Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

3. Othniel and Ehud (3:7-31)

The Book of Judges tells the story of seven separate oppressions and of seven deliverers (3:8,12; 4:1; 6:1; 8:33; 10:6,13; 13:1). There are also seven instances of dramatic help by weak or unimpressive instruments — a man’s left hand (3:21), an ox-goad (?) (3:31), a woman (4:4), a tent-peg (4:21), pitcher and trumpet (7:20), a piece of millstone (9:53), the jaw-bone of an ass (15:16). Apart from anything else, there is a lesson in such a list: “not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4).

Cushan and Aram-naharaim (Edom?)

The first period of tribulation was provoked, as in all the later instances, by Israel’s declension. Forgetting the God of their fathers and His mighty works on their behalf, they vied with their Canaanitish neighbours in the worship of Baalim — not just one Baal, but every variation on this evil theme which a sex-obsessed imagination could frame. So the wrath of the Lord clothed itself with the tyranny of “Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia”, and Israel became slaves to “a slave of slaves” (Gen. 9:25).

There is a considerable problem here, for Aram-naharaim (Mesopotamia) is the remote north-easterly part of Syria, and there is little evidence of any possible political interference from there with southern Palestine at this period. Naharaim means “the two rivers”, so if these, instead of being equated with Euphrates and Tigris, are taken to be Abana and Pharpar, the region round Damascus (southern Syria) becomes more likely. But the only other occurrence of the name Cushan suggests a different identification: “I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction: the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble” (Hab. 3:7). This is almost certainly a parallelism, for a glance at Genesis 25:2 shows a fondness for -an as a name-ending in the Midianite families. In line with this, Aram could be read as Edom (the two names are very easily confused in Hebrew script.) Edomite and Midianite territory overlapped. But then the problem of the two rivers remains unsolved. Even so, the fact that Othniel in southern Judah (Jud. 1:12,13) became the deliverer points to this as the most likely solution.

Cushan’s cognomen: “Rishathaim” means “double villainy” and is almost certainly a nickname assigned by the Israelites who suffered under him. Perhaps his oppression was “doubly wicked” because it came from Midian, the tribe which provided Moses with his wife.


How the deliverance was wrought by Othniel, Caleb’s nephew, is not told. The help was given, as on each succeeding occasion, only when “the children of Israel cried unto the Lord.” Thereupon, the Spirit of the Lord came on Othniel, as in due course on other saviours (6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6,19; 1 Sam. 11:6; 16:13; Matt. 3:16; John 3:34), imparting courage and military prowess for the task before him. The faith and intrepid spirit which had earlier brought him success at Kiriath-sepher (1:12,13) now overthrew Cushan. More than that, it turned the tables, giving the men of Judah the upper hand with those who had just now been their oppressors. This is the meaning of the phrase: “his hand prevailed against Cushan” (see 1:35; 6:2).

Thereafter the land was blessed with God-given peace for forty years. But again declension and apostasy set it, and again there came retribution from the Covenant God of Israel (1 Sam. 12:9), this time through the instrumentality of the Moabites, who were the more difficult to resist because helped by their kinsfolk, the Ammonites, and by some of the wandering families of Amalek from the desert.

Eglon, king of Moab

Reuben, the immediate neighbour of Moab, was overrun. Jordan was crossed, and all the desirable fertile territory round Jericho appropriated. At this time the evil events leading up to the decimation of the tribe of Benjamin, described in Judges 20,21 as taking place in the time of Phinehas the high priest, had already happened. So the invasion and domination of that corner of the country, Benjamite territory, was the more easy. Benjamin simply did not have the man-power to make effective resistance.

The capture of the city of Jericho was specially easy, for since Israel’s crossing of Jordan there was no city, only palm-trees (Josh. 6:16,26). It was also relatively easy for king Eglon to get the place rebuilt, for materials and slave labour were ready to hand; and what did he care that there was supposed to be a curse on the place? Thus, even at the cost, most mysteriously, of the lives of his sons, Jericho became the capital of his Benjamite colony.

Again, when the people recognised the evil of their ways and pleaded with God for aid, He promptly gave it. As with the Prodigal even the element of self-pity in this repentance did not hinder God’s ready response. Such is His grace.


Appropriately enough, this deliverance was wrought by the hand of a man of Benjamin. Ehud belonged to a family which, according to the somewhat obscure and dislocated details of 1 Chronicles 8:1-9RV, had special connections with Moab either in the time of Eglon’s oppression or when the pendulum had swung through Ehud’s deliverance (v. 30).

Since Eglon, the fat tyrant of Moab, was overlord of this part of the tribes of Israel for eighteen years, it may safely be surmised that the sending of “a present”, that is, the paying of tribute, was a regular thing. If Ehud got himself included in the deputation several times, this would enable him to become familiar with the details of the Moabite court. Then he made his plans.

Good weapons were not readily come by in those days among the people of Israel (Jud. 5:8; 1 Sam. 13:19,22), but Ehud got him a dagger short enough to be strapped at his side without it being noticeable under his garment. And since he was left-handed, after the manner of so many of the warriors of Benjamin (Jud. 20:16; 1 Chron. 12:2), he was able to carry it on his right thigh, all unsuspected by those deputed to frisk these Hebrew subjects before allowing them access to the king.

The deputation, with Ehud in it, duly presented the tribute before the king. This must have been at Beth-Jeshimoth or some other Moabite centre on the east of Jordan. The geographical details (v. 19 especially) do not allow of this taking place at Jericho. The men of Benjamin then returned — under escort, of course — across the Jordan until they came to Gilgal, just west of Jericho.

Ehud’s stratagem

The AV reading: “the quarries that were by Gilgal”, is inaccurate. A very attractive alternative, that these were the standing stones set up by Joshua at the crossing of Jordan (Josh. 4:8) must also be disallowed in face of the undeniable fact that the normal meaning is “graven images” (Deut. 7:25; Isa. 21:9; Jer. 8:19). Since this was still Moabite-controlled territory, these images were probably there by direction of Eglon. They represented his religion planted in the conquered country.

It seems very likely, then, that before these images Ehud bade his fellow-Benjamites go on without him. He wanted to be left with complete freedom of action. Then he pretended to go into a trance and to receive a revelation from the deity located there. The king’s guards, impressed by the sight, would the more readily conduct him back to the royal presence. His message was taken in to Eglon: “I have a hidden word for thee, O king.” Was there a sardonic ambiguity about this? “I have something hidden for thee, O king” — the dagger!

The king’s response: “Keep silence”, may have been an instruction to his courtiers, or could have been addressed to Ehud (so LXX), bidding him not say a word until they were alone.

There, in the cool upper chamber Ehud portentously declared: “I have a message from God unto thee.” The story told by Eglon’s men had already prepared the king’s mind for this, and he stood as in the presence of an oracle. Forthwith Ehud, making as though to withdraw a scroll from inside his garment, instead delivered a different kind of message — a violent thrust into the fat body of Eglon who was too heavy and slow to be able to evade the keen-edged blade.

Ehud made no attempt to retrieve his weapon, but left it there, buried up to the hilt. Instead, he kept a fierce grip on the king’s wind-pipe lest any sound of his last agonies be heart outside. Then he went out, very coolly using the key which locked them in, to lock the door from the outside. He passed through the guards on duty, probably telling them that the king did not wish to be disturbed, and so go away.

Josephus tells the story rather quaintly thus: “The guards were not strictly on their watch, both because of the heat and because they were gone to dinner.”

In fact, the king’s ministers awaited the signal for their return to the royal presence, but it never came. Time passed, and they became more and more anxious: “they tarried till they were ashamed” — the Hebrew word means: “they were in travail”. When at last they made entry into the summer parlour, they were too excited and disorganized (LXX: making a tumult) to organize immediate pursuit. So Ehud, moving briskly, was well out of danger: “he crossed (the border into Benjamin) at the graven images, and escaped into Seirath.” There is no place known with this name, so that the student is left speculating whether perhaps there is here a corruption of the phrase: “safe to his own city”.

The outcome

Without any delay he set about rallying men of Israel for an immediate revolt against the Moabites. His own tribe were far too few at this time to furnish adequate numbers (20:43-48), so he addressed his appeal to nearby Ephraim. With their help all the fords of Jordan were secured. Thus Moabite retreat was cut off. So also were reinforcements from the east bank. Thereafter, even though there were many stalwart Moabites still in the territory of Israel it was only a matter of time before they were all dealt with, so that the Moabites themselves now became subjugated.

Ehud and Paul — men of action

Thus through Ehud there came a long peace of eighty years. Those with an eye to the remarkable ways in which Old Testament history has been shaped by divine providence to foreshadow greater things in His Purpose may like to consider the remarkable parallel between the exploit of Ehud and the apostle Paul’s deliverance of the early church from the burden of the Law of Moses. Some of the details are very impressive. Here are suggestions:

Paul, a man of Benjamin, a man of God’s right hand, but from the standpoint of the Judaists very much a left-handed man, is one in whom “I will be glorified” (the meaning of Ehud).

Just as the Moabites were not true children (Gen. 19:37), neither were these Jewish teachers who nevertheless took such pride in their connection with Moses; verse 17 LXX has the word which describes Moses in Acts 7:20 (cp. also Deut. 32:15); and the word for “offer” (v. 18) normally means “to offer in sacrifice”. To those who were the true children they were powerful and oppressive as a bull-calf (= Eglon).

Ehud’s association with those paying tribute can be readily compared with Paul’s policy: “To them under the Law, (I am) as under the Law” (1 Cor. 9:20). The apostle brought a new revelation of divine truth, which came to him especially from the revered O.T. (cp. the graven images). Courageously he struck the blow which meant the end of Judaist domination, and escaped their vengeance and their tumult (v. 20 LXX = Acts 21:34), to organize in active fellowship those who were now glad to be rid of the burden which neither they nor their fathers were able to bear.

The tables were turned completely, and those who had exercised spiritual power and authority shrank into a status of inferiority.


Judges 3 adds brief mention of Shamgar-ben-Anath, who delivered Israel from a Philistine oppression, slaying six hundred men with an ox-goad. There is mention in contemporary Egyptian inscriptions of a Shamgar who is described as being a Syrian sea-captain who married a daughter of Rameses II. Since his name means “Name of a stranger”, it may be that, like Caleb, he was a proselyte to the faith of Israel. It has been surmised that “Ox-Goad” was the name of his ship (with reference to its sharp prow?). If so, there is here perhaps the very first use in history of the mobility which sea-power can give to make a small attacking force extremely effective. If Shamgar put landing parties on shore to make lightning attacks on Philistine cities, he would be able to do much to ease Philistine pressure on Dan and Judah. One is left wishing for more details.

It would seem, from the reference in the Song of Deborah (5:6) that Shamgar’s deliverance fell in the period of Deborah and Barak, but in a different part of the country.


Judges 3

Rest forty years. It is difficult to be sure whether this includes the period of the oppression: cp. 3:30; 5:31; 8:28.
In the sight of the Lord. A possible implication of perversion of true worship.
Ammonites. Possibly the name Chephar-Ha’ammoni (Josh. 18:24) may indicate an Ammonite garrison, west of Jordan, during the period of this oppression.

Possessed. Remarkably, LXX has “inherited”. Was this the old political game of fabricating a long-standing claim to possession, based maybe on Lot having been at Bethel with Abraham? (Gen. 13:1,2).
Eighteen years. Luke 13:16 mentions another oppression of 18 years. But what connections, if any?
The Lord raised him up. Contrast v. 12.
Fat. Psa. 17:10,14??

Eglon means “bull calf”, possibly with reference to the familiar idea of ‘cherubim’; in other words, a claim to be divine?
Keep silence. Could this Hebrew (Moabite) word be the origin of our “Hush!”?
Cp. the death of Amasa: 2 Sam. 20:9,10; and of Abner: 3:27.
All lusty; s.w. as in v. 17.
LXX adds: and Ehud judged them till he died.

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