Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The courage to enter the palace

There is a very strange story in the Bible (Judges 3:12-30) about an extremely fat Moabite king, Eglon, who was brutally killed by Ehud, one of the first Judges in the history of Israel. Eglon was at the height of his reign of terror when this happened, and Ehud had to work in a rather underhand way to succeed in assassinating the king. Although the story is one of extreme violence, it is clear that the writer was very animated in telling and retelling it to a next generation. This partly explains the gruesome detail of how Ehud plunged his sword into the king’s belly…and how the whole sword disappeared, handle and all, because it was covered by the abundance of soft flesh, and also how Ehud did not pull out the sword, which had entered deep enough, humiliatingly to stick out at the back between the king’s legs (v. 21-22).

As a young minister I was intrigued by this strange story, wondering why it had been recorded in the Bible and how one could (or should) present it in a sermon. Recently I had to study the book of Judges in more detail, and then discovered to my surprise that there was indeed a strong message, in fact a challenge in this unusual and rather offensive story – one, which proves to be quite relevant for our time.

To begin with – and this is one of the vital keys to understanding this story – one should remember that Ehud’s story forms part of Israel’s popular folklore. In telling this particular folk tale Israel recalled and commemorated with pleasure one of the truly great moments in their history. It was the time when God lifted the yoke of slavery from their shoulders and restored their dignity as a nation. For eighteen years Israel had been harshly oppressed and exploited by their archenemies the Moabites - and now, through the brave deed of Ehud their woes were brought to an end. God’s people could now celebrate, singing and telling tales that were to inspire a next generation ... also through this story.

This gives another clue as to why Israel loved retelling this story. It reminded them of the surprising and highly creative way in which God had liberated them and changed their destiny. Given that he belonged to the smallest tribe in Israel, the Benjamites, and that to compound things he was left-handed, Ehud must surely have been an unlikely candidate to bring Israel relief from their suffering. But in an unprecedented turn of events God chose him, showing how the course of history can often be dramatically changed by the courage and ingenuity of an ordinary person. By using his apparent weakness as a strategic and secret weapon, he not only succeeded in entering the royal court, but also in eliminating the king. Once their leader was removed the Moabites were helpless and vulnerable to defeat.

It is of course not possible to apply Ehud’s story directly to our context – in that his actions were too violent, committed from a position where Israel felt assured of their status as God’s chosen people and of their right to take revenge. The time and context was vastly different to ours. Nevertheless, the story does pose the age-old question of civil society’s relationship to those in positions of power. Put differently, it obliges us to reflect on our responsibility as ordinary citizens in situations of extreme oppression, exploitation, corruption and suffering – whether this is caused by dictatorial and corrupt political leaders, by an unjust economic and social system, or by criminals who have succeed in intimidating a whole society, causing fear and paralysis by their brutal actions.

According to the Ehud story there are two options when we are faced by improper whims of the powerful. We can take on a victim-mentality and, like most Israelites in the time of Ehud, remain passive, subservient, fearful and fettered. Or we can stand up as Ehud did, “enter the palace” as it were, and confront the powers in new and surprising ways. What we need today as much as ever, is exactly this: courageous people who can come up with creative ideas and solutions that have not been tried or tested before, but that can make a difference in liberating the oppressed and making our society more open, humane and just. What we need are imaginative initiatives – actions that are totally unorthodox and different, deeds that can surprise and shake people up, inspiring them to live – perhaps for the first time - with those traits that Christ introduced: greater modesty, more respect, more kindness, more love, more tolerance. True liberation that we so urgently long for depends on this.

For Christians the call to such initiatives need not be difficult – in fact, our normal way of life should embody these values, because we confess and claim to follow an extremely original and imaginative God – a God who has not only conquered all evil, but has redeemed the world by giving himself in love and humility. The question remains: are we brave and trustful enough to follow the crucified and suffering God on such a journey?

Carel Anthonissen

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