The Biblical stories of the Judges are frequently both fascinating and problematic.
There’s the whole business of Gideon’s fleeces, and whether that was a good idea that we ought to copy or God being gracious with a man teetering on the edge of unbelief.
There’s Jephthah’s rash vow to the Lord and subsequent having to sacrifice his own daughter.
There’s practically the entire story of Samson.
And there’s Ehud.
A story about a left-handed man in a day and age where that was considered a disability and an evil omen. A story containing a king so morbidly obese that his body can swallow a short sword and have the fat close in around it. A story containing concealed weapons, probable duplicitousness, armed insurrection and the use of assassination as a tool to accomplish God’s will.
It’s not a part of the Bible that’s guaranteed to sit very comfortably in most of our theology.
The story of Ehud almost opens the book of Judges, following on from the opening couple of chapters, which serve as a sort of overview and introduction to the book, and the little vignette on Othniel, Caleb’s nephew. In what will become a litany of disappointment throughout the book, “the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord”, worshipping and serving the Ba’als, so God allowed them to be overpowered and conquered by the neighbouring people, the Moabites.
At this distance, it’s not easy to understand why Israel would so quickly forsake the God who had led them through the wilderness and given them the Land of Promise. Our modern theistic or post-theistic mindset is vastly different from the way that Bronze Age minds conceived of things.
Apart from Israel, every nation or people in the world was basically tribal and pagan. The gods you worshipped were the gods of the tribe, and there wasn’t really much if any sense that they were gods for all peoples. Moreover, and more importantly for our present consideration, the gods were limited in scope with specific purviews, and you worshipped or sacrificed to each god or goddess as appropriate to your situation.
Your tribe’s gods were the ones that were relevant to your way of life: nomads had gods that dealt with livestock and warfare, while farmers had gods that made crops grow and controlled the rains. If your tribe’s lifestyle changed, for example Israel transitioning from nomadic wandering in the wilderness to cultivating the Promised Land, you got new gods, usually from the people around you whose lifestyle you were adopting.
Israel in the period of the Judges is thus behaving exactly like the tribal Bronze Age nation that they were. YHWH was a god of shepherds, mountains and battle; what did He know about growing crops? Better go to an experienced god for those concerns, like the Ba’al we have over here in Canaan…
These days, I guess we might need to explain why worship of the Ba’als was so wrong. From a cretain perspective it just looks like a needless prohibition generated by Israel’s megalomaniacal God. “You can’t worship anyone else except Me, so there!” Just saying “But Ba’al was a false god” only works if you accept the foundational premise that there’s only one God who is to be worshipped. These days there’s enough second-guessing of God and His ways that a bit more explanation might be in order.
Ba’al was a kind of Canaanite version of the Greek Zeus: god of storms and rain, wielder of the lightning, and because rain is utterly necessary for agriculture in that part of the world, a god of the fecundity of the soil and the growing of crops.
His consort Ashtoreth (or sometimes Asherah) was a goddess of the earth, and of fertility in all its forms. She was considered to be responsible for not only the plants of the field but human babies and sex. Rain was the sky god Ba’al impregnating the earth goddess Ashtoreth to make the crops grow. The “Asherah poles” mentioned in the Bible were probably carved giant wooden phalluses, lending a pornographic quality to Canaanite worship. Even the sowing of seed was a sort of ceremonial impregnation of the earth goddess. Human sex was a sort of participation in the fertility of the gods.
That’s right: if you were a Ba’al worshipper, you grew up completely surrounded by the idea of sex. A lot like the modern Western world, in some ways.
Ba’al worship has been characterised as a sort of orgy, with temples filled with what were in effect licenced sacred prostitutes who functioned as sex objects for the worshipping men.
To the often-fallacious thinking of lowest-common-denominator masculinity, this sounds like a great idea. Sex as worship? Bring it on!
To a woman, however, or to a man who doesn’t use their genitals to think with, the idea is pretty repugnant. I bet the women involved never got much say in whether they were “chosen by the gods” to be made into whores, and once they were, I’m sure they had little choice in who they had to let slake their lust upon their bodies.
In essence, it puts divine imprimatur on the practice of sex trafficking and makes women into passive objects of lust without say or choice in their lives.
This is categorically wrong.
The Moabite chief god Chemosh was, if I’m recalling correctly, more or less Ba’al under a different name. The enemy isn’t all that creative, and he tends to use the same deceptions over and over again if he can make them work once.
It’s interesting to note that the fact that the Moabites were the oppressors and enemies in this time period doesn’t necessarily mean that all Moabites were unremittingly evil. Several generations later a famous Moabite woman would leave her home and her people and their gods and become the great-grandmother of the most celebrated Israelite king of them all: King David. Ruth of Moab is in the human genealogy of Jesus.
But here, it’s the Moabites into whose power God places His people in order to try and get their attention. The Moabites were the descendents of one of Lot’s daughters; their eponymous ancestor was sired by her own father after his escape from the destruction of Sodom. As a founding mythology, it’s hardly the most morally upright thing one could wish for.
Moab is led by the grossly fat King Eglon, recorded proof of the depths to which some sybaritic rulers of past ages could sink.
In an age in which getting enough calories and nutrition to survive and maintain some degree of health was a constant challenge for the majority, Eglon was morbidly obese. Conspicuous consumption was only possible if you were obscenely wealthy, and so many of the obscenely wealthy treated it as a badge of how wealthy they were. There’s a reason gout used to be a rich man’s disease.
No doubt the Israelites, as a conquered people, would have borne the brunt of King Eglon’s rapine. All the wealth of the land that God had intended be divided up among His people with egality now went to feed a fat foreign overlord. The Moabite rule is so cruel and oppressive that Israel cries out to the Lord.
Was this a genuine return to the Lord, or just a pagan-like idea that YHWH was a God of battles, and only a God of battles could save them now? I don’t know. If judging whether someone else is a believer or not is a chancy and dangerous thing that Scripture warns us against, judging the sincerity of a nation’s repentance is nothing we want to have any part of. If it was real repentance, however, it seems to have been short-lived; the crisis over, we are told in the next chapter that “again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord…”
King Eglon persuades the Ammonites and the Amalekites to join him in attacking Israel. The Ammonites were the descendents of Lot’s other daughter, conceived in similar circumstances, and the Amalekites were descendents of Esau via one of his son’s concubines. Both peoples show up again and again among Israel’s enemies, and Amalek in particular had a history of attacking the Israelites without apparent cause. Together, they take control of the Jericho area and force Israel to pay tribute.
Enter the deliverer, Ehud son of Gera from the tribe of Benjamin. Described by the Bible as “a left-handed man”, we are told that in those days being a sinistral was considered so unnatural and evil that the only way you could realistically grow to adulthood as a lefty was if your right hand was maimed.
We’re not told anything more of his background or calling. We have no idea how God made it clear to this unlikely fellow that he, Ehud, was the chosen deliverer from the power of King Eglon.
We do know that he’d apparently spent some time preparing for his role. Making a sword, even a small one only a foot and a half long, was not something that you did overnight.
Given the Philistines’ apparent monopoly on iron-working in the time of Saul and Jonathan, we’re talking about bronze swordmaking here.
Bronze is expensive and not all that easy to work, particularly not for the quality of bronze you need for swords. It’s a combination of copper, which was plentiful and relatively cheap, and tin, which was neither of those things. The world’s first strategic mineral, tin was mineable in worthwhile quantity in only a few locations in the ancient world. If you controlled a tin mine, your wealth was assured.
The two metals had to be smelted from their ores and mixed together in the right quantity – about 10 parts copper to 1 part tin. Then the molten bronze had to be poured carefully into a specially-prepared mould, tapped to remove air bubbles, and allowed to cool and harden. Then the mould was broken and the sword pulled out. For common household bronze implements, a mould of clay was sufficient, but for edged weapons, what was used for the mould was stone. Incidentally, this may be the basis of a certain legendary British sword.
All of this takes time, patience and knowledge: the preparing of the mould, carefully carving two identical sword halves in the two parts of the stone mould, the gathering of the ore, the smelting, the pouring, the tapping to get the air bubbles out. It’s not something some proto-redneck can knock together in their garage over the course of a weekend. Perhaps Ehud was a metalworker by trade. Or perhaps he first had to learn the skills.
Wherever he came from, the Scripture tells us that he had made this sword and that he wore it strapped to his right thigh under his robes. Because practically everyone else was right-handed, and the natural way of drawing a sword is across the body, the natural place for a left-hander to wear a sword is on the right, exactly opposite from the expected place on the left.
Either way, walking naturally with a sharp slab of metal a foot and a half long strapped to your thigh takes practice.
Ehud is sent with the tribute to King Eglon. Often these sorts of tributes were an annual thing; every year the best of the best was gathered up and sent to the foreign overlord.
King Eglon is Ehud’s target, and presumably well-chosen. The Bible paints him as a powerful local ruler, and it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that he was the linchpin of the three-way alliance of Moab, Ammon and Amalek that were despoiling Israel.
Because of the politics of the situation, those sent with the tribute were usually picked for their ability to not rile the dangerous foreign monarch. Not only did they have to offer up what ought to have been theirs, but they had to put up with all of the king’s court and army sneering and spitting at them as conquered foreign weaklings. And do it all with a smile on their face. If the overlord decided the natives were getting uppity or restless, he could easily send out his army to go and level a few towns and offer up all the inhabitants to Chemosh. Ehud would have had to have kept his intentions, and probably the existence of the sword, secret enough to get to be part of the delegation sent with the tribute.
This doesn’t look to me as though it was a coordinated and subtle plan on the part of Israel as a whole – if it were, someone other than a left-handed cripple would have chosen themselves for the honour of striking down the enemy king, and Ehud would not have waited until the people actually carrying the tribute had left before carrying out the execution. They would have been in on it too. No, Ehud looks and behaves like he’s acting on his own, humanly speaking. He waits until the tribute-bearers are safely away, then turns back to the king with a “secret message”.
It’s here in the story that we begin to run into real difficulties.
A foot and a half of cold bronze isn’t much of a “secret message”, objectively speaking. It’s hardly the most straightforward way of speaking, though you could technically argue that the sword was hidden, thus “secret”, and a “message” of Divine judgement. A pointed one, we might say.
Still, it looks like he’s lying. And doing so with God’s apparent blessing, what’s more. What’s up with that?
It’s not the only time in the Bible that people get blessed for apparent duplicity, either. Rebekah and Jacob conspire to deceive Isaac in order to circumvent his determination to give the inheritance blessing to the wrong son. The Hebrew midwives were at least misleading to Pharaoh when they claimed that “Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women; they give birth before the midwives get there”, and it looks like outright lies to me. Jael, a chapter later in the book of Judges, may have acted duplicitously in inviting Sisera into her tent. The Magi “outwitted” or “deceived” King Herod by going back on their promise to return with tidings of where the boy was – an offence often treated as the same as lying by the ancients.
I don’t have any answers for this one. We don’t like it because it seems to trample all over Biblical morality with regard to honesty, integrity and telling the truth, and yet there it is in the pages of Scripture. Apparently real life may sometimes be more complicated than we’d like.
Then there’s the deed itself, which might even be worse.
The NIV is particularly unclear, giving you those unhelpful but honest footnotes to tell you that “the meaning of this word or phrase in Hebrew is unclear”, but what the consensus among commentators appears to be is that King Eglon ordered all his courtiers to leave him before going into the inner room of his palace to relieve himself while he heard the secret message.
Then Ehud stabs him (and Eglon is so grossly fat that when the sword point comes out of his back, the fat closes over the hilt), sneaks out, locks the door and makes his getaway. After waiting “to the point of embarrassment”, the courtiers unlock the door and find their lord dead.
I have numerous questions about this passage. Firstly, what is a toilet doing right in the middle of a palace, when a Bronze Age toilet is at best a latrine? It’s not like they had modern water-economy flushing porcelain back then; a toilet was frequently a hole over the pig pen, or out over the street, or at best a pit-type latrine. Putting any of those inside a regular dwelling, much less a palace, is a recipe for stench. It’s possible, of course, that the “toilet” was a portable bucket that some luckless slave had to take and empty, but given the Law’s instruction on toilet hygiene (go outside the camp and dig a hole), the fact that Eglon didn’t do that may have been a calculated insult to the conquered Hebrews. “I care so little for you and your Law that I’m going to break it right in front of you in the smelliest and most obnoxious way possible”. Of course, it’s also possible that Eglon was just so inured to it that he simply didn’t notice or care that his palace smelled like a cesspit.
This is small fry, however, compared with the question of Ehud’s deed.
By any normal rules, this is a calculated assassination. A political murder done as an act of war. If it were done today, we’d call it an act of terrorism. If God called us to perform something like this today, I hope we’d take a really hard look at whose voice we were really listening to.
It’s bloody, violent, sneaky and underhanded. The act of assassination is widely viewed as an intrinsically dishonourable act. We’d be apt to use words like “weasel” for the perpetrator. At the least, it would be against the laws of God, and I can’t imagine a single mainstream church leader praising it as an act of faith.
Yet here it is in the Bible in exactly those terms.
What’s up with that?
I’m aware that there’s a difference between the Old and New Testaments in the way God deals with the human race. I’m aware that the first Covenant is with Israel, and this was an act done in defence of God’s Covenant people.
But is He or is He not the same God now as He was then? We uphold the truth today as Biblically self-evident that God loves all people regardless of race or ethnicity. It’s not just about Israel, and because Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, we believe that it never has been just about Israel.
But that begs the question of what we are to make of this dread deed. If God really cares not just for Israel but for all peoples, and He does, doesn’t it undermine the case for “defence of Israel” being an excusing factor?
We’d be far more ok with the story, I suspect, if Ehud had done some ninja-like feat of sneaking into Eglon’s palace and then killed him in single combat. But no. He probably lies to his own people in order to be the one chosen to go with the tribute, then he deceives the Moabite guards by carrying a sword under his clothes in an unexpected location, then he lies to Eglon directly about having a secret message, then he stabs him in the belly while the guy is on the potty.
The idea that we serve a God who’s ok with the idea of assassination in certain circumstances is guaranteed not to sit well with many of us.
Of course, placed in context in the rest of the book of Judges, it’s merely the first in a long line of God using flawed and fallen individuals to save His people and carry out His will. Gideon made an ephod (a priest’s breastpiece) that his whole family turned into an idol, and this despite being from Manasseh and thus excluded from the priesthood. Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter as a burnt offering. Samson seemed to go out of his way to break God’s laws, and seemingly thrived on the idea of revenge.
Is it simply that Ehud is doing God’s work but not precisely in God’s way? If so, the Scripture isn’t very clear about it. You virtually have to read that into the passage, and once you start reading things into Scripture, you’re heading for a world of trouble.
That, of course, is one of the main difficulties with the book of Judges. Here are all these great adventuresome stories of heroes of the faith, told in plain, “this is what happened” terms. But once we start to take a look at them we notice all sorts of things that make us uncomfortable (like Jephthah’s daughter) and those, too, are told in the same “this is what happened” way. The writers of the book of Judges didn’t moralise about the stories they recorded, and though sometimes that can be frustrating, I’d have to say that at times it beats the alternative. One of my main objections to Christian TV is the way they always want to drive the point home with a sledgehammer. According to the writers of Judges, apparently we can trust the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth here in this passage as well.
Still, we’re sometimes left with more questions than answers, and this appears to be one of those times. As I’ve said recently, this isn’t necessarily a problem. God is still good, and the truth is big enough to handle my questions and difficulties. Even apparently insoluble ones.