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The Dual Hands

February 9, 2009, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (Judges 3:12-31) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Judges
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Judges

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Sermon on Judges 3:12-3:31

The Dual Hands of Deliverance - Divine and Human at Work

The story of Ehud we read just now is indeed a controversial one, even paradoxical. To the Israelites, Ehud was their hero, a divinely sent deliverer to liberate them from the rule of Eglon, the king of Moab. You can picture generations of Israelites sitting around the campfire as the elder recounts the story to the young of how brave Ehud tricked the stupid, fat Moabites and conquered them. They are not at all embarrassed about the tricks employed by Ehud, their hero. His tricks worked, no one faltered, the liberation was total and the subsequent peace was the longest ever, eighty years. In fact the Israelites delight in the victory and receive the story with ethnic pride. But to the Moabites, Ehud was a traitor, violating the obligations of a vassal. To us, the modern readers, Ehud was an assassin, a brutal murderer. In addition to that, he carried out his mission in a story laden with demeaning ethnic jokes used against king Eglon and the Moabites. Do you find them distasteful? And what about the idea of God’s using assassins to achieve His purposes? Is it ok or too offensive for you? So, what is this paradoxical story doing in the Bible? Can it teach us any thing? Let us first not to make any judgment but to go the story itself to find out the message the author wants to convey. Nevertheless, it is very clear in the story that Ehud effectively delivered his people from the oppression of the Moabites. But his act of deliverance is no more than an execution of the divine salvation. In this story, we encounter a detailed description of the act of delivery, and it makes clear to us the meaning of the statement that God raised up a deliverer for Israel. So, there are in fact two operating hands working on two different levels in the story of Ehud. I therefore entitle my sermon this morning as: The dual hands of deliverance: the divine and the human at work.

The Structure of the Story
Let me now put the detailed story in a nutshell. After the death of their first judge, Othniel, the Israelites once again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. The evil things they did concern their intermarriages with the Canaanites which resulted in the Israelites worshipping and serving other gods. The result of their continuing to defy the LORD is that the Moabites, under king Eglon, prevailed over Israel. After eighteen years of subjection, the Israelites again cried out to the LORD. A deliverer thus arose in the person of Ehud, a left-handed Benjaminite. Taking tribute to the king, he made for himself a short dagger and hid it on his right thigh. He later deceived the king’s attendants into a private audience with Eglon, saying that he had a secret message for the king. And there in the king’s “cool chamber”, as the king rose from his seat to receive the secret message from God, Ehud quickly drew the dagger from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. Because of Eglon’s obesity, Ehud buried not only the blade but also the handle in his belly. The murder scene finished with some kind of filth or excrement poured out of the dying king’s body. Ehud then withdrew. He locked the doors behind him, knowing that when the king’s attendants returned, they would be afraid to open the doors without a command from Eglon. Further more, the smell of the excrement would fool them in assuming that their king was relieving himself. All these give Ehud time to escape. So, by the time the king’s attendants discovered what had actually happened, Ehud was long gone. As soon as Ehud reached the hill country of Ephraim, he blew a trumpet and summoned the Israelites together. The troops followed him, seized the fords of the Jordan with ease, when the Moabites were thrown into confusion with the news that their king had been murdered. Israel troops thus cut off the escape route of the Moabites and slew ten thousand strong, able-bodied men from Moab. Israel thus enjoyed peace and security for eighty years. The whole structure of Ehud story may thus be sketched as follows:

Situation of subjugation (vv12-15) Situation of peace (v30)

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Dagger tactics (v16) Battle tactics (vv27-29)

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Tactic of offering Tactic of fooling

the tribute (vv17-18) the attendants (vv24-26)

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Murder (vv19-23)

The Tactics of Human Hands

From the above sketch, our first impression when reading the story of Ehud is of a victory won by a succession of human hands or tactics. The goal taken by Ehud to kill king Eglon in his palace, among his own people, and thereafter to escape from the site of the murder and to exploit the confusion and tumult of the Moabites in order to attack them, all these required precise planning of a variety of tactics during the various stages of execution. Let us now examine what these tactics are.

1. First, the special dagger Ehud made. This two-edged dagger is effective for quick action, a quality that may compliment its small size. The wearing of the dagger is also unconventional. Being a left-handed man, Ehud would not have carried his dagger on the left side of his body like most right-handed warriors would have. The palace guards, assuming he is right-handed, would have checked only his left side for weapons. By hiding the dagger on his right thigh, he would thus easily escape the search by the palace guards (Of course with the present high-tech metal detector, he would not have escaped the search).

2. As the head of the delegation that bring Israel’s tribute to king Eglon, Ehud first presented the gifts in the court of Eglon. He could not choose this place for carrying out the murder because there were too many people present. Rather, this occasion served as a preparatory stage for demonstrating complete submission and for winning the trust of the king and his men. The tribute party then set off for home. But at the place near Gilgal where many carved idols were displayed, Ehud himself turned back. His return from this place claiming he had some kind of divine revelation for the king, made Eglon willing to receive him once again. The king was curious to know what secret message Ehud had obtained from the visit there. Since he had already gained the trust of the king and his servants, now Ehud was left alone with the king without arousing any suspicion.

3. When Ehud was in complete isolation with the king, he caused the king to rise from his seat by mentioning God’s name: “I have a message from God for you”. The king’s standing up is important in light of the disproportion between Ehud’s small dagger and the king’s great girth. The king’s belly, stretched taut when he stoop up, enabled Ehud to exploit the advantage of his small, two-edged dagger.

4. After successfully plunging the dagger into the king’s belly, Ehud employed the delaying and distraction tactics for the success of his escape. The locking of the chamber doors and the smell of excretion led the servants mistakenly assume their king was taking his time in relieving himself. Their long wait gave Ehud time to return safely to gather his troops for the attack before the Moabites responded.

5. Ehud’s battle and victory were also based upon tactics. Knowing that the murder of their king would create confusion, panic and loss of motivation among the enemy army, these would bring tactical advantages to his own small army. Ehud and his men therefore quickly took possession of the fords of the Jordan, thereby gaining domination at the Jordan crossings. And in this way they successfully cut off the escape route of the Moabites.

In summary, we see that Ehud knew how to exploit the advantages and limitations of each stage of his plan, and they led him to overall victory. The focusing of the author upon Ehud’s various tactics helps to emphasize the human planning and maneuvering. Nevertheless, the author also wants to convey the readers that the effectiveness of Ehud’s planned tactics could only have been assured because God had already chosen him to be Israel’s deliverer. In other words, Ehud’s ability to act as a tactician depends upon God’s wish to deliver His people. The author wants to teach his readers the connection between human tactics and Divine deliverance. As stated in the beginning of the story, when the Israelites cried out to the LORD, He gave them a deliverer. In fact, the author’s message of this story is simply: The success of human tactics depends upon Divine providence and is accomplished through His power and will. But how do we know that the Divine hand is at work in the story of Ehud? We first notice the judgment upon Israel came from the hand of God.

God’s Hand of Judgment
Ehud’s story begins with the information that the Israelites continue to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. As a result, the LORD gave Eglon king of Moab power over Israel. Who are the Moabites? They are not alien to Israelites as the Canaanites are, for they are the descendents of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. As such, God has granted them their own territory. So, Moab is not part of the promised land and Israel is not to harass them. But they showed inhospitality to the Israelites during their migrating journey to the promised land. In fact relations between Moabites and Israelites are complex and difficult to discern whether they are friendly or hostile. Nevertheless, in today story we see God strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, even though his ability to overcome Israel did not come from his own army power but through combined forces with the Ammonites and Amalekites. Even if the king of Moab was convinced that his victory was achieved by the use of massive power, his coalition forces could only succeed because it matched God’s plan to punish Israel. So, it is very clear that the Moabites’ oppression was the result of a Divine decision to punish His people, and it does not matter whether king Eglon was aware that he was actually serving the LORD. Thus, we see here that even the tactics of the enemy forces worked in accordance to the Divine will.

God’s Hand of Deliverance
These two different norms of operation, namely the human and the Divine hands at work also appear in the appointment of Ehud. We now come to God’s Hand of deliverance in liberating His people. In the beginning of the story, we read that after eighteen years of subjection under the rule of king Eglon, the Israelites again cried out to the LORD. The author specifically states that the LORD gave them a deliverer after hearing their cry. As a deliverer who was raised up by God, we would expect some kind of a great act to be performed by Ehud to liberate the Israelites. Also, we would like to see some sort of manifestation of the LORD’s Spirit upon him. In fact, there is no specific report in the story that Ehud did have a revelatory experience where he realized he was chosen by God, nor did the Spirit of God descend upon him or was with him. Unlike the case of the previous judge Othniel, it is clearly stated that the Spirit of the LORD came upon him, so that he became Israel’s judge and went to war (3:10). So, here once again we see two types of hands at work as if they were independent from each other. As readers we know that Ehud was raised up by God as a deliverer after the Israelites cried to Him for help. But the Israelites who have yet to know that Ehud would be their deliverer, appoint him to send tribute to king Eglon. So, we have two points of view on Ehud’s appointment: according to God, He chose Ehud as a deliverer; according to the people of Israel, they chose Ehud to bring the tribute.

What made the people of Israel choose Ehud, a left-handed man as the head of the tribute party? The story does not provide us an explicit answer. We only know that this left-handed man came from the tribe of Benjamin. In the ancient time, left-handedness was generally considered peculiar, unnatural even inferior. But later in Judges 20:16 (also 1 Chronicles 12:2) we learn that there are seven hundred warriors from the tribe of Benjamin known for fighting with their left hands (Some one points out left-handed persons may have had distinct advantages in physical combat, especially in regard to ancient armaments). So, the combination of “left-handed” and “from Benjamin” highlighted by the author seems to indicate to the readers that Ehud was a super fighter, a warrior. Could this be Ehud’s attribute that made him the head of the tribute party? It also explains how Ehud was able to smuggle his dagger in, and exploited his unique physical advantage when bringing the tribute in order to deliver his people.

Perhaps it is the unique physical attribute of Ehud that caused his people to choose him to present the tribute, but more importantly it is the hand of God that raised him up to be the Israel’s savior. Ehud was well aware that it was not due to his various human tactics that enabled him to liberate his people. Rather, in leading his people for war, he made clear to them that it was the LORD who had given their enemies into their hands. In his own words: “Follow me, for the LORD has given Moab, your enemy, into your hands”, Ehud now stands revealed as God’s chosen deliverer. As a deliverer raised up by God, king Eglon was no match for him. After Eglon has served his purpose for God, punishing Israel, he is now easily removed. So, God’s sovereign control of the circumstances is maintained throughout the story. A further hint of Divine intervention may be seen in the results of the battle: “not a man escaped”. In this war, unlike a regular war, there was not a single survivor—a fact indicating Divine intervention. So, Israel’s deliverance first comes through the active involvement of Ehud and then of the Israelites winning the battle, but it is God who ultimately made Moab subject to His people.

The Theological/Moral Issues
By going through the Ehud story in details, the author’s message is thus very clear: that Ehud’s ability to carry out his tactics (the human hands) is predetermined by God’s desire to deliver Israel (the Divine hand). In other words, Ehud’s success is a result of Divine providence. So, the author seems not to be concerned at all about the morality of Ehud’s behavior and his plan of actions. To him, liberation, the victory of Israel the underdog, the saving of God’s people is more important than pure morality.

He simply describes what happened from his point of view, and in so doing reminds the readers that in the dark days of Judges period the tools available to God are crude.

After all, the Book of Judges is not a catalog of exemplary characters.

But to the modern readers, the tension between the character and actions of Ehud and the depiction of God’s involvement will always remain. How can Yahweh, the holy God, use a devious and brutal left-handed assassin like Ehud? This tension is not easily explained. Biblical commentators and theologians have in fact struggled with it throughout the history of interpretation. Some scholars have dealt with the tension by arguing that God does not condone Ehud’s methods (not God’s preferred way), He nevertheless uses the human agent to accomplish the deliverance of His people. The reason given is that the author is silent on the role of God in Ehud’s plan of actions. Throughout Ehud’s course of action, the author does not say that “the LORD was with him” or “the Spirit of the LORD came upon him”. This implies a lack of spiritual sensitivity in Ehud’s heart. He operates like a typical Canaanite of his time—cleverly, opportunistically and even violently as a warrior. The human agents God used may not all be exemplary. For instances, God used another “trickster” named Jacob, and other murderers as well, like Moses and David to lead His people. Ehud was raised by God as a direct response to the cries of His people. In spite of moral flaws in the deliverer, God accomplishes the salvation of Israel. Although Ehud’s deceptive plot and murder of Eglon may not have been God’s preferred means, it does not signify that God cannot turn this to accomplish Israel’s deliverance.

But what about the violence presented in the story? This involves the argument from the liberation theology. It suggests that oppressed people have certain rights in the sight of God that oppressors do not. Violence by the oppressed is thus not sinful to the same degree that violence by oppressors is. The classic modern case is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great German theologian and the pivotal figure in twentieth-century ethics. He joined the resistance against the Nazis and even participated in an assassination attempt against Hitler. He even claimed that “anyone who was not ready to kill Hitler was guilty of mass murder, whether he liked it or not.” But he was later captured by the Nazis, imprisoned for two years and eventually executed by hanging shortly before the war ended. He died at the age of 39. Bonhoeffer seemed to suggest (perhaps for Ehud as well) that the death of one man might save the lives of many. Ironically, this was the high priest, Caiaphas’ argument for the death of Jesus in John’s Gospel 11:50 “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

So, what can we learn from today’s story? First, we must be aware of the strangeness and peculiarity of this story in which morality is not of the primary issue. The paradoxical nature of this story just simply cannot be explained or smoothed away with our modern, logical way of thinking. We can indeed claim from God what He has clearly promised to do, but none of us has the right to dictate to Him how He is to do it. We are not to be surprised if He chooses the most unlikely methods, be it deprivation, illness or failure to become the instruments of His rule. God’s divine perspective on the reality of this world and on our lives can be quite different from our human’s perspective. Life is in fact a paradoxical phenomenon. Our human’s way of doing things may or may not coincide with God’s plan. But what we can hold on to Him is His loving grace and His compassion for us. In God’s merciful grace, we can ask Him to turn our weaknesses to strengths, and to guide us as we walk step by step close to His side.

Secondly, the positive message we can get from today story is that Ehud is willing to risk his life for God. On the human level, he is not at all sure that his variety of tactics during the various stages of execution will work out well, if not of God’s providence. Many Christians today are hampered by an unwillingness to take any risk for God. We are afraid to share our faith, to stand up for righteousness and justice, even to speak a word of encouragement to the downhearted, simply because we fear what others might say or think about us. Ehud has demonstrated the kind of boldness of action for God, and that should spur us to action so as to accomplish God’s desire in our Christian lives.

Judges 3:12–31 (Listen)

12 And the people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the LORD. 13 He gathered to himself the Ammonites and the Amalekites, and went and defeated Israel. And they took possession of the city of palms. 14 And the people of Israel served Eglon the king of Moab eighteen years.

15 Then the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, and the LORD raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man. The people of Israel sent tribute by him to Eglon the king of Moab. 16 And Ehud made for himself a sword with two edges, a cubit in length, and he bound it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 And he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Eglon was a very fat man. 18 And when Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people who carried the tribute. 19 But he himself turned back at the idols near Gilgal and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And he commanded, “Silence.” And all his attendants went out from his presence. 20 And Ehud came to him as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud said, “I have a message from God for you.” And he arose from his seat. 21 And Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. 22 And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out. 23 Then Ehud went out into the porch and closed the doors of the roof chamber behind him and locked them.

24 When he had gone, the servants came, and when they saw that the doors of the roof chamber were locked, they thought, “Surely he is relieving himself in the closet of the cool chamber.” 25 And they waited till they were embarrassed. But when he still did not open the doors of the roof chamber, they took the key and opened them, and there lay their lord dead on the floor.

26 Ehud escaped while they delayed, and he passed beyond the idols and escaped to Seirah. 27 When he arrived, he sounded the trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim. Then the people of Israel went down with him from the hill country, and he was their leader. 28 And he 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 did not allow anyone to pass over. 29 And they killed at that time about 10,000 of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men; not a man escaped. 30 So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel. And the land had rest for eighty years.

31 After him was Shamgar the son of Anath, who killed 600 of the Philistines with an oxgoad, and he also saved Israel.

(ESV)