The obscure story of King Eglon and the Israelite deliverer, Ehud, found in Judges 3 can be read through a variety of hermeneutical lenses. The narrative begins, “The Israelites lived among the Canannites, the Hittites, the Ammorites, The Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites” and were sold into slavery because they “did what was evil in the sight of YHWH”. Israel “cried out to YHWH” as they had many times before this story and “YWHW raised up a deliverer for the Israelites…” Othniel, their judge and deliverer, served 40 years and died. Once again, the Israelites “did what was evil in the sight of God” and so YHWH “strengthened King Eglon of Moab, against Israel”. The second deliverer from YHWH is Ehud, a Benjaminite and “a left-handed man”. The literary location of Israel within this narrative establishes Israel as both the oppressed and the oppressor. They play the part of the marginalized “Other” as well as the part of the colonizing “Empire”.
The story takes a sinister turn when the reader finds Ehud deviously hiding a two-edged sword under his garment, attached to his right thigh. Ehud presents King Eglon with a tribute and later acquires time alone with the king in a private chamber. Deceptively, Ehud states, “I have a message from God for you” and as the king rises “from his seat” Ehud stabs him with the sword until even the hilt has disappeared into the portly King’s belly. “Dirt” is spilled from the king and Ehud escapes as Eglon’s guards stand outside of the private chamber thinking their King is relieving himself. Ehud “sounds the trumpet” to rally Israelite troops and “all ten thousand of the Moabites, all strong, able-bodied men” are slaughtered at the ford of the Jordan River.[i] This massacre propels Israel from oppressed to oppressor.
Queering this reading first involves understanding the normative or heterosexual-androcentric hermeneutic through which it has been previously interpreted. The New Interpreters Study Bible, NRSV, from which the passage above is introduced, calls the murder of King Eglon an “assassination” and describes the story as “obscenely humorous.”[ii] Matthew Henry, in a commentary available through the Blue Letter Bible from the late 1600’s, describes the story in Judges as a, “particular account of the brave exploits of the first three judges.” Henry justifies the actions of Ehud as, “He put to death Eglon the king of Moab; I say, put him to death, not murdered or assassinated him, but as a judge, or minister of divine justice, executed the judgments of God upon him, as an implacable enemy to God and Israel.”[iii] Along with reading the story through the heterosexual-androcentric hermeneutic, both commentators read with Israel and against the Moabites. Interpreting the story in this manner places Ehud and the Israelites squarely in the role of the oppressor and furthers the assumption that Ehud’s actions are heroic and commissioned by God. As late as 2008, Rob Fleenor and Mark S. Ziese, in a commentary on these passages, describe the story as “an entertaining story about God’s deliverance for God’s people”.[iv] These interpreters also posit that Ehud’s left-handedness is a military strategy aimed at creating stronger warriors in the tribe of Benjamin. They conclude that Ehud is a hero: “Ehud is a shrewd trickster. The clever deceit he demonstrates makes him an admirable hero for the reader” and “Ehud’s sneaky escape all give the reader reason to cheer the underdog Israelite turned sneaky deliverer.”[v] Fleenor and Ziese also equate God’s intentions in this story with questionable character traits. They write, “God is willing to utilize a diverse range of skills for his purposes, including cunning”.[vi] The androcentric-heterosexual hermeneutic obscures the violent and oppressive activities within the story as well as the social, political and feminist implications contained therein.
Judges 3: 12-30, when discussed using alternative or queer hermeneutics through which this obscure story is also translated catapults it to near the top of the list of disturbing canonized texts. Johnny Miles finds the story filled with ethnic humor at the expense of the Moabites.[vii] Miles tarnishes the reputation of the Moabites by tracing their lineage back to the Genesis 19 incestuous story of Lot and his daughters. Miles also draws a parallel between the oppressive behavior of Israelites against the Moabites and the treatment of Latino immigrants by Americans of European descent who were themselves ostracized based on ethnicity. Miles reading of this text occurs through the lens of an ethnic minority suffering at the hands of a colonizing oppressor.[viii] Deryn Guest queers the reading. She highlights three qualities about Ehud’s character that, “suggest that his assassination of Eglon is meant to be read as a male rape scene”.[ix] Interpretive methods dealing with Ehud’s left handedness, multiple reference to “hand” and his Benjamite heritage work together to alter Ehud from a conqueror to a murderer. To be a Benjamite (son of the right hand) is, according to Guest, “an incongruity immediately suggestive of ambivalence, of things not being as they should be”.[x] This obvious irony of the “son of the right hand” being specifically named in the text, “a left-handed man” is magnified when one considers that Ehud is the only biblical character whose handedness is so explicitly described. Guest also points out the number of times the word “hand” (as in Ehud’s hand) is used in this story. She explains, “Certainly yad can simply mean ‘hand’, but it also bears the meaning of penis/phallus.”[xi] Guest’s interpretation turns the stabbing of Eglon by Ehud into a male rape scene whereby the portly Kind Eglon is penetrated by the yad of Ehud.
Guest’s male-on-male rape interpretation by pointing out that the description of King Eglon as “fat” and the literal meaning of the name Eglon as “calf” feminize his character according to Hebrew tradition.[xii] This construal of Eglon’s character as female supports the notion of rape as the heinous act committed by Ehud. Guest points out the ambiguity of the Hebrew noun belen “signifying both the female womb and the abdomen in general”. [xiii] This queer hermeneutics of male-on-male rape combined with the ethnic slurs proposed by Miles transform this story of a “brave exploit” into a nauseating story of exploitative viciousness. It is difficult to find any hero within the story.
The potentially damaging implications of interpreting the story of Ehud and Eglon through various hermeneutical lenses are important to note along with the impact of those interpretations upon readers of this text. If the story remains within the framework of the androcentric-heterosexual construct, marginalized readers of the text (women, people of color, and the poor) are at risk for a worsening self-image and continued exploitation by men in power. Combine this androcentric-heterosexual interpretation with the authoritative and trusted position many conservative pastors enjoy and the marginalized shrink further into obscurity. Queering the interpretation through a colonization hermeneutic may work like Ehud’s double-edged sword: adding strength to the colonizer through identification with Ehud the hero and by further intimidating the colonized through ethnic ridicule. Finally, the use of a hermeneutics of rape may cause some readers to reject all of the stories in the scripture. A rape hermeneutic also terrorizes those at risk of being a rape victim because it places God in the role of a complicit witness or, as Fleener and Zeise identify God, willing to use whatever means for [God’s] purposes. Susanne Scholz posits “All translations are interpretations,” and includes Judges 3: 12-30 when she writes, “All sacred texts are inherently flexible, elastic, ambiguous and opaque”.[xiv] Scholz states, “Only vague, ambiguous, and veiled allusions allow for the possibility of viewing these stories as male rape texts. The interpretations are by no means obvious and require an ardent search for hermeneutical possibilities that read the texts as incidences of rape”.[xv]
The story of King Eglon and Ehud read via intensive investigation into the language and various methods of interpretation always bring new insights into biblical meanings. Thorough analysis of sacred texts, as opposed to assimilating the translation of others, provides readers with new perspectives. Readers, no longer bound by traditional, androcentric-heterosexual translations, can enjoy a deeper understanding of sacred texts. Judges 3:12-30 is not an enjoyable story but it does present an excellent example of various methods of interpretation. Susanne Scholz states, “Hermeneutics gives us the possibility to analyze our options and not be suppressed by another’s interpretations”. [xvi]
[i] Walter Harrelson et al., eds., “Judges 3: 12-30,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 351-352.
[iv] Rob Fleenor and Mark Ziese. The College Press NIV Commentary: Joshua. Eds. Terry Briley and Paul Kissling. (Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing Company, 2008), 73-78.
[vii] Johnny Miles. “Who Are You Calling “Stupid”? Ethnocentric Humour and Identity Construct in the Colonial Discourse of Judges 3:12-30.” The Bible and Critical Theory 4, no. 1 (2008): 04.1-04.16.
[ix] Deryn Guest, “Judges,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed. Deryn Guest et al. (London: SCM Press, 2006), 167-177.
[xiv] Susanne Scholz, Class Lecture: Hermeneutical Principles. Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, September, 2014.
[xv] Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 176.
[xvi] Scholz, Class Lecture, 2014.