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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a cubit long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing” (Judges 3:16).
The Bible is packed with wonderfully entertaining tales that aren’t necessarily suitable for young children at bedtime.
The story of Ehud, the cunning left-handed judge, qualifies as Exhibit A.
If Joshua is the happiest book in the Old Testament – since it describes a time when the people of Israel are genuinely eager to obey God – Judges, the very next book in your table of contents, is the most tragic. The juxtaposition is startling. Even though God’s people are finally free and living in a homeland of their own, something goes wrong in the leadership handoff between the generation of Joshua and the generation that follows. “After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).
The result is spiritual anarchy. The people disobey God, which plunges them into crisis. They cry out in despair. God sends them deliverers. After receiving relief, however, the people return to disobedience. This cycle is reported more than a dozen times in the book of Judges. Disobedience, despair, deliverance, repeat.
Although the English word “judge” became associated with Israel’s deliverers, a better description might simply be “leader” or even “guerilla fighter.” God’s people typically fought as underdogs against much larger and better-equipped enemies.
Which brings us to the account of Ehud, who, by resorting to sheer chutzpah, takes down one of Israel’s chief foes all by himself.
Judges 3:15 notes the crucial detail that Ehud is left-handed. Throughout history, something like 90% of humanity has led with the right hand. Hence the Latin word for right is dexter (from which we get “dexterity”). The left hand – even today in the developing world – has traditionally been reserved for personal hygiene. The Latin word for left is sinister. Enough said. No one in polite company would ever extend his or her left hand to another person without generating suspicion that something was seriously wrong.
Eglon, the morbidly obese king of Moab, has subjugated Israel for 18 years, forcing the people (like a mob boss) to purchase his favor with treasure. Ehud is chosen to deliver the next payoff.
Our “3:16” verse tells us that Ehud straps a short sword to his right thigh, presumably on the inside of his leg. Upon visiting the king he says, “Your Majesty, I have a secret message for you.” Intrigued, Eglon clears the room. As Ehud approaches the throne, he reaches with his left hand under his garment. The king thinks he has nothing to fear, since a real warrior (a man of honor) would reach for a weapon only with his right hand.
The details that follow – along with David’s stone thudding into Goliath’s forehead and the big fish barfing up Jonah onto a Mediterranean beach – are the kinds of specifics that have kept generations of 11-year-old boys from becoming terminally bored in Sunday School.
“Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed over it. Then Ehud went out to the porch. He shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them” (Judges 3:20-23).
As if those graphic fine points aren’t enough, here come the laughs. “After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, ‘He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the palace.’ They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead” (3:24-25).
Generations of Jewish raconteurs must have loved telling and retelling this tale.
Let’s take a brief detour to another “3:16” text, one which we will only note in passing. We find these words in I Kings 3:16: “Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him.”
Experienced Bible readers will recognize that this is the start of a celebrated anecdote concerning King Solomon, who was famous for his wisdom and discernment. A pair of prostitutes is seeking justice. Each has given birth to a child out of wedlock. But one baby died, and the mother quickly switched her dead infant with the living one. Both claim the surviving little one. Since there were no third-party witnesses, and DNA testing is still three millennia away, how will the wisest man in the world determine who is in the right?
That’s easy. Cut the baby in half. Then each mom will go home with half a baby, which is better than no baby at all, right?
“Sounds fair to me,” says one of the prostitutes. “No, give the baby to her!” shouts the other one. Mystery solved. Solomon wisely discerns that the real mother would do anything to protect the life of her child.
Like the account of Ehud, this story feels raw. Why are there so many unpleasant and unsettling stories like these two on the pages of God’s Word?
We can answer that question by posing another one: Have you seen the local news lately? There are unpleasant and unsettling events in every community every day.
The Bible is not a collection of morality tales or “nice stories” designed to promote good behavior in children. The biblical authors felt empowered to report adultery, genocide, treason, rape, incest, and betrayal, even when such dark realities tainted the reputations of so-called “heroes of the faith.”
We live, after all, in an R-rated world – one that is Rough, Raw, and Real.
But it is also Redemptive.
Life may be a mess much of the time, but God is at work in the middle of it all.
And just as he directed the course of history through Ehud and Solomon, he’ll be doing the same thing today by working through you and me.
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