Let’s face it; our text presents us with some problems. These are the kind of problems that cause many preachers to stay in the New Testament or at least to avoid the Book of Judges. Some see no possibility of relevance to Christians today. For example, we encounter a man named Shamgar and his ox goad. When is the last time you used one of these? When is the last time you ever heard of one of these? Then how can this text have anything to say to us?
Furthermore, some would object that our text contains far too much violence. Do we really need to know how fat Eglon was or how far into his belly the sword was thrust? Do we want to read that the fat closed over the sword? Let’s face it; this is the kind of text we would avoid if we could, except for one thing: it is included in the Bible, the inspired Word of God, and we dare not ignore or avoid it.
At first (and second) glance these stories in our text don’t appear to connect in a way that makes a particular point. The author’s methodology may not be readily apparent, and so his construction of the text may be perplexing to the reader. For example, two of the accounts of Othniel and Shamgar are short on details, while the account of Ehud and Eglon has far more details than we care to know.
So why not just pass our text by and move on to Deborah and Barak? There is a simple reason, stated best by the Apostle Paul:
16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).2
It’s relatively easy for Bible believing Christians to grant the truth of these words when dealing with Romans or Ephesians or one of the Gospels. And we certainly find Old Testament books like Genesis, Psalms, or Proverbs worthwhile. But we have to recognize that at the time Paul wrote these words to Timothy, he was referring primarily to the Old Testament Scriptures, as well as to the New Testament Scriptures which were in the process of being written and collected. We don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing our way through the Bible. We must take it as it has come to us, believing that it is the Word of God, that it is inspired and inerrant, and thus profitable for us.
Our text in Judges 3 is a kind of test of the truth of Paul’s words. Is this passage inspired and useful? Does it speak to us? If so, how? That is what we will seek to discover in our study. If we can see that the most difficult texts of Scripture are inspired and profitable, then we will be assured that every passage of Scripture is worthy of our study. We will also be encouraged to expend the effort required to understand, interpret, and apply difficult texts of Scripture.
Let me share my approach to the Bible when I am studying it, especially when dealing with a troublesome text like ours. When I come upon a text like this one I look for the difficult questions and then seek to find the answers. I believe the tough questions are often the key to the interpretation and application of this text. For example, I ask, “Why did our author have so little to say about Shamgar, and why did he give more attention to Ehud and Eglon than to Othniel, a great hero?” “Why was it necessary for the author to go into such gory detail in describing the death of Eglon?” I believe that our study will provide the answer to these questions and that we will discover that the message of this text is very relevant and profitable. So let us delay no longer. Let us get to the text.
5 The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. 6 They took the Canaanites’ daughters as wives and gave their daughters to the Canaanites; they worshiped their gods as well. 7 The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight. They forgot the Lord their God and worshiped the Baals and the Asherahs. 8 The Lord was furious with Israel and turned them over to King Cushan-Rishathaim of Aram-Naharaim. They were Cushan-Rishathaim’s subjects for eight years. 9 When the Israelites cried out for help to the Lord, he raised up a deliverer for the Israelites who rescued them. His name was Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The Lord’s spirit empowered him and he led Israel. When he went to do battle, the Lord handed over to him King Cushan-Rishathaim of Aram and he overpowered him. 11 The land had rest for forty years; then Othniel son of Kenaz died (Judges 3:5-11).
For the Israelites, apostasy is a matter of “giving and receiving” – the giving and receiving of brides. The most effective way to corrupt the faith of the Israelites was by intermarriage with the Canaanites. Every time this occurs it is always described in terms of the giving or receiving of a woman in marriage, which is why God warned His people about the dangers of intermarriage with the Canaanites.
1 “When the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are going to occupy and forces out many nations before you – Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and powerful than you – 2 and he delivers them over to you and you attack them, you must utterly annihilate them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy! 3 You must not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will erupt against you and he will quickly destroy you” (Deuteronomy 7:1-4).3
Our text begins with the report of intermarriage with the Canaanites. The Israelites chose to coexist with the Canaanites, rather than to kill them. Consequently, Israelite fathers gave their daughters in marriage to Canaanite men, and Israelite men took Canaanite women as wives. And when the Israelite men married those Canaanite women, they also joined with them in the worship of their pagan gods. Worshiping the Canaanite’s gods caused the Israelites to forget their God and to practice all kinds of evils, many of which were a part of Canaanite “worship.”
God became angry with the Israelites for their apostasy, and so He gave them over to King Cushan-Rishathaim of Aram-Naharaim,4 who will oppress and rule over them for eight years (verse 8). In their anguish, the Israelites “cry out” to God. This outcry is most likely not an expression of repentance, but rather a cry for help prompted by the consequences of foreign oppression.5 God hears their cries, and in His mercy, He raises up a deliverer – Othniel, the nephew and son-in-law of Caleb. Othniel is no stranger to the reader for we have already read of him in Joshua 15 and more recently in Judges 1:11-15.
I believe the author expects the reader to make the connection between Caleb and Othniel and the reference to Israel’s sin in verses 5-7 of our text, which indicate that the Israelites gave their daughters in marriage to the Canaanites, while they took wives for their sons from the Canaanites. Othniel is about to be introduced as Israel’s first judge, and I believe that the author wanted it to be very clear that Othniel was a godly man, a man who did not take a Canaanite wife. Instead, he was the man who captured Kiriath-Sepher (Debir) and thus obtained Achsah, Caleb’s daughter, for his wife. Othniel was not like the majority of his fellow Israelites who took Canaanite women as wives, and who thus turned from God to worship the heathen gods of their wives. Caleb was the kind of man who we would want to be a judge in Israel. Caleb was, as a number of Bible commentators have concluded, an ideal judge, a man who sets the standard for all subsequent judges.
Although we have encountered Othniel already in Judges and earlier in the Book of Joshua, we have to admit there is a great deal about Othniel that we don’t know. There are many details we wish our author had provided. Dale Ralph Davis seems to think (or at least he believes that others may think) that little is said of Othniel because he was such a dull fellow:
“The problem with Othniel is that he is so colorless.”6
I don’t believe that Othniel is “colorless” at all. I am certain that he was a colorful man. I believe that he was a man of courage and honor, a man who fought with great resolve and won some spectacular victories. Why, then, does the author deprive us of these details, especially since he is about to supply a number of details about the bloody killing of Eglon in just a few verses? I believe one reason the author offers the reader so little detail regarding Othniel’s spectacular successes is because he does not want to give him too much praise, or cause us to regard him too highly, because he was a great man.
The reason the author avoids giving us too many details is because we tend to idolize our heroes. Our author’s goal is not to glorify men (which could hardly happen often in this book!), but to glorify God. One of the themes of this book is that this was a time when there was “no king in Israel.” Even before we reach 1 Samuel,7 the Israelites will have concluded that what they need is a king who is a great military hero, a king like Othniel, or later, like David. But David, too, will fail, and he will also die. A better king is needed – the Messiah – and so our text prompts us to look to God for the ultimate in deliverance, and not to men. And so Othniel is not given excessive praise in our text, precisely because he was both courageous and colorful, the kind of man others would love to follow.
What we are told about Othniel in verses 9-11 is that he was Caleb’s nephew (verse 9), that he was raised up by God and empowered by the Spirit of the Lord, so that he prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim (verse 10), and as a result, Israel enjoyed peace for 40 years (verse. 11). Othniel’s victories are attributed to God, rather than to Othniel. It was God who raised him up, and it was God who empowered him with His Spirit. That is all we really need to know.
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. 13 Eglon formed alliances with the Ammonites and Amalekites. He came and defeated Israel, and they seized the City of Date Palm Trees. 14 The Israelites were subject to King Eglon of Moab for eighteen years.
15 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. The Israelites sent him to King Eglon of Moab with their tribute payment. 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. 17 He brought the tribute payment to King Eglon of Moab. (Now Eglon was a very fat man.)
18 After Ehud brought the tribute payment, he dismissed the people who had carried it. 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. 20 When Ehud approached him, he 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, 21 Ehud reached with his left hand, pulled the sword from his right thigh, and drove it into Eglon’s belly. 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. 23 As Ehud went out into the vestibule, he closed the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.
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.” 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! 26 Now Ehud had escaped while they were delaying. When he passed the carved images, he escaped to Seirah.
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. 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. 29 That day they killed about ten thousand Moabites – all strong, capable warriors; not one escaped. 30 Israel humiliated Moab that day, and the land had rest for eighty years (Judges 3:12-30).
We begin our consideration of Ehud and Eglon by noting that 70% (if my math is correct) of our text for this message is devoted to Ehud and the deliverance of Israel from Eglon and the oppressive rule of Moab (allied with the Ammonites and Amalekites). It is our task to discern why God would place so much emphasis on this deliverance, while giving so much less attention to Othniel, and one mere verse (one sentence) to Shamgar. The answer to this will be the key to understanding our text.
The story begins with the reader being informed that the Israelites “again” did evil in the sight of the Lord. The pattern of cycles set forth in chapter 2 is played out in chapter 3. It is also significant, I think, that we are told that the Israelites did evil “in the sight of the Lord” (verse 12). The author wants us to be very aware of the fact that every man was doing what was right in his own eyes.8 I am inclined to think that the Israelites initially went about the evil they were practicing without even realizing that it was evil. After all, it was what Canaanites did, and they had inter-mingled and inter-married with them. In response to Israel’s sin, God disciplined them by “strengthening Eglon against Israel.” Imagine this; God was giving the enemy the upper hand over Israel. Instead of strengthening Israel so that they could defeat the Moabites, God strengthened the Moabites so that the Israelites would be oppressed. This, of course, was exactly what God had warned:
25 “The Lord will allow you to be struck down before your enemies; you will attack them from one direction but flee from them in seven directions and will become an object of terror to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:25; see also Joshua 23:15-16).
I am calling attention to the fact that God strengthened the Moabites because I believe it is an important clue to the interpretation of our text. To a wayward and disobedient nation (as Israel was at this moment in time), their defeat and oppression would have looked like an unfortunate turn of events (“bad luck”), rather than the discipline of God because of Israel’s sin. Sin dulls our hearts and minds so that we are oblivious to the presence of sin and even the working of God in our lives and circumstances. Indeed, not only did Israel’s defeat look “normal,” so too her subsequent victories under the leadership of Ehud could have been seen as good fortune and no more except for this account.
As usual, when God’s people begin to suffer, they are quick to cry out to God for help. As we have seen before, this outcry was not necessarily (indeed not likely) a cry of repentance. How often do we “cry out” to God in our prayers in response to some painful event or circumstance in our lives? We want God to take away the pain and to fix the problem, but the possibility that we are facing the consequences of our own sin is often not at the forefront of our minds.
In response to the Israelite’s cry for help, God raises up Ehud9 to deliver His people. We are told several bits of information about Ehud. First, we are told that he was a Benjamite, a left-handed Benjamite no less.10 This detail is not a frivolous one, added at the whim of the author. It is an important piece of background information, which will help us grasp the message of our text. Ehud is also the “bag man” selected to oversee the payoff of Eglon. Israel’s tribute could have been in the form of gold or silver or agricultural products.11
We are also told that Ehud was “packing heat,” a concealed weapon, a weapon that he himself made. It was a short 18-inch custom made sword or dagger that seemingly did not have the usual protective crosspiece designed to protect the hand of the sword-bearer. This is what facilitated the fatal jab which penetrated Eglon’s body and protruded out the back.12 The weapon was almost certainly designed as a “concealed weapon.” Some would argue that it was specifically designed and created as the weapon with which to kill king Eglon, but this is not necessarily so. These were very dangerous days, days when one could be accosted and abused by some member of the occupying Moabite military. As we shall see from Judges 5:6, the highways may have been so dangerous that folks avoided them, using back roads and paths instead. Maybe Ehud was packing a concealed weapon for his own protection, like one of my students in a state prison where I taught for a short time. He was a rather quiet fellow, but he was being threatened by one or more inmates, and so he fashioned a “shiv” that he kept hidden on his person (until it was discovered).
I have long held that Christians can be afflicted by what I call the “pious bias.” That is, they tend to put the most positive “spin” possible on the text, rather than to see it in more human (and sinful) terms. Thus, they try hard to find a way to make Jonah repentant in chapter 2, when in fact he never repents in the entire book. What I am saying is that our author supplies all of the detail necessary to make his point, but the absence of certain details affords the reader the opportunity to “fill in the blanks” with interpretations we prefer to believe, even if it didn’t happen that way. Given the facts the author has supplied, I could come away thinking of Ehud as a very courageous fellow who planned and orchestrated the death of Eglon and the defeat of the Moabites (with God’s help). But we could also think of Ehud as a less than courageous fellow, something like Gideon. Through a series of providential interventions, Ehud found himself in the right place at the right time. He cooperated with God, but it was God who was “pulling the strings.”
I would suggest that we should not be too quick to assume that Ehud was a hero in waiting, especially in the context of the entire Book of Judges. Our author is not trying to cast the spotlight on heroes for us to glorify, but to focus our attention on God. When we have finished reading this account, we should be giving glory to God, not to men.
I would propose that the author has very skillfully kept some details from the reader, while he has very carefully woven only pertinent details into the story. Our task is to discover why the author left out things we would like to know while including information we would rather not have learned. Here are some of the critical details provided in our text which are like the pieces of a puzzle; we need to figure out where each peace fits, and then take a good look at the resulting picture. Crucial details would include Eglon’s girth, his naïve actions (sending out his servants/security), and allowing Ehud to be alone with him. Other important details would include the twice-mentioned carved idols outside the city, the design of the palace with its “cool room,” Ehud’s left-handedness and his dagger, and the location of the palace near the Jordan. We will seek to find the meaning of all this in a moment, but first let us turn our attention to Shamgar, a man who gets a whole lot less attention in our text (but don’t forget the mention of him in 5:6).
After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath; he killed six hundred Philistines with an oxgoad and, like Ehud, delivered Israel (Judges 3:31).
One has to wonder why Ehud gets 19 verses, while Shamgar’s story is told in 1 verse. We know only that Shamgar was the son of Anath, that his weapon was an oxgoad, and that with this weapon he killed 600 Philistines.13 We may infer, as some have done, that Shamgar may not have been a Jew because his tribe is not mentioned (as it was with Ehud – 3:15), and some scholars believe that Anath (his father’s name) is not a Jewish name.14 The things we know for certain are that he killed 600 Philistines and that he did so with an oxgoad.
So what in the world was an oxgoad? It was an “ox prodder” of sorts, a sharp instrument mounted on the end of a fairly long pole – long enough so that the plowman could jab his oxen in the backside to goad them on so that they would plow faster. We are told that at the other end of the oxgoad a metal scraper was attached, which the plowman would use to scrape off the dirt or mud that had stuck to the plow, so that it would function more efficiently. We would have to say that the oxgoad was not the “weapon of choice;” it was just what Shamgar had at hand. You wouldn’t find these “weapons” at the local gun store, but at the local farm store. It therefore seems that the author wants me to focus on one thing – that unlikely weapon, the oxgoad.
There are many things we would love to know about Shamgar and his military career. We would like to know if he was an Israelite, and if so, from which tribe. We would like to know if and for how long he “ruled” Israel. We would love to read the report of the battle (or battles) in which the oxgoad was used and to hear just how Shamgar did it. We would like to know why the author went into such great detail in describing the termination of Eglon, and yet skips over most of the “interesting” material related to Shamgar and the Philistines. This is what we shall now set out to discover,
So now we have come to the most challenging part of this message. We are about to reach some conclusions that will explain: (1) the lack of details in the account of Othniel, when he seems to be such a great leader; (2) the length of the account and richness of detail in the author’s account of the death of Eglon at the hand of Ehud; and, (3) the brevity of the reference to Shamgar and his victory over the Philistines. What was this chapter intended to say to the ancient Israelites who read it long ago, and what is its message and its relevance to Christians today?
Question 1: Why is there so little detail in the author’s account of Othniel’s victory over Cushan-Rishathaim? We must first bear in mind that this is not the only time we have come across Othniel.15 We saw him first in Joshua 15 (verse 16-19) and then again in Judges 1 (verses 11-15). Added to what we already knew of Othniel, we now discover that he became Israel’s first judge, who delivered Israel after eight years of subjection to Cushan-Rishathaim. Othniel brought peace to Israel for forty years.
The most important thing to keep in mind about Othniel is that God raised him up and empowered him to carry out his divinely-appointed mission. I believe this is the explanation for the lack of further detail. The more we focus on Othniel – what he did and how he did it – the more glory we give to him, rather than to God who ultimately accomplished Israel’s deliverance. Then, as now, it was too easy to look to a man to save you, rather than to God. This is precisely what will happen when Israel demands a king in 1 Samuel 8:16
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and approached Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don’t follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.” 6 But this request displeased Samuel, for they said, “Give us a king to lead us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. 8 Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you” (1 Samuel 8:4-8).
It is no wonder that we are so interested in more details concerning Othniel’s successful leadership today. If he had lived in our day, he would have been hotly pursued to write a book titled, “Othniel’s Seven Steps to Successful Leadership,” and I fear the book would have sold like hotcakes. But God is the only real key to Othniel’s success. The victory was from the Lord. This is not to overlook Othniel’s faith, courage, and initiative, but our eyes must be on God, not man. In the end, it is God alone who deserves the glory.
Question 2: Why is there so much emphasis on Ehud and such an abundance of gory details concerning the execution of Eglon? We should begin by noting what our author has written to set the stage for this account of deliverance. He has provided us with certain information about Ehud: his origin (a Benjamite, the son of Gera), his physical characteristic of left-handedness, and his weapon – a homemade dagger or short sword designed to be concealed under his clothing. We are also told certain things about Eglon: namely, his excessive heaviness and his naiveté in allowing Ehud to have a personal audience with him, out of sight and thus away from the protection of his servants (aka his secret service). Some of the conversation between Ehud and Eglon is recorded, and a fairly specific (and graphic) explanation of why the king’s servants waited so long to check on his well-being. We are given some very important details about the place where the meeting occurred, particularly the “cool room.” They were in Gilgal, in the suburbs of Jericho, and also close to the Jordan River and the fords where one must cross the river to return to Moab. Our attention is also drawn to the carved idols, twice mentioned in the text. Finally, we learn how Ehud escaped, summoned his armed forces, and defeated the Moabite army as they vainly sought to cross the Jordan in an effort to return to Moab.
That is a lot of detail, much more than is said of either Othniel’s or Shamgar’s deliverances. But there is also something we are not told. We are not specifically told that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Ehud, empowering him for his task. (I am confident that the Spirit of the Lord did empower him, but it was not clearly stated in the text.) We are told that God “raised up Ehud as Israel’s deliverer” (verse 15), in words that are very similar to what we have just read concerning Othniel (see verse 9).
We are also told that God gave Eglon power over Israel because of their sin (verse 12). This tells me that from all outward evidences, Israel was merely experiencing “bad luck.” This is not so different from the impression we are given in Judges 1. It looked as though Judah could not drive out the Canaanites from the plains “because the Canaanites had iron chariots” (Judges 1:19). So, too, it would seem that the failure of the Benjamites to drive out the Jebusites (1:21) and the Danites’ retreat to the hills (1:34-35) occurred because the enemy was stronger than the Israelites. But then the Angel of the Lord appears in the first verses of chapter 2, revealing that all of the failures of chapter 1 were due to Israel’s sin. Just as coexistence with the Canaanites in chapter 1 was the consequence of Israel’s sin, so the Israelites’ oppression at the hand of the Moabites was divine judgment.
All of this is to say that one cannot judge one’s circumstances on the basis of appearances, or, in the words of our author, on the basis of what seems right in our own eyes, rather than in God’s sight (as defined by God’s Word). Appearances would incline us to think that Israel’s misfortune was merely bad luck, while her deliverance was a stroke of good luck. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both Israel’s defeat and her deliverance were the work of the (largely) unseen hand of God. I believe that our text was written to reveal the hand of God in all that took place, both in Israel’s bondage, and in her deliverance. God’s gracious hand is to be seen in the details of our text.
If I could sum up the message of our text in the fewest words possible, it would be with the words of Paul in Romans 8:28:
And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
Our text is the best illustration I can think of in the entire Bible (at least at this moment, when I’m saturated in the particulars of this account) of God’s providential (unseen) sovereign control of history, carrying out His purposes and His promises for His covenant people.
Now, let’s go back to some of the details in our text, and let me attempt to demonstrate how each and every detail is a part of the “all things” of Romans 8:28 that God is causing to “work together for good” for the fulfillment of His promises and the blessing of His people.
Ehud was a left-handed Benjamite, as was true of a number of Benjamites in particular. His left-handedness is what enabled him to carry his very special concealed weapon, located on his right hip, where it would not be expected (and where he was likely not searched). Jericho and Gilgal just happened to be in Benjamite territory, and Ehud just happened to be selected (elected?) to take the tribute to Eglon in Gilgal.
Gilgal was the place where the Israelite nation had first gathered when they crossed the Jordan. It was here that the 12 stones from the midst of the Jordan were piled up as a monument to God’s power and deliverance. It was here that the nation was circumcised and observed the Passover.17 And it was here that was the gateway to Jericho and ultimately to Jerusalem. It was also here (or close by) that the fords of the Jordan made it possible to cross from Israelite territory to Moab (or the reverse). It was here that Ehud twice passed the carved idols that now symbolized Israel’s idolatry and Moab’s victory. Is seeing these images (and perhaps the 12 stones as well) what prompted Ehud to turn back and seek yet another face-to-face meeting with Eglon? Here is what God said when He instructed Joshua to make the stone memorial:
21 He told the Israelites, “When your children someday ask their fathers, ‘What do these stones represent?’ 22 explain to your children, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan River on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the water of the Jordan before you while you crossed over. It was just like when the Lord your God dried up the Red Sea before us while we crossed it. 24 He has done this so all the nations of the earth might recognize the Lord’s power and so you might always obey the Lord your God” (Joshua 4:21-24, emphasis mine).
It is possible that the sight of the heathen-carved idols that now met those who entered Gilgal reminded Ehud of God’s power and of His exhortation to “always fear and obey the Lord”? The two-fold mention of these carved idols in conjunction with Gilgal is hardly a coincidence. The author expects his readers to remember Israel’s history as it relates to Gilgal. And so it was to Gilgal (or the fords of Jordan nearby) that Ehud would return with his forces to block the Moabites from crossing the Jordan. And thus 10,000 of the enemy were slaughtered by the Israelites. All these events could not have happened at a better place. Gilgal was the perfect place, the place God divinely (albeit providentially) orchestrated to be the location of Eglon’s palace, and thus where tribute would be paid to Eglon, and where God’s “payoff” for Moab’s oppression of His people would take place.
The palace was somehow equipped with a “cool room” where Eglon may have been able to look out and see people entering and leaving the city. It was also a place that was high enough for the cooler breezes to circulate through the room. He was apparently looking out from his “cool room” when Ehud departed and then unexpectedly turned to call out to the king that he had a secret message for him. Since those who accompanied Ehud had already gone, Eglon must have felt that he was in little danger from one “unarmed” Israelite, and thus he summoned him back to his palace and met with him privately (away from his security forces) in his “cool room.” All of these physical details are a part of the “all things” of Romans 8:28 which God is working together for the achievement of His purposes, for the good of His people.
Now here is where it is going to get a little sticky. I do not wish to be indelicate, but there are some additional details which I believe are also a part of the “all things” God causes to work together in our text. Why does our author feel that it is necessary to make a point of the fact that Eglon was a very fat man? I would love to pass by this detail because I have a few extra pounds to shed – not as many as Eglon, mind you, but I am not as trim as I would like to be, and thus my reluctance to deal with someone like Eglon who has a serious weight problem.
Davis thinks there is an element of humor here that the Israelites would find amusing.18 Perhaps Davis is on to something here, I but am inclined to think that this is not the author’s primary purpose for calling attention to Eglon’s girth. A very fat man is hardly in shape to be a great warrior. Eglon would surely be a big target and would not easily be able to dodge Ehud’s dagger. And yet Eglon stood, as if on cue, to give Ehud the perfect target, to obtain just the right effect – Eglon’s death – yet apparently without so much as an outcry that would summon his servants.
Eglon’s weight was a necessary piece of God’s providential puzzle in yet another way. The translators of the NIV render the text in such a way as to indicate that Ehud’s dagger not only found its way into Eglon’s belly, handle and all, but also penetrated so deeply that it came out the back side.19
Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it (Judges 3:22, NIV; emphasis mine).
Regardless of where the point of the dagger emerged, virtually all translations inform us of the result. In the words used to describe the death of Judas, “his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18, KJV, ESV). It is perhaps more accurate to say that the contents of his bowels gushed out.
“So,” you might ask, “what difference does this make?” It makes a great deal of difference in the unfolding drama of our text. What was it that caused the servants of Eglon to linger for such a long time outside his “cool room” – long enough for Ehud to make his escape? The author tells us in plain (but rather candid) language: they thought that Eglon was going to the bathroom and would not want to be disturbed. Apparently, kings did not want to be seen “with their pants down” (so to speak), as we note in the account of Saul stopping at a cave to answer nature’s call.20 Thus, his servants always honored his desire for privacy at such a time.
But how is it that they would conclude that Eglon was making a “pit stop”? Here’s where it gets a bit indelicate, but I believe we need to see why the author has included these unseemly details. As I read the text, the king had entered the “cool room” with Ehud, and they were left to discuss Ehud’s confidential matter privately. The servants did not see Ehud leave, but it appears they assumed he had left and that only the king was in the “cool room” and in good health. He was just “tending to business.” And why did they assume this? Because when Ehud ran his dagger through the king’s stomach he severed his intestines, and perhaps sliced open his bowels (or at least the back side of Eglon). A doctor friend told me that such an “incision” would literally empty his bowels. Since Eglon was a very fat man, he would have a lot of “dirt”21 to gush forth.
Now let us remember yet another detail our author has supplied. Eglon is in his “cool room.” The floor of the Jordan Valley (and thus Jericho and Gilgal) was a very warm place, and the “cool room” was apparently a lattice-walled room that allowed the breeze to pass through, providing a certain amount of cooling. Now we are told that a very large man has just (involuntarily) emptied his bowels completely. My doctor friend, Gary, also informed me that the smell of Eglon’s incision and consequent purging would be intense. That smell would have been carried throughout the palace area by the breezes passing through the “cool room,” so that the servants were hardly speculating about what was taking the king so long. They had probably “been there” before. No one wanted to disturb the king at a time like this. And so they waited and waited. No one wanted to be the one to interrupt nature’s workings. Finally, so much time passed that the servants were embarrassed. How could the king take so long? Why didn’t he call out to them? Hadn’t he locked the doors (which, of course, Ehud had done)? When they could wait no longer, they obtained the key and opened the door to find the corpse of their king, with his insides and their contents all around him.
Why tell such a gruesome story? Why include the bathroom scene, with all the unpleasant details? (Thank goodness there is no “scratch and sniff” version of this text!) The answer should now be apparent – the intestinal surgery performed by Ehud and his custom-made sword, with all the smells that accompanied it, were what kept the king’s servants from taking action sooner. And this lengthy delay (it was lengthy – see verse 25) is precisely what allowed Ehud to make his escape, summon his troops, and seize the fords of the Jordan, so that the Moabites could not escape, resulting in the slaughter of 10,000 Moabite soldiers.22
Do you now see why the author included all these seemingly gratuitous details? It was to demonstrate that while the natural eye may see only coincidences and “good luck,” this was actually God’s doing. He orchestrated “all things for good” so that He might deliver His people. His control extended to which of Ehud’s hands was dominant, to the design of his dagger and exactly where it was concealed, to the king’s weight problem, and to the design of his palace and cool room. God’s providence directed Ehud’s sword so that it penetrated deeply (it didn’t strike a rib) so that it opened his intestines, producing a terrible (but familiar) smell.
Think of each and every detail that had to go just right in order for the events of our text to turn out as they did. Our author wants us to see that such a deliverance as he has described is vastly beyond anything that Ehud or anyone else could have orchestrated. This deliverance may not have been as spectacular as the dividing and closing of the Red Sea, but it produced what God had purposed. God was in complete control, even though it could appear that these things were happening by chance.
What does this mean to us? Well, Paul said it, and we have already pointed it out: “God causes all things to work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Was this true for Ehud and for Israel in the times of the judges? Yes! Is it true for Christians today? Absolutely! As we look at the decline of our nation morally, politically, and economically, we might be tempted to wring our hands. It may look as though things are spinning out of control. But appearances are not reality. God may well be using some powerful men and nations to chasten America and even His church for our sins. But the good news is that when we call out to Him for help, He is merciful, and He causes men and events to achieve His purposes, although it may appear that these are going to bring about our destruction. If God was in complete control, both in disciplining disobedient Israel and in bringing about her deliverance, then He will do the same for His people today. We must simply trust and obey Him, as He has revealed Himself in His Word.
Question 3: What are we to learn from Shamgar to whom our author devotes but one sentence in our text? There is but one thing that really stands out in our text and that is his oxgoad, the weapon with which he slaughters 600 Philistines. So what are we to learn from an oxgoad? I believe the author of Judges sends us a very consistent message regarding the kinds of weapons God uses to bring victory to His people: here it is an oxgoad, and a few verses earlier it was a hidden dagger wielded by a left-handed Benjamite. Elsewhere in Judges, God gives the victory to Israel by means of a tent peg and hammer (Jael), horns and torches (Gideon),23 a millstone thrown down by a woman, landing on Abimelech’s head,24 the jawbone of a donkey,25 and a collapsing building26 (Samson).
The Israelites were intimidated by the iron chariots of their enemies, doubtful that they could ever prevail over armies so well equipped. The truth was that God could give His people victory over their enemies regardless of their weapons, and by means of the most unlikely warriors and weapons. Once again we see that it is God who is our victory, not our heroes and not high tech weapons. I love these words by Matthew Henry,
“See here, (1.) That God can make those eminently serviceable to his glory and his church’s good whose extraction, education, and employment, are very mean and obscure. He that has the residue of the Spirit could, when he pleased, make ploughmen judges and generals, and fishermen apostles. (2.) It is no matter how weak the weapon is if God direct and strengthen the arm. An ox-goad when God pleases, shall do more than Goliath’s sword. And sometimes he chooses to work by such unlikely means, that the excellency of the power may appear to be of God.”27
Why should we be surprised that God would give His people victory by the use of such unlikely weapons? After all, God has chosen to achieve His purposes by using unlikely people:
13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this (Acts 4:13-14).
26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Praise God that He has chosen to use people like you and like me to accomplish His purposes, so that all the glory goes to Him.
Question 4: Is the author not going to excesses in terms of the amount of violence and bloodshed that he reports? This is definitely not “G-rated” material. Is it necessary to describe the violence and bloodshed that occurred in such graphic detail? Is the violent death of Eglon (not to mention his 10,000 soldiers) not excessive force? Is this unbecoming to a God who is gracious and compassionate? Abraham once asked (when he was informed that God was about to incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah), “Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right?” (Genesis 18:25b). Is the death of Eglon consistent with the character of our God?
We should remember that Justice administers punishment that is proportionate to the crime. Our author has not gone into great detail to describe the cruelty of Eglon to the Israelites over those 18 years, but I am certain that God’s judgment upon Eglon and Moab was proportionate to the violence and cruelty they committed against God’s people.
In the recent past, widespread outrage was expressed when the Lockerbie bomber was given a “compassionate release” from prison because of his bad health. People felt that a man who was responsible for the death of 270 people should have suffered more than he did. A dagger in the stomach of Eglon was no more than what he deserved.
Among several biblical texts, I am particularly reminded of two passages in the Book of Revelation. The first is found in chapter 6, where those who were martyred for their faith cried out to God for justice:
9 Now when the Lamb opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been violently killed because of the word of God and because of the testimony they had given. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Master, holy and true, before you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Each of them was given a long white robe and they were told to rest for a little longer, until the full number was reached of both their fellow servants and their brothers who were going to be killed just as they had been (Revelation 6:9-11).
Well deserved judgment did eventually come upon those who had abused and oppressed the people of God, as we read in Revelation 16:
4 Then the third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and the springs of water, and they turned into blood. 5 Now I heard the angel of the waters saying:
“You are just – the one who is and who was,
the Holy One – because you have passed these judgments,
6 because they poured out the blood of your saints and prophets,
so you have given them blood to drink. They got what they deserved!”
7 Then I heard the altar reply, “Yes, Lord God, the All-Powerful, your judgments are true and just!” (Revelation 16:4-7, emphasis mine)
This should serve as a strong word of warning to those who would oppose God’s chosen people.28 Those who persecute God’s people will sooner or later face judgment from an angry God. One does not do well to oppose God’s people. Nor does one do well to idly stand by when His people are being harshly treated. This, my friend, has very real relevance to us as our nation seems to be losing its resolve to stand with Israel when their enemies are intent upon driving them all into the sea.
To those who would protest that God’s justice is excessively violent, I would remind you that hell is violent. God’s righteous anger has already been poured out upon His Son at Calvary. The suffering of our Lord on the cross of Calvary makes Eglon’s suffering pale in comparison, and yet that is the punishment we all deserve, the punishment our Lord bore on the sinner’s behalf. If God dealt so severely with those who treated the Israelites harshly in Judges, what do you think lies in store for those who have rejected His Son? Hell is the measure of how seriously God takes our sin.
One last observation: Our text does not glorify the judges God raised up to deliver His people because even the best of them were sinners. They were merely flawed instruments in the hands of God. Paul would call them “clay pots.”29 They were not sinless. And they all died. They could only save for a short time. The Great Deliverer is Jesus. He is without sin, and He has borne the penalty of our sins. And since He lives forever, He can save forever, save all those who acknowledge their sin and embrace His sacrificial death at Calvary on their behalf. Judges does not have any true super heroes because there is only one Super Hero, the Lord Jesus. To Him be the glory, great things He has done!
1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 4 in the series, The Dark Days of Israel’s Judges, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on September 6, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
3 See also Genesis 34:8-10, 20-23; Numbers 25:1-9; Joshua 15:16; Judges 1:12; 21:1, 7, 18; 1 Samuel 17:25; 18:17; Ezra 9:12; Nehemiah 10:30.
4 Dale Ralph Davis believes that the author has purposely engaged in word play here, and this could well be the case as we can hear the similarity of sound in the king’s name (Cushan-Rishathaim, which is supposed to mean “Cushan of double wickedness”) and the country’s name (Aram-Naharaim, “Aram double rivers”). Davis may very well be right here, and if so, this word play may have gotten a chuckle out of the ancient Jews who read or heard it. But this is an “inside joke,” and thus it does not produce the same effect for readers today. That is why I will pass by this suggested word play with no further comment. While it might produce a smile or a chuckle, it is not the thrust of the text. See Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 51.
5 The word here is different from the term rendered “groaning” in 2:18. Nevertheless, it still does not appear to indicate repentance. See Davis, Such a Great Salvation, pp. 49-50, also D.I. Block, Judges, Ruth (NAC 6; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), pp. 148, 153.
6 Dale Ralph Davis, p. 55.
7 See Judges 8:22, where Gideon is invited to be Israel’s king. See also 1 Samuel 8 where the Israelites demand a king.
8 See Judges 17:6; 21:25.
9 The expression used to describe the raising up of Ehud to deliver Israel is remarkably similar to the description of God raising up Othniel in verse 9.
10 This was not altogether unusual as we can see from Judges 20:16.
11 See 2 Chronicles 17:10-11.
12 It is interesting to note that of the various translations, only the NIV and the 1901 ASV actually makes a point (pardon the pun) of the fact that the sword went through his intestines and then proceeded to penetrate the back of Eglon’s body. This is due to some choices translators had to make. All translators would appear to agree that this fatal wound severed Eglon’s intestines, emptying out their contents (ESV, “dung”) on the ground.
13 We should take note here that Israel’s oppressors are now the Philistines, not the Moabites.
14 See Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 65.
15 Although the information provided in earlier texts does not tell us a great deal more about Othniel.
16 This will also happen in Judges 8:22, but Gideon will wisely decline (verse 23).
17 See Joshua 4:19-5:12.
18 Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation, pp. 59-62.
19 Arnold Fruchtenbaum (a classmate in seminary days) writes, “Third: and it came out behind. The Hebrew word is parshedona, another hapex-legomenon (word used only once in the Hebrew Bible). In other cognate, Semitic languages, it is used of the cavity or the opening of the anus. So the downward motion of the dagger was with such force that it passed completely through the abdomen and projected from the anus.” Arnold Fruchtenbaum, The Books of Judges and Ruth (San Antonio, Texas: Ariel Ministries, 2007), p. 58.
20 Literally, “to cover his feet.” The same terms are used in both Judges 3:24 and 1 Samuel 24:3.
21 “Dirt,” KJV, NRS; the NAU has “refuse” and the ESV “dung.” I think the point is clear. He did “relieve himself,” but not in the usual manner.
22 I realize that it was some distance to the hill country of Ephraim and that some length of time was required (although the sound of a blown trumpet would carry for a considerable distance). Dictators do not establish protocol for their replacement, and so it may have taken some time for the Moabites to determine who was in charge. Nevertheless, God’s providential control provided enough time for the Israelite forces to be summoned and to arrive at the Jordan.
23 See Judges 7.
24 Judges 9:52-53.
25 Judges 15:15-17.
26 Judges 16:23-30.
27 Matthew Henry, as cited by Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation, p. 67.
28 Here I am thinking of the Jews, but I am also including the church, the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).
29 2 Corinthians 4:7.