I say, put him to death, executed by the judgments of God upon him, as an implacable enemy to God and Israel.
—Matthew Henry, Commentary (1708)
Bible Stories You Never Heard
Sunday school isn’t always the best place to learn Bible stories. First, children often hear the stories out of order and out of context. The teacher or curriculum often skips from Noah to Peter and back to Elijah without any reference to sequence or a timeline. Every story is set in the limbo of “Bible-times”—which is to say, the first four thousand years of Earth’s history. And so it’s the rare student who can actually connect, say, Moses to David to Daniel and explain the role of each in covenant history.
Second, Sunday school students often learn the stories as morality tales rather than as covenant history and expressions of the gospel. The stories are sharpened to a single point: Don’t lie. Be patient. Stand up to giants. Certainly, the stories have a moral dimension—salvation is unto holiness—but the moral lesson must flow out of the larger theological dimensions of the story. For example, the story of David and Goliath is first of all a declaration that God strikes at the head of the enemy to liberate God’s people and raises them up to war against their oppressors and reclaim their land. David, God’s Spirit-filled vice-regent, took up the fight because Israel’s first human king operated in the flesh and, like Adam, failed to guard God’s people and land. David, the anointed king, operated in terms of the calling and promises of God, both of which found their ultimate focus in Jesus Christ. Now, with that understanding, we can work out the spiritual and moral lessons implicit in the story.
Third, a lot of Bible stories get edited, censored, or simply ignored. There is usually some Platonic or neo-Victorian perspective working here. The institution of circumcision, David’s adultery, and the exploits of Samson rarely reach young children in a form that is reflective of life in a very real world. A few stories simply drop out of the Bible completely. Several of these stories are in the Book of Judges. Consider, for example, the story of Ehud (Judg. 3:12-30).
Ehud and Eglon
Israel had settled in Canaan, but hadn’t remained faithful to God. She had quickly turned aside after false gods. So God raised up Eglon, the king of Moab, as a scourge. Eglon and his army, together with mercenaries from Ammon and Amalek, crossed the Jordan attacked and then occupied Israel. Eglon’s troops occupied the west bank near the ruins of Jericho. From that position, Eglon exacted tribute for eighteen years. Finally, Israel cried out to God for deliverance—that is, she finally repented of her idolatry, and God acted immediately to raise up a deliverer.
Ehud, a Benjamite, was the head of the delegation that brought the annual tribute. He was recognized by both Israel and Moab as a leader of God’s people and their spokesman. He had been to Eglon’s palace often enough to know its layout and etiquette. Ehud was left-handed. Left-handedness ran in his tribe (Judg. 20:16; 1 Chron. 12:1-2). Interestingly, pagan societies generally suppressed left-handedness, and so the Moabites likely regarded Ehud as handicapped. In their minds, he was no threat.
Ehud crafted a two-edged dagger (without a crossguard) about 18 inches long. Ehud strapped it to his right thigh beneath his outer garments. Right-handers draw from their left, and that’s where Eglon’s guards would check for a weapon.
Ehud and his delegation delivered the tribute to Eglon at the proper time as expected. No doubt they paid their proper respects and looked obedient to the king as they always had. The king accepted the gift, and Ehud and his company started back. When his men were safe (near an area where the Moabites had set up some idolatrous images), Ehud turned back to seek a second audience with Eglon. It was granted. Sure enough, the guards didn’t check his right thigh.
Ehud told the king, “I have a secret message for you.” Eglon told him to be silent while he dismissed his court. Ehud then met with the king in his summer terrace on the roof of his palace. Obviously, Eglon thought he had nothing to fear from this cowed and subservient Israelite.
Ehud spoke again: “I have a message to you from God.” When he heard the word God, Eglon rose to his feet. Even pagans generally understood that when God speaks, everyone should stand at attention to receive the message. Ehud used the generic word “god” (Elohim): “Yahweh” might have provoked a defensive reaction since He was Israel’s God, and Ehud wanted Eglon off his guard. Eglon assumed the message was from one of his favorite gods and he very much wanted to know what this message was.
Ehud snatched the dagger from his right thigh and plunged it into Eglon’s belly. Now Eglon was a very fat man. His fat was so deep that it sucked the dagger in, and Eglon couldn’t pull it back out. Weirder still, the blade tore through the king’s colon and “the dirt came out.” The stench of his excrement filled the room. Ehud kept his wits and quickly locked the chamber doors from the inside and escaped out a window. He went to gather his men and prepare the army.
Meanwhile, Eglon’s servants waited for their master to finish his interview. After awhile the horrible odor convinced them that he was “covering his feet”—using the toilet. So they waited… and waited some more. Eventually, the whole situation became embarrassing, so they found a key and opened up the door. The king was dead, laying on the floor of the palace.
Ehud blew a trumpet to assemble the army of Israel. He led the army to the fords of the Jordan and slew every Moabite soldier who tried to cross. Moab was beaten, and we’re told the land had rested eighty years total.
Was Ehud a Vigilante?
Even aside from the coarse and crazy parts of the narrative, the story of Ehud makes many Christians uncomfortable. Was Ehud a vigilante? Was he an assassin? Was he a murderer? Was he acting autonomously? Surely, God doesn’t approve of wickedness.
The theme of vigilante justice runs deep in American cinema, television, and popular literature. The Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet, Superman and Batman in their original incarnations, and a whole host of lone cowboys and rogue “Dirty Harry” cops have taught us to deal with crime directly, privately, and decisively. For a while, TV censorship and the Comics Code cops softened some of this up. The good guy just shot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand—a difficult, but not impossible feat. A one-two punch left the bad guy unconscious with no doctor bills. It was all that easy.
But in our era we have men like Paul Hill who shoots abortionists in the name of Jesus. There are political terrorists and eco-terrorists who maim and kill in their pursuit of social justice. There are folks like Ted Nugent who play verbal cowboy with references to “shooting the coyote” an ostensible reference to our president and his office. And whether we like it or not, it all has deep roots in the brutal, B movie aesthetic of our American psyche.
Scripture, however, never sanctions vigilante justice. The Mosaic law even governed slugfests and duels and bar fights (Ex. 21:22-25). It explicitly granted a homeowner the right to kill an intruder under two conditions (Ex. 22:2-3): First, the intruder was actually in the home. The backyard or barn wouldn’t count. Second, it was night; that is, there was no way to identify the intruder or his intentions. By implication, a law-abiding man would have the right to defend himself or those under his protection against a violent or murderous assault assuming that flight was not a real option. (This could have real implications in the Trayvon Martin case. You have the right biblically to defend yourself, even lethally, but could Zimmerman have successfully fled? We don’t know. Did this event take place inside Zimmerman’s house? No. These are some of the important biblical issues in this case.)
In all other cases, Scripture limits the lawful use of violence (“the sword”) to the civil magistrate or his lawfully appointed agents (Rom. 12:19—13:6). This includes soldiers fighting to defend their country in a just war. But even magistrates, their deputies, and soldiers on the battlefield are still bound and limited by the law of God.
So what of Ehud then? Well, Ehud was a judge. As such, he was called of God and recognized by God’s people (probably through their elders) to act as Israel’s chief magistrate and war-leader. Eglon was the invader, the enemy. No trial was necessary: Moab’s military presence on Israelite soil was clear evidence of Eglon’s oppressive guilt. All that Israel’s judge needed was an opportunity to execute the tyrant. Ehud created the opportunity, with ingenuity and great risk to himself.
Does this mean that a covert strike at a true enemy’s leader is biblically acceptable today? It would seem so. Assuming, of course, that the war is just in the first place. Most wars aren’t. But doesn’t that mean the enemy might try the same thing? Of course. Scripture doesn’t grant political and military leaders asylum during war. Those who order soldiers into the field or command soldiers in the field ought to be ready to lay down their own lives in the cause of justice. Would Bush, Romney or Obama risk their lives like Ehud? Probably not. But that’s the nature of leadership required in a true, godly war.
Ehud as a Type of Messiah
Jesus laid down His life in Yahweh’s war against sin and hell. Ehud, like the other judges, is a type and figure of Christ. He was raised up by God. He struck at the enemy’s head (their king). He freed God’s people from their oppressors. He judged Israel righteously. He relieved oppression and brought peace.
The story of Ehud is a healthy corrective to selfish complacency and cowardice on the one hand and to rogue violence and vigilante justice on the other. It’s important to understand that either of these two extremes can be perpetrated by individuals as well as the state. But above all, Ehud’s story is a prophecy of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. When we neglect these powerful Bible stories, we run the risk of distorting all that Jesus is and all that He requires of us.
For Further Reading:
James B. Jordan, Judges, God’s War Against Humanism (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1985).
Gary North, Lone Gunners for Jesus, Letters to Paul J. Hill (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994).
Rousas, J. Rushdoony, “The Menace of the Sunday School,” in Intellectual Schizophrenia, Culture, Crisis and Education (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2008).
S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, vol. I (St. Catherine’s, Ontario: Paideia Press, 1977).