Sunday, July 2, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Southpaw: Ehud"

Judges 3:12-23

12 The Israelites again did things that the Lord saw as evil, and the Lord put Moab’s King Eglon in power over them, because they did these things that the Lord saw as evil. 13 He convinced the Ammonites and Amalekites to join him, defeated Israel, and took possession of Palm City. 14 So the Israelites served Moab’s King Eglon eighteen years.

15 Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord. So the Lord raised up a deliverer for them, Ehud, Gera’s son, a Benjaminite, who was left-handed. The Israelites sent him to take their tribute payment to Moab’s King Eglon. 16 Now Ehud made for himself a double-edged sword that was about a foot and a half long, and he strapped it on his right thigh under his clothes. 17 Then he presented the tribute payment to Moab’s King Eglon, who was a very fat man. 18 When he had finished delivering the tribute payment, Ehud sent on their way the people who had carried it. 19 But he himself turned back at the carved stones near Gilgal, and he said, “I have a secret message for you, King.” So Eglon said, “Hush!” and all his attendants went out of his presence.

20 Ehud approached him while he was sitting alone in his cool second-story room, and he said, “I have a message from God for you.” At that, Eglon got up from his throne. 21 Ehud reached with his left hand and grabbed the sword from his right thigh. He stabbed it into Eglon’s stomach, 22 and even the handle went in after the blade. Since he did not pull the sword out of his stomach, the fat closed over the blade, and his guts spilled out. 23 Ehud slipped out to the porch, and closed and locked the doors of the second-story room behind him. (Common English Bible)

“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week One

I was surprised to see it displayed on the screen across from me on the airplane, just several days after mentioning it to a friend of mine of Czech descent over drinks one evening, but there it was—the film Anthropoid, about the true story of a small team of Czechoslovakian assassins trained by MI-6 who parachuted back into Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia with a mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the SS general who was the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia and the sadistic architect of the Holocaust itself. To give you some idea of just how cruelly evil Heydrich was, even Hitler himself referred to Heydrich as “the man with the iron heart,” while the Czech citizenry simply referred to him as “the butcher of Prague.”

On May 27, 1942, one Czech soldier, Jan Kubis, and one Slovakian soldier, Jozef Gabcik, assassinated Heydrich in broad daylight during Heydrich’s commute. To the Nazis, Gabcik and Kubis were criminals who were hunted down like prey until they were found in a church that had granted them safe harbor, where Kubis was killed and Gabcik committed suicide. To the Czechs and Slovaks, Kubis and Gabcik were (and are) national heroes, of whom big-budget Hollywood movies are now made.

But what stood out to me about their stories were that Kubis and Gabcik began as anonymous, unremarkable people—Kubis had enlisted into the army, but Gabcik originally was a farrier and a blacksmith, of all things. Much like many of the resisters to Hitler, Kubis and Gabcik did not come from royalty or otherwise extraordinary lineage. But they were extraordinary people.

And in this manner, they are very much like the very first judge we look at in our summer sermon series on Israel’s judges—an assassin named Ehud who rises up from the people to liberate Israel.

This is a new sermon series for the season of summer, and it reflects in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We have just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

The religion sociologist Max Weber referred to this model of governance as “charismatic leadership, and Hebrew Bible scholar James Kugel describes it thusly: “These leaders all shared one striking trait: none of them had any prior claim to rule. They did not come from a dominant family or rise up through the ranks to take over. Instead, their rise to power was created by a crisis; something occurred that required someone to take over, and the person in question suddenly emerged. (S/he) was then put into power by general acclamation: “This is just the leader we need!’”

One of the earliest judges to arise as the leader Israel needed was an assassin named Ehud. Preceding him—so, after the death of Moses’s heir Joshua, and Joshua’s chief lieutenant Caleb—was a judge named Othniel, who is referred to in the heading for his passage as “the model judge.” When Israel was enthralled with the Ba’als, Asherahs, and other false gods, they were conquered by a neighboring king, and when they returned to the Lord and cried out to God for help, Othniel rose up as that popularly acclaimed judge to lead the Israelites to victory and freedom.

For the following forty years, Judges says, there was peace. But then Othniel died, and because judges did not have heirs and so were not dynastic kingships, Israel went straight back to worshiping the Baals, Asherahs, and other false gods (a common denominator you’ll see in Israel’s behavior towards God in Judges is a very strong “what have you done for me lately” mentality). So again, Israel is conquered as a result, this time by the king of Moab, a chap by the name of Eglon.

Here is where Ehud enters the scene: after Israel cries out to God like they did previously, Ehud is acclaimed as judge and is sent as an assassin to Eglon under the pretext of delivering to Eglon his tribute payment as Israel’s conqueror. Ehud gives Eglon the agreed-upon tribute, but then takes a short sword and stabs the Moabite king to death.

Or, more accurately, he stabs the Moabite king to death using his (Ehud’s) left hand. Ehud is left-handed. Which, you might not realize, really was worth making note of in the original story. For centuries, left-handedness was associated with evil—so much so that our word ‘sinister’ comes from the Italian word ‘sinistra,’ which means ‘left-handed.’

Ehud is going to be a polarizing person for his act of assassination—after all, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. But the fact that he assassinated Eglon with his left hand may well have made his act of political violence all the more disgraceful to the Moabites. But for the Israelites, it matters not how disgraceful on the surface this assassination might be—Ehud is committed to earning them their freedom once more after they had previously squandered it away.

His left-handedness is no accident—later in the book of Judges, Ehud’s tribe, the tribe of Benjamin, is described as training its warriors to fight left-handed so as to gain an advantage on their enemies who would be used to fighting hand-to-hand only with right-handed opponents. Benjamin was willing to gain whatever advantage it could in combat, societal expectations be damned.

But on top of his left-handedness, Ehud was, like Kubis and Gabcik, a total nobody: he was the son of a nobody, Gera, who was so inconsequential we literally know nothing about him but his name. And the tribe of Benjamin is a former shadow of itself by the time the book of Judges even makes it near the Hebrew Bible canon, because at the end of Judges, the other eleven tribes end up almost completely purging the tribe of Benjamin from their midst, leaving it as the smallest of the tribes. And to add further to the ignominy the tribe must suffer, Israel’s first king, the ultimately disgraced Saul, is likewise a Benjaminite. While Benjamin himself, as a son of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, was afforded privilege by his father, the tribe named after him secured little of that for themselves.

So Ehud is a nobody, descended from nobodies, and surrounded by nobodies. He is the anonymous everyman, who should be unremarkable in most every way. Yet he is able to secure for Israel its freedom once more. And here is the kicker: after Ehud wins Israel its freedom, the land has peace for eighty years—twice the length of the era of peace under the model judge, Othniel.

Sometimes, from the most unlikely of sources, courage emerges than then leads to lasting peace. For many of the judges whom we will hear about over the next two months, that courage is, like Ehud’s made manifest in acts of war and violence, like that of Gabcik’s and Kubis’s assassination of Reinhard Heydrich thousands of years later.

Sometimes, that is the necessary way to resist evil. But let us be clear: those moments come about perhaps once or twice in a lifetime. Our wars in Vietnam, in Iraq, these wars of ours were not the only means at our disposal with which to resist evil.

As as we go forth into this new series together, we will learn that these judges are not always to be admired wholesale, across the board. Judges like Jephthah and Samson were willing to impetuously use their families as pawns in their schemes. Judges like Gideon and Abimelech flew too close to the proverbial sun. And many of them, especially Samson, were violent to the point of bloodthirstiness.

So let us take from each that which can be, and should be, admired by us, and treat carefully and with consideration the ways in we are called to do better, and to be better, than the examples presented to us within this book’s pages.

I think that if we do, we may learn something great from each of them, and our faith lives will be made better for our having done so.

In this way, God continues to open our hearts with these stories, just as God has done through these stories for millennia. May we be changed by hearing them, and may we be fully prepared for them to change us for the good.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 2, 2017

Original image courtesy of NPR

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