Chapter 3                             

                                                           Was Ehud barbaric?


This chapter contains four subjects. It begins with six verses that list the Canaanite and Philistine nations that Israel was unable to conquer because God allowed them to remain so they can learn about warfare[1] and “to test Israel to determine if they will observe all of God’s commands commanded by Moses.” But Israel dwelt together with these people and took Canaanite and Philistine women as their wives and gave their sons to the pagan women.[2] This introduction is followed by the tales of three of the fifteen[3] judges, two very short and one long.

 As punishment for their failure to observe the divine commands, God “gave them over into the hand of…the king of Aram-naharaim…and the Israelites served (him) for eight years.” The Israelites cried to God who sent them Othniel,[4] Caleb’s brother, “upon whom was the spirit of God.”[5] He “judged Israel”[6] and defeated the oppressors, the land was then quiet for forty years, and Othniel died. Upon his death, the Israelites repeated their improper behavior, and the Moabites oppressed the Israelites for 18 years.[7] The judge Ehud saved the people. His story is told in detail.                

The Israelites were faced with overwhelming problems. What could they do to save themselves from the overwhelming better trained forces? How could they end their servitude? Would it be right to deceive their enemies and end their enslavement? Wasn’t a preemptive strike the only way of saving themselves, a last resort?

After careful consideration, Ehod, a left-handed judge with a crippled right hand,[8] decided that the only course open to him was to kill the king by deception. He took a short sharp dagger and hid it beneath his clothes on his right side where right-handed people would not expect to find a dagger. He traveled to the king who was then on the eastern coast of the Jordan River and brought him a gift, which was most-likely a demanded tribute.

He told the king that he wanted to tell him a secret from God. The king agreed to a private conversation, without suspecting that Ehod carried a dagger. He could not see it. He saw only a crippled man who could not use his right hand.

When the king rose to hear the message,[9] Ehod stabbed him, left the room and locked it. The king’s guards thought the king didn’t want to be bothered so Ehod had an opportunity to escape. When the guards saw that the king did not open his door or leave his room, they broke down the door and found the dead king. But it was too late to catch Ehod.

While the Moabites were involved with taking care of their dead king, Ehod blew the trumpet,[10] gathered Israelite forces, attacked the Jericho garrison, and defeated the enemy. “They smote of Moab at that time about 10,000 men,”[11] Ehod and the Israelites did not cross the Jordan, enter Moab, and did not snatch land from them. They only reacquired their own land. The Bible concludes the story by telling us that Ehod’s actions secured peace for the area that lasted eighty years.[12]


A criticism of Ehod

The Interpreter’s Bible criticizes Ehod and the Israelites and charges them with barbarity. As I pointed out in chapter 2, ancient stories of Israelite battles and behaviors should be evaluated against the many instances where the Torah teaches compassion for everyone, even animals, the actions and mindset of nations of the time, and the Torah’s attempt to elevate the people.

Additionally, the author of The Interpreter’s Bible turned a blind eye to the biblical description of the dire circumstances of the Israelites during Ehud’s era, their eighteen years of abject servitude to a hostile nation, the overwhelming power of the Moabites, Israel’s need for deliverance, and that deception was their only resort. He also discounted the fact that Ehod and the Israelites acted with remarkable restraint.

Frequently, as the Chinese military general Sun Tzu (about 544-496 BCE) taught,[13] the best or only military tactic is deception and surprise. It is often the only means to success and it secures the minimum risk of harm to one’s army and can result in a smaller lose of enemy forces.

Ehod’s goal was to relieve his people from the Moabite yoke, not to secure a complete victory and mastery over his enemy. He fought only out of necessity and with restraint. He did not follow the tactic of the later German military general Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831)[14] who taught the principle of continuity: pursue one’s enemy with the utmost vigor without slackening the pace for a moment.


Shamgar, judge or non-Israelite?

The land was peaceful after Ehud for eighty years.[15] After him was Shamgar the son of Anath who, presumably with helpers, smote 600 Philistines with an ox-goad; and he also saved Israel.”[16] The precise rounded number 600 obviously implies “many.”

The short story is told in a single verse. Shamgar is not called a judge. The usual cyclical information is absent – that Israel did wrong, pleaded to God, God sent a judge, he delivered the Israelites, and the land was at peace for a certain number of years. Shamgar’s name is placed next to the non-Israelite Jael in 5:6 – “In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, during the days of Yael.” Chapter 4 begins saying that the Israelites acted improperly after Ehud’s death, ignoring Shamgar and seemingly implying he did not judge the people. These details, together with the fact that Shamgar is not an Israelite name and Anath is the name of a pagan god, led many scholars to conclude that Shamgar, like Yael, was a pagan who helped the Israelites.[17]

J. A. Soggin[18] suggests that it is possible to understand the story in this way: “two people were trying to wrest the region from its inhabitants: Israel and the Philistines, and it would not be strange if one allied itself with the other, depending on the situation. So here we would have a Canaanite (Shamgar) allied with Israel against the Philistines, while in Judges 5 (when the situation changed) a Philistine is at the head of the anti-Israelite coalition.”




[1] Rashi, Radak, and Gersonides felt that the Israelites needed to learn how to fight in the future because up to now they really didn’t fight. God fought for them and achieved their victories. An apparent problem with this view for those like Rashi who believes that God is involved in everything that occurs on earth, is that this explanation seems to be inconsistent with this view; there is no need for such training since God is fighting for them. They would reply: God helps those who help themselves.

See chapter 2 for other biblical views as to why God did not force the Canaanites to leave Canaan, a total of four. An obvious fifth reason why God did not expel the Canaanites from Canaan is that God was not directly involved in the conquest, as Maimonides explains in his Guide of the Perplexed 2:48, whenever the Bible states that God did or said something, it should be understood to mean that the act occurred because of the laws of nature and God was not directly involved; the Torah states that God said or did something because it recognizes that God is the ultimate, although not direct cause, because God created the laws of nature.

[2] Deuteronomy 7:2 forbids this behavior.

One could argue that these six verses belong in chapter 2 and the tales of the Judges starts with 3:7. The division of the biblical books into chapters was made by Christians with the well-intentioned idea that such divisions would make references to book sections easier, as I did when I referred to 3:7, which I could not do if there were no chapters. However, many chapter divisions do not make sense, such as the seventh day of creation appearing in Genesis 2 when logic demands that it belongs with the other days of creation in chapter 1.

[3] Fourteen if we exclude Shamgar. See below.

[4] He is also mentioned in 1:12.

[5] The Aramaic Translation Targum Jonathan renders this “prophecy.”

[6] Boling understands “judged” here as “mobilized” the Israelites for war for this was a function of the “judge” and there is no indication Othniel was involved in judicial matters.

[7] While the text identifies them as Israelites, seemingly the entire nation, apparently only a portion of the Israelites were enslaved, the two and a half tribes living in Trans-Jordan, Jericho, and parts of the tribe of Benjamin and Ephraim. Ehud was from Benjamin.

[8] Targum Jonathan understands the Hebrew to mean “crippled,” but Rashi, Radak, Altschuler and others state it could also simply mean that his right hand was as weak as a right-handed person’s left hand.

[9] Rashi and Radak understand that Eglon rose out of respect for God when he heard that the message was from God. They add that Eglon was rewarded for showing this respect by having as a descendant Ruth, the ancestress of King David. These details are not in Judges.

[10] The Israelites sounded the trumpet for military and liturgical purposes (Numbers 10: 9 and 10).

[11] We will see the repeated use of large rounded figures later in Judges. It should not be taken literally. It means “numerous.” As mentioned previously, the Hebrew eleph, which means “thousand,” could also mean military units; thus the translation would be ten military units.

[12] The Greek Septuagint translation adds that Ehod judged the people until he died.

[13] In his Art of War.

[14] In his On War

[15] This number, like 10,000 and forty, which appear frequently, should not be taken literally. It means a long time.

[16] This is all we know of Shamgar. Gersonides and Altschuler suppose he was not very successful. As Altschuler put it, the reason scripture does not say how long the land remained peaceful after his deed is because he did what he did in the year Ehud died and then died himself the same year. The story of Shamgar using an ox-goad to kill Philistines is reminiscent of Samson’s killing Philistines with a jaw-bone of an ass in 15:16. The Philistines were a warier people, well armed; however, Shamgar fought them with his work tools.

[17] Such as J. D. Martin in “The Cambridge Bible Commentary.”

[18] Judges, The Old Testament Library.