Judges 3:12-31


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STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 5
Judges 3:12-31
July 11, 2004

We have begun our consideration of the narrative of the individual judges themselves. Last time we considered Othniel, whose deliverance of Israel from an oppressor was described in sketch only, a skeletal narrative lacking all detail. That is the not the case with our next judge, Ehud.

v.12 Remember, the account of each judge is presented in a formulaic way, with the formula harking back to the general explanation of this history that we were given in the prologue. So, v. 12 reads like v. 7 which reads like 2:11. So we will find here the same basic sequence as in the previous paragraph: apostasy, subjugation, Israel’s appeal to the Lord, the raising up of a deliverer, and peace for a period of time. [Webb, 128]

While we were uncertain of the identity of Israel’s oppressor in the previous paragraph, there is no question about Eglon, king of Moab. Nor is the nature of the oppression left unstated: Jericho was taken and kept and tribute was exacted (as we learn in v. 15).

v.14 As will be typical of many such episodes in Israel’s history, God’s providence is unrecognized by the pagan nations that the Lord uses to punish or discipline his people. Eglon did not see himself as the Lord’s agent. He saw an opportunity and took it. There was nothing righteous in what he did, so far as he was concerned, and so it will come as no surprise that he can be punished for doing what God used him to do in the history of his people. The same will later be true on a grander scale with Assyria and Babylon. This is an instance, of which there are many in the Bible and a great many more in the human life of our own observation, of God using sin sinlessly, as an old pastor of mine used to put it.

v.15 Several details here are of importance to the unfolding story. The Benjaminites were noted for their prowess as fighters and Ehud being left-handed meant that it was easier for him to surprise the king with the fatal stroke. The king would not be inclined to worry about a movement of the left hand. [Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 38] As we will learn later, in 20:16, the Benjaminites were famous for left-handed warriors of uncommon military prowess. To be accurate, the translation “left-handed” is something of a guess. If it doesn’t mean “left-handed” it probably means “ambidextrous.” The practical point in either case would be the same: he could wield the dagger with his left hand, the unexpected hand. No matter the translation there is no doubt that he was a capable warrior with his left-hand, an unusual trait then as now.

v.16 “The Israelites sent tribute…” but “Ehud made a sword.” The implication is that Israel knew nothing about Ehud’s plans until after the assassination. Also, what follows clearly is no spur-of-the-moment decision on Ehud’s part. He plans meticulously. He even makes a special dagger to use in the assassination. And that dagger was double-edged, made for a straight stroke forward, not a hacking stroke from above or beside. [Block, 163] It also seems to have been made without a hilt (v. 22), as the handle sunk in as well as the blade when Ehud stabbed Eglon. [Block, 166] Because he strapped it to his right thigh, no one would be inclined to look for it there – swordsmen being right-handed, the sword was carried on the left hip.

v.17 Israel had no answer for Eglon’s military might and prowess. But the narrator leaves no doubt that, in fact, he is a man to be made fun of. He is obese as everyone knows and a fool as we will soon learn. “He has become a large, slow-moving target.” [Webb 129] His unwarrior-like girth and his gullibility render him Ehud’s patsy.

v.19 The reference to the idols may indicate that they were part of Ehud’s deception. Stopping there may have been with the intention of making it appear that he had received from the gods an oracle, a divine communication for Eglon. Or, they may have represented a boundary between Israelite territory and that controlled by Moab, as v. 26 may suggest. In any case, they are the understated evidence that idol worship was a regular feature of life in the Promised Land even after Israel occupied it. They also raise some question in the reader’s mind, a question the narrator does not dispel, as to Ehud’s total loyalty to the Lord. After all, in what follows in the book as a whole it becomes clear that the Lord uses what material he finds. The judges are themselves hardly a group of men noted for sterling godliness.

Eglon is so gullible, so hungry for Ehud’s secret communication, that he dismisses his bodyguard and, thereby, makes it easy for Ehud to escape after assassinating the king. Eglon presumably supposed that Ehud had some intelligence for him; the kind of information that an Israelite collaborator might have for the man who wields the real power in the country.

v.21 It is, by the way, quite unusual for a biblical narrator to pay careful attention to the details of a killing. We might well expect to find such an account in the Iliad but not so in the Bible. Obviously, therefore, the narrator has something to say with these details.

v.25 The comic stupidity of Eglon is matched by that of his servants. Their blundering obtuseness made them an easy mark for the Lord’s man and what was true of the king and his court will now prove true of the entire Moabite army.

What is clear, though assumed and not spelled out, is that the Lord saw to making every one of Ehud’s deceptions effective. At no point was his plan discovered; at no point did his subterfuges fail to work.

“Even in stories where divine activity is not highlighted, the author surely sees the hand of God at work and expects his readers to recognize it as well. The account of Ehud’s successful assassination of Eglon is not simply very humorous, but it is also characterised by his amazing good luck, in being able to smuggle in a sword, obtain a personal audience with Eglon, and escape without the palace guards realising anything was amiss. But Judges sees Ehud as a deliverer sent by God in answer to Israel’s prayer, so his success should not be ascribed to luck but to providence.” [Wenham, Story as Torah, 52]

v.27 You cannot tell this in English, but the verb translated “blew” is the same one translated “plunged” in v. 21 to describe the dagger stroke. This kind of repetition of a keyword is a way the author links Ehud’s assassination of the king to the successful war of liberation. The first not only leads to the second but is a kind of anticipation or prefigurement of it.

Now Ehud is no longer the lone avenger; he functions as a typical military commander.

v.28 In another such connection between the first half of the story and the second, we compare v. 15 – “the Lord gave them a deliverer” – with v. 28 – “the Lord has given Moab…into your hands.”

v.29 What appears to have happened is that Israel assumed the position of military advantage and then cut up the Moabite army that foolishly attacked a strongly situated enemy. The army is like its now dead leader – not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.

The adjective the NIV renders “vigorous” is the word that also means “fat,” almost certainly a play on Eglon’s obesity. It is like the English word “stout,” that can refer either to body-shape or to firmness of resolution. The Moabite army was as lumbering as their portly king! [Webb, 130]

“Not one man escaped.” When the Lord delivers his people, he delivers them!

Eglon, who had proved too much for faithless Israel, is easily dispatched by the Lord’s deliverer and then so is his army. Indeed, he is such an easy mark the story of his assassination raises a smile as the narrator recounts it.

v.31 The brief reference to Shamgar reinforces the impression of the previous narrative. The connection between the two accounts, one longer, one very short, is indicated not only by the “After Ehud” with which it begins, but by the “he too” in the last phrase. Here the weapon is still more makeshift; the enemies of Israel are made to look still more ridiculous – one man killing 600 soldiers with an oxgoad. The point is clear as the account ends: it is a small thing for the Lord to save Israel from her enemies. He can use anyone to do it and with the Lord’s strength and wisdom anyone can do it. [Webb, 132-133] In fact, though it is a story too long to tell, there is some linguistic and inscriptional evidence that may suggest that Shamgar was not an Israelite at all, but a warrior in the employ of the Egyptian Pharaoh. In such a case Shamgar would have been dealing with the Philistines on behalf of Egyptian interests and would have had no intention himself of delivering Israel. But God used his prowess to relieve his people. [Block, 174] That might further explain why so little is said about him.

Now what we have in these accounts, most notably in the longer and more detailed account of Ehud, and what we will have in all the accounts of the judges, is what theologians call “concursus.” Concursus is a division or a sub-topic of the doctrine of divine providence. The doctrine of divine providence, founded on a thousand explicit and unmistakable biblical texts, is the teaching that everything that happens in the world is, ultimately, the will and the purpose of God. He has a plan and works out everything according to the purpose of his will, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 1:11. That plan embraces everything down to the number of hairs on our head at any time. The doctrine of concursus, again founded on many statements of God’s Word, is the teaching that God uses many means to accomplish his will in the world and that, as a result, the same event may be said to be caused by God or by a man or by natural forces. That is, you have different causes concurring in the same result. The same hurricane may be said to be sent by God or caused by climatic factors. The same death may be both the will of God who numbers our days and the result of a man failing to buckle his seatbelt or drinking before he drives. We are taught, that is, in the Bible, to take with absolute seriousness both the reality of what philosophers call second causes, that is, to consider second causes as real causes – to study the climate, to buckle our seatbelts, to acquire medical knowledge and avail ourselves of it, etc. – and, at the same time, to believe that nothing in this world, nothing ever happens by accident. That there is an ultimate cause – the will of God – does not mean that second causes are not real causes; and that second causes are real causes does not mean that God’s will is not the final reason for everything. As Basil of Caesarea, the church father, famously put it: “chance is a pagan term.”

Well, yes and no. Spin the cylinder with six chambers but only one loaded and pull the trigger and sooner or later the gun will fire. Throw the die and, over time, the numbers will turn up as the laws of probability predict. But, it is also true, and more ultimately true, that, as we read in Proverbs 16: “the lot is cast into the lap but every decision is from the Lord.” He made the second causes and made them to be real causes; but he also determines what comes to pass in this world. He uses means.

This point is simply but powerfully made in the Ehud account. The Lord raised him up and gave him to Israel as a deliverer. The Lord gave Israel victory over Moab. That much is explicitly stated. But the means of that deliverance are deception and slight of hand first and then sound tactics leading to victory in battle. Not the one or the other, not God’s will or Ehud’s trickery, but both, the one the means of the other.

It is interesting how in Judges the emphasis falls on both causes at the same time. The statement in v. 15 that the Lord gave Israel a deliver in Ehud opens the narrative of deliverance and the statement in v. 28 that the Lord gave Moab into Israel’s hands closes it. “The Lord gave…” is a kind of inclusio framing the narrative. But, in between those affirmations of divine sovereignty all the emphasis falls on the clever machinations of Ehud and his daring one-man attack on the Moabite king. We are told something of Ehud’s prowess as a warrior. We are given a glimpse of Ehud planning his strike and of the steps by which he carried it out.

In the juxtaposition of these two emphases, the Lord’s giving Israel victory and Ehud’s clever and daring exploit and the army’s victory in the field, we have an almost perfect picture of concursus as it is taught everywhere in the Bible. It is very like the account we are given in 2 Samuel 23:9-10 of Eleazar, one of David’s captains.

“…he was with David when they taunted the Philistines gathered at Pas Dammim
for battle. Then the men of Israel retreated, but he stood his ground and struck
down the Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword. The Lord
brought about a great victory that day. The troops returned to Eleazar, but only
to strip the dead.”

Now we see this all the time in lesser and greater ways. The Lord using means, and, in particular, the Lord using men to accomplish his will and to deliver, save, or bless his people in this world. We’ve had some wonderful examples of this in recent church history in the English speaking world.

Think for example of Francis Schaeffer. As a younger man and well into his adulthood he was not what anyone expected to be a major influence for the kingdom of God in the world. In the 1940s and early 1950s he was the pastor of a small to mid-sized Bible Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Mo. He was a minister in a small, marginalized fundamentalist denomination. When he decided to go to Europe as a missionary, it was with the intention of doing children’s evangelism. In many ways, humanly speaking, the ministry that became L’abri was an accident, an unintended and unforeseen development that resulted from a combination of Dr. Schaeffer’s own private struggles and a series of opportunities that were sent his way. It is a giant step from children’s evangelism in Europe to articles in Time magazine and major American newspapers.

He was taken by many to be a philosopher, though he had no professional training in the discipline and no advanced degree. He was largely self-taught. His books were manifestos much more than careful examinations of philosophical arguments. He was often criticized by the academic types for his failings as a professional philosopher. But, as one perceptive professional philosopher put it, “His style is swashbuckling. The whole thing is like a speeded-up lantern lecture in which pictures, names and ideas follow each other in breath-taking succession. Points are often suggested rather than proved. But then many seminal works in the history of thought have done the same. What we [ought to be] concerned with…is not the details of the argument but the main thesis.” [Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith, 264-265]

But the fact is, in the 60s and 70s Francis Schaeffer exercised an immense influence on the thinking of not only the church but the western world. During those years he was one of the best selling authors in America, though many people did not know that because his books were not sold primarily in the stores whose sales the New York Times surveyed to create its list of best-sellers. He spoke at many major universities, debated major representatives of American religious and intellectual life of the period, such as the Episcopalian bishop James Pike and the behaviorist philosopher B.F. Skinner. But what is more, he influenced an entire generation of young American Christians and young American scholars. In many ways he reversed an ebb tide of evangelical thinking into a flood.

It was the Lord who did it, but it makes a remarkable human story and, without a doubt, we must give credit to Francis Schaeffer’s opportunism, his hard-work, his devotion to the cause, and his good sense about how to make the case for Christian truth in the times in which he lived. He was an Ehud facing an Eglon and his confident attack on the public mind of his day taught a generation of young people that however outwardly impressive, the public philosophy of modern Western life was, in fact, a house of cards.

We are being treated to another such story as we speak. You have heard of course of Phillip Johnson, the retired law professor from the University of California at Berkeley, a place where one does not expect to find a robust defense of a biblical worldview. Near the end of his career as an honored professor of law, specializing in evidence, Johnson, who had become a Christian in the middle of his life, found, almost by accident it would seem, a new passion and a new calling. On sabbatical in England he read Richard Dawkins’ case for evolution, The Blind Watchmaker and Michael Denton’s attack on evolution, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Intrigued by what he saw were Dawkins’ sleights of hand by which he disguised the lack of evidence for evolution and used a patina of science to mask naturalistic philosophy, he saw some work to be done. Evidence was his specialty and he could smell a trumped up case. If you’ve ever seen Phillip Johnson you know how disarming his appearance. He’s a frumpy man in his 60s, quite harmless looking. But he has a powerful intellect and he began putting it to use mastering the scientific literature – really in a few years grasping an entirely new and different discipline, and a very complex and technical one – and then set the scientific world on its ear with the publication of his Darwin on Trial in 1991.

It is interesting, by the way, to note the connection between Schaeffer and Johnson. Charles Thaxton was a young PhD in chemistry who went to study with Schaeffer. He published in 1984, together with two other men, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, a book that laid out all the origin of life theories together with their shortcomings and improbabilities.
Early on in his new interest in the evolution question, Johnson read Thaxton’s work.

Anyway, it is Phillip Johnson who is behind this small-scale Manhattan project to unseat evolution as the ruling paradigm of thinking about the origin and meaning of human life. He has brought together a group of young scientists, given them intellectual cover, and created what is now known as the “intelligent design” movement. [Cf. James Kushiner, “Darwin under Fire,” Touchstone (July/August 2004) 67-70] And when you see on PBS stations programs actually touting intelligent design and enumerating the problems with typical evolutionary scenarios of the origin of life and the development of life in all of its wonderful complexity and astonishing perfection, when state educational boards are now changing the rules by which evolution is taught in American public schools, when the textbook companies are now removing discredited arguments from their biology textbooks and some are actually presenting some case against evolution in their textbooks, when the movement’s books are now being seriously and often favorably reviewed in the American press, when more and more practicing scientists are coming out of the closet and joining the movement publicly, when the United States Senate recently passed a law requiring that evolution be taught as a theory and that negative evidence be included in the presentation, and when the scientific establishment is now running scared – as the level of bitterness and wounded pride in its speech and writing now indicates – it is not hard to tell that a great change is underway. And that change is the work of one man, Phillip Johnson, the frumpy law professor who hadn’t much thought about evolution until the mid-1980s. Many others have contributed to the effort, many more will, but Johnson was Ehud to the evolutionary establishment’s Eglon. We are now past the assassination and are massing at the fords of the Jordan. Now we have scholars in the field confidently pronouncing that “in the next five years molecular Darwinism will be dead.” That sentiment, still less that confidence, was unheard of a few years ago. But that is how times have changed and how a little man with a big brain has changed them.

But it was a Christian man, a man of faith. It might not have been. It might have been a Shamgar, assuming Shamgar was not an Israelite and wasn’t intending to help Israel at all when he took on the Philistines. But in this case it was and so the story is worth telling to a Christian audience, as was Ehud’s.

But, let there be no doubt about this: if evolution falls, as it must and will, it will be God who brought it down, whatever were the means he chose to accomplish his will and both to judge the wicked and deliver his people and his gospel.

We learn, we work, we plan, we strike, but we look to God all the while, for without him we can do nothing. Concursus is a view of life that energizes believers while keeping them actively dependent upon the Lord, makes them determined to accomplish things on God’s behalf all the while sure that God alone can make such things come to pass.

The lesson of Ehud and the Lord’s giving victory to Israel is the lesson that Oliver Cromwell taught his Puritan troops, the Roundheads, when he told them:

“Trust in God and keep your powder dry.”