There aren’t many passages in the Bible that talk about human fatness. But there is a memorable one.
Here’s the gist:The Israelites were subject to Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years. 15 Again the Israelites cried out to the Lord, and he gave them a deliverer—Ehud, a left-handed man, the son of Gera the Benjamite. The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon king of Moab. 16 Now Ehud had made a double-edged sword about a cubit long, which he strapped to his right thigh under his clothing. . . 20 Ehud then approached [Eglon] while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his palace and said, “I have a message from God for you.” As the king rose from his seat, 21 Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king’s belly. 22 Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged. Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it. (Judges 3:14-16, 20-22)
Did you catch that? There is a really fat man in the Bible. There is some myth out there that assumes that fatness is a new invention, one that came with TVs and their frozen dinners. While Eglon’s fatness is used for a couple of literary purposes (we’ll get to that later), there is nothing to indicate that this was the only fat person that the people had ever seen. Fatness existed in the ancient near east.
But let’s look at the way fatness is being used in this story. Is it a judgment on body size? Does the fact that the fat closes over the sword mean that fat is what is bad here?
One of the thematic ways that “fat” is used in the Bible is to talk about what happens when you over-indulge because you are oppressing people. In the full story of Judges 3 you see a series of contrast between the people of Israel and Eglon – the oppressive King from whom the Israelites have cried out for deliverance for 18 years. There are numerous contrasts: indoors or outside, different temperatures, fatness and barrenness. His fat is just one of the contrasts.
Eglon’s fatness is used as judgment, yes. But he is not being judged for his fatness, he is being judged for his oppression. In the context of the ancient world fatness was highly correlated to privilege and power. When those under you faced barrenness, this fatness was damning. We know that one of the reasons for Sodom’s judgment is that she had ” excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ez 16:49) Likely this is similar to the judgment on Eglon – – he did not aid the poor and needy.
Such simple correlations between fatness and oppression no longer exist in the contemporary Western world. (And likely didn’t exist as simply as we assume then, but the author of Judges is using literary devices on multiple levels here.) Though there still remain problematic connections between abundance and famine and the way our consumption of goods and resources impacts others on this planet, fatness in the Western world does not solely reside on the hips of the powerful. In fact, within the context of the Western world itself, it is those with the least amount of privilege and power who are most likely to be fat. And your body size tells an observer little about the quality or quantity of food – about whether someone is hoarding or over-consuming. I’m planning another entry on the gluttony found in our desire for the “right” foods – organics and whole and raw and whatever food fad is here this week, so we’ll move on for now.
Eglon was not evil and oppressive because he was fat. Nor was he killed because he was fat. He was killed for his many oppressive ways. His fatness is part of the story – symbolic in its contrast – but also included because the graphic depiction of the murder fit well with the rest of the rowdy humor in the story.
There is much to critique in the United States’ over-consuming, materialistic, self-indulged society.However, fat people cannot be the scapegoat – the weight of these global sins is not illustrated by the weight on certain human’s waistlines.
They desire to rid the world of obese people — perhaps hoping that if they do not have to look at “excess” they will not feel its judgment in their own hearts. If fat people are why children in India don’t have food, then the average-sized people (or even the fat people who are “working on it”) do not have to examine their own complicity in these global structural sins. If fat people are to blame for the high cost of the healthcare system, then we can continue to neglect the poor and push the thin ideal while telling ourselves that this body-shame will solve problems.
It breaks down our ability to examine our own lives and see where we are complicit in the oppression of others when we can categorically excuse ourselves from certain sins as long as we are (or at least aiming for) a certain dress size.
“If fat people are why children in India don’t have food, then the average-sized people (or even the fat people who are “working on it”) do not have to examine their own complicity in these global structural sins. If fat people are to blame for the high cost of the healthcare system, then we can continue to neglect the poor and push the thin ideal while telling ourselves that this body-shame will solve problems.” Wow– I never thought of it this way. I have often wondered why fatness is so despised in a culture that otherwise loves excess as we do in the U.S. I kept asking, what does this serve? Why do we do this? I think this is the most compelling explanation I’ve seen. We don’t have to question the extravagance of a closet full of slave-made clothing or the amount we spend on “healthy” foods when we are thin. When we shift the problem of gluttony from oppression to fatness, we lose the entire meaning of the sin.
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Thanks for the comment, Sadie! I’m glad you found it helpful. I like your point about a culture that otherwise loves excess…..I’m going to have to ponder that!
and isn’t it interesting that fat in the Western world is no longer a privilege issue anyway- the poorer socioeconomic groups in the US and UK tend to have more obese people. i live in a poorer part of town in the UK and there are many women like me here- chubby and on a low income, often like me with health issues that prevent them working full time- yet the more middle class parts of my city, i see fewer large people and lots of thin people.. i honestly dont think of many of the big people i know as being especially powerful or priveleged
You are so correct that the size of privilege has changed. It speaks to so much about the inequitable access to nutrition, healthcare, and recreational activity in our culture.