THE LEFT-HANDED BENJAMITES
After the incomplete conquest of Canaan, God tells the people that because of their failure
to drive out all of the Canaanites they haven't lived up to their part of the covenant.
Now these nations will never be entirely destroyed but will serve to test Israel (Jud. 2:22)
The rest of Chapter 3, except for one verse, is devoted to the story of Ehud, the first
real tale of Judges. Though this tale is brief, it has a distinct character and is filled with
crude humor. Notable in the story is the fact that Ehud the Benjamite is a left-handed
man. The story of the war resulting from the outrage at Gibeah is likewise notable for the
prowess of 700 picked left-handed Benjamite slingers. This war and its aftermath are the
final stories of Judges. So Judges opens and closes with tales of the left-handed Benjamites,
and one is tempted to think that some sort of genetic drift had blessed this tribe with a larger than normal number of south-paws. The stories also indicate a certain
superiority of left-handed warriors. There was in fact such a superiority, but it was
entirely situational, and the left handedness of me Benjamite warriors was not natural.
What Jud. 3:15 actually says in Hebrew is mat Ehud was a man 'itter yad yamiyn or, in
English, dextrally challenged (literally "restricted in the right hand.") The same phrase is used to describe the 700 picked
slingers. This could mean that Ehud had a withered or lame right hand or arm and was
thus forced to use his left hand or it could refer to a bias against left-handedness in that
anyone using his left hand would automatically be assumed to have a defective right
hand. But if either of these was the case, Ehud's ruse of hiding his shortsword under his
clothes on the right side would not have worked. Also, it's unlikely that the 700 slingers
all had withered right hands.
In the story of Ehud, the Moabites, in alliance with the Ammonites and Amalekites,
have invaded Israel, and are extracting tribute from
the Israelites. Ehud goes with those who are presenting tribute to the
Moabite king, Eglon. But Ehud is going with the intention of assassinating Eglon. He
makes himself a double-edged sword a cubit (roughly 18 inches) long and hides it under
his clothes on his right side, the idea of this being that since most people are right handed
and since it's easier to reach across one's body to grasp something, anyone searching for
concealed weapons will concentrate on the left side. But if Ehud had a lame or withered
right arm he would be searched on the right side. For his ruse to work Ehud had to have
not only had a functional right arm, but had to appear to be right-handed as well—
which he probably was.
The only possible meaning then for the term "restricted in the right hand/dextrally challenged" was that
he had been deliberately restricted. In other words both Ehud and the 700 left-handed
slingers were trained to fight left-handed by having their right arms bound during training.
This was also practiced by the Maori of New Zealand, the Spartans and the Scottish
clan Kerr. To understand what advantage a left-handed warrior would have in battle we
have to remember that right-handed warriors carried their shields in their left hands.
When two right-handed warriors met, their shields blocked each other's swords. But
when a right-handed warrior met a left-handed warrior their shields faced each other,
and each warrior had his open, unshielded side facing the open side—and the sword—
of the other. The left-hander was used to this, but the right-hander was not and was
therefore vulnerable. Left-handed slingers were also a threat. A right-handed throw tends
to curve counter-clockwise, i.e. to the left, and would tend to hit the shielded side of
opposing warriors. A left-handed throw, curving clockwise (to the right) would tend to
strike the enemy on his unshielded side and would be more likely to injure or kill him.
So the Benjamites, comprising the smallest tribe in Israel, trained up a special elite cadre
of left-handed warriors as a way to maintain their independence, and Ehud was one of
Besides the issue of Ehud's left-handedness there is the issue of whether or not the
tale is historical. There are certain aspects of the story that indicate that even if it was
based on truth it has been heavily fictionalized; that is, it abounds in elements of the craft of story-telling. First of all we might well look in vain for a king named Eglon even if we
had any effective Moabite king lists. His name is derived from either egla meaning "bull-calf"
or agol meaning "round." Thus, Eglon, of whom Jud. 3:17b says, "Now Eglon was a
very fat man" was either the fatted calf ready for the slaughter or was fat even in name.
Perhaps the name Eglon as "bull-calf" or rather, "young bull" was ironically understood
to imply agol as a pun. When Ehud, promising to divulge secret information, gains a private
audience with Eglon, the latter's fat is used to intensify the crude, graphic detail of
the assassination (Jud. 3:20-22 ):
And Ehud came to him, as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. And Ehud
said, "I have a message from God for you." And he arose from his seat. And Ehud
reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh and thrust it into his
belly; and the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he
did not draw the sword out of his belly; and the dirt came out.
Not only is Eglon's fat closing over the blade and virtually swallowing the sword a
particularly graphic detail, but the fact that "the dirt came out"—the Hebrew word translated
as "dirt" is parshedon, referring to the anus—i.e. that Eglon's bowels relaxed as he
died, causing him to involuntarily defecate, may seem to push the crudity of the situation
to excessive levels. However, this story is not alone in using this particular detail. The
Iliad is replete with death scenes in which we are told, "His bowels gushed out, and darkness
covered his eyes." In this story the involuntary defecation not only adds to the crude
humor of Eglon's death but gives the hero time to make his escape before the king's body
is discovered (Jud. 3:24):
When he had gone, the servants came; and when they saw that the doors of the roof
chamber were locked, they thought, "He is only relieving himself in the closet of the
The term used in the MT and the KJV is that Eglon is "covering his feet" or more
accurately, enclosing his lower extremities—"feet" being the displaced metaphor for the
genitals and pelvic region, i.e. being decently private as he defecates. While we are not told
why the servants thought the king was relieving himself, the probable reason was that
they smelled the stench of Eglon's involuntary defecation. As the servants wait for the
king to finish, Ehud makes his escape and is on his way to rally the armies of Israel to
attack the Moabites. Just how he has made his getaway is not clear from the text. We are
told that he is the one who has locked the chamber doors, and it's clear that they've been
locked from the inside. So what was Ehud's avenue of escape? Since the king was obviously
in the habit of relieving himself in his roof chamber, it is possible that it had a toilet
with a shaft leading down to a receptacle on the ground floor. Thus, as Baruch
Halpern points out, it is entirely likely that Ehud escaped undetected by slipping down
the shaft of the king's oubliette.
After gaining home territory Ehud sounds his trumpet in the hill country of Ephraim, telling the men he has rallied to seize the fords of the Jordan. The Israelites not
only attack the leaderless Moabite occupation force, but once it is defeated they cut down
those fleeing as they try to ford the Jordan river. As we will see later, seizing the fords is
an important part of the stories of Gideon and Jephthah as well.