Author Leonard Greenspoon
Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab. Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a foot and a half long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. He presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, who was a very fat man. After Ehud had presented the tribute, he sent on their way the men who had carried it.
At the idols near Gilgal he himself turned back and said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” The king said, “Quiet!” And all his attendants left him. Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his summer palace and said, “I have a message from God for you.” As the king rose from his seat, Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. Even the handle sank in after the blade, which came out his back. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them.
After he had gone, the servants came and found the doors of the upper room locked. They said, “He must be relieving himself in the inner room of the house.” 25 They waited to the point of embarrassment, but when he did not open the doors of the room, they took a key and unlocked them. There they saw their lord fallen to the floor, dead. While they waited, Ehud got away. He passed by the idols and escaped to Seirah.
When he arrived there, he blew a trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went down with him from the hills, with him leading them. “Follow me,” he ordered, “for the Lord has given Moab, your enemy, into your hands.” So they followed him down and, taking possession of the fords of the Jordan that led to Moab, they allowed no one to cross over. At that time they struck down about ten thousand Moabites, all vigorous and strong; not a man escaped. That day Moab was made subject to Israel, and the land had peace for eighty years.—Judges 3:15–30 NIV
At first glance—and probably, at second—this passage from chapter three of the book of Judges does not seem like a promising source of humor. And yet ancient Israelites would have found this very funny indeed.
Before turning to this specific passage, let us consider that we are separated from the world of biblical Israel by several millennia, thousands of miles, and vast linguistic and cultural differences. Many aspects of their comedy may therefore elude us. Moreover, those who wrote in biblical Hebrew were without most of the means by which we today transmit humor in a written medium—they had no marks of punctuation (no explanation points and no quotation marks), no capital or small letters, no highlighting or underlining, no italicizing, or bracketing. And think about how much humor today is conveyed through oral presentation. This was undoubtedly the case in antiquity—perhaps even more so then.
This does not mean that we are without any resources to detect what would have been funny to an ancient Israelite. Far from it! Plays on words (frequently the most difficult feature to convey in a translation) and context will serve the intrepid interpreter well in this endeavor. Thus, for example, we observe how unusual it is that the Bible regularly describes an individual as right-handed or left-handed. Such a description serves two functions here: First, as a play on words, the hero Ehud’s tribe is Benjamin, which in Hebrew literally means “son of the South” or “right.” (Ancient Israelites oriented themselves with the Mediterranean Sea behind them, making East straight ahead and South to their right). Thus, it would not escape the notice of the reader that here was a Son of the South, or the right hand, who was left-handed (literally in Hebrew, “constricted as to his right hand”).
Moreover, because he was left-handed, Ehud strapped his sword to his right thigh. A minor detail, we might think. However, we can easily imagine that the Moabite king’s bodyguards, who would certainly have checked-out anyone seeking admittance to their monarch, performed only a perfunctory check on Ehud, never thinking that the weapon would be on his right, rather than the expected left, thigh. Alas, the need for security—and the means to outwit it—is nothing new.
The name of the Moabite king would have immediately attracted the attention of an ancient reader. Eglon comes from the same Hebrew root as the word for a fattened calf, often one prepared for sacrifice. And, of course, sacrifice is exactly what Eglon becomes at the hand of Ehud. The extended, rather gruesome description of Ehud plunging his sword through layers of Eglon’s fat could not have failed to make the comparison clear: Indeed, Ehud did have a “secret message” for the king, but not the one the Moabite ruler expected! Making the king a “sacrifice” weakened the resolve of the Moabite army; allowing for Israel to destroy them and subsequently enjoy a period of peace and prosperity.
Our analysis invites us to appreciate, as an ancient Israelite would, the re-telling (initially in oral form) of an incident that united a people in a shared memory and a good story.