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.
My last year of seminary I was part of a small group of friends and neighbors that formed an almost instant deep sense of community. The kind of community that you imagine when you hear that buzz word these days. It is a time that was clearly deemed “for such a time as this.” It helped that we were all students, single, new in that town. Our needs for friendship, our free time, the way we spent hours together with books or laptops in front of us made us all fit well together.
But one of the first things we did together was eat.
On Sunday nights we crowded chairs around a table, pulled out mismatched dishes, and took turns cooking a meal to be shared with everyone. I don’t recall anyone ever “apologizing” for their food choices – making a comment about how they would get fat if they had the desert, that they would need to run to work off the delectable homemade bread, or any other number of all-too-common conversations that normally surround tables of fellowship.
Our meals together were free from the demons of self-doubt and anxiety that so often accompany our food. When we actually had a french toast feast when the snow trapped us inside for a day, some people added the chocolate chips and powdered sugar, some didn’t, no one said a word. Our meals were typically healthy – full of greens and veggies and whole grains crafted from scratch. It wasn’t a food rule we were following though – most of us loved to cook and to share. Sometimes the week was busy and stressful and we all sat down to a greasy pizza and gave thanks and laughed and shared our night of togetherness just like every other week.
No apologies. No mea culpas for the calories or the cholesterol. Just food and together and life lived right now.
When we talk about faith and bodies – embodiment explores the idea that our very bodies are sacred given that they hold the divine image of God, imago Dei, and that Jesus was incarnated in human flesh. The concept of embodiment finds its scriptural origin in the first chapters of Genesis in which God creates humans in God’s own image. Pope John Paul II wrote at length on the body and points out that Genesis shows that human “became the ‘image and likeness’ of God not only through [our] own humanity, but also through the communion of person which man and woman form right from the beginning.” In other words, embodiment is not just about one’s own body, but it is about community, particularly as it relates to our interactions with and about our bodies, the bodies of others, and God. Because we worship a triune God, a God of Father-Son-Holy Spirit communion – the image of God is community and that should be reflected in our own selves and relationships.
Christ is alive in our bodies and has not deemed a single one uninhabitable. Yet, we live with thoughts – both secular and theological – that seek to “make” a holy body rather than to live into our embodiment.
We are bombarded with instructions on how to “look right” from every possible news source. Learning to accept or “live in” our bodies is a common quest because despite the fact that we are always a body from our very first moment, we are constantly questioning and wondering what our specific bodies mean or do not mean. More often than not, it seems that we find our bodies lacking or in need of transformation.
This obsession with appearance finds a home within churches and Christian conversations as well. Countless faith-based diet books and groups exist and offer a theological endorsement of this attempt to have a slim or acceptable body.
I firmly believe that our desire to (or not to) conform our bodies is a result of our understanding of the imago Dei in our own bodies and the bodies of others. And our understanding of that impacts how we live with each other, what kind of community we have. One of the overarching themes of scripture is a picture of God calling us into life together in the name of loving God and our neighbors.
When our attempts to “make” our body disrupt that ability to draw together in community, we are disrupting the Kingdom of God.
When we draw together in community and disrupt the fellowship of eating together with negative body talk and the constant anxiety and comments about how the food will affect our waistline, we are disrupting community, we are disrupting the image of God, we are causing harm to individual bodies and to the communal body of Christ that is the church.
Your fifth grade classmate pointed out that you were the first to look like a woman. It was not a compliment. You turned your face down in shame. But chin up, dear one. You have always been heavy and full, defying fashion’s cute little insistence that a halter top is not actually a neck-breaking torture device. Bursting the seams of life with your wideness and waves that defy the stringent rules of straight lines.
Body, this I promise you: I will not squeeze you, strain you, or compress you to meet an unattainable ideal. I will not wish for another body simply because the world has not yet learned how to embrace your greatness sufficiently.
You have been knit together. Strong and Sturdy. Delicate and Fragile. You will break and heal. You have scars and beauty marks.
I will remind you of what exactly the design of the Creator God has made you heavy and full of. You are full of promise, passion, forgiveness intelligence, and stubbornness. You are heavy with possibility, strength, humanity, courage, love, and, yes, even (especially) beauty.
Embrace the momentum of the passionate Creator and find your heaviness to be a force.
P.S. And there is nothing, not even a little part, of you that is empty because you have not grown life inside of you and given it birth and nourishment.
This post was originally published as part of a “link up” at my old blog: Mashena