Ehud the Left-Handed

Other gods always look so appealing. The Israelites were drawn to the Canaanite agricultural religion, perhaps because the wars had settled down and they were now farmers, which was quite different from wandering in the wilderness and subsisting on manna. Many individuals indulge their passions, making Other gods out of lust, rage, gluttony. Many churches fixate on growth and statistics, casting an Other god that we might call the Prime Number.

But Other gods are pain. Indeed, one of the Hebrew words for “idol” is the word for “pain.” It is written in Isaiah 46:1-2, “Bel bows down; Nebo is stooping. Their idols are on animals and cattle: a burden for the weary beast. They stoop; they bow down. They are not able to rescue the burden, and their soul goes into captivity.” The Hebrew word for “idol” that comes up in Is. 46:1 is the same word for “pain” in Genesis 3:16, “In pain you shall bear sons.” Also related is the word for “pain” in Genesis 3:17, “cursed is the ground on your account; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”

The ultimate pain of serving an Other god is eternal condemnation. In his mercy, and in order to spare us such everlasting torment, the Lord makes pain a consequence of serving Other gods in this life. For instance, in Judges 3:7-8 we heard, “And the sons of Israel did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh, and they forgot Yahweh their God, and they served the Baals and the Asheroth. And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia. And the sons of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim for eight years.”

The Israelites served Other gods, but they did not receive great blessings on account of this service. They served Other gods, and the Lord gave them to a tyrant to serve him. Service to Other gods means slavery in this life, and, if there’s no repentance, then an inextinguishable inferno.

Yet part of the cycle of the book of Judges is repentance. Because of their pain the sons of Israel cry out to the Lord, and he raises up a judge to save them. We have before us one of the greatest little-known-but-should-be-known accounts in all the Scriptures: the account of Ehud and Eglon.

Notes and Commentary

12 And the sons of Israel again did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh.

This is the first stage in each cycle in the book of Judges (for an overview of these cycles, see the notes on Judges 2:11-13 and the graphic in this post). Recall that “what is evil” in the eyes of the Lord is forsaking him to serve Other gods (see notes on Judges 2:10-13 in this post).

And Yahweh strengthened Eglon king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh. 13 And he gathered to himself the sons of Ammon and of Amalek, and they went and struck Israel and possessed the city of palms. 14 And the sons of Israel served Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years.

Moab and Ammon were the sons that Lot’s daughters bore by their father (Gen. 19:30-38). When they later became people groups, they often banded together in war. Moabites and Ammonites were not allowed in the congregation of the Lord, because they did not give the Israelites bread and water when they came out of Egypt, and also hired Balaam to curse them (Dt. 23:3-4).

Amalek was a descendant of Esau (Gen. 36:16), and, as a people, attacked the sons of Israel when they came out of Egypt (Ex. 17:8-16). Concerning this, Moses charged Israel, “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out from Egypt, who met you in the way and attacked you, all who were straggling behind you, when you were tired and weary, and he did not fear Yahweh. And it shall be that, when Yahweh your God gives you rest from your enemies round about in the land that Yahweh your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. You shall not forget” (Dt. 25:17-19).

The Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekites had all done wrong to Israel, and justice would demand that they suffer for their crimes. If, however, Israel continued to suffer at the hands of these nations that had been marked for vengeance, the Israelites should conclude that they themselves have committed a more grievous offense than these pagan nations. And it’s not that the pagan nations have triumphed over Israel. These pagan nations are tools in the hand of God for the discipline of his people (see this post).

The city of palms is Jericho. The pagan nations would have had to cross the Jordan River in order to get to that city. See map.

15 And the sons of Israel cried out to Yahweh,

This is stage two of the cycle, the cry for help.

and Yahweh raised up for them a Savior, Ehud son of Gera, a Benjaminite, a man restricted in his right hand.

The Lord answers the prayer of his people in this third stage of the cycle. In the first cycle, Othniel was called a savior (Judg. 3:9). Ehud is likewise called a savior. The Savior of God’s people is ultimately the Son of God, and therefore the judges who bear that title are reflections of Jesus Christ (even if they’re poor reflections). As the book of Judges progresses, the accounts of the judges get longer. We hear more about the personal failings of the judges, and at the same time, we get clearer and clearer pictures of Christ.

Jericho belonged to Benjamin by inheritance (Josh. 18:21). “Restricted in his right hand” appears to be an idiom for “left-handed,” not a reference to a damaged right hand. The phrase is used again in Judges 20:16, referring to 200 left-handed Benjaminites.

And the sons of Israel sent tribute by his hand to Eglon king of Moab. 16 And Ehud made for himself a sword; it had two mouths, and its length was a cubit. And he girded it on under his robe, on his right thigh. 17 And he offered the gift to Eglon king of Moab.

It seems that Jericho, and likely the surrounding region, had become a tributary to Moab. Paying tribute is essentially like giving a bully your lunch money so that he won’t beat you up on the playground, but on a national level. Ehud either volunteered or was chosen as an emissary to take the tribute to Eglon.

The size of the sword and its place of concealment makes us anticipate an assassination attempt. “Two mouths” means two-edged. A cubit is about 18 inches long. Ehud girded the sword to his right thigh, making it easy for him to reach with his left hand and grab it quickly.

Now Eglon was a very fat man. 18 And it happened, as he [i.e. Ehud] finished offering the tribute, that he sent away the people who had carried the tribute; 19 but he himself turned at the idols that are by Gilgal, and he said, “I have a secret word for you, O king.” And he said, “Silence!” and all the servants attending him went out from his presence. 20 And Ehud came to him while he was sitting by himself in his cool upper room, and Ehud said, “I have a word from God for you.” And he arose from the throne. 21 And Ehud sent forth his left hand, and took the sword from upon his right thigh, and he thrust it into his belly. 22 And even the hilt went in after the blade, and the fat closed after the blade, for he did not pull out the sword from his belly. And the dung came out. 23 And Ehud went out through the porch, and shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.

Gilgal was on the east side of the Jordan, the place where Israel camped after the Lord piled the river’s waters in a heap and granted Israel to enter the promised land on dry ground. Joshua had instructed representatives of the twelve tribes each to take a stone from the river and set them up. And he said, “When your sons ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ you shall make your sons know, saying, ‘On dry ground Israel passed over this Jordan, when Yahweh your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you passed over, just as Yahweh your God did to the Red Sea when he dried it up before us until we passed over, that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of Yahweh, for it is strong, that you may fear Yahweh your God all the days’” (Josh. 4:21-24).

The male Israelites were also circumcised in that place, none of whom had been circumcised in the wilderness. After the circumcision, “Yahweh said to Joshua, ‘Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from upon you.’ And the name of that place is called Gilgal unto this day” (Josh. 5:9).

Then on the fourteenth day of that month, the sons of Israel celebrated the Passover for the first time in the land of promise. They made unleavened cakes, according to the Lord’s ordinance, which meant that for the first time in a long time they had grain to make bread. They ate from the produce of the land, and the manna ceased the following day.

Now in the place named Gilgal because the reproach of the captor had been rolled away, in the place where the stones stood in testimony of the Lord’s mighty hand, in the place where the sons of Israel had their first circumcision and first Passover in the land the Lord swore to their fathers – in that place stand idols. And at the place of the idols, the savior turned back, alone, to deliver his people. Here we have an excellent image of what our Savior Jesus did for us.

Whether Eglon’s abode was on the east or west of the Jordan, we’re not sure. It seems likely that Ehud did not go all the way to the capital of Moab, then get within five miles of home on his return trip, only to turn and go all the way back to the capital of Moab to stab Eglon, and then go all the way back again (crossing the Jordan each time). Given that Moab held fords at the Jordan (Judg. 3:28), it’s possible that Eglon had a house or palace in the territory of Benjamin or Manasseh. If so, then Ehud only went about a mile before he turned back at the idols by Gilgal.

Perhaps it was because Eglon trusted Ehud, perhaps it was because Eglon didn’t see Ehud as any real threat, but whatever the case, Eglon felt comfortable being left alone with this foreign emissary, who, unbeknownst to him, was to save Israel from the hand of Moab. Eglon hefted his bloated body from the throne and prepared to hear an oracle. “I have a word from God for you,” Ehud said, which, besides “It is finished,” very well may be the most epical words spoken before a death in all of Scripture.

Ehud had concealed his weapon and brought it undetected to the enemy. We might see here how Christ, in his passion, largely veiled his divinity with his humanity. “His royal pow’r disguised he bore; / A servant’s form, like mine, He wore / To lead the devil captive” (Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice, st. 6). Yet at the point when Jesus seemed most human, he was, in fact, most divine, just as Ehud saved when Eglon was least suspecting.

And behold! there’s Eglon, the massive and astonished adversary, with sudden death piercing through his abdomen. Like the devil observing Jesus on the cross, Eglon didn’t see his own doom coming. But now there he lies in his own excrement, with the savior’s weapon inextricably buried in his gut. The savior escaped unscathed, and the tyrant king is defeated.

24 So he went out. Then his servants came and saw, and behold, the doors of the upper room were locked. And they said, “Surely he is covering his feet in the cool chamber.” 25 And they waited to the point of shame, but behold, there was no one opening the doors of the upper room. So they took the key and opened them, and behold, their lord had fallen to the floor, dead!

“Covering his feet” is an idiom for using the bathroom. This delay gave Ehud time to get away clean.

26 But Ehud escaped while they delayed, and he himself passed over the idols and escaped toward Seirath. 27 And it happened when he came that he blew the horn in the hill country of Ephraim, and the sons of Israel went down with him from the hill country, and he was before them. 28 And he said to them, “Pursue after me, for Yahweh has given your enemies, Moab, into your hand.” And they went down after him, and they captured the fords of the Jordan that Moab had, and they did not allow a man to pass over. 29 And they struck Moab at that time, about ten thousand men, every one stout and every one valiant, and no man escaped. 30 And Moab was subdued in that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.

Once again the idols are mentioned. The Other gods that held Israel in sway have been undone. The Lord has shown the Other gods for what they are: they are pain, they are slavery, they are life under a tyrant. And they are weak. They are no match for the one true God, and he saves his people from them.

Ehud runs to his people as a messenger returning from the scene of a decisive battle. “Yahweh has given Moab into your hand,” he says, as if by defeating the king the whole people of Moab lie prostrate. And yet there’s truth to that, as much as a battle did follow. In future days, King David would defeat Goliath, and victory over all the Philistines would ensue, such that, for killing one man, the people would sing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7).

And this ultimately points us toward Christ. Do we as Christians still wrestle against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places? Yes (Eph. 6:12). And yet this is but a cleanup campaign. Jesus has won, completely and totally and already. Israel followed Ehud into battle against a people who had already lost, and we follow our Savior in the same sort of battle. The devilish Eglon lies covered in blood and feces and the pall of death. That means the victory is ours, even if there are demonic or worldly Moabites left about. Sin, Death, and Devil have been doomed; therefore nothing alarms us.

Ehud and the sons of Israel recaptured the fords of the Jordan, in all likelihood (based on locations mentioned in this chapter) very near the place where Israel first crossed into the promised land. We don’t hear any more mention of the idols at Gilgal, but then again, why should we? The Lord said, “I am Yahweh your God, who brought out out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves; you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2-3). And after an event like the one we’ve read, the proper response to this seems obvious: Of course, we won’t have other gods! What would we need them for? The Lord, he is God!

Moab was subdued, and the land had rest for eighty years. The eighty years likely refer to all the days until the death of Ehud, as it implies in Judges 4:1,“And the sons of Israel again did what is evil in the eyes of Yahweh after Ehud died.” We already heard in Judges 3:11, “The land had rest for forty years; then Othniel son of Kenaz died.” We’ll hear later, “And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon… And it happened as Gideon died, that the sons of Israel turned and whored after the Baals” (Judg. 8:28, 33).

However, the eighty years more likely encompass the remainder of Ehud’s life, plus whatever years of faithfulness continued after his death, plus the years during which the sons of Israel began to turn away from the Lord, but before the Lord raised up an enemy against them (this may also be what’s intended in Judges 8:28, 33 concerning the death of Gideon).

But the fact remains: Ehud did die, and the cycle repeated. As much as we heard no personal defects of Ehud (as we will with the remainder of the saviors), the greatest personal defect of every one of the saviors is that he dies and stays dead. Ehud leaves us looking forward to the Savior who will never die, or who will die and rise from among the dead, who will keep us from lapsing and preserve us steadfast to the end. In our day we know that Savior, and to him belongs all praise and honor, in his saints and in his Church.

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