THE BANDIT AND THE KING
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Robin Hood. Zorro. Edward Snowden. Ehud. What do all these people have in common? Are they heroes? Criminals? Traitors? Patriots? Deliverers? They’re all known as social bandits – a sociological term that refers to (usually) a folk hero. Here’s one definition:
The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported. This relation between the ordinary peasant and the rebel, outlaw and robber is what makes social banditry interesting and significant ... Social banditry of this kind is one of the most universal social phenomena known to history.
If it does nothing else, our reading of the book of Judges will assure us that the Bible is not merely a group of moral tales. It is not merely a story to show us how to live. It reveals to us the nature of God. The book of Judges reveals to us the nature of God. It is not simply a set of stories of heroes whom we should emulate. The word Judge itself can be somewhat confusing to us, as it conjures up images of people in judicial robes. While there is some of that (notably in the story of Debra which we’ll look at next week), the word we translate as “judge” also had the meaning of “to govern and establish justice.”
From chapter 3 through to chapter 16, we’re into the stories of the 12 individual judges. These stories all follow a similar pattern – the Israelites do what is evil in the sight of the Lord (in other words they turn to other gods); they are oppressed as a result of this and call out to God; God raises up a deliverer and the people have rest; the judge dies and the cycle repeats itself. It’s not so much a cycle though, as it is a downward spiral. When the book ends, it’s not the Canaanites who are the snare for Israel, but Israel herself as the nation descends into bloody civil war. So hang on! Throughout it all, however, they are never forgotten by God.
We’re going to be talking a lot about Ehud, but the story is not really about Ehud. It’s really about God. We’re asking the question “Who will lead us?” as we’re going through Judges. Who is my deliverer? How should we live in the light of the covenant – the loving agreement – that has been put in place by Christ? The story is framed in the light of God’s covenant with Israel. It’s framed in the truth that God doesn’t forget God’s covenant. The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. The Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab across the Jordan. He made an alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites. He took over the city of palms – usually thought to be Jericho. He took their stuff. He made the Israelites pay him tribute. He made them give him their stuff, in other words. Skimming off the top.
But. When the Israelites cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud son of Gera, the Benjamite, a left-handed man.
So we have on one side this Moabite king. It’s not that God has anything against Moabites any more than he has against Canaanites any more than he has against Egyptians (or Syrians or Iraqis or Americans or Canadians or anybody else you would care to name). We said last week that what God objects to is unjust oppressive systems. Eglon’s name means calf or heifer. We’re told he was fat. He’s oppressing the Israelites. He’s making them bring him stuff on pain of violence. As one writer puts it, in modern terms we’d call Eglon a fat cat. He represents a way of being that runs counter to how God created us to live.
On the other side we have Ehud. His name means lone. He’s a loner. Almost Lone-Rangerish in terms of that whole social bandit thing. He’s left-handed. The Hebrew reads literally “restricted in the right hand”, which might almost connote some sort of disability or deficiency. He’s from a tribe whose name means “son of the right hand” ironically. Left-handedness was not always looked on as a good thing. We get our word sinister from the Latin for left-handed. My father was naturally left-handed but fairly ambidextrous, because in school he was forbidden to write with his left hand.
Ironically it’s this left-handedness that’s going to enable Ehud to succeed in his assassination. He fashions a sword and straps it to his right thigh. The guards wouldn’t search him there. On his way back across the Jordan he sends the rest of his party ahead and doubles back by the sculptured stones near Gilgal – images of the Moabite god. Ehud tells the king that he has a secret message for him. A message from God no less. Perhaps Ehud thought it was a secret message from one of the gods whose statue Ehud had just seen. Perhaps he thought this could be somehow advantageous for him. The king sends everyone away and Ehud comes to him as he is sitting alone in his cool roof chamber.
He’s in the washroom basically.
I’m glad the kids are gone.
Ehud reaches for his sword and plunges it into Ehud’s belly to the point where the hilt goes in. Ehud’s fat closes over the blade, which would have meant not a lot of blood loss. No blood seeping out from under the door. The dirt came out. Our NRSV Bibles say “meaning of Hebrew uncertain”, but you can surmise that there’s a scatalogical situation going on here. Again the dramatic irony here. Ehud locks the doors of the cool chamber and makes his escape. The guards, seeing the locked door and smelling what they smell, think nothing is amiss. It’s like a really dark really violent situation comedy.
Ehud makes his way back across the river and sounds the trumpet. The Israelites all go with him (they won’t always join in and this lack of unity will mark the downward spiral as the book goes on). They take the fords of the Jordan and kill ten-thousand Moabites – all strong and able-bodied man (as opposed to the one who was lacking in the right hand). So Moab was subdued that day under the hand of Israel.
I am so glad we’re doing narrative again. It makes such a nice change from all that poetry we looked at all summer.
The story ends as it began. With covenant. God has promised rest to the people of Israel. He promised deliverance and rest. The land had rest for eighty years. This is good news. We love the idea of rest.
But what are we to make of this story. Is it even ok to be talking about stabbing and excrement and fat closing around the hilt of a sword in church?
The deliverance is key. We talk about God as one who delivers. We read about the Israelites being oppressed here and crying out. We can’t help but be reminded of the exodus when we read those words. The story of each judge is like a mini-exodus, and so the stories themselves are ultimately about God and what God does to deliver us. The Lord raised up for them a deliverer. We can’t read this and not be reminded of the one who is our deliverer. We look for different things to deliver us. Systems. People. The cult of personality. We look for different things to save us. Maybe we think we need to save ourselves. Maybe we think that our well being is dependent on us. At its worst this belief leads us to grasp things. It can lead us to take or demand things from others if we have the strength to do it. It can lead us to have things taken from us if we find ourselves on the weaker side. This is just the way the world works right? The God of the Torah and the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets and the Gospels and the Letters says otherwise. Our God says that loving him and loving others is the thing, because that’s how we were made. This story is not a commendation of violence but a condemnation of violence. It’s a recognition that violence begets violence. It’s a recognition that, as someone has said, oppressors do not often go out peacefully.
But what about all the stabbing? If we’re talking about these groups of people as representative of oppressive systems, I wonder what kinds of oppressive systems we’re called to confront. I wonder what kinds of oppressive systems we’re being called to “stab”. Sometimes it’s only when they’re stabbed that the dirt of such systems is exposed. It can be an uncomfortable thing yes. Especially when you’re on the strong side of the whole oppressor/oppressed equation. Whether you view someone like Robin Hood as a hero or a villain depends very much on whose side you’re on doesn’t it? What systems are we called to remove ourselves from? To speak out against? Anyone is capable of it. Freedom for the oppressed means not only freedom from sin but freedom from oppression. At CBOQ’s Avalanche two years ago the speaker told the children about an initiative in Australia in which schoolchildren boycotted a certain chocolate company to protest their use of Ivory Coast cocoa which was being farmed using child labour. They boycotted the company. They put the word out using social media. It worked. The dirt of that system was exposed. The company changed its practices.
God can use anyone in this kind of thing. Even children. Even a left-handed loner. God’s known for doing this. Think of Moses. Think of David. Think of Paul. Think of yourself. What about you makes you think that you’re fearfully and wonderfully made, with the emphasis on the fearfully?
Finally the story reminds of our question. Who will lead us? The answer is clear here. The Lord. “The Lord has given your enemies the Moabites into your hand,” Ehud cries out. Not “I have given the enemies into your hand. One of the key things about leadership is not to make it about us. It’s not to say we don’t answer the call. It’s crucial for any follower of Christ who’s leading in any capacity to remember that deliverance comes from God and not from us. As I like to say “We don’t save anyone.” We point to the one who does, just as Ehud did. We point to the one who will one day make all things new, all things right. Until that day He invites us to join him in his redeeming reconciling work, enabling us by the power of His Spirit to reflect His ways which are grace and forgiveness and mercy and justice and love. May this be true for all of us, friends.