Open your Bible to the 3rd chapter of the book of Judges.
Today’s the day we’ve been waiting for. For the last two weeks we’ve been in the introduction to this book. And you recall that it’s a double introduction. Are you annoyed with me pointing out that the book of Judges has a double introduction? Well, I’m going to keep telling you all that this book has a double introduction until it sticks in your head and forevermore when you read this book you’ll remember why it seems to mention Joshua dying twice. I’ll keep telling you about the double introduction until you remember that the first introduction tells us about Israel’s failures regarding foreign armies and that the second introduction tells us about Israel’s failures regarding foreign idols. And if you don’t remember… I’ll probably tell you again next week.
Alright, now that we all remember the double introduction! We need to remember what the book of Judges chronicles. Throughout this book we will witness the Canaanization of Israel. It’s a progressive thing. It gets worse and worse. And isn’t that the nature of sin? Give it an inch and it will take a mile.
And Israel was sinning. They disobeyed God by not driving out the Canaanites. Instead, they were actually marrying the Canaanites and worshiping their false gods – Baal and Ashteroth and I’m sure many more.
Now, God wasn’t going to take this sitting down. He was very angry with his people for their sin against him. He swore to not drive out the Canaanites. These Canaanites will serve a few of God’s purposes. First, they will prove whether Israel will obey the Lord or not. Those silly rain deities that the Canaanites had were surprisingly attractive for ancient Israel. Would Israel choose Baal? Or would they choose the true God who had rescued them from Egypt and brought them into a covenant with himself? The Canaanites would prove which way Israel’s heart was inclined.
The second purpose Yahweh had for leaving the Canaanites in the land was so that the inexperienced Israelites could learn war. The new generation that arose and didn’t know the Lord also didn’t know how to fight. God amazingly even while punishing this nation is letting them derive some benefit during the punishment.
Now, not only was the Lord allowing the Canaanites to remain in the land. But when he was sufficiently provoked to anger with Israel he would actually send oppressors to oppress them. He wanted to get their attention. You can imagine the Lord saying something like this through sending oppressors to Israel — “Hey look! The gods whom you’re serving aren’t strong enough to deliver you! Can’t you see that I AM and there is no other? Turn to me and be saved!”
And you know what? The Israelites did react. They would cry out. And you might think that sounds really good. Maybe it’s a cry of repentance! We could only wish. I’m afraid their cry was far short of repentance. Israel was like a child who cried when his father declares his intent to discipline the boy. But is he crying because he’s repentant? Or is he crying because he’s being punished? Unfortunately it does seem that when Israel cries out she does so out of pain and misery. But she’s far from repentant. Because once the judge dies, Israel’s right back to her evil ways. And they’re even worse than they were before!
So, Israel’s cry isn’t one of repentance. You might expect the Lord to not answer such a cry. But actually… he does. The Lord responds in pity and compassion to his evil disobedient nation. It’s like he can’t help his heart from going out to those oppressed individuals. Their oppression is their own fault. And God could cross his arms and turn away from them. But he didn’t. He can’t shut off his mercies to them. He just won’t.
Is this not a God who deserves our love? A God so holy, so just, so upright. And at the same time he’s a God who is so full of pity, of love, of compassion. And this same God is our God. And you are in a covenant with him if you’ve trusted Christ. You’re espoused to Christ. And no one can take you out of his hand. Remember Pastor Fuller’s message last Sunday night? A big point of that message was this – “let love for Christ drive out all idols.” How could you not love such a merciful, forgiving, compassionate God?
Now, God does respond to Israel’s cry of pain and misery. And his chosen response is to send saviors to them – judges or tribal rulers. These men – well, I’ll say individuals – are charged with delivering or saving God’s people. And once these tribal rulers have done their job and delivered God’s people from their oppressors the people are safe for a while… Until… they sacrifice to idols, intermarry with pagans, and provoke the Lord to anger. When this happens we go right back to where we started this discussion.
And this cyclical process gets worse and worse as I said. Do you know what that means? It means that the first judge that we’re going to see is really the best judge – the prototypical judge – the model judge after which all other judges will be (pardon the pun) judged. So perhaps we could call this lesson “The Worst is Yet to Come.”
So, who is this first judge? Well, let’s read about him in 3:7-8.
KJV Judges 3:7 ¶ And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and forgat the LORD their God, and served Baalim and the groves. 8 Therefore the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Chushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia: and the children of Israel served Chushanrishathaim eight years.
So, actually we didn’t get to the judge yet. The scene is being set for him still. And this is the scene. Israel sinned and made God very angry. They’re worshipping the Canaanite storm god Baal and some wooden symbols of some other sort of deity. Apparently Israel is very happy to serve these dark doubly-wicked deities. And so you know what? God sells the Israelites into the hands of Chushan-Rishathaim. Do you know what his name means? “Dark, doubly-wicked” – just like their false deities. And by the fact that this guy has a name like this we can imagine that he’s pretty bad. He hails all the way from Mesopotamia. So he’s come from a long way. And he’s a really evil guy. And he crushes Israel under his boot for eight years. It’s interesting to note how the text describes this situation. Verse 7 – Israel served dark wicked deities. Verse 8 – the result – Israel served this dark wicked king. The punishment matches the crime.
The situation is bleak. Israel is subject to this evil king. The Lord has rightfully abandoned them. They’re seeing how hopeless they are. And they’re in pain. So finally they take a step in the right direction and God’s compassion is kindled. Verses 9 through 11.
9 And when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer to the children of Israel, who delivered them, even Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 And the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel, and went out to war: and the LORD delivered Chushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand; and his hand prevailed against Chushanrishathaim. 11 And the land had rest forty years. And Othniel the son of Kenaz died.
You can’t ask for a better outcome. Israel cries out to the Lord because of their pain and misery. The Lord then takes the initiative to raise up a savior for his wayward people. His name? Othniel. He’s Caleb’s brother. And he’s the son of Kenaz. And here’s something interesting. Apparently Kenaz isn’t a natural born Israelite. He would have been a convert to the religion of Yahweh. Nevertheless, he’s a supremely godly individual. He was somehow grafted into the tribe of Judah. He’s the relative – probably the nephew – of one of the godliest Israelites – Caleb. His wife Achsah is completely in-tune with The Lord’s plans for the land. And these are things we’ve already known.
Beyond those things, we have a few more items to note in this passage. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Caleb. And in that strength and wisdom he went out and waged war and judged Israel. The Lord raised him up. The Lord put his Spirit on him. It’s as if the Lord himself and the man Caleb are one, fighting against the enemy. And together they defeat King Dark, Doubly-Wicked from Mesopotamia. The land has rest for 40 years and then Othniel dies.
Now, why is there so little said about this judge? I mean, if he’s the prototypical example, why does a character like Samson have several chapters devoted to his story while Othniel has not even a whole chapter? What I think we’ll see is that more ink needs to be spilled for the other judges in order to document their idiosyncrasies, flaws, and everything else. Othniel did things by the book. God raised him up and empowered him and he just went and did the work. No abnormalities. No moral failures. He just gets the job of saving the Lord’s people over and done with.
Alright, now that this first major or cyclical judge finished his task, we move a bit north from Judah to the tribe of Benjamin. Let’s read verses 12 through 14.
12 ¶ And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the LORD: and the LORD strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the LORD. 13 And he gathered unto him the children of Ammon and Amalek, and went and smote Israel, and possessed the city of palm trees. 14 So the children of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.
Let’s note a few things here. First, who’s the enemy? His name is Eglon. Who is he? The king of the land of Moab just south-east of Israel on the other side of the Dead Sea. And what does he do to Israel? He strikes Israel and takes possession of Jericho – the city of palm trees. This is as you recall the very first city that Israel took when they crossed the River under Joshua’s leadership. And now it appears to be the very first city they’ll be giving back to the Canaanites whom they should have destroyed. But how can this evil Moabite king have such an influence over Israel? Such power to defeat them? We’re told in verse 12. The Lord himself strengthens this king to oppress his evil people. Why does the Lord allow them to be oppressed anyway? Because they did evil in the Lord’s sight. And remember that this would certainly include Israel bowing down to idols and marrying lost people from the surrounding nations.
So this is a hopeless scene. Israel is oppressed. And it’s the Lord himself who is strengthening the oppressor. God’s people have gotten themselves into a big mess. In fact, it’s so hopeless that there’s nothing they can do to save themselves. They need salvation from the Lord. Let’s read about this next “savior” of God’s people, Israel, in verses 15 through 17.
15 ¶ But when the children of Israel cried unto the LORD, the LORD raised them up a deliverer, Ehud the son of Gera, a Benjamite, a man lefthanded: and by him the children of Israel sent a present unto Eglon the king of Moab. 16 But Ehud made him a dagger which had two edges, of a cubit length; and he did gird it under his raiment upon his right thigh. 17 And he brought the present unto Eglon king of Moab: and Eglon was a very fat man.
Israel cries out to God because of their pain and misery. And so God raises up a savior, a deliverer, a judge. His name is Ehud. He’s not from Judah, like Othniel was. He’s from Benjamin – and in this book this particular tribe wasn’t cast in the best light. In the first chapter Benjamin follows Judah in trying to drive out the Canaanites. Judah does well, though they fail. Then Benjamin steps up to the plate and… doesn’t even swing. They fail to drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem, which was already weakened by Judah. That’s the first we hear of Benjamin in this book. This tribe is mentioned a few more times, but the majority of the discussion about them centers in the conclusion to the book. Remember the Levite and his concubine? Then all Israel goes to war with Benjamin, leaving that tribe almost wiped out. So Benjamin gains a pretty bad reputation through this book. But here, God raises up a deliverer from this tribe.
Now, this man Ehud is left-handed. Some see this as sort of an insult to him. Apparently ancient cultures were a little suspicious of left-handed individuals – like they were somehow unnatural. But I don’t that’s why the author of Judges mentions this. Why does he mention this fact then? I think it leads up to the statement in verse 16. This fellow made a dagger about a foot long or maybe a bit longer. And where does he put it? On his right thigh. Now, I don’t want to spoil the surprise of what’s to come. So, I’ll just say this. Ehud is being sent with some money to Eglon. Ehud is going to deliver Israel from Eglon. Ehud made a dagger and put it on his right thigh under his clothing. Surely the guards would check Ehud’s left thigh, since most people were right-handed and since that’s apparently where people would keep weapons. But would the guards check the right thigh?
The end of verse 17 adds suspense to this story. Out of the blue we’re told – now Eglon was a very fat man. The name Eglon comes from a word that means calf. The “on” ending probably makes it mean something like “young calf.” So here we have a young fattened calf. A man who has been fattened by oppressing and extorting from God’s people. And on the other side of the ring is a man carrying a sharp instrument for the purpose of slaughter. It sounds to me like we have a sacrifice coming up – not literally, but in a sense that’s what this kind of situation might recall to the Israelites’ minds. A fattened calf and a knife. Sacrifice time. Let’s see what happens next. Verses 18 through 23.
18 And when he [Ehud] had made an end to offer the present, he sent away the people that bare the present. 19 But he himself turned again from the quarries [this could also means “stones” or “idols”, since idols were often made of stones] that were by Gilgal, and said, I have a secret errand [or “word” or “matter” or “thing”] unto thee, O king: who said, Keep silence. And all that stood by him went out from him. 20 And Ehud came unto him; and he was sitting in a summer parlour, which he had for himself alone. And Ehud said, I have a message from God unto thee. And he arose out of his seat. 21 And Ehud put forth his left hand, and took the dagger from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly: 22 And the haft [or “handle”] also went in after the blade; and the fat closed upon the blade, so that he could not draw the dagger out of his belly; and the dirt came out. 23 Then Ehud went forth through the porch, and shut the doors of the parlour upon him, and locked them.
Sacrifice accomplished, I’d say. So, Ehud came with a few other Israelites to give tribute to this oppressive king. Once this is finished Ehud and his assistants go back to wherever they came via Gilgal. And on this journey back in Gilgal Ehud sends everyone else back ahead of him. Does he spend some time by these quarries or by these idols – whatever translation it is? If there are idols there then does seeing these idols provokes Ehud to anger and a sense of vengeance for his God? If we’re talking about just plain stones, could these have reminded Ehud of the stones which Joshua had the children of Israel set up when they crossed the River? Whatever the case, something happens to Ehud in Gilgal. And he turns back to face the enemy.
He approaches Eglon and reveals that he has a secret for him. Again, “errand” is the word that can mean “word” or “matter”. Ehud has a secret matter for the king. He keeps it discreet and mysterious. We can imagine Eglon bouncing up and down and jiggling with delight at the prospect of a treat – maybe a tasty bit of food, maybe more money to spend on his appetite. Whatever it is, he hastily sends his guards away. We can assume from this that Ehud probably didn’t look or act sinister in any way. He probably wasn’t a tall foreboding character. Eglon felt perfectly comfortable in his presence without any guards. Besides, I would assume that the guards already checked his person for weapons – at least on his left thigh!
And this scene all happens in Eglon’s cool summer parlor. Again the contrast between Israel and her oppressors is laid before us. Eglon is fat from Israel’s offerings. He has a splendid cool summer palace while the oppressed Israelites languish.
Once the guards leave the room I assume they move a considerable distance away from the king’s personal chamber. Otherwise I imagine they might hear the sound of what happened. So, they leave and go somewhere for a little while. Long enough for Ehud to stab Eglon. And the description of what happened is sort of comical, though of course we’re speaking of the demise of a real human, so let’s not laugh too hard. But we’ve been set up for this. The guy is fat. Really fat. And he oppresses God’s people. He manages to get himself up out of his chair to receive his treat. And then Ehud pulls the weapon from his right thigh and plunges it into Eglon’s belly. Eglon is so fat that the dagger enters his belly sinking all the way into him. The fat – another sacrificial term or concept – covers even the handle of the dagger and cannot be retrieved. And ultimately we have the King James Version telling us that the “dirt” came out. Yuck! This probably means that excrement came out of Eglon’s body as a result of this attack.
Ehud escapes and locks the door behind him. Then the guards return. Verses 24 and 25.
24 ¶ When he was gone out, his servants came; and when they saw that, behold, the doors of the parlour were locked, they said, Surely he covereth his feet in his summer chamber. 25 And they tarried till they were ashamed: and, behold, he opened not the doors of the parlour; therefore they took a key, and opened them: and, behold, their lord was fallen down dead on the earth.
So even this part is intended to be humorous I think. And I’m sorry if this is distasteful – well, there’s no “ifs” about it – it is indeed distasteful. But, seeing as the “dirt” came out earlier on in the story and now that Eglon isn’t coming to the door, the guards put two and two together. Covering one’s feet is an ancient Hebrew euphemism for our modern English euphemism “using the facilities.” He’s not coming to the door. The smell may have been noticeable. Again, I’m sorry for the unpleasantness. And these guards at first wait patiently. Then as the minutes pass they start to wonder. But really who is going to be the first to knock and risk embarrassing their liege? They wait until they are ashamed and can’t wait any longer! So they get the key, open the door, and find their corpulent and godless leader dead on the ground.
What happens next? Verses 26 through 30.
26 ¶ And Ehud escaped while they tarried, and passed beyond the quarries [or, again, perhaps “idols” or just the “stones” that were in Gilgal], and escaped unto Seirath. 27 And it came to pass, when he was come, that he blew a trumpet in the mountain of Ephraim, and the children of Israel went down with him from the mount, and he before them. 28 And he said unto them, Follow after me: for the LORD hath delivered your enemies the Moabites into your hand. And they went down after him, and took the fords of Jordan toward Moab, and suffered not a man to pass over. 29 And they slew of Moab at that time about ten thousand men, all lusty [or “robust” or “large” or even “fat”], and all men of valour; and there escaped not a man. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest fourscore years.
What an ending! Ehud escapes. But not one of those fat, large, or robust men of Moab does.
It’s interesting that Ehud escapes to Ephraim. Again, he’s from Benjamin, but I think this shows that judges could be the tribal ruler over several tribes, not just one. So, apparently a number of men from all Israel followed after Ehud down to the fords of Jordan where people would cross over to Moab. And they kill a lot of these fat/large/robust men – apparently they’re this way from their consumption of Israel’s goods just like Eglon. 10,000 of them or thereabouts. But later on in the book there will be an even larger slaughter at this very same place – the fords of Jordan. It’s there at the end of Jephthah’s time that the Gileadites led by Jepthah slaughter not 10,000 but 42,000. But that’s not the number of foreign enemies in chapter 12. It’s the number of Ephraimites that are slain under Jephthah’s rule – these very Ephraimites who are helping Ehud destroy the foreign enemy – Moab.
But for now, Ehud did his job. The foreign enemy is put down. And the land – whether that’s all Israel or just that immediate area – has rest for 80 years – two generations.
So, what do you think about Ehud? I’d say he’s generally a good judge. There really isn’t anything bad said of him – unless you think that being left-handed is a negative quality in a person. He did use deception, whereas we’re not told that Othniel did. But I’m not sure that we should look down on him because of that. Deception is a lawful tactic in war. And Israel certainly was in a war. So I think he’s fine. But even the fact that we’re having to weigh Ehud’s actions and character are an indication that things are on a downward progression in Israel, though the progression is slow at this point.
Well, we’ve seen two major or cyclical judges. Then we end the chapter with a minor or non-cyclical judge. Let’s read verse 31.
31 ¶ And after him was Shamgar the son of Anath, which slew of the Philistines six hundred men with an ox goad: and he also delivered Israel.
We can assume that Shamgar did much more than we have recorded. But we have recorded here all we need to know about this man for the sake of the message of this book. Shamgar is the first minor judge. He’s the son of Anath. Anath could be his father’s name. Or it might indicate that he was a military figure, maybe a mercenary. And he kills not Moabites like Ehud or Mesopotamians like Othniel. Shamgar kills Philistines. And since he’s dealing with Philistines he probably lives around the coast of the Mediterranean Sea where the Philistines lived. The tribes around there include Judah, Simeon, Dan, Ephraim, and Benjamin. So it’s likely that he’s from one of those tribes. But I’ve read that Old Testament scholars think he may not have been a native Israelite – just like Othniel.
Now, Shamgar kills 600 Philistines. And he does it with a pretty unusual instrument – an ox goad. That’s the instrument farmers would use to move their oxen along. 600 dead with a simple ox goad. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment. It is amazing. But just imagine what Israel could have been doing this whole time if only they had been faithful to the Lord instead of serving Baal.
So, now we’ve considered the first three judges in this book. We have nine left. And as I said at the beginning, it doesn’t get any better than this. It’s all downhill from here. Israel gets worse and worse and so do their judges. Next time we’ll hear about a female judge named Deborah and her reluctant sidekick Barak.