Ehud of Benjamin and King Eglon of Moab
By David Hartley Mark
For Benjamin N., A Current Leader of Israel
12 The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. 13In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, he went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms. 14So the Israelites served King Eglon of Moab for eighteen years.
15 But when the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The Israelites sent tribute by him to King Eglon of Moab. 16Ehud made for himself a knife with two edges, a cubit in length; and he fastened it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17Then he presented the tribute to King Eglon of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. 18When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. 19But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, ‘I have a secret message for you, O king.’ So the king said,*‘Silence!’ and all his attendants went out from his presence. 20Ehud came to him, while he was sitting alone in his cool roof-chamber, and said, ‘I have a message from God for you.’ So he rose from his seat. 21Then Ehud reached with his left hand, took the knife from his right thigh, and thrust it into Eglon’s* belly; 22the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not draw the knife out of his belly; and the dirt came out.* 23Then Ehud went out into the vestibule,* and closed the doors of the roof-chamber on him, and locked them.
24 After he had gone, the servants came. When they saw that the doors of the roof-chamber were locked, they thought, ‘He must be relieving himself* in the cool chamber.’ 25So they waited until they were embarrassed. When he still did not open the doors of the roof-chamber, they took the key and opened them. There was their lord lying dead on the floor.
26 Ehud escaped while they delayed, and passed beyond the sculptured stones, and escaped to Seirah. 27When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites went down with him from the hill country, having him at their head. 28He said to them, ‘Follow after me; for the Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand.’ So they went down after him, and seized the fords of the Jordan against the Moabites, and allowed no one to cross over. 29At that time they killed about ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; no one escaped. 30So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.
My name is Ehud , and that is my story. Beyond those eighteen verses, no one knew anything of me—my life, my birth, my parents, or my struggles for freedom. I was as much a folk-hero as your American John Henry or Johnny Appleseed. But when the writers of Deuteronomy needed a man as a rallying-point, some long-forgotten titan to inspire the Israelite People back to a lost, ethical ideal—whether worship, a Land, a way of life—they seized upon my story, bulked it out, found me some ancestry—I became Ehud ben Gera, the Benjaminite, smallest of the tribes, yet powerful—and a fighter for freedom. If you were Israelite.
If you were Moabite, I was a terrorist.
Mine—that is, Ehud’s—story follows a familiar, moralist-Deuteronomistic pattern:
The Israelites follow idolatry, and fall away from worship of God.
God punishes them by sending oppression, in the shape of a foreign Power, which enslaves, taxes, or oppresses them.
The Israelites suffer under this Power (Moab, in this case), and react by crying out to their neglected God, yearning to return to Him in penitence.
God inspires, and raises up, a previously-unknown Hero (Samson, Gideon, Elijah, Elisha, myself) who strikes a blow against the Oppressor.
The Hero succeeds, usually via a stratagem, against overwhelming odds.
The Enemy flees, or is subdued, at least, temporarily, and “the Land has rest” for a limited period of time. In my case, the Deuteronomist editor chose eighty years, a multiple of four, a goodly sum.
There are but a few, minor details which make my story unique: my being left-handed—not a good thing back in those days; indeed, it was cursed—“left side” is sinistra in Latin, which becomes sinister, “evil,” in English, but my unique, left-handed fighting knife arm allows me to pass through the Moabite Royal Palace Security Checkpoint.
Indeed, my using a knife, and, certainly, King Eglon’s being enormously fat, conceals the weapon for a sufficient amount of time to allow me to escape.
My own people are starving, and this Moabite pig is so fat that his belly can, literally, swallow up a knife.
Could you imagine the jealousy which we Israelites suffered, peering through a fence at the Moabite riches? How long could we suffer, under such oppression?
No one ever questions why I struck a blow for freedom: this is the Israelite Saga of Freedom Fighters, after all.
And we two peoples never did get along. Why not? Look at the origins of Moab:
Moab (and Ammon, too) is a child of the incest which drunken Lot committed with his elder daughter following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moab was one of Israel’s principal arch-enemies, for being a bastard sort of—cousin? We’re not certain; incest is like that. “Mo-ab” is a corrupted form of the Hebrew, “May-Av,” or, “From Father.” This may be a false etymology, but for Israelites seeking to insult the neighboring Moabite tribes, it was sufficient.
As a tribal chieftain, I have a tiny bit of prophetic powers, and I can tell you, Reader, that Israel’s history—if we may consider the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, to have elements of such—abounds with instances of Moab’s battling Israel several times throughout the Books of Kings.
Who won, in the end? It all depends on whose history you read, whose stories you take to heart.
Indeed, in the summer of 1868, a German missionary stationed in Jerusalem, one F. A. Klein, discovers a “large rectangular basalt stone, rounded at the top…inscribed with what looked like Hebrew words…the paleo-Hebrew script used in biblical times,” reading as follows:
I am Mesha, son of Chemosh[yat] King of Moab…. I made this high place for
Chemosh [a Moabite god], for he saved me from all the kings, and he allowed me
To see the downfall of all my foes. …Israel was lost forever.
(Quoted in Kugel, 2007, pp. 536-7)
But Mesha was wrong, you see: whether Moab continued or not, I cannot say; there is only that one stone of relic and remembrance, and Mesha is dead.
I do know that Israel continues, today, and will do so, forever, by our God’s promise.
What I, Ehud, choose to emphasize, is the unwritten story—not my being a knife-fighter, or my striking a blow for freedom, or the spilled blood of that greedy pig Eglon, who probably believed that I wished a private audience with him, so I could pay him some sort of bribe.
My emphasis is later. I stress that a young, beautiful girl named Ruth will choose willingly to marry an Israelite, a young man named Machlon. He is, according to her eponymous book, a sickly fellow, and will die shortly thereafter.
Why? It is God’s will; God’s destiny. I am a warrior, not some philosopher.
And when he dies, this same young woman, Ruth, will choose to remain with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and to return with her to her people. Did I say that Naomi and her sons will come from Bethlehem, the City of Peace, in the Prophet Micah’s words?
“Your people shall be my people,” says Ruth to Naomi, “and your God my God.”
And Ruth is a Moabite. Yes, harken to me, to Ehud, killer of Moabites: this Moabite maiden, Ruth, will marry an Israelite, and conjoin with the Israelite People, of her own free will.
Thus, the Moabites and the Israelites, who have fought against one another for so long, will seek to become friends. They will be able, one day, to put down their knives—as I put mine down, in the end, after thinking, hard and long, about freedom—and learn to live together, in peace.
When can the guns and bombs and knives be put down? When can the hands that hold them be stretched out, in peace?
It is I, Ehud ben Gera, fighter for freedom (or, anti-Moabite terrorist, whatever you wish), who asks this Question.
Which side will be first to speak of peace?
And to let that peace last—dare I say it? For more than eighty years?
Kugel, James L. How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then & Now. NY: Free Press, 2007.