The short story of Ehud in the book of Judges (3:12-30) contains a particularly gory account of the murder of King Eglon of Moab. Because he is a left-handed man, Ehud hides his sword on his right-thigh and is able to enter the king's chambers undetected. Eglon is apparently seated on the toilet (the text refers only to the "cool upper chamber," עֲלִיַּת הַמְּקֵרָה) when Ehud barges in and stabs him in the belly. The description of the murder is quite gruesome: "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 filth came out." (Judges 3:22)
In order for this scene to work, Ehud must have a massively fat belly. Indeed, the author sets up the scene by telling us:
וְעֶגְלוֹן אִישׁ בָּרִיא מְאֹד
The Hebrew word בריא usually means 'fat' in the Bible. It is often used with regard to fattened animals and is juxtaposed with the word רזה 'thin' (Gen 41:2; Ezek 34:20). In Modern Hebrew it means 'healthy', which maybe tells us about what the ideal body-type was in the late 19th century when Hebrew was revived.
Most translations of Judges 3:17 understand the word בריא to mean "fat"
Interestingly, the major exception is in the first translation of the Bible, the Septuagint (LXX), which contains the following:
καὶ Eγλωμ ἀνὴρ ἀστεῖος σφόδρα
The use of the word ἀστεῖος is surprising. It comes from the word ἄστυ which means city in Greek. So apparently, the translator is trying to convey the idea that Eglon was an urbane, sophisticated man. Perhaps refined, elegant, polite or even handsome? Why would the LXX use this word? Why depict Eglon in a positive light if he is the villain of the story? Moreover, the image of Eglon's fat belly seems so important for setting the stage for the dramatic stabbing that follows. Finally, the word ἀστεῖος is used elsewhere in the LXX to refer to decidedly virtuous figures: Moses (Ex 2:2), Eleazar the martyr (2 Macc 6:23), Judith (Jud 11:23).
Maybe this last reference is the key to understanding the use of the word. Perhaps the story of Ehud's killing of Eglon is meant to remind us of the story of Judith's killing of Holofernes (Judith ch. 13). Of course, if the parallel were perfect it would be Holofernes not Judith who would be called ἀστεῖος but intertextuality is not a game of precision. It is meant to drop hints that hopefully provide the reader with a deeper understanding.
It should be added that the LXX translation of Judges 3:17 should be seen as part of a post-biblical rehabilitation of Eglon/Moab. This can be seen in Ruth Rabbah 2:9 where Eglon is depicted as the ancestor of Ruth (and therefore of David) due to the fact that he stood up to hear the news from God that Ehud claimed to have (3:20).
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.