Out of Left Field (Judges 3:12–30)

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Stuart Chase - 6 Jan 2019

Out of Left Field (Judges 3:12–30)

Othniel is an example of the ideal judge. Everything about him screams “deliverer.” By comparison, Ehud comes out of left field. Commentators have called him “a bit of a shock after Othniel” and “a devious assassin,” which is “disturbing.” But the writer of Judges paints Ehud as a deliverer, and his story is one of surprising salvation. Ehud is meant to be understood as a saviour out of left field.

Scripture References: Judges 3:12-30

From Series: "Judges Exposition"

An exposition of the book of Judges by Stuart Chase.

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The term “out of left field” is an English idiom that describes something unexpected or strange. The precise origin of the phrase is disputed, but it is generally thought that it derives from baseball, where a left fielder, who might be expected to throw the ball to third base, instead throws it home, while the runner has his back to the fielder. The ball, coming out of left field, catches the runner by surprise.

In our previous study in Judges, we considered a model of salvation. Othniel (3:7–11) was a model of the ideal judge. Everything about him screamed “deliverer.” He was a man of faith and upstanding character, who performed his task as deliverer admirably. As Israel’s first judge, he set the standard, and the first-time reader of the book might expect every subsequent judge to be very much like him.

But Ehud comes out of left field. Appearing more like a trained assassin than a morally upright judge, his narrative is not as sanitised as we might expect from a biblical record, and there are those who have taken exception to this. Phillips P. Elliott, for example, writes, “By even the most elementary standard of ethics [Ehud’s] deception and murder of Eglon stand condemned. Passages like this, when encountered by the untutored reader of the Scriptures, cause consternation and questioning.” Barry Webb calls Ehud “a bit of a shock after Othniel” and “a devious assassin,” which he considers to be “disturbing.”

However, to focus on these “disturbing” factors of the story is to miss the point, for the writer intends in this to tell us a story of salvation. It is surprising salvation, to be sure—a saviour out of left field—but it is nevertheless a story of God’s gracious salvation. Everything in the narrative must be read through that lens.

The story appears to be told in five broad scenes, each with a focus on “the people of Israel” (vv. 12a, 12b, 15a, 15b, 27).

Israel’s Sin

The text begins by telling us that “the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (v. 12a). The nature of their “evil” is not developed in any great detail in this text, but it need not be, because the writer has already summarised the repeated evil of Israel during this period in history:

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them for harm, as the LORD had warned, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress.

(Judges 2:11–15)

Throughout Judges, when you read of Israel doing “evil” in the Lord’s sight, your mind should cast back to 2:11–15. Their repeated evil was rank idolatry.

Because of the repetitive nature of Israel’s sin in this book, it would be easy for us to gloss over this verse—as we so often gloss over our own evil—but let’s just pause for a second and consider the significance of this clause. We can say at least three things about Israel’s evil, and these three things are mirrored in our own sin.

First, note that Israel’s sin was predictable. As you read the book of Judges, this repeated phrase (3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1) becomes almost boring by its predictability. And the fact that each of the instances where their evil is highlighted, it is highlighted without much development shows that their sin was just the same thing repeated over and over. There was nothing inventive or novel about Israel’s sin; it was just what we come to expect from God’s people.

If we are honest, we will admit that sin is likewise predictable in our lives. It may sadden us, but it hardly surprises us when we find ourselves, once again, violating God’s commands. And, if we are honest, it is rare that a completely new, novel sin rears its head. We usually find ourselves falling prey to the same, habitual evils that we committed in the past.

But we should be encouraged that it is into such predictable, boring sin that God injected a deliverer for Israel, as he so graciously does for us.

Second, note that Israel’s sin was perverse. Their evil was committed after “the land had rest forty years” (3:11). God had graciously delivered Israel from oppression and given the people rest. Gratitude would dictate that the people remain faithful to the Lord, but the perversity of sin lies in ingratitude.

Paul describes humanity’s rebellion in Romans 1:21 in this way: “Although they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him.” Ingratitude is at the heart of sin, to whom we owe everything. When we ignore his commands and pursue our own wishes and desires, we display deep, perverse ingratitude. And ingratitude is not a sin to be scoffed at. Read Romans 1:21–32 and see how quickly ingratitude escalates into all manner of sin.

But we should be encouraged that ingratitude was an evil for which God provided Israel a deliverer, and one for which he provides us deliverance too.

Third, note that Israel’s sin was powerful. It was almost addictive. Despite divine written warnings, and repeated historical examples of chastening for idolatry, Israel would fall again and again into the same trap. It held a strange power over them.

While Christians have ultimately been set free from slavery to sin (Romans 6:1–14), we all know the strange power that sin still seems to hold over us. Immediately after describing Christian freedom from sin and bondage to righteousness, Paul admits that it is not always easy to do what Christians know they must do (Romans 7:15–20). Like Israel, we find ourselves time and again in need to forgiveness and cleansing, but thankfully God promises these things to those who repent (1 John 1:9).

Israel’s Slavery

Because they again did evil in the Lord’s sight, the Lord again exercised his chastening against Israel:

And the LORD strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amalekites, and went and defeated Israel. And they took possession of the city of palms. And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.

(Judges 3:12b–14)

The consequences of Israel’s sin are presented both in divine and human military terms. The ultimate hand behind Israel’s misery was the Lord, but he achieved this by moving a human king to military action. For Israel, this might have seemed like ordinary military warfare, but we are given greater, behind-the-scenes insight into matters.

It can seem trite, but it is true that God is behind everything that happens to you. “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it. Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lamentations 3:37–38).

We should pause to remember that God is always behind everyday events. It is easy for us to look at our lives and survey the landscape of the world we live in and forget that God is behind everything that happens—particularly the difficult things. If Israel wondered where God was in their oppression, this text highlights that he was behind it—he was overseeing, controlling, and mandating it.

It is not always easy to accept this, but the Bible teaches it. It is easy to accept that God is behind the joy of childbirth, the elation of your new job, and the joy of your loved one’s salvation. It is harder to accept that God is behind the bad things that happen. But the Bible teaches it. The Bible teaches that God is behind your unemployment and your dire financial outlook. The Bible teaches that God is behind the dread diagnosis you just received. The Bible teaches that God is behind the relational difficulties you are experiencing. The Bible teaches that God is behind your pain. And if you are a Christian, the Bible teaches that God is skilfully working all your pain to make you more like Jesus Christ.

Why does God allow Christians to suffer pain? The answer to that question is not always immediately obvious, and we are foolish to speak where God has not spoken. One reason, however, is because God is working to make us more like Christ, and if Christ was a man of sorrows, how can we be like him unless we also experience sorrow? Pain is not easy to deal with—especially when it comes to us out of left field—but if we remember that God is working through our pain to make us more like Christ, it may give us more hope in our perseverance.

This dual emphasis—that God ordained but Eglon executed Israel’s chastening—highlights another important truth: Far from giving us license to sin, the believer’s special relationship with the Lord places him or her under greater obligation to obey. This is perhaps nowhere more clearly highlighted than in Amos’s prophecy: “Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities’” (Amos 3:1–2).

Israel’s Saviour

Despite complaints of the “disturbing” nature of this narrative, the writer makes it clear that this is a story of deliverance: “Then the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, and the LORD raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man.” Ehud is not called an assassin, a murderer, or a deceiver, but a “deliverer.” This is a story—as out of left field as it may be—of God’s salvation.

The astonishing fact of deliverance must not be missed at this point. In the same way that we become accustomed to reading of Israel’s evil, so we can become accustomed to reading of God’s grace in, time and again, providing a deliverer. But we do not want to miss the astonishing grace in this act. As Webb says, “There are two amazing things in Judges: Israel’s persistence in sin and God’s persistence in saving them, and the second is the most astonishing by far.”

The last thing that Israel deserved at this point was another deliverer. They had overtly and flagrantly violated God’s law, and there was no reason that God should have provided a deliverer. But God is not a God who gives us what we deserve. He is a God who is far more gracious than we deserve.

God shows his grace to us in a million little ways, but the ultimate act of grace, of course, is the final deliverer that God provided in Jesus Christ. We were completely undeserving of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, but thank God that he did not give us what we deserved but reached out to us in grace.

Before we look at the salvation that God wrought through Ehud, let’s consider a few things about him, which highlight just how strange—how out of left field—it was for God to provide this man as Israel’s deliverer.

First, notice that Ehud was a “Benjamite.” For the first-time reader of Judges, this might have been surprising for at least two reasons.

In the first place, unlike Othniel, Ehud was not from God’s appointed leader-tribe. It makes sense for Israel’s leaders—like the later kings—to come from the tribe of Judah, so it seems odd that Ehud came from Benjamin.

In the second place, the one place we have read of Benjamin so far in Judges (1:21) was hardly flattering. The only thing the writer has told us so far is that the Benjamites did not fully obey God by driving out the inhabitants of the land—unlike Judah, who performed quite credibly in the opening chapter.

It will become less surprising as the Judges narrative continues for judges to come from tribes other than Judah, but, initially, to read of a non-Judean judge, and particularly from an under-performing tribe like Benjamin, comes out of left field.

Of course, God’s deliverers often come out of left field. It surprised the Jews of Jesus’ day that God’s appointed Saviour could possibly come from Nazareth (John 1:45–46), and perhaps the first-time reader of Judges might have asked, “Can anything good come from Benjamin?”

Second, observe that Ehud was “a left-handed man.” This is not a throwaway comment about his handedness but another clue to the surprising nature of the Lord’s choice. The word translated “left-handed” literally means “restricted” or “bound up.” It is akin to our word “disabled” and was used of left-handedness because the stronger left hand rendered lefties unable (disabled) to perform everyday tasks with the right hand, as ninety percent of people could easily do.

Prejudice against lefties is well-attested in history. This is true even linguistically. The word “dexterous” (showing great skill) comes from a Latin word meaning “on the right.” It’s lefty cousin, coming from the Latin word for “left,” is “sinister”! (Left-handedness is known as sinistrality.) People who are particularly unskilled at dancing are sometimes said to have two left feet. In ancient times, left-handedness was often considered to be of the devil.

In the Bible, it is the right hand that is considered a place of privilege. Joseph was displeased when Isaac placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left hand of Manasseh’s. Manasseh was the firstborn and warranted the place of honour and therefore the right hand (Genesis 49:10–19). Similarly, Jesus is seated at the Father’s right hand, not his left hand (Matthew 22:44; 26:64; Mark 16:19). At the final judgement, Jesus will separate the goats (his enemies) from the sheep (his people) with the goats at his left hand and the sheep at his right (Matthew 25:33).

The preference for right-handedness has persisted even until recent times. When I was in primary school, we were seated, alphabetically by surname, two to a desk. One year, I was seated next to a left-handed girl. As we were sorted alphabetically, she was seated to my right, so that our elbows kept bumping against each other when we wrote—me with my right hand and her with her left. It took several weeks of pleading, and the eventual intervention of her mother, before the teacher agreed to “break the rules” and allow us to switch seats.

More importantly for our context, a strong right arm was considered, in ancient times, a warrior’s greatest asset (see Psalm 44:3; 89:13; 98:1; Isaiah 62:8). Ehud was therefore weak where a warrior was expected to be strong. Militarily speaking, he was hardly the obvious choice for a deliverer!

Once again, we understand that this is the way that God tends to do things. Messiah might have been expected to arrive with great pomp and honour, not born to a humble carpenter in a backwater town in ancient Israel. He was not impressive by human standards, but is that not the way that God often works? And ought it not to encourage us that God does not need our giftedness to work through us, but usually works through willing servants in spite of—and sometimes because of!—their weaknesses.

Israel’s Salvation

Let us now turn our attention to the main body of the story, which details the salvation that God’s deliverer brought to God’s people:

The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length, and he bound it on his right thigh under his clothes. And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people who carried the tribute. But he himself turned back at the idols near Gilgal and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And he commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. 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. And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out. Then Ehud went out into the porch and closed the doors of the roof chamber behind him and locked them.

When he had gone, the servants came, and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “Surely he is relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” And they waited till they were embarrassed. 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.

Ehud escaped while they delayed, and he passed beyond the idols and escaped to Seirah.

(Judges 3:15–26)

At this point, it is not at all clear that anyone realised that God had chosen Ehud to deliver Israel. A little later in the story, Ehud seems to have understood this, but there is no indication that Israel did.

Sending tribute to a ruling king was the ordinary course of events during times of oppression. “The people of Israel” chose this time to send Ehud, with a small group of fellow Israelites, as their ambassador.

Presented with a golden opportunity to penetrate deep into enemy territory, he (seemingly without informing anyone else) fashioned a 45cm double-edged dagger, which he concealed on his right thigh. We assume that the dagger had no crosspiece, which would have made its concealment easier. He realised at this point that his handicap may in fact be an asset because, given the preference for right-handed warriors, anyone searching for a concealed weapon likely would pay attention to the left thigh rather than the right thigh.

His plan worked, and they made it through security to a direct audience with Eglon. We are told at this point that “Eglon was a very fat man.” We are not meant to read this through 21st-century lenses, in which obesity is considered negatively and slimness is viewed as a token of beauty, fitness, and self-control. In the ancient world, fatness was considered a sign of prosperity (Isaiah 17:4; 55:2; Jeremiah 31:14; cf. Job 36:16; Psalm 36:8; 63:5; 65:11; 109:24; Romans 11:17). In fact, the word here translated “fat” is the same word that is used to describe Daniel and his friends’ obvious health despite eating only vegetables and drinking only water (Daniel 1:15). However, the addition of the adjective “very” suggests that, even by ancient standards, Eglon’s bulk was overbearing.

At this point, the Hebrew reader might begin detecting a bit of dark humour. Eglon’s name means “young bull” or “calf” and the tribute brought to this excessively obese ruler was—of course!—food. Eglon had for eighteen years been gorging himself on the food tribute that Israel brought to him, but all he had been doing was preparing himself, like a fatted calf, for slaughter. Ehud was the instrument of that slaughter.

The smile that perhaps begins to form on the Hebrew reader’s lips broadens a bit as he reads of Eglon’s gullibility (vv. 18–20).

Ehud was presented with a wonderful opportunity to kill Eglon, but instead he presented the tribute and left. The suspense is palpable: Was he really about to let the opportunity to slip? If it seemed so, Ehud had another plan. He travelled with his cohorts as far as “the idols near Gilgal,” close to the Israeli-Moabite border. At that point, he sent his fellow-travellers ahead and turned back himself to Eglon. He told Eglon that he had “a secret message” for him, which intrigued the king sufficiently that he sent his attendants out of the room. Ehud added that the “secret message” was, in fact, “a message from God,” which piqued the king’s interest enough sufficiently that he hoisted himself from his chair. Perhaps Ehud and his companions had been followed and Eglon was aware that he had turned back at the idols, just where a message from the gods might be delivered. Regardless, the “message from God” would not be the kind of message he expected!

The gullible oppressor had prepared himself as a fatted calf for slaughter, and that is what happened next. Ehud reached down, grabbed the dagger from his right thigh, and drove it straight into Eglon’s “very fat” belly. As he did so, the layers of fat closed around the hilt so that the dagger could not be removed—and “the dung” (or “the entrails” in the NKJV) spilled out.

Ehud made his escape by exiting the roof chamber and locking the doors behind him. After waiting some time without being summonsed, the servants made their way back upstairs to find the doors to the roof chamber locked, with no sign of Ehud. Supposing that the king was relieving himself, they waited until they could wait no more. They retrieved the spare key, opened the door, and found their king dead on the floor. Ehud was long gone. Eglon and his servants—the vicious oppressors—were made to look like laughable fools.

Israel’s Synergy

We are now given the first explicit hint in the narrative that Ehud was aware that he was God’s chosen deliverer.

When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim. Then the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, and he was their leader. 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 did not allow anyone to pass over. And they killed at that time about 10,000 of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped. So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.

(Judges 3:27–30)

For the first time in the story, there is synergy between God’s deliverer and God’s people. For the first time in the story, the Israelites join Ehud in fending off their oppressors. This seems to be God’s design in Judges—for an appointed leader to lead God’s people militarily against their oppressors—and it happened here as God designed it.

There are more tokens of dark humour here. First, at the moment of crisis, Moab’s allies—Ammon and Amalek (v. 13)—are nowhere to be seen. They had ganged up against God’s people, but when God fought back, Moab was alone. Second, the words used of the Moabite warriors—“strong” and “able-bodied”—can literally be translated “overweight” and “substantial.” “Strong” and “able-bodied” are good translations, but the Hebrew reader would see the double-meaning. These warriors, once so fierce, strong, and able-bodied, who had joined their leader in gorging themselves on Israel’s tribute, were now too overweight to make a quick escape! Oppressively, they were strong and able-bodied; in defeat, they looked obese and cumbersome.

This narrative is constructed to make the oppressors look laughable. As God laughs at those who resist him (Psalm 2:1–4), so God’s people can laugh when they experience his gracious deliverance (Psalm 126:1–2). The suffering and oppression that God’s people experience often make it difficult to laugh, but every now and again, when we look at our oppressions from God’s perspective, a smile curls at our lips and a snicker escapes from our mouths.

At the same time, there is a deep sadness about this closing section, because even though “the land had rest for eighty years” (v. 30), it was onlyfor eighty years, for once again we read, “And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD after Ehud died” (4:1). Dale Ralph Davis well captures the tragedy in this story: “Ehud, sorry to say, is not a totally adequate savior, for though Yahweh brings a certain kind of salvation and help through Ehud, nothing Ehud did could change the hearts of Israel.” It would take a different Saviour to change hearts. That Saviour is Jesus Christ.

But for all the inadequacies of Ehud, we should note that there are striking similarities between the temporary deliverance that Ehud provided and the eternal deliverance that Christ provided for his people. Webb highlights some of these:

Both were deliverers raised up by God. Both were unlikely deliverers, with unpromising origins and an appearance of weakness rather than strength. Both faced the enemy alone and overcame him. Both were later revealed as victorious and summoned others to share in their victory. Both overcame the world (represented by Moab and Rome respectively) and achieved rest for God’s people. Both, in a sense, made a spectacle of the evil powers.

This story was meant to remind Israel that their tyrants were puppets in God’s hands and could be removed at any time at God’s will. The story of Jesus Christ instructs us that the tyrants that rule over us—political tyrants, habitual sins, oppressive circumstances, etc.—are all puppets in God’s hands. In Christ, he can make the obstacles in our path seem laughable and remove them at any time.

Of course, the greatest tyrant that we all face is our own sinful nature. It is a tyrant that seems overwhelming and impossible to overcome. But God has provided a deliverer in the person of Jesus Christ, who did everything that needed to be done to deliver us from our sin. Whatever form of tyrant your sin nature takes—same sex attraction, pornography, drunkenness, greed, gluttony, covetousness—deliverance is possible in Jesus Christ to those who will trust in his finished work on the cross, as proven by his resurrection.

Let us learn to not trust our own devices to deliver us from our slavery to sin, but to look to Jesus Christ, the only deliverer whom God has provided to deliver us from our oppressors and give us eternal rest with him.