Formations 07.10.2016: When Laughing Is Scary

Judges 3:12-30

Rudolf von Ems, “Ehud Killed King Eglon” (Wikimedia Commons)

Rudolf von Ems, “Ehud Killed King Eglon” (Wikimedia Commons)

May I begin by apologizing for what is to come? I was taught to do my best not to offend people, but this text makes it hard. In fact, I’m convinced that Judges 3:12-30 offends nearly everybody’s sensibilities in some way.

I had a teacher who, at the end of his syllabus, would warn introductory Old Testament students that the Bible was rated R for a list of reasons that included, but were not limited to, sex, violence, and profanity. I tend to appreciate this aspect of Scripture, but I think the writer of Judges takes it too far. For purposes of maintaining some sense of decency, I won’t summarize it here, and will suggest you read the passage for yourself. (Hint: For full effect, check out a few different translations.)

Instead I’ve compiled a list as to why I would suggest that it should offend everyone. To begin, it’s a highly tribal story, reveling in the death and humiliation of Israel’s enemies. It depicts some of the goriest images of violence I’ve read or seen. And it’s full of sexual innuendo and bathroom humor to boot. Mix these together, and it is a funny, uncomfortable, and deeply human story with incredible power.

Scholars are pretty sure that this story is more literary than historical and willing to suggest that it developed as a folk tale. Like much of Scripture, it may have developed in profane places and I wonder if it invited cheers, laughs, and jeers from its audience.

Once I get past my initial discomfort, I realize that much of what appealed to the original audience appeals to me, too. We’re in the middle of an election cycle and the caricatures of political cartoons make me wonder if Ehud’s story appeals to other people too. We may get mad at the representations of our own candidate, but I’m likely to laugh at unseemly pictures of those with whom I disagree.

Now, feeling guilty for liking the story, I ask: Why am I, seeing all of its problems, still compelled by such a story? The answer is that I laugh. Humor compels me to like it.

This folktale denigrates Israel’s oppressor and praises the one who overcomes him. On one hand, Ehud defeats Eglon and the Moabites who have controlled them for eighteen years. At another level, it is the laughter of the listeners that defeats the Moabite king. Eglon may seek to establish himself as all-powerful, but the Israelites’ laughter suggests that is simply untrue. After all, God is their king.

Comedians understand this about laughter. Fred and George Weasley, from Harry Potter, understand this. When most of their community cannot help but call Voldemort “You-Know-Who” out of fear, they make fun. They go beyond heroes like Dumbledore and Harry, who are willing to say Voldemort’s name. They satirize it. The marketing team behind Weasley Wizard Wheezes develops this ad for one of their joke shop products:

Why are you worrying about You-Know-Who? You should be worrying about U-No-Poo—The constipation sensation that’s gripping the nation!

Voldemort tried to cast himself as all-powerful, as powerful as God, whose name must not be said. Fred and George’s humor, inappropriate as it may be, recognizes the idolatry inherent in establishing evil and fear as ultimate. Instead, they laugh at it. The Israelites did the same thing with this story. And somehow, we might be called to laugh at evil too. But as we cheer Israel’s freedom and Eglon’s humiliating death, let’s remember that the editor of Judges doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. Remember that interesting beginning where “the Israelites again did things that the LORD saw as evil” (3:12)? It’s easy in the stories we tell to make evil and oppression absolute in the people we hate, but this story of Ehud asks us to laugh not only at the evil in others but in ourselves too.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (New York: Scholastic, 2005).


• What are the many ways that evil exists and what are the ways we make it absolute?
• Where are places that laughter is needed in our world?
• Where do you only see evil? How might you see good there too?

Reference Shelf


These daring loner stories also attest to the theological complexity, even sophistication, of the Hebrew Bible. Contrary to the popular expectation that the norm in the Hebrew Bible involves Israel’s God intervening mightily, even miraculously, on behalf of God’s people, the Ehud account and its kindred call attention to the principle of “dual agency” evident at points in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Amit 1999, 172 n. 6). Apart from the notation that God “raised up” Ehud “as a deliverer” in response to Israel’s cries found in the editorial introduction to the account (v. 15), God plays no obvious role in Ehud’s daring-do. Instead, Ehud “made for himself ” the sword designed specifically for its purpose, just as he apparently conceived and executed the entire plan on his own, just as Tamar obtained from Judah what was due her through her own wit and courage, and just as Ruth and Naomi created the situation that resulted in the birth of Obed, “the restorer of life” (Ruth 4:15)—all, apparently, with no explicit divine direction, guidance, or assistance. Yet, either explicitly or implicitly, all of these accounts attribute the positive outcome to God’s gracious provision. Throughout, the Hebrew Bible consistently portrays a God who acts mysteriously to support or hinder human agency. God’s involvement may not be manifest in “supernatural” phenomena in these cases such that an observer can point to God’s activity, but, in retrospect, the authors of Scripture were able to discern the mysterious influence of God on the outcome.

Mark E. Biddle, Reading Judges, Reading the Old Testament (Macon GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2012), 50.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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