Left-handedness in the Hebrew Bible

The Left-handed Painter
by Carlo Maria Mariani
















“The LORD raised up for them a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gera, the Benjaminite, a left-handed man” (Judges 3:15).

The statement that Ehud was a left-handed man and that he was from the tribe of Benjamin, is very significant.  In fact, according to Judges 20:16, there were seven hundred specially-trained men in the army of the tribe of Benjamin and all of them were left-handed. The text also says that “each one could sling a stone and hit even the smallest target.”

To explain this peculiarity and how left-handedness was seen not only in Israel, but also in other nations, I would like to introduce you to a long quote from an old commentary that seeks to explain the significance of left-handedness in the tribe of Benjamin.

The following comments were taken from John Peter Lange, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, vol. 4 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1871), 73-74.

He was a Ben-jemini, of the tribe of Benjamin, as the Targum expressly adds. When the son of Jacob was born, his dying mother named him Benoni, “son of my sorrow;” but his father, by way of euphemism, called him Ben-jamin, “son of good fortune” (Gen. 35:18).

Jamin came to signify “good fortune,” only because it designated the right side. The inhabitants of the Holy Land had the sea (yam) on the right, hence called that side jamin, literally, “sea-side”; and the highlands of Aram on the left, hence semol, “the left.” Different nations derived their expressions for right and left from conceptions peculiar to themselves.

Thus δεξιός and dexter are based on the idea of showing, pointing, with the right hand (δείκνυμι); sinister, from sinus, on the action of laying the right hand on the side of the heart. The left hand has everywhere been regarded as the weaker, which, properly speaking, did not wield arms.

When oriental custom placed the stranger on the left, it assigned him the seat of honor in so far as the left side seemed to be the weaker and less protected (cf. Xenoph. Cyrop. viii. 4). From the idea of weakness, sprang such terms as λαιός, laevus [Eng. left], because that side is harmless, smooth, and gentle.

Hence also the custom among Asiatic nations of inclining toward the left side, and resting on the left hand, when seated: the right hand was thus left free. It was by a euphemism that the name of Jacob’s son was Ben-jamin. Among the Greeks also the “left” was euphemistically called εὐὠνυμος, good-omened, because it was wished to avoid the ominous ὰριστερός [“left”].

A similar custom must have obtained in Israel, since just in the tribe of Benjamin there were, as we are informed (Judg. 20:16), large numbers of men who, like Ehud, were  i. e. left-handed, — the sons of the right hand being thus most addicted to the use of the left. But for the very reason that it seems to have been a habit of the tribe to use the left hand, it cannot be supposed that אִטֵּ֖ר יַד־יְמִינ֑וֹ  [“weak on his right hand”] is meant to indicate lameness of the right hand.

The LXX felt this when they rendered the phrase by ὰμφιδἐξιος, “double right-handed.” The same consideration influenced those more recent scholars who instanced the Homeric Asteropaeus, who fought with both hands. However, this also contradicts the spirit of the narrative, and, as the peculiarity occurs only in Benjamin, the name as well.

Those Ben-jemini, who, like Ehnd, use the left hand, do it in contrast with others, who make use of the right without any lameness in the left. Thus, [it might] be said of the Benjamites: that they are “good and for the most part left-handed fighters, and do with the left hand whatever others do with the right.”

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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