Toilet History Meets Biblical History

Differing privacy norms in ancient toilets illuminate the Biblical story of Ehud and Eglon

Toilet History Meets Biblical History

Ancient toilets at Ephesus in Turkey offered virtually no privacy for users—whether poor or elite. When it comes to privacy on the toilet, history suggests that royalty in particular may have seen little need for it, often receiving visitors while on the privy. This may offer context for understanding the unusual story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges 3. Photo by Todd Bolen/

We have long known that notions of privacy in ancient toilets were different from ours. At several Roman-period sites, archaeologists have found long benches with rows of ancient toilets with no provision for privacy.

In the story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges 3, an Israelite named Ehud delivered the Israelite tribute to the Moabite king Eglon. At the time, Eglon, a very fat man, was apparently sitting on the toilet, and Ehud thrust his dagger into Eglon’s belly. When Ehud left, he locked the door of “the cool upper chamber.” Eglon’s courtiers returned and assumed Eglon must be on the toilet. When they finally broke the lock and entered, they found Eglon lying on the floor dead.

According to a recent best-selling biography that includes some toilet history, in 16th-century Europe sitting on the toilet—history reveals—was “a common way for royals to receive visitors.” (Read more in “An Expert’s Take on Toilet History and Customs from Antiquity to the Renaissance.”) Royalty was unconcerned with privacy. But the issue may not have been privacy at all. Royalty could do what it wanted. What might be distasteful for the average person was a prerogative of status. It seems at least possible to conclude from the Biblical text that this was also true of ancient toilets in Eglon’s time.

To read more about how ancient toilets and toilet history could shed light on the Biblical story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges 3, see Hershel Shanks’s First Person column “Privies and Privacy” in the March/April 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Posted in Biblical Archaeology Topics.

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  • chris says

    Kind of interesting how the kings had no privacy and apparently want none for anyone else either.

  • Gregory says

    Proverbs 26:5
    Romans 1:22
    Further comment is beneath contempt.

  • Lily says

    Gender specific toilets may be a first world development to respect differences and to denote in the culture those differences. Gender fluid persons challenge that when it comes to toilets. An easy answer is to build a third set of facilities in places called just that “Gender Fluid” and let each decide who shall enter. This should separate gender fluid from male or female which GF is neither. SO that settles the issue,

  • Marvin says

    There is a controversy brewing today about transgender people (still regarded as “males” at least by many conservatives) being given access to “women’s” restrooms. There are some Christians who wish to object, on a basis of “religious freedom”. It seems to me that any such claim by Christians would require biblical evidence that gender-separated public toilet facilities were commanded by God, or the apostles, or someone having similar authority over the Church. I suspect that “men’s” and “women’s” public restrooms are a much more recent development (dating perhaps to Victorian times??). I also believe these are more customary and cultural in origin than religious per se–having no demonstrable mandate, e.g., in Christian doctrine. If you are willing, please outline for me your best biblical argument that gender-separated toilets is really a Christian issue (i.e., please cite any foundations in the bible). Anyway, I would appreciate your comments.

    • achen says

      I believe the thinking goes something like this: God made you male or female. God knit you in the womb intentionally this way (Psalm 139:13, Jeremiah 1:5a) . So if you think you’re the opposite gender, you are saying that God made a mistake. God doesn’t make mistakes. Therefore, you are really your chromosomal gender and should conform to that.
      Of course, this leaves open the question of what cultural gender expressions are Biblically appropriate.

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