Cover your feet, please! (Judges/Eglon)

Dan Wagner Dan.Wagner at
Fri Mar 2 22:03:03 EST 2001

Here is my reply:

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Dan Wagner [mailto:Dan.Wagner at]
> Sent: Friday, February 16, 2001 20:01
> I have a question regarding the expression "cover his feet." Please
> forgive the bluntness of this post. If you are offended by 
> discussions of
> bodily functions, please skip this e-mail.
> As far as I can tell, all modern commentators take this 
> expression as a
> euphemism for "relieving himself." However, they don't cite 
> the origin of
> this interpretation. I wonder if you know how this view 
> originated, and
> whether you know of any views to the contrary. BDB takes this 
> view; BDB
> is based on Gesenius whose lexicon was published in 1833. 
> Howver, Bush in
> his commentary on Judges (c. 1852) says that it means "to sleep;" he
> cites Josephus among others in support of this view, and discounts
> several "ancient versions" that translate "relieve oneself." The LXX
> apparently translates it as "covers his feet" in Judges and "prepared
> himself" in Samuel.

Not exactly. LXX for Judges has two text forms. The Vatic. ms. has "he is
exhausting/cleaning out/emptying his feet" while Alex. ms. has "he is
sitting on/at his seat/stool." LXX of Samuel has "he entered to prepare/make
ready." It's never literal; never the same. That's pretty interesting
tradition though! 

> A word study is not possible, since the expression occurs 
> only in Judges
> 3:24 and I Samuel 24:3 (the verb skk does appear in other contexts as
> "cover" or "overshadow"). It seems to me the idea that this means
> "relieve himself" is totally unreasonable, and that the 
> supposition that
> "cover his feet" is actually an expression meaning "to take a 
> nap" or "to
> sleep" ("to catch some z's" might be a colloquial 
> translation) is really
> the correct view.
> In the first passage, Eglon is in his upper chamber ("upper room of
> cooling"), which apparently is the place where he receives official
> visitors. After Ehud assassinates him, Eglon's servants find the doors
> locked, and assume he is "covering his feet." Commentators 
> say this means
> he was going to the bathroom. I question whether people back 
> then would
> have really turned the nicest room in the house, not to mention the
> official reception room, into the bathroom. 

It's not quite like that. Rather, for the convenience of the king, he would
be expected to have a place at hand to relieve himself. So that upper
story/chamber included such the appropriate facility, perhaps as part of it
but in a separate room. See Dan Block's New American Commentary (1999 or
2000) which i'm following on most of this. I think it's the best commentary
on Judges in print.

> I suppose perhaps chamber
> pots might have been used by the ancient Moabites, but why didn't the
> servants call out to their king? If they really thought he 
> was using the
> lavatory, they could have simply inquired if everything was all right.

Maybe that was even less kosher in their culture--to ask a king that? We
don't know. They were embarrassed; we do know that.

> But if they assumed he was napping, they would not have cried out for
> fear of unnecessarily disturbing him. And it would have been 
> logical to
> take a nap (as well as hang out most of the time) in an upper 
> room which
> would have received cooling breezes.

(or, quick removal of unpleasant odors!) But it's definitely possible.
However, see my comments at the bottom on the Judges/Eglon passage

> In the second passage, Saul goes into a cave to "cover his feet,"
> oblivious to the fact that David and his servants are hiding 
> in that very
> cave. David sneaks up on Saul and cuts off part of Saul's robe. To me,
> the idea that all this took place while Saul was going to the 
> bathroom is
> absolutely preposterous. First of all, was it really  an 
> ancient custom
> to go into caves to go to the bathroom? 

Maybe so for a king. It's curious that in both contexts where the expression
was used, it's not your common person but a king who does it. BH does have
another expression available for "urinate" (cf. "urinate [KJV 'piss']
against the wall" = as a crass way to reference a male) but the context of
the word is always a bit crass, in my opinion (cf. also the Rabshakeh saying
they will eat their dung and drink their urine, with startling crassness in
his abusive threats, 2K 18:27). So maybe "cover feet" was the nice term used
for noble persons only? Still conjecture i suppose.

> Modern-day 
> near-Eastern custom is
> probably similar to the custom among Islamic tribes in Africa, who are
> quite content to relieve themselves right by the side of the 
> road (i.e.,
> in public).

Maybe same; maybe not. But for kings? I doubt it.

> Some commentators have attempted to explain the 
> etymology of
> "cover your feet" by saying that a man's long robes would 
> literally cover
> his feet when he squatted down to do his business. 

See my other post about "feet" as euphemistic for genitals and "uncover" as
euphemistic for "cover." 

>But for this very
> reason, it is hardly necessary for a man to climb into a cave 
> in an out
> of the way place just to relieve himself. Furthermore, if it were the
> practice for passing travelers to enter caves to use as 
> outhouses, would
> David and his men really have wanted to enter one, especially 
> a dark one?
> (I suppose you could argue their fear for their lives would 
> outweigh any
> concern about stepping in, or sitting in, a pile of you-know-what). 

In the wilderness where Saul was chasing David, probably not much chance of
an over-used facility you fear here! :)

> If
> Saul was in there relieving himself, wouldn't he have taken 
> some kind of
> torch, so he could see? 

He would not have penetrated deeply, just out of sight.

>It was, after all, dark enough for 
> David and his
> men to hide there. 

They were further back and accustomed to the darkness; Saul's eyes were not

>But if Saul had had a torch, he would have 
> seen David.
> In any event, why didn't Saul hear David sneak up on him, 
> close enough to
> cut the fringe off his robe? For that matter, why didn't Saul hear
> David's discussion with his men in v. 4? 

Probably further back at that time and speaking in hushed tones, while
Saul's men would still have been talking outside to cover any soft sounds
from David or his men in the cave.

> But if Saul were 
> actually taking
> a nap, this would explain how David could do all this without Saul
> noticing.
> I would appreciate any light you can shed on this.

Now, back to Judges 3.

If Block and the VT article(s) he sights are correct (don't have him with me
at work), this is a hilarious passage by literary analysis. I'll sum it up
briefly (because i'm about to head home for the weekend!):

Eglon is a very fat man, his name meaning "calf" (or calf-like); he's the
"fatted calf of Moab," their best representative of their prosperity
resulting largely from their abuse of Israel (context of paying tribute).
But Ehud takes a dagger and binds it unexpectedly to his right thigh, turns
back from the party, and tells King Eglon he has a "secret message from God"
for him. The king sends all out so they are alone, and Ehud takes that
secret message and thrusts it into his belly so that the fat covers it over,
he can't/doesn't get it back out, and "the _PR$DNH_ came out." (Is it masc.
so not the fem. dagger, but possibly its blade? Or is it more likely the
feces or intestines? Is the hey-locative out of place?) Anyway, whatever
point is being made, it's intended to make a mockery of Eglon.

The, Ehud exits through the _MSDR[W]NH_, apparently after first locking the
exterior doors where he was from the inside (3:23). But another hapax, the
_MSDR[W]NH_, what was that? Based on a possible Akkadian cognate (indicating
a hidden or dark place, or a hole? A similar word related to the hapax for
feces??), it may be yet another euphemism for the toilet facility itself
(thus consistent with the servants assuming Eglon was "uncovering his feet"
there, v. 24; did they also smell the feces that had come out?!) So, Ehud
slid down some sort of "toilet hole" (like an old outhouse, i guess) into
the lower chamber to a place where the king's waste material normally fell
(for easy cleaning and to keep the unpleasant aroma out of the king's
chambers). He apparently escaped quietly past whatever guards/servants may
have been in the lower chambers.

So after waiting so long they were embarrassed (_BO$_, an appropriate
response to their king's apparent constipation?), they finally unlocked the
door with the key. There on the bathroom floor lay the fatted calf of Moab
in a pool of his own blood and stinking feces. Thus the writer mocks Moab's
abuse of Israel and Ehud's brilliant, unexpected escape!

Dan Wagner

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