me, my dear brother! It is a mere tent, since I don’t wish to dwell with my family in the city with the heathen round about me, but it is a good Jewish tent and comfortable enough, you will find!”
Gratefully, the footsore Saul followed Agur the friendly Jewish trader in dried dates through the market and toward the cliffs that ringed the great city on all sides. The rocks loomed even larger as they approached them, and then Saul saw how enormous the tombs were, when observed closer up. Truly, the Nabatean Arabs were great builders, to fashion such great edifices in the living rock as he saw cut out in the towering cliffs.
Below a particular tomb whose pillars were greater than all the others in size, his Jewish host stopped. A group of black, goat-hair tents lay before them, and his host ran to them, and at the same time children and women poured out at Agur’s call.
Soon Saul was being welcomed and refreshed in Agur’s tent, after being introduced to the man’s wife and his seven sons.
“We have a rabbi here to abide with us!” the man announced to his whole household gathered to greet the notable learned guest. “He sat at the exalted feet of Gamaliel himself in Jerusalem!
What an impression that announcement made on the simple tradesman’s family! They served him with every honor, washing his feet, garbing him in fresh robes, refreshing him with drink and food. His mind in a tumult, Saul could not take pleasure, however, in their gracious hospitality. He was so distracted, in fact, he kept glancing toward the tent door that had been tied open to admit the cooling breezes of dusk.
Finally, his host waved his sons out of their presence, and turning to Saul in private, he said to him, “You seem sorely disturbed, my brother! What is troubling your countenance? I know you are a good man. What misfortune has befallen you, bringing you so far from Jerusalem to this heathen, idol-polluted city?”
Saul, seeing his host for the first time as someone he might confide in, somehow could not put his trouble in words. For the first time in his long career of public speaking, he was tongue-tied as a village idiot.
Finally, he could only blurt out, “I must get away from the press and clamor of the city! I must seek a place of solitude to listen to the words of God and contemplate His ways! Where can I go? Where? Can you tell me of such a place, my brother? I will give you all that I have in my purse for word of such a place of refuge!”
The imploring words of Saul touched the surprised trader, for they were spoken so forcefully that Saul’s eyes were wet with tears and he gripped the trader’s robe in an uncivil way.
“I am so sorry I have intruded upon your graciousness, Bar-Abdeel,” said Saul, releasing the man’s robe. “You see, God has spoken to me—and His finger has driven me to this city—I must seek Him alone to know what He intends! If I don’t find such a place soon, I feel I will go mad!”
Impressed by Saul’s intensity, ignorant of why anyone would want to seek God so ardently, the bewildered Agur yet sought to help him.
“I know of a tomb on the far end of this valley that is seldom visited. It is so ancient and unfrequented that no family is alive to honor its dead. You can go there and be left alone. Yet if you wish, I will bring provisions as you wish them, so that you can abide there as long as you like. You will surely perish without water and food in such a barren place. There are serpents and wild animals too that you need to beware of.”
Saul’s eyes shone suddenly with fire. “Yes! That is the place for me! Take me to it at once!”
Yet the host could not do that if he wished to see another day. It was nightfall, and dangerous to proceed outside the city. Robbers and murderers abounded in the clefts of the mountains and ravines. They looked for foolish wayfarers who did not know better than to journey at night.
In the early morning, then, they set out, and it was exactly as the man described. With arrangements made for provisions to be brought, and all payment refused by his host thanks to his association with Gamaliel, Saul settled in to his new wilderness abode.
He fasted and prayed for illumination as he lay outstretched on the red dust of the tomb floor. “I am your servant, O Lord! Hear my cry! Enlighten my darkness!” Yet only silence was God’s reply to his urgent pleas, for days and days. The neglected food that the good Agur left with him spoiled and became food for ants and conies. All he took was water from the waterskins when raging thirst drove him to it.
Over and over the events on the road to Damascus replayed in his tormented mind. Night and day Saul sought the revelation he craved from the Most High, but it eluded him somehow. Was God angry with him? Why wasn’t he speaking to him? Had he somehow offended the Messiah?
Saul looked back over his life and knew he had committed enough crimes against the followers of Yeshua to fill a big book! But did the Lord hold them to his account? How could he wash away the stains from his hands, that had spilled the blood of innocent men, women, and children? He was guilty! Guilty! No doubt that was why God was angry with him and wouldn’t speak to him, he concluded.
In despair, Saul wondered what he could do. He might follow his forefathers’ examples and build an altar and sacrifice upon it for his sins, he thought. Eager to make amends, he started to build such an altar at the entrance, but before he could complete it a voice started him:
“My grace is sufficient for thee!”
Saul threw himself down on his face before God, who had obviously spoken.
His eyes streaming into the red dust, Saul cried out, “Do not pass me by, O Lord! Hear my cry! And forgive, forgive my great iniquities or I will perish in this serpent’s den!” Love reached down at that moment and bathed the weeping, broken Pharisee, and in its touch Saul was transformed into a son of grace, which he could not yet put into any human words. Love and grace beyond understanding, even the understanding of the great intellect of Saul, flooded over him, enfolded him, suffused his whole being. For hours—or perhaps days—grace held Saul in its wings, as Saul rocked and forth, singing psalms of praise and thanksgiving. Finally, a feeble knocking at the tomb entrance drew Saul’s attention back to the outside world. How long had he been caught up in visions of heaven and of a vast company of saints saved by the same Grace that had saved him from his bloodguiltness and wrath and error? He could not tell how long. “Saul! Saul!” a voice cried to him. “Are you all right? I am sorry I am so late! I was kept from coming by an Egyptian sickeness that fell suddenly upon me. But I am recovered! And I have brought you food and wine and good water! All the dates you can eat! Take my brother—you look very poorly, you—“ Agur, for it was the son of Abdeel, examined the provisions he had left and saw that nothing was left. Going to Saul, he pulled him to a seated position and gave him sips of water. When Saul could speak, he could only croak, “Glory to God! Glory to God! I have seen Him in his holy courts, with all His holy angels standing round, praising God in the Highest!!”
Patting the poor Saul, Agur tried to humor him as he ministered to his needs, “That’s nice! But take this food, dear brother! You must eat something! You are nothing but bones! You look as if you would have died soon if another day passed!”
Saul pushed aside Agur’s food and hand and struggled to his feet. He staggered to the tomb entrance. His eyes were blinded by the brilliant sun as he stood in the open air for the first time in two weeks.
Gradually, Saul’s vision cleared and he gazed out upon the smokes and edifices of the great city of Sela in the distance. Agur reached him. “The Lord has sent me to the Gentiles, to bring them the light of His word—that He indeed is risen from the dead! I must go—at once!—lest they perish in darkness and in bondage to sin!”
Saul staggered out from the tomb, with Agur hot in pursuit. “What did you say?” Agur cried. “You are mad, Saul! The desert has robbed you of your right mind! Preach to the Gentiles? Surely not! We are good Jews, sons of holy Abraham! You must not throw pearls before unholy Gentile swine!” Agur grabbed Saul’s coat.
Saul, however, could not be stopped, and the coat, leaving Agur with a piece as Saul galloped fast as a goat down toward the city. In a short time he was in the city, demanding to be heard by all and sundry, on the subject of the Messiah, Yeshua, lately risen from the grave, who had graciously called all, Jew and Gentile, to enter His fold as children of righteousness.”
This message, too, was greeted with bewilderment, scorn, and outright abuse. “Who is this mad prophet?” people wanted to know. Laughter, ribald talk, and even thrown figs and dates was all Saul earned for his efforts to save the Nabateans and the other tribes present in the markets.
Once again, he had to flee for his life, this time northward, retracing his steps.
“They won’t listen to the truth, Lord!” Saul cried as he trudged toward Judah’s coasts. “It is useless to call the Gentiles! Look at how they treat your prophet!”
Feeling pity for himself, Saul continued for days, fortunate he was not attacked in his lone, defenseless condition.
Finally, he could go no further. He could find no water, and he hadn’t eaten in many days. His body simply collapsed, and he lay on the burning rocks.
At all times, in all places, this was where the Lord began speaking to him in depth about the relation of the Law to Grace.
Revelation poured into Saul’s dying body, and it raised him up to his feet. Nourished by the word of God, Saul was restored to life, and he continued walking, his spirit aflame with God’s good news. He was set free from the Law! What glorious liberty in Yeshua the Anointed One! What Yeshua had achieved on the Cross by his death now was made clear to Saul. Nothing man could do could attain to it. It was all a free Gift of God to fallen, hopelessly sinning, condemned man. It was Grace, Grace alone! Law—without Christ’s sacrifice--brought nothing but sin and the penalty for sin. But in Christ he was set forever free from the Law, and the power of sin and death over him was also broken once and for all time.
Grace alone led Saul back to Jerusalem, where he spoke with the apostles, Barnabus among them, declaring his visions and the word of God to Him that he received from God in Arabia. Not one word could anyone speak to gainsay Saul’s words, and he went forth blessed by their hands and prayers, while he was urged to return home to his native Tarsus in Cilicia for a time. Why Tarsus? He demanded. “The world must hear this good news and be set free from the bondage of sin and death and the law! I must go at once and preach it!”
“No, dear brother, you must learn to wait upon the Lord for the proper time! It is not yours to decide the time or place!” That was the counsel of James, Yeshua’s brother, and Peter and other apostles to him, and Saul, indignant to the point of pulling beards and giving out punches, refrained somehow from his usual violence in their revered company and flung out from their midst after slapping a few doorkeepers who tried to prevent him.
Yet he went home as he had been advised and what no man could do God accomplished, he remained there year after year, silent and waiting upon God for the time the Lord would sent him forth to speak the good news of Yeshua. Fourteen, long, solitary years passed, virtually friendless, and even his unconverted, staunch, Jewish wife left him during that time, unwilling to abide with a follower of Yeshua who couldn’t even carry an intelligible conversation.
Despite sporadic attempts to speak about the Resurrected Yeshua to the Jews of the town, none would listen, and Saul gained not a single convert to the Way, even when he turned in desperation to the Gentile Greeks that formed the main population of Cilicia.
It hadn’t helped that he had been struck once in the mouth with a club, breaking his teeth out so that his words came out befuddled and slurred. Before the injury he could at least speak intelligibly in Greek, but afterwards he was laughed at by even the children!
Now, alone, forsaken of men except for business purposes, Saul languished in his sultry, backstreet quarters in a Romanized Greek city that was “no mean city,” the chief in that area of Asia Minor, but still a far cry from Antioch or Alexandria or Jerusalem. How he bemused and befuddled the Jewish world that came to his door to order his excellent prayer shawls.
“Imagine his likes, with his education and Greek language, ending up a mere tradesman in a dirty little shop!” people would say of him behind his back, clicking their tongues and shaking their heads. They put his lowly, reclusive lot in life to him. “With all of you learning, why don’t you make something of yourself, Paulus?” Jews of substance would often challenge him after paying him for shawls.
“Tarsus is too small for a man of your parts, don’t you see that? Anyone with a needle and thread can make prayer shawls!”
Yes, he saw what they meant—humdrum and without challenge, it wasn’t a trade that he would prefer to engage in all his life--but that still gave him no good reason to quit his hometown since being sent there by the Jerusalem leadership, and so he rotted—so to speak—with time heavy on his laboring brow as day after day he plied his trade, forgotten, forsaken, forlorn! Yet heaven at least smiled upon Paulus, for time came when the Spirit of God sent a man called Barnabus, a most godly and encouraging sort, up to Tarsus to find a man he knew in his spirit God wanted to use in a special, mighty way.
“Come and join us in the Lord’s assembly of believers at Antioch!” Barnabus, a leader in the church at Antioch, said to Saul, laying a hand on Saul’s hand to make him pause in his sewing. “We need Jews like you who can speak to Greeks, for Antioch is a Greek city and we Jews need to speak their language to minister to them.”
Saul, who had changed his Jewish name to a Romanized Paulus by this time in the vain hope Gentiles would listen to him, dropped his needle and stood up. “Has God told you to say this to me?” he challenged Barnabus, as if he might throw the larger man out of his shop. “You are wasting my time speaking of such things! I have four taliths to complete for the chief elders of the synagogue this very day, and you—you—well, you see I am nothing but a failure in speaking for the Way! Since my teeth were injured nobody, even the Greeks you love so much, wish to hear me speak!”
The evangelist gave Paulus a broad smile, slipping a big arm around the little man’s hard, flinty shoulders. “Jesus our blessed Lord and Savior sent me to you! Don’t you know the Lord’s strength is perfected in weakness of men? The Lord says now is the time of your call! You can do all things in Christ! Will you obey Him, my dear little Greek-speaking brother? We need you to help with the Lord’s work among the Gentiles, most of whom are Greeks as you know!”
Meanwhile, Paulus started sewing again as busily as he could manage, but ran a needle into his thumb.
Barnabus saw what Paulus had done. “See, you are not able to sew properly! That is a sign that you need to let it go, my brother! God will support you from now on, not your own hands!”
Paulus pulled away from Barnabus, his eyes streaming, and forgot his bleeding thumb. “Yes, yes, it is time!” he whispered to God alone. “Have mercy on your servant, O Lord! For I have remained dumb so long among these Aramaeans and Edomites that I cannot speak either Hebrew or Greek properly! Moreover, I do not know what to say, all my great learning from the rabbis has seemingly fled from me. I have become a poor speaker everybody laughs at. All I know is this needle and thread, linen and wool. Even my wife has forsaken me, unable to endure my poor, mumbling tongue!”
As if Barnabus could read thoughts, he said to Paulus, “The Lord is your Sufficiency, my brother! Now come away with me, and the Lord will give you what to say to the brethren and before rulers and kings when the time comes! You speak Greek, don’t you? Well, then, that will open many a door closed to most Jews, especially since they think it would defile their holy tongues if they spoke it!”
Paulus was stubborn, but Barnabus would not give up, encouraging Paulus day after day until he couldn’t resist any longer.
“Enough!” Paulus cried, throwing down his unfinished prayer shawl. “I will go with you, if only to gain some peace of mind! But the moment I find nobody will listen to my words, I will be going home!”
“Agreed!” Barnabus laughed, slapping Paulus across the shoulders, which nearly knocked the smaller man flat and the world with him.