Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Cutting Room Floor - Embarrassed by Ehud?

Sunday’s text presented us with one of the most colorful stories in the Old Testament.  A left-handed deliverer smuggled a homemade sword into an morbidly obese tyrant’s palace, tricked the king into giving him a private audience, and deposited the sword into the king’s girth, which brought about the emptying of his bowels.  Add to that the spectacle of the king’s attendants assuming from the smell and the locked door that he was relieving himself, which gave the assassin plenty of time to get away, until the climax of the tale when the attendants finally entered the king’s quarters to find him and his dung piled on the floor.  Whoever said the Bible was boring obviously never read Judges 3.

But not everyone is as amused by this episode as my children are.  Some have a hard time with Ehud’s actions, which they view to be unethical or immoral. They say he lied, he was barbaric, he was treacherous, he was cruel.  One such commentator wrote, “By even the most elementary standard of ethics [Ehud’s] deception and murder of Eglon stand condemned.  Passages like this, even when encountered by the untutored reader of the Scriptures, cause consternation and questioning.”(1)  Some think Ehud gives God a black eye, so to speak.  After all, God raised him up to deliver the people. 
So what do we say to this?  Should we be embarrassed by Ehud?  I don’t think so, and there are several reasons.

First, the text gives absolutely no editorial comment on Ehud’s actions.  There isn't even anything implied about it. The story is simply told in a matter-of-fact manner.  That tells us that we are not intended to make any moral or ethical judgments regarding the planning and execution of Ehud’s plan.  It is not germane to the point of the story.

Second, in the next chapter, we’ll read of a woman named Jael, who will kill one of Israel’s oppressors by luring him into her tent, putting him to sleep with a glass of warm milk, and then hammering a tent peg through his skull.  That would seem to be parallel with Ehud’s handiwork in terms of its deception and barbarity.  BUT…the text does make a moral judgment about her actions.  In 5:24-27, she is praised for her deeds and is called “most blessed of women.”  If Jael was praised for her actions, we shouldn’t be troubled by Ehud’s.

Third, the Bible is full of barbarity by our modern standards.  The Ancient Near East was no West Chester, Ohio.  There was no lethal injection or life-in-prison.  There were no elections.  There was no United Nations.  Back then foreign policy entailed raping, pillaging, and murdering all nations smaller and weaker than you.  The world was a much rougher place than it is now.  We shouldn’t read our modern sensibilities back into a text written in a completely different historical context. 

Fourth, this episode should be seen in the context of the Conquest – God’s command to Israel to exterminate every Canaanite in the Promised Land.  Remember, we’ve already reasoned our way through how to understand the Conquest.  (If you haven’t heard the sermon on Joshua 6:21, you might find it helpful.)  The same reasoning applies to this story.  The Canaanites, including Eglon, deserved the wrath of God for their sin.  They were all supposed to die by the sword.  Eglon’s death represented the justice of a holy God.

Fifth, deception in wartime is not the same thing as bearing false witness or lying.  Do you recall the ambush that Joshua and the Israelites sprung on Ai in Joshua 8?  Where they deceived the men of Ai, drew them out of the city, and annihilated them?  That plan was commanded by God.  Again, we need to let Scripture tell us what to think rather than judging God or His Word based on our own sensibilities.
We have a tendency to be embarrassed for God and to try to explain away things His Word says about Him…when He isn’t embarrassed at all.  He wrote what He wrote.  He is just and He is holy and He is good and kind and loving, etc.  He doesn’t need us to rescue Him from His Word.

Now, about Shamgar.  Judges 3:31 reads: After [Ehud] was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed 600 of the Philistines with an oxgoad, and he also saved Israel. 

There is so little detail in the text about him that it is hard to know what to do with this verse.  The loose consensus among scholars is that Shamgar was probably not an Israelite.  However, the text does not tell us one way or another.  Clearly, what we do know is that he racked up an impressive pile of Philistines with an instrument used for driving livestock, and that he saved Israel. 

We don’t want to force anything on the text and take it further than that.  Knowing the themes of the book, we can conclude that Shamgar represented another act of God’s grace in saving his people through a human deliverer.

Let’s not forget in all of this, that each of these texts ultimately point us to Christ.  There was no more bloody or barbaric scene than the one in which Yahweh laid on Him the iniquity of us all.  May this week find you increasing in your love and devotion for our great Redeemer.
(1) Phillip P. Elliot, "The Book of Judges: Exposition," IB, 2:708, 711.
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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