Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Spies and Assassins: Judges 3:7-31

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.


Special Note: A Lesson in Translations. I know I'm giving away the ending a bit here, but there's an incident in this chapter where an evil king is killed by a sinister left-handed assassin. This gives me an opportunity to remark upon conservative efforts to censor the Bible - an incredibly ironic thing to do given their proposed "faithfulness" to the text. Judges 3:22 describes the death of the evil king with considerable detail, right down to the fact that the killer can't get his sword out because the king is so fat.

Then comes the interesting point. The NIV translation, for example, just stops at that point. Some other, apparently more faithful explanations, add the final component of the king's grisly demise: variously, "and the refuse came out" (NASB), "the dirt came out" (KJV), "the excrements of the belly came out" (Douay-Rheims English), and "it came out behind" (Darby, WEB). "Dirt" and "refuse" are euphemisms, of course, but even that (or maybe especially that) is way too crude for the NIV, so they just leave it out. It doesn't even merit a footnote!


The third chapter of Judges gives us our first samples of the, well, judges. The Israelites start going to some Baal and the Asherahs concerts, just what they weren't supposed to do, and so God lets them be captured by the Aram Naharimites and held as subjects for eight years. Then they're liberated by Othniel, the nephew of Caleb who came up before.

That story's kind of boring, bereft of interesting details. Slightly better is Shamgar of Anath, who apparently led a rebellion against the Philistines. The details are bereft, except for one fascinating claim, which is that he personally slaughtered 600 of the Philistine soldiers using an oxgoad. Now an oxgoad is basically a long stick that use to poke oxen with, so basically, Shamgar is killing people by the hundreds using only a quarterstaff. It's a feat worthy of fantasy.

On another occasion, God lets the Moabites - who are still alive despite being wiped out in previous genocides - along with the Ammonites and Amalekites. King Eglon takes the City of Palms - that is, Jericho, which must have been rebuilt in the meantime, even though this was never mentioned and even though God explicitly ordered the Israelites never to do so. However, the Israelites repent and cry for mercy, and God raises up a new judge named Ehud the Benjamite.

Ehud is everything you want in a pre-medieval James Bond: suicide attacker, assassin, sharp wit, and impressive sneaking skills. He's even, according to the Bible, left-handed - a strange addition, but one I as a left-hander must appreciate! Ehud ties a sword to his thigh under his clothing and marches straight into Eglon's palace, declaring that he plans to present a tribute. Eglon's security guards fail to frisk Ehud, because they haven't yet received the appropriate guidelines from CATSA or the TSA. Ehud manages to get close to Eglon by announcing he has a secret message which must be delivered only to the king.

This is when things get really cool, and we see that the writer of Judges has a sharp wit, too. In a practice subsequently replicated by 3000 years of action film heroes, Ehud walks up to the king in his private chambers, solemnly announces "I have a message from God for you," draws his secret sword, and assassinates the king. With gloriously excessive language, Judges solemnly pronounces that poor Eglon is so fat that when he's stabbed his rolls of body fat close over the sword, so that Ehud can't pull it out again.

Fortunately, Ehud doesn't need the sword again; he just sneaks out and blows a trumpet once he's passed the gates. The servants don't come in to stop him; Judges's hilarious explanation for this failure on their part is that they assume Eglon wants privacy while he relieves himself!

Ehud isn't done - he leads an uprising which kills ten thousand Moabites and wins Israel its freedom for 80 years.

Other than being good fun stories, I'm not sure what to make of these early "judges." We haven't yet reached the hideous moral degeneracy of some of the following chapters. Even so, it's worth pointing that there isn't a lot of judging going on in Judges. This book lacks the proud, almost propagandistic militarism of Joshua, but God's will remains known largely - or even solely - through Israel's violent relations with neighbouring nations. Pessimism about the faith of the people - who without a permanent leadership are utterly incapable of anything other than pure evil and idol worship - is combined with the fall of the priestly and military institutions (something I noted earlier) to form an extremely negative view of anarchical society in God's promised land.