July 3, 2011
Series: “Can You Believe That's in the Bible?”
William G. Carter
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; and the LORD strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the LORD. . .But when the Israelites cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man...Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber, and said, “I have a message from God for you.” So he rose from his seat. Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s belly . . .
Oh, how we love a swashbuckling story! On the eve of a national birthday, it’s worth remembering a few.
I recently heard the story of Ethan Allen, the real Ethan Allen. He was a hero of the American Revolution. Thanks to him, we won Fort Ticonderoga, on the border of New York and Vermont. Inspired by a series of legal disputes in southwestern Vermont, he formed a band of marauders called the Green Mountain Boys. They were mountain men, hard-scrabble farmed. They terrorized some ambitious surveyors and drove away a number of thieving settlers.
When the Revolution broke out in 1775, Ethan Allen was asked to lead an operation against Fort Ticonderoga. He rounded up a number of his country marauders, about a hundred sixty of them, and they put together an unconventional plan to cross Lake Champlain on fishing boats in the middle of the night. Just as the plan was to commence, a military officer named Benedict Arnold showed up. He was a bit of dandy. He showed up late, claimed to take charge, and was roundly sidelined by the Green Mountain Boys.
Ethan Allen’s plan went forward. The farmers moved in on the sleepy fort with their muskets. When the commander was summoned, he asked, “By what authority are you entering this fort? Allen said, “By the authority of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress.” The commander surrendered the fort without a shot, and the Green Mountain Boys raided the liquor cabinets.
We love these stories. They recall brave warriors who did courageous deeds. The Book of Judges is full of them. There are tales of Gideon with his trumpets, the mighty warrior Jephthah, and curly-headed Samson. Perhaps the wildest tale is the one we heard today, of Ehud, the swordsman who took out big, fat King Eglon.
The Bible says he was an answer to prayer – quite literally.
For eighteen years King Eglon had dominated the people of Israel. They had it coming, says the writer of Judges. Twice he insists the Israelites had ticked off the Lord Almighty, and that’s how King Eglon had come to oppress the people of Israel. He demanded a sizable annual payment, what the story calls a “tribute.”
Now, please try to understand this. This so-called “tribute” was so big that it took several strong men to carry it to the castle. King Eglon didn’t use this cash for the benefit of the people. It wasn’t tax money that he used for building roads, putting police officers on the street, or improving the general welfare of the people. That’s what taxes do, after all. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once quipped, “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization." If only Eglon of Moab had seen it the same way!
That was an unusual choice. Ehud was left-handed. I don’t know if we are supposed to take that literally or not. The Hebrew word here seems to mean “handicapped in the right hand.” Some Bible scholars wonder if he was disabled - perhaps maimed. Maybe so, but we don’t know. What we do know is that left-handed people have always been seen to be a little suspect. In a culture that shakes hands with the right hand, to prove there is no weapon, a left-handed person can shake your hand and stab you in the gizzard. It’s no wonder the word “sinister” comes from the Latin word for left-handed.
Maybe that’s why my Kindergarten teacher always forced me to pick up a pencil with my right-hand. My brain has always been wired in a different way. I am in my right mind; that’s why I am left-handed.
Here’s Ehud. This Bible story was the basis for my first-ever children’s sermon. We were assigned in seminary to cook up a children’s sermon and try it out on our childish classmates. So this is the story I told, the story of Ehud the southpaw swordsmen.
He was an oppressed minority, I said. He was a left-hander in a right-handed world. Whenever he picked up the telephone, Ehud had to switch hands to write something down. Whenever Ehud would write something down, he would smear ink on the back of his hand (unless he was writing in Hebrew backwards). And then, whenever he tried to use scissors, well, forget it. Ehud was left-handed. Yet he used his different brain to God’s advantage and the people’s benefit. Thus endeth the children’s sermon.
Of course, that wasn’t good enough for my seminary classmates. One of those future ministers asked, “Tell us again how King Eglon actually died,” and everybody giggled. It is, after all, the most graphic murder scene in the Bible, far more graphic than a crucifixion. The tubby king welcomed Ehud in his rooftop chamber, and Ehud stuck him with a blade that was swallowed up in blubber. The guerrilla slipped away unseen.
Meanwhile the bewildered servants wondered what was taking so long. They asked one another, “Do you suppose the king is still seated on his gold-plated royal toilet seat?” They waited a good long time, then decided to break down the door and find out. King Eglon was lying on the floor, as dead as Elvis Presley.
I hope you catch the humor of that. It is a story designed to humiliate the big fat king. Never mind that the scripture is clear that God had placed him on the throne (the other throne, that is). Sure, King Eglon was a Moabite. Those Moabites loved to set up their stone-statue idols all over the place. Ehud had to pass by those “sculptured stones” down by the Jordan River when he delivered the tribute. That seems to be the very thing that gave him courage to return to the palace, request an audience with Eglon, and try out his shiny new sword. He tried it only once.
It’s a swashbuckling story. We enjoy these stories, as long as we are on the right side. Again, I think of some of our national stories. How about that Revolutionary War hero, Francis Marion? They called him “the Swamp Fox” because he hid out in the kudzu of South Carolina. His other nickname was “the Father of Modern Guerilla Warfare.” Swamp Fox Marion would take his men and attack the British when they least expected it. Then they would race back into the swamps. The Redcoats, reluctant to get their boots dirty, could never track down Marion and his marauders.
Now, that’s the kind of story that gets made into a Mel Gibson movie. Mel made the movie and called it, “The Patriot.” It was curious that a British film critic did some further research into the life and times of the real Francis Marion. He writes that the Swamp Fox was “a thoroughly unpleasant dude who was, basically, a terrorist.”
The meaning of a story like this depends on your point of view. How would King Eglon’s people have told the same story? What would his wife and children have to say about Ehud? It all depends on where you stand. If the story is told in your favor, for your side, it’s a very different story than what others would say about it.
In fact, I was most curious to hear about a Bible study led by John Bell of the Iona Community. John says he decided to read this story to a group of church folk in Wales. Then he asked, “Why do you suppose a story like this is in the Bible?” There were some predictable answers from the well-dressed crowd: “God has an aversion to unjust taxation,” “God judged a glutton in a time of Israel’s starvation,” and one person said, “God loves left-handed person, too.”
To everybody’s surprise, somebody said, “This story is here so that one day we will be able to talk about September 11.” Everybody got very quiet all of a sudden. For the truth of the story was this: “the wealth of the fat king and the troops round his palace did not protect him from being fatally wounded by the least likely of people – a man who was left-handed.”
You know, I thought this was going to be a funny Bible story. I expected we might smirk at the details, cheer for the hero, and hiss for the enemy. But the more I chew on this story, the more it leaves a sour taste in my stomach. There is more than one way to understand a story, especially a story about a devious assassin. One nation’s hero is another nation’s terrorist. The more I reflect, the more I am haunted by the dangers of telling a story from one point of view.
Regardless of how we vote, we often call on the name of God to justify our politics. That happens in all the adventure stories of scripture, and it happens here in the book of Judges. The people of Israel tell the story of how Ehud was chosen by God to deliver them from the omnivorous King Eglon. He was their hero; three cheers for the Left-Handed Guerilla!
But the really amazing detail in the story is that Israel also dares to say that God put Eglon the Moabite on the throne for eighteen years because the people had broken God’s heart with their sin. Now that’s the other side of the story. And it gives me pause to wonder how God judges our lives, both personal and national. According to the Jewish scriptures, God is the original King-Maker – and God is the conclusive King-Breaker. It is God with whom we ultimately have to deal, and it is God who sees all our human politics clearly, completely, and truthfully.
Jesus was a Jew. He knew these stories for they came from his Bible. I think it matters that he never had the need to quote this story, draw upon it, or refute it. But one thing Jesus did: he came to deliver his people from their oppression. The Lord God raised him up. And just like the ancient story of Ehud, the Lord God chose a most unlikely way for deliverance. God used the “left-handed” surprise of putting Jesus on the cross. Then, after Jesus died, God lifted the divine left hand to raise him from the dead. And all of our days, Jesus is exalted as the Prince of Peace; he sits at the right hand of God.
It sounds to me like an Ambidextrous Salvation, intended for everybody.
(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved
 John L. Bell, Hard Words for Interesting Times: Biblical Texts in Contemporary Contexts (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2003) 110.