God is very concerned that the new generations of Israelites aren’t paying the iron price for their stuff, so he sends some people over to “test” them (Judges 3:1):
- 5 Philistine lords
- The Canaanites
- The Sidonians
- And a bunch of Hivites
Unfortunately, this testing backfires a little and the Israelites start bedding down with their antagonisers – living with the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, intermarrying and “serving the Baals and the Asheroth” (Judges 3:7). This mirrors, with a slight difference, the formula we saw earlier, when the Israelites “served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 2:13).
Othniel, son of Kenaz
The first judge is our old friend, Othniel, the circumstances of whose marriage we saw in Joshua 13:17 and Judges 1:13.
God sells the Israelites into the hands of King Chushanrishathaim of Aram-naharaim, which my RSV renders as Mesopotamia. The people are oppressed for eight years before God takes pity on them and raises up Othniel, Caleb’s nephew. Under his leadership, Israel finds peace for forty years, until Othniel’s death.
It’s quite interesting to see these two little snippets of stories. It suggests a much larger story that didn’t make it in.
Ehud, son of Gera
After Othniel dies, the people go right back to their wicked ways, so God sells them to King Eglon of the Moabites (who defeats Israel with the help of the Ammonites and the Amalekites). Israel is oppressed for eighteen years.
This King Eglon, we are told, was rather on the corpulent side. According to Jack Collins, Eglon’s name is something of a joke:
Eglon’s name (Heb. עֶגְלוֹן), it’s worth noting, bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew words ‘egel (עֵגֶל), meaning “fatted calf,” and ‘agol (עָגֹל), “round,” so the non-Hebrew reader has already missed that the villain of the piece is essentially named “King Swolencalf.”
When God enters the reconciliation phase of his relationship with Israel, he brings up Ehud, son of Gera, of the tribe of Benjamin. Ehud, by the way, is left-handed. This is important to the story, but it is also something of a joke. As Jack Collins explains, “Benjamin” means “son of the right hand.”
His left-handedness gives him the advantage he needs. When he is selected to bring a tribute to the Moabites, he straps a sword to his right side, under his clothes. The text doesn’t spell this out, but it seems that any weapons-checking would have assumed that he would have been armed on the left side (a right-handed fighter would cross his arm over to his left side to draw), so they would have missed a weapon hidden on the wrong side.
Once the Israelites make their tribute, they make to leave but Ehud hangs back, telling King Eglon that he has a secret message. King Eglon dismisses his staff and takes Ehud up to “cool roof chamber” (Judges 3:20), which is apparently a bathroom (I’m assuming that the coolness refers to a draft, which would tame the smell?). I didn’t pick up on this when reading, but Brant Clements suggests that perhaps the idea is to give Ehud his private audience while sitting on the toilet as a sort “see what I think of you Israelites” message.
Once Ehud and King Eglon are alone, Ehud – badass that he is – says “I have a message from God for you” (Judges 3:20) and stabs the king through the belly with his sword. He thrusts the sword in so deep that the hilt goes in. He stabs so hard that “the dirt came out” (Judges 3:22). I think that means either that he punctured the king’s intestines, or perhaps that the king defecated. Either way, it’s quite clear from the context that “dirt” is a euphemism.
His job done, Ehud locks the door and escapes (or escapes and then locks the door, depending on your reading).
The servants come to check on their master but determine that he must just be focusing really hard on his business, so they delay in unlocking the door and discovering the body. It seems possible that the smell of the “dirt” makes them think that their master is live and well and happily voiding his bowels in the company of that Israelite guest.
His business done, Ehud runs to Seirah, sounds a trumpet to gather the Israelites, and marches on the Moabites while they are leaderless. Ten thousand Moabites are killed, “all strong, able-bodied men” (Judges 3:29), and Israel gets to rest for the next 80 years.
I really enjoyed Jack Collins’s two posts on this story, which go into quite a bit of detail on the many puns used. The story was funny on first reading, but absolutely hilarious with the commentary Collins provides. Go read Part 1 and Part 2.
And since it’s obligatory, I’ll close off this section with a mention of Deut. 2:9, where God tells Moses: “Distress not the Moabites, neither content with them in battle.”
Shamgar, son of Anath
Shamgar is hardly worth a mention – or, at least, that’s what the author(s) thought. We are told merely that he killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad (a ‘goad’ being a spiked stick used for driving cattle, according to freedictionary).
His section ends with what is clearly an editor insert: “he too delivered Israel” (Judges 3:31). Ah, so that’s what he was doing with that oxgoad!