In the Book of Judges, the path of history is clear and repetitive: Israel wanders away from God's path; God allows foreigners to take over the land; after some suffering the people awaken to their duty; God sends a deliverer to restore their freedom and identity. Then it all happens again. This is how the story of Ehud is introduced.
3:12 The Israelites again did evil in the Lord’s sight. The Lord gave King Eglon of Moab control over Israel because they had done evil in the Lord’s sight.
Within this oversimplified pattern, Israel's national heroes were complex personalities dealing with difficult issues in the midst of dynamic events. They had success and failure. They made their stories both an example and an admonition for those who follow.
Once we are past the introduction and into the story we see that life in the times of the judges was complex and messy — not unlike it is today. God didn't simply hand King Eglon a deed of hegemony over Israel. There were alliances and battles, victories and defeats, suffering and celebration, cities and farms, crops and new babies, death and taxes.
3:13 Eglon formed alliances with the Ammonites and Amalekites. He came and defeated Israel, and they seized the City of Date Palm Trees. 3:14 The Israelites were subject to King Eglon of Moab for eighteen years. 3:15a When the Israelites cried out for help to the Lord, he raised up a deliverer for them. His name was Ehud son of Gera the Benjaminite, a left-handed man.
Ehud was a left-handed man.
When I first began considering this story, my imagination raised up a character who declared that "a man should be allowed to use whichever hand he choses." But that is absurd; people do not chose to be right handed and even less do they choose to be left handed. Handedness is born, not chosen.
Neither biology nor the recorded history of the Benjaminites was sufficient to keep our more recent ancestors from demanding left-handed children "choose" to become right-handers. There is a long and wide history of presuming that handedness must have been chosen or trained whenever it is not right-handedness. (How many of you right-handers chose to be right-handed? Right-handedness, since it is "right", does not have to be chosen.) Even a Bible translator speculated in the note to this verse that the tribe of Benjamin must have chosen left-handedness for their young men, saying:
The phrase … literally reads … “restricted in the right hand,” apparently a Hebrew idiom for a left-handed person. … Perhaps the Benjaminites purposely trained several of their young men to be left-handed warriors by restricting the use of the right hand from an early age so the left hand would become dominant. … †
As the Wikipedia article on handedness summarizes:
Throughout history, being left-handed was considered negative, or evil; even into the 20th century, left-handed children were beaten by schoolteachers for writing with their left hand. ‡
Beating left-handed children with a rod or a willow switch has more recently faded away. Not to worry, though; we continue to chastise people for any number of inborn characteristics. By default, we suppose, everybody would be just like me. If you are different from me you must have chosen to be different — and why would you do that?
Israel apparently did not class left-handedness as evil, since the story shows that Ehud, who was a left-handed man, was selected for a position of trust.
3:15b The Israelites sent him to King Eglon of Moab with their tribute payment.
At this point Ehud's story becomes exciting but also problematic. What did Ehud do with the situation into which he had been placed? Why was he remembered and his story told? We begin with a foreshadowing, a hint of what is to come: Ehud made a sword. We wonder for a moment. What is the sword for? How will this play out in in Ehud's story? But then the narrative subsides into the details of the tribute-bearers arriving at the palace and making the payment to Eglon.
3:16 Ehud made himself a sword — it had two edges and was eighteen inches long. He strapped it under his coat on his right thigh. 3:17 He brought the tribute payment to King Eglon of Moab. (Now Eglon was a very fat man.) 3:18 After Ehud brought the tribute payment, he dismissed the people who had carried it. 3:19 But he went back once he reached the carved images at Gilgal. He said to Eglon, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” Eglon said, “Be quiet!” All his attendants left.
Suddenly only the two of them are in the scene. Ehud and Eglon, tribute-bearer and overlord, man and man, face to face in the empty room.
It is interesting that nowhere in the story do we hear what message God may have had for Eglon. Ehud was not a prophet speaking a message from God. For all we know there was no message other than Ehud himself. God had raised up Ehud as a deliverer and had sent him to Eglon's court. Perhaps Ehud would have been more correct to say, "I am a message for you, O King."
3:20 When Ehud approached him, [Eglon] was sitting in his well-ventilated upper room all by himself. Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” When Eglon rose up from his seat, 3:21 Ehud reached with his left hand, pulled the sword from his right thigh, and drove it into Eglon’s belly. 3:22 The handle went in after the blade, and the fat closed around the blade, for Ehud did not pull the sword out of his belly. 3:23 As Ehud went out into the vestibule, he closed the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.
Ehud took what he was given, his left-handedness, his assignment to carry tribute, even the architecture of Eglon's palace, and he used them as tools to change the story of his people. Ehud had a message for Eglon even if it was not stated in words. The message was, "The people of Israel belong to God, not to you."
With a few thousand years of hindsight we may look at what Ehud did and ask, Was that really the best way to express God's message to Eglon? We might ask Ehud, Did you arrogate to yourself the decision on how to announce God's lordship over God's people?
Ehud, did you break God's own law against murder?
3:24 When Ehud had left, Eglon’s servants came and saw the locked doors of the upper room. They said, “He must be relieving himself in the well-ventilated inner room.” 3:25 They waited so long they were embarrassed, but he still did not open the doors of the upper room. Finally they took the key and opened the doors. Right before their eyes was their master, sprawled out dead on the floor!
A hundred years ago Ehud might have been criticized for being left-handed. I would not condemn him for left-handedness, but I do have qualms about what he did with that left hand. Ehud used his left hand to deceive and murder Eglon, whom I recognize as a child of God.
Ehud, were you right about the left hand? Am I right about the murder? Ehud, you were a judge in Israel; did you judge rightly?
Ehud showed none of these doubts in the story. He returned to the hills of Ephraim and proclaimed a triumph. Ehud had killed a king, then he led the army to kill 10,000 more.
3:26 Now Ehud had escaped while they were delaying. When he passed the carved images, he escaped to Seirah. 3:27 When he reached Seirah, he blew a trumpet in the Ephraimite hill country. The Israelites went down with him from the hill country, with Ehud in the lead. 3:28 He said to them, “Follow me, for the Lord is about to defeat your enemies, the Moabites!” They followed him, captured the fords of the Jordan River opposite Moab, and did not let anyone cross. 3:29 That day they killed about ten thousand Moabites — all strong, capable warriors; not one escaped.
I want to say, "Ehud! You were right to announce that God was about to defeat the men of Moab, but you took God's job on yourselves. Did you not have faith in God's own power? Or did you want a share of the glory?"
Ehud would not have understood me, I think. Ehud and I would agree that to be on God's side requires us to act. We are not God's friends unless we do the things that God commands us. I think Ehud believed that he was standing next to God and doing what he could to help God's cause prevail.
Ehud and his children and his grandchildren would have pointed to the lifetime of peace which followed. Was that not God's judgement on Ehud's deeds? Was that not evidence that Ehud acted rightly?
3:30 Israel humiliated Moab that day, and the land had rest for eighty years.
We look to the Bible to learn how we should behave, for example and for admonition. Does Ehud's example represent the perfection of God's law? Or is Ehud's story a warning about good intentions gone astray? Ehud's story tells us what did happen; is that a good model for what should happen again?
In chapter 17 of Judges and again in chapter 21
we are reminded that the times of the judges
were not perfect times. The Bible says,
In those days … Each man did
what he considered to be right.
Ehud was a judge in Israel. He did what he
considered right. Today when I look back from
a very different time and situation I consider
what Ehud did to be wrong. Am I a better judge
of God's will than Ehud?
The story of Ehud and Eglon is exciting. It is fun to tell and interesting to hear. It is a part of our heritage as people of God. Ehud is a reminder that we should be eager for God to be king over our lives and our land. But his story is also an admonition and a curb on our enthusiasm.
Ehud's judgement is not beyond question and neither is ours. All of us should do what we judge to be right but we should make those judgements with humility. Ehud sought to conform his actions to the will of God, but looking back I believe that Ehud missed the mark. We too will often miss the mark of God's perfection.
Ehud tried to work with God to bring good to God's people. And good did come. Despite Ehud's flaws, Israel had peace for a lifetime. Can we say as much?
The phrase, which refers to Ehud, literally reads “bound/restricted in the right hand,” apparently a Hebrew idiom for a left-handed person. See Judg 20:16, where 700 Benjaminites are described in this way. Perhaps the Benjaminites purposely trained several of their young men to be left-handed warriors by restricting the use of the right hand from an early age so the left hand would become dominant. Left-handed men would have a distinct military advantage, especially when attacking city gates. See B. Halpern, “The Assassination of Eglon: The First Locked-Room Murder Mystery,” BRev 4 (1988): 35.