Ehud: Reluctant Zealot or Idolater?

In Judges 3:18-19, we read the following about Ehud, the judge who defeated Israel’s Moabite oppressors:

“When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent the people who carried the tribute on their way. But he himself turned back at the sculptured stones near Gilgal, and said, ‘I have a secret message for you, O king.’ So the king [of Moab] said, ‘Silence!’ and all his attendants went out from his presence” (NRSV).

The word translated as “sculptured stones” is pesilim, which is often used in the Hebrew Bible for idols (Deuteronomy 7:25; Isaiah 21:9; Jeremiah 51:47; Micah 1:7).

So what was Ehud doing at a site of idols? And what role does it play in the story? There are two possibilities that I encountered in my study:

1. Ehud, along with an entourage, gives a gift to King Eglon of Moab. Afterwards, Ehud escorts the others in his party to Gilgal, which forms a boundary between Moab and Israel. When he sees the idols at Gilgal, which was Israel’s site of encampment and worship in the days of Joshua (Joshua 4-5), he becomes outraged at Eglon’s disregard for Israel’s traditions, history, and god. He then returns to Eglon’s palace and kills him.

The first time that Ehud visited Eglon–when he and the others were presenting their gift–Ehud concealed a dagger under his clothes (Judges 3:16). Was he planning to kill Eglon on the first visit, only to chicken out? And did seeing the idols in Gilgal motivate him to go back and do what needed to be done?

If this is true, then it’s profound that something gave timid Ehud the strength and courage to risk his life. And he was risking his life. Sure, he found a way to get the king’s assistants out of the throne room, which gave him an opportunity to kill the king. Then, he successfully escaped. But did he know going in that he would be successful? What if the king didn’t buy into his trick? What if the guards decided to stay in the throne room? What if someone spotted Ehud as he was trying to escape? Ehud was facing a lot of dangerous contingencies.

Yet, in this scenario, his passionate zeal for God and Israel gave him strength. I’m reminded of that scene in Punch Drunk Love, in which Adam Sandler says to people who are threatening him, “I have a woman (Emily Watson), and that makes me strong.” Well, in Ehud’s case, his love for God and his nation made him strong. I am often timid, and I wonder if something (or someone) outside of myself can give me this kind of courage.

2. Ehud goes to Gilgal to worship the idols. E.W. Bullinger goes further when he suggests that they actually were Ehud’s idols. (For Bullinger, they were like the ones in Gilgal, not actually in that location.) In this scenario, Ehud was not perfect, yet God used him anyway.

We see similar scenarios throughout the Book of Judges. Gideon made his ephod an object of idolatry (Judges 8:27). Samson was far from perfect. The tribe of Dan had its problems. In the days of the judges, Israel often did what was right in her own eyes (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). Still, God worked with her.

In Judges 3, God may even have delivered Israel through a non-Israelite. In v 31, we read of Shamgar, the son of Anath, who killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad. Shamgar is a non-Israelite name, and Anath was the name of a Canaanite goddess. Did God use a Gentile to free his people? Wouldn’t we expect him to use a righteous Israelite? Perhaps God does not always work in conventional ways!

The notion that God uses imperfect people is encouraging and discouraging at the same time. On the one hand, it gives me the hope that God can use even me. God wants to give glory to himself, not his messengers. By using imperfect people, God shows that he is the one doing the work. And he reveals to us his grace and love, for he meets us where we are.

On the other hand, God’s imperfect messengers can also be a turnoff. We don’t like people who proclaim the power of the Gospel and tell others how to live their lives, only to sin grossly in their own personal conduct. That casts doubt on the power of the Gospel. It presents God’s way as unattainable. And it strikes us as utterly depraved. Speaking about the hypocrisy of many Jews (or, according to some scholars, Gentile converts to Judaism), Paul says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).

But how can we not be hypocrites? We all fall short of what we believe to be righteous. We are only human.

But perhaps Ehud didn’t think that he was behaving unrighteously. If this scenario is true, maybe he did what he was accustomed to doing. Ehud left the king in a state of timidity, went to Gilgal to gain strength through worship, and returned to kill the king. Sure, he was worshipping God imperfectly, but God was working through him anyway. And God planned to reveal more of his way to him at just the right time.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Ehud: Reluctant Zealot or Idolater?

  1. Anonymous says:

    First, we all fall short. Even those who seem to be on top of the game, because we are all imperfect. When we expect those God seems to be using to BE perfect, we are deceiving ourselves, but yet are disappointed none-the-less.
    But, I do think some people are grossly hypocritical in their actions. I think they would more likely be the ones like Paul was referring to. I think if we stay tuned in to God, we are less likely to fail miserably.
    Now, tell me your take on the issue of Ehud being left-handed. I have my own thoughts on it. Just wondering what yours were since you have a lot of resources.
    Aunt C


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Aunt C! For your question in the other post on my reading schedule, I’ll probably be going through it more slowly than you will, since I read and study a chapter a week. My weekly quiet times go more slowly than my daily ones. But, surprisingly, I’ve gotten a lot read. I’ve read Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the Minor Prophets, and Genesis through Joshua.

    One source you may find helpful is E-Sword, which you can download freely. It’s old stuff, but I still like it.

    On Ehud, the Hebrew text says that Ehud was shut up in his right hand. And that appears to have been common in Benjamin anyway, as Judges 20:16 shows. That’s ironic, since “Benjamin” means “Son of the right hand.” But the Septuagint says that Ehud was ambidextrous.


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