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"Killing on the Commode" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - September 10, 2017

posted Sep 25, 2017, 8:40 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”.jpgI find myself increasingly drawn to art museums and especially contemporary exhibits. This means I’m always dragging my family to “interesting” shows, ones where the art doesn’t always seem like art. They make predictable comments. Standing in front of a massive white canvas with what looks like a single dot of paint from a spray can, someone will invariably say, “How is this art?”


So, I learned to turn this into a game. We see which of us can find the most bizarre example of art in the museum. Top honors goes to Jay, who was first to see a porcelain urinal displayed on its backside underneath glass. “How is this art?”


The piece on display was actually a reproduction of Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 installation, “Fountain.” Many in the field of modern art considered Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” a turning point. At the beginning of the 20th century, the art world struggled to define what counted as art. The ancient regime of juried shows was giving way to a much broader understanding of the creative arts. At the same time, the pointlessness and destructiveness of World War I left many questioning the standards and styles of bourgeois-capitalist culture. Duchamp entered the urinal as a test and a protest of those standards. As the exhibit note beside the Duchamp’s urinal explained, “It epitomizes the assault on convention and accepted notions of art.”

And while all that might be true, it’s also true that for long afterwards, someone in our family would come out of the bathroom to announce, “great modern art in there.”


Obviously, perspectives differ on whether it’s just a urinal on ridiculous display or a pissotière d’art.


Perspective matters. I thought of this while reading the story of Ehud. As we heard today, he killed the king of the Moabites. He used a knife hidden against his thigh. And he caught the king in a private moment - actually while the servants thought the king was on the privy. What are we to make of this murder on the toilet, this foul-play on the privy? Is this gruesome tale just another example of the violence of the Bible? One more exhibit against a cruel Old Testament God? Do we look at this story just as my guys looked at Duchamp’s art, asking, “How is this holy?”


We ought to ask this question of all our Bible stories. But it becomes a particularly important question to ask of our most troubling passages, “How is this holy?” If there is one thing I hope our children and youth learn in church school, it’s asking this question. And to ask that question knowing we may say, “It’s not holy” or that we might find a holy meaning we didn’t expect.


But first I want to share my bias. I think people too often set the Bible on a pedestal - “the holy book.” And then, when we read a story like that of Ehud, our first response can be to reject it. I imagine people reading this at home, coming to Ehud’s violent murder, and saying to themselves, “I can’t stand this violence. Time to watch Game of Thrones!” The Bible’s too violent; and so we watch Cersei Lannister. In a culture that entertains itself with stories of violence, we doth protest too much about the Bible.


I find it better to pay attention to all the ways Bible stories are just ancient episodes of the same kinds of stories we tell today. So instead of offering a Bible study, I prefer to think of myself as doing fan commentary. And I’m a fan of this particular show called the Book of Judges. And Shonda Rhimes who produced “Judges” does several interesting things in this episode.


Judges took place in a troubled time for the Israelites. After successfully escaping slavery in Egypt and settling in the promised land, they began a pattern of suffering and redemption, of oppression and liberation. Foreign powers - like Moab in this story - conquered them and then they regained their freedom. I wanted you to get a sense of this cyclical pattern which is why our reading included two of the many times the Israelites did evil and were redeemed.


The story today sets up Ehud against Eglon. Our translation says “Eglon was a very fat man” but the word literally means “calf.” And so some people take his name to mean “fatted calf,” a name suggesting that the king will be sacrificed like an animal on the altar but also a name which pokes fun at a foreign king oppressing the Israelites. “Remember that fat cow on the throne?” And so we could picture Eglon as a Jabba the Hut, his royal “fatulence.” But others think the name Eglon was more positive, evocative of a Bull, as if Eglon were “beefy” or even a beefcake. He was the only foreign king “strengthened” by God in Judges; so even the divine seemed to like the beefcake king. So was Eglon a fat cow or a beefcake?  Perspective matters.


And then there’s Ehud, the left-handed guy. The word we translate as left-handed really meant “withered right-hand.” It focused on disability; Ehud as deformed. But there’s more to it.  There are very few left-handed characters in the Bible and all of them come from the tribe of Benjamin (I’m left-handed; I know them all.) It’s a recurring pun in the Bible, because Benjamin meant “son on my right hand.” So Ehud’s the left-hand man of the right-hand men. At the same time, the Bible describes the occasional left-hand characters as strong warriors; the Seal Team 6 of Israel. They were hard to handle in a fight, a bit like a left-handed pitcher in baseball. So, just as we could see Eglon as either the fat cow or the beefcake, we can see Ehud as the broken man or the great warrior.


Ehud immediately set about making a sword, really a dagger; our translation calls it “two edged.” This was the height of technology at the time. Previously people had used curved swords sharpened only on one side. Ehud used the newest technology though; two-edged. But the Hebrew for a sharpened edge really means “mouth” as if the edge is really teeth cutting a person. So it says Ehud fashioned a two-mouthed sword. Two-mouthed. A perfect description of the way Ehud will speak out of both sides of his mouth when he meets Eglon.


Ehud appeared before Eglon as a loyal subject, bringing the taxes Israel owed the king. And then he went to “the sculptured stones near Gilgal.” This was a renown place of prophecy. We could imagine the sculpted stones as something similar to Stonehenge, a sacred set of ancient stones. Ehud went there, to the place of prophecy, then returned to the king as if he had a divine message. This gave him a pretext to be alone with the king.


Close listeners might have caught the way Ehud changes what he said to the king. First, he spoke deferentially to the king. “I have a secret thing for you, O King.” Eglon thought the secret thing to be a prophecy from Gilgal. Once the room was empty, Ehud dropped the honorary titles, “I have a secret thing for you from God.” Eglon rose; perhaps in protest of being spoken to as if they were equals. And that’s when Ehud brought out his hidden sword, the secret thing.


All this happened behind the locked doors of the chamber. The servants thought Eglon locked the doors because he was using the toilet, “answering the call of nature.” Ancient audiences would have smirked; just what kind of throne did the great king sit on? And of course the ancient Israelites chuckled to think of their foe, the one who conquered them, killed on his commode.


While we may smile at that too, the ending appalls us: Ehud flees the scene of the murder, gathers his forces, and kills ten thousand other men from Moab. In fact, the Hebrew word used to describe those men closely resembles the description of Eglon - 10,000 fat cows or 10,000 beefcakes.


Which brings us to the big question: what does this mean? And more pointedly, does God condone violence?


On the surface yes, this text seems like it justifies violence. But how this story presents this tale of murder matters. First, there is the ambiguity about the main characters: Eglon, the fat cow or beefcake; Ehud, the man with a withered-hand or the warrior with a secret advantage. Such ambiguities make me wonder about the model of masculinity in this text. These men are also parodies of the terse male hero. And the parody makes me wonder: what does it mean to be a good guy? Does it mean stabbing a man on the john?


Action movies often raise the same kinds of questions about masculinity. While they seem like overt celebrations of manhood, some actually parody and question what it means to be a man, or at least a good man. Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven was written during the midst of the Vietnam crisis but not produced until the early 1990’s. The film shocked people at the time for its violence.


One scene in particular stands out.  Clint Eastwood’s character - supposedly the good guy - has cornered his nemesis in a bar. He shoots an unarmed man and kills another in the back; then he stands over his cowering enemy, who says, “I don’t deserve this, to die like this.  I was building a house.” And the supposed hero says, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” The camera frame shifts but we hear the gunshot.


Eastwood, who came to fame as the heroic loner bringing justice to the wild west, produced this enigmatic film which undermined the simple morality of the classic western. It confronted us with the brutality of violence until we come to see the viciousness of the good guys no different than that of the bad.


I think this story of Ehud raises similar questions about violence: Is Ehud really good? Does violence achieve anything? One clue as to what the author thought comes from the fact that Ehud was never called a Judge, the honorific given to the good leaders. Nor did God ever speak to him. Even more, the context of the story matters; for Ehud’s violence didn’t achieve any lasting peace, just one brief pause in a long cycle of violence. Indeed, the vicious humor of Judges continued week after week. The episode after Eglon’s murder on the throne featured violence by an ox-prodder and after that by a tent peg. All that violence achieved rest but not peace. Reading it can make us see the failure of violence to achieve any lasting solution.


And in an even larger context: Ehud’s people, the tribe of Benjamin, gave rise to King Saul, the failed king of Israel. Eglon’s people, the Moabites, gave rise to Israel’s King David and by extension to Jesus. Those Benjaminites who laughed at what Ehud accomplished would yet be ruled by Eglon’s descendant. Who laughed last? And no wonder one of Eglon’s descendants knew, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”


We don’t like to face the questions raised by Ehud’s violence: Are the good guys really good? Does violence achieve anything? But we need to ask ourselves these questions.


A few weeks ago a caravan of ISIS fighters, their wives, and children left their last stronghold in western Syria and headed to another ISIS controlled stronghold. American warplanes have bombed both the road out of the desert and the route back, leaving the eleven buses and ambulances stranded. I think of us as the good guys in this fight, but what does this cat-and-mouse game with the wounded and the wives of ISIS say about us?


It feels too much like hearing Ehud and Eastwood say over their victims, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”


The shocking violence of Judges, and of this particular tale of killing on the commode, makes us ask, “What’s holy about this?” But I think this story of Ehud forces us to ask this question of violence in general - “What’s holy about this?” - and especially of our good guys.


Alleluia and Amen.


Sources:

  • Christianson, Eric, “A Fistful of Shekels: Scrutinizing Ehud’s Entertaining Violence.”

This was a particularly important resource for me.  Christianson pointed out the Eastwood film.

  • Kraeling, E. G., “Difficulties in the Story of Ehud,” Journal of Biblical Literature.

  • Sasson, Jack, “Ethically Cultured Interpretations: The Case of Eglon’s Murder (Judges 3)”

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