Twibble Tuesday: Squicky details (Judges 3:1–30)

Better late than never, eh?

Short snarky summary: The Israelites assimilate, so God sends foes to conquer them. The Aramites rule them for a while, and then the Edomites. A southpaw assassinates the Edomite king and escapes through the lavatory.

Chapter 3 has a lot going on in it. It starts with a list of the villains of the upcoming books: various local cultures with outposts in Canaan. The big ones are the Philitines, but there’s also mention made at this point of Canaanites, Sidonians and Hivites.

Thereupon follows a recapitulation of a point already hammered home in the end of Chapter 2: namely, that after Joshua’s death the Israelites intermingled with the other cultures and God was wroth. God’s wrath, here and throughout the subsequent books, will be demonstrated not through supernatural effects, like it was in the Torah, but by the conquest of Israel by a foreign power. This might have been a more effective theme from the point of view of the Deuteronomists: the earth adn’t swallowed anyone up in a while, but the Israelites remained at the mercy of various stronger nations, and stacking that with a solid just-world fallacy, the presumption that God’s anger at his chosen people is mediated through foreign conquest seems pretty compelling.

The first invocation of this theme, in verses 9–11, is brief and features a previously seen character: the nation of Aram invades and subjugates Israel. They’re liberated by the warlike Othniel, who we’ve seen as a kinsman of Caleb who distinguished himself in battle in Judges 1:13 (and in an almost identical story in Joshua 15:17). This somewhat muddies the chronology, as the text of Judges 2–3 kind of suggests that all this should be happening after the death of Caleb’s whole generation. Anyways, this particular incident is barely described, except inasmuch as Othniel is explicitly described as being inspired by God, and that after his death the exact same thing started all over again, but this time with the Moabites conquering.

A sidenote: all these conquering nations are, theoretically, kin to the house of Israel. Moab was Jacob’s second cousin (possibly once removed, depending how you do the genealogy — incest complicates this sort of thing). The Aramites were the house of Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah, so there’s significant matrilineal connection there.

Anyways, the Israelites cry out to God, and God’s apparently either a sucker for sham contrition or a devotee of the cycle of abuse, because he once again raises up a hero. This one is Ehud, who we are told is a Benjaminite and (for no particular reason) left-handed. I appreciate the idea of a special hero for us sinister folk, but I’m not sure we needed the detail. The membership of the tribe of Benjamin seems a bit significant from a cultural dominance viewpoint: Benjamin is the territory of Jerusalem, so the tribe of Benjamin appears to be regarded as unusually noble (if not quite the equal of either Judah or Levi, both of which have Extra-Special Destinies). Anyways, Ehud, like any good Biblical hero, solves his problems with violence, but unlike Moses, Joshua, and Othniel, he elects for a subtler approach than open warfare. He straps on a sword and requests a private audience with the Moabite king.

He comes along with the tribute delegation, presumably paying an onerous tax from a subject people, and tells the king he needs to share a secret with him in private. Amazingly, this actually works, and king Eglon, Ehud, and Ehud’s big-ass dagger are left alone in “cool upper room”. We’ll return to the nature of this room later.

Ehud says, “I have a message for you from God!” which, I must admit, is a pretty awesome prelude to stabbing someone, and in verse 22 we’re treated to an unusually graphic and detailed description of a belly wound. The text unambiguously states that Eglon was so grossly fat that Ehud lost the hilt of the blade in his blubber, and we are told פרשדנה came out of the back of the wound. We have no idea what this word means, but translators have given it the old college try and come up with “guts”, “intestines”, “dung”, and “excrement”. So, yeah, a pretty graphic description of a perforated intestine here.

Next follows a phrase which, unlike the possibly obscene untranslatable above, is actually a translatable but clearly euphemistic phrase. Ehud locks the doors to the “cool upper room” and flees. Eglon’s courtiers return, and their response to finding the door locked is a bit odd: “Oh,” they say, “he must be covering his feet (סיך את-רגליו).”

“Covering his feet” is an unusual phrase, and one we’ll encounter again in a few books. It’s actually a euphemism for pissing. The moderately amusing bit of this, from my perspective, is that apparently the courtiers see nothing unusual in the fact that Eglon chooses to receive his visitors while relieving himself. Maybe that was just how they did things back then; I don’t know. Anyways, as far as I can tell, it’s actually meant to be funny, but maybe for different reasons. The whole dithering over whether to bust in on their lord when he seems to be taking an awful long time is what covers Ehud’s escape, so it serves a (rather farcical) narrative purpose. After escaping, Ehud gathers an army, and routs the shocked and leaderless Moabites. That part of the story is kind of anticlimax, since we’re a bit jaded on ordinary war stories at this point.

Next up: what is probably be the shortest individual narrative in the Bible!


About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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