God’s people in Crafton Heights are continuing to study the Book of Judges as a way of listening to how God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness. This week we heard the story of the first real “Judge” or deliverer for Israel – a sly Benjamite named Ehud. I know, I know, Othniel came first, but he didn’t have much of a story. Our texts for the day include Judges 3:12-30 (included in the text below) and I Corinthians 1:20-25.
This morning we are going to continue to read through the Book of Judges, a volume that is probably not familiar to many in the room. Oh, I imagine we’ve seen stories of Samson and Delilah or Gideon in the children’s books, but as we’ll discover in a few weeks, those are pretty poor characters to be introducing to our kids.
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Judges is, essentially, a collection of campfire stories, and this morning’s reading fits that description perfectly. And if the accounts of Samson or Gideon are likely to be found in traditional children’s Bibles, then I’d suggest that today’s story is more likely to be found in books put out by The National Lampoon or The Onion.
12 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. 13 He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amal′ekites, and went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. 14 And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.
Just about as soon as we can, we turn our backs on what is right and start looking for trouble. And that winds up with King Eglon from Moab coming in and taking over a portion of Israel. I should tell you that it seems as though “Eglon” is a made-up name. It comes from the Hebrew word that means “bull” or “round”. In the next paragraph, he is described as being “fat”. “Eglon”, then, is here to represent the “round, fat bull”, the guy at the top of the food chain. He’s a “fat cat”. Eglon is, here, “the man”.
So “the man” takes over a part of Israel, including “the City of Palms”. Now, wait a minute! “The City of Palms” – that’s what the Bible calls Jericho. And didn’t Joshua destroy Jericho as a symbol of the powers that oppose God? And didn’t Joshua say “Don’t anybody rebuild this city! God’s curse is here!” (Yes, he did. Joshua 26:6 if you don’t believe me)? So what we learn in this introduction to the story is that Israel, in direct opposition to their leader, went ahead and ignored God’s best intentions for their lives and instead, chased after what they wanted. Wow, what a strange concept…I wonder what it feels like to ignore God and do only what I want to do…Oh, yeah, that’s my struggle every day…
The story continues:
15 But when the people of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. 16 And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length; and he girded it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man.
Here we meet the other main character, Ehud. Like Eglon, this name has a meaning: it is related to the word for “one”. Ehud is a loner. He’s the Lone Ranger. And, interestingly enough, he’s left-handed. Why do we need to know that?
In ancient folklore, left-handed people were considered tricksters, outcasts, and misfits. Ehud is no exception to that rule, and he makes himself a special blade that can be strapped to his inner right thigh where it would likely be missed by the TSA and the Border Patrol. Most men, you see, wore swords and weapons on their left side.
Can you see where this story is going? For Israel, at any rate, it’s a comedy. In this corner, you have the solitary outcast. And in that corner, we see “the man” – evil personified…the good guy wins, the bad guy dies, and it’s really funny to boot.
Ehud volunteers for the job that nobody wants – it’s time to deliver the “tribute” to Moab. That is, it’s time for someone to take some of our hard-earned money, cross over the Jordan River, and hand it to our enemy in the hopes that he won’t get irritated and wipe us out. That’s what needs to be done, and Ehud does it.
It starts out like a typical delivery, but then Ehud puts his plan into effect:
18 And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people that carried the tribute. 19 But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And Eglon commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. 20 And Ehud came to him, as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. 21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly; 22 and the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the vestibule, and closed the doors of the roof chamber upon him, and locked them.
You see: after presenting the tribute to Eglon, Ehud evidently goes back as far as the statues to the Moabite god, Chemosh, and then he sends his friends back home, saying, “Oh, man! I forgot something. I’ll catch up…”
He rushes back to see the King – who knows that Ehud would be passing the Moabite god, and says, “Hey, your majesty…I have a message for you…” Once again, the Hebrew translation is tricky. The word for “message” is also the word for “thing”. Eglon, perhaps hoping for a word from his god Chemosh, tells everyone to leave so he can get the news in private. They go upstairs into the king’s private chambers, where Ehud does in fact give him the “thing” – the blade that goes all the way through. In the part of the story that has appealed to adolescent males for 3,000 years, we’re informed that the blade is so effective and so sharp that it pierces Eglon’s bowels and “the dirt came out”. Ehud has, quite literally, beaten the crap out of Eglon and, leaving him to die in his own waste, he locks the door and beats a hasty retreat.
24 When he had gone, the servants came; and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “He is only relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” 25 And they waited till they were utterly at a loss; but when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them; and there lay their lord dead on the floor.
As he’s heading out, Ehud mentions to the staff that the King really enjoyed his lunch and that maybe they want to give him a minute. Not long afterwards, they walk upstairs and they smell the bathroom, and say, “Hoo, boy, it’s not a good day to be King! You better lay off the knishes, Eglon.” And they wait some more (what is the appropriate amount of time to wait when someone else is in the bathroom?), and they finally go in and see that he’s been killed and they raise the alarm.
26 Ehud escaped while they delayed, and passed beyond the sculptured stones, and escaped to Se-i′rah. 27 When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of E′phraim; and the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, having him at their head. 28 And he said to them, “Follow after me; for the Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.” So they went down after him, and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites, and allowed not a man to pass over. 29 And they killed at that time about ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.
Ehud, the left-handed loner, crosses the border and recruits an army that whips the Moabites and drives them out of Israel.
Can you imagine that for hundreds of years while they were getting beat up with some regularity by the Moabites, the Edomites, the Hittites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the…well, can you see that it was probably with some glee that God’s people told and retold the story of the loner, the misfit, the outcast, the trickster who walked right past those false gods and sacrificed a “fat bull” to YHWH?
Listen, the story of Ehud and Eglon is slapstick, but it points to a deeper truth.
How can it be that a single man – a left-hander, at that – defeated a king? Everybody knows that in order to win, in order to be successful, in order to get ahead, you have to be strong and ruthless. You have to be the man. There is no place for weakness, no room for the underdog.
Except here, in Judges, we learn something about God. We see his preference for the weak and the marginalized. We understand that he is opposed to systematized repression and institutional violence. And remember, my reading of this book is that it is not so much an historical account about who is wiping out whom, but rather an exploration of what happens when God invites his people to oppose the evil structures that surround them and create a new way of living.
And the hint of these things in this crazy story from Judges is stated explicitly in I Corinthians, where Paul talks about Jesus as “the foolishness of God”. Jesus, who went to the heart of the religious and political treachery of his time, and stood up for the ones who were being beaten down. Jesus, who opposed violence with suffering, disease with healing, death with resurrection. None of it makes sense. Except all of it does.
And we could stop now, and everybody could go home chuckling a little bit at the image of old “Lefty” sticking it to the man in the bathroom…and maybe even being glad for the ways that Jesus teaches us to see life a little differently…
Or we could go a little deeper and look for ourselves in the story. If I am right, and this is a story about the intentions of God encountering the systems of this world, perhaps we need to ask ourselves in what ways we participate in those systems.
Look, I’m a Christian believer. I am a member of the dominant religion and the majority race, a citizen of the pre-eminent military and economic power of the 21st century. Let’s be honest: if most people in our world are telling this story, they don’t look at people like you and me and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s the underdog. Those are the marginalized.” No. We are not them.
But where is God in the story? With the underdog. With the marginalized.
So I need to reflect: in what ways do I relate to systems of power and oppression? In what ways to I relate to the bully and the one who is bullied?
Do I stand with those who suffer?
Do I stand on top of those who suffer?
Do I stand by while suffering occurs and do nothing?
Where is the Good News here?
Look, when I started this message, I was hoping for a few laughs at the fat guy’s expense. This is bathroom humor – literally. But the more I read this story, the more I realize that on some days, in some ways, I am the fat guy. Given half a chance, almost every one of us would choose to be the king, rather than the oppressed. And we often instinctively look for ways to increase our advantage.
So today I want to simply pause and thank God for this story that reminds me that I can stand in the foolishness of God and walk with God’s children who are on the edges. I am grateful that God continues to invite me away from the idols of our day and into the lives of those who are on the margins. This week, I’d like to encourage you to look for people who are experiencing repression – maybe they are getting bullied at school, or mistreated at work; maybe they are the workers at the place where you’re doing business; maybe they’re protesting something down the street or half a world away…but look for them. And then pray, “God, where are you in this situation? Where are you acting? Where are your hopes being revealed and shared? Where are your intentions expressed?” And then, when you get a sense of where God is, go to that place.
Here’s a hint: it probably won’t be easy. It wasn’t for Jesus. That’s ok. Go there anyway.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
 I am indebted to J. Clinton McCann’s treatment of this passage in many ways, particularly with this phrase borrowed from his Interpretation Commentary on Judges (Louisville: John Knox, 2002).