Judith, Saviour of Israel

The book of Judith is another folk-story of the Hebrews, not unlike Tobias, with so many names of people and places changed that the historical situation cannot be matched to historical documentation and stands apart from any historical situation. The Book speaks of an Assyrian king called Nabuchodonosor (the historical neo-Babylonian king of that name who destroyed the kingdom of Juda is long in the past when this story opens, and the Assyrian empire itself is long dead) attacking the second-Temple period of the restored Juda (post Ezra and Nehemiah). This second Nabuchodonosor, who has no basis in the historical record, and puffed up by his success in war, sends a general called Holofernes to subdue resisting nations. And the Jews in the hills of Juda have dared to arm themselves and fortify their cities against these ‘Assyrians.’ The threat is great, as even the guerrilla tactics of the Jews in their hill country could be overwhelmed by the hordes that Holofernes has brought. Holofernes plans how to subdue the Jews, he is advised by the Ammonite premier, Achior, that the eternal God protects the Jews (chapter five) and that any attack must first weaken the Jewish religion or is doomed to fail. He is promptly scorned by the Assyrians, who worship their king Nabuchodonosor:

“At these words of Achior’s, Holofernes’ lords were full of indignation, and thought to make an end of him. ‘What talk is this?’ they said to one another. ‘Can the men of Israel, without arms, without valour, without skill in war, hold out against king Nabuchodonosor and his troops? Scale we yonder heights, to prove Achior a liar, and when we have mastered the defenders, let Achior be put to the sword with the rest. Let us prove to the whole world that Nabuchodonosor rules it, and other god there is none.'”

Judith, 5: 26-29

And so these besieged the unhistorical Jewish city of Bethulia and cut off the water supply to the town (chapter seven), succeeding in destroying the courage of its citizens. Then a young widow called Judith, who first made walking around with a large scimitar and a severed head look heroic, stood up to the fearful leaders of the city and made a long act of faith.

“You, brethren, are among the elders of the people; their lives are in your charge. Yours to hearten them, by reminding them what trials our fathers underwent, to shew whether they were God’s worshippers indeed; how Abraham was put to the proof, tested by long endurance, before he became God’s friend; how Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and all who won God’s favour, must be loyal to him under great affliction first. And what of those others, who could not hold out, submitting to the divine will, under these trials; who bore themselves impatiently, and did the Lord despite by complaining against Him? These were the men the destroying angel slew, the men who fell a prey to serpents. It is our turn to suffer now, and never a word said in remonstrance; think we the Lord’s rod too light a punishment for our sins, believe we that He is punishing us as His servants, to chasten, not to destroy.

Judith, 8: 21-27

Interesting indeed. Here is both a theology of suffering well and remaining faithful to God and a theology of suffering and punishment for sin as instructive to the people rather than intended to destroy them. Both of these play well into Church teaching. Judith proceeded to dress herself up and use her striking beauty to beguile the Assyrian soldiery and the general Holofernes himself. The next few chapters demonstrates how Judith cleverly planned her escape from the enemy camp by establishing a routine of daily prayer, so nobody would stop her from leaving the camp. Having beheaded the Assyrian general, she brought the head back to Bethulia, to massive acclaim and became a heroine. The high-priest visited from Jerusalem to acclaim her along with the people, using words that the Church today uses for the Blessed Virgin. 

“And now the high priest Joacim came to Bethulia, with all that were his fellow elders at Jerusalem, asking to see Judith; and when she answered his summons, all with one voice began to extol her; ‘Thou art the boast of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel, the pride of our people; thou hast played a man’s part, and kept thy courage high. Not unrewarded thy love of chastity, that wouldst never take a second husband in thy widowhood; the Lord gave thee firmness of resolve, and thy name shall be ever blessed.’ And to that all the people said Amen.”

Judith, 15: 9-12

And that’s about all I want to say about Judith. She lived to a ripe old age, always known as a heroine, and was greatly mourned at her death. There’s her wonderful final hymn, which is very like the song of Moses after the passage through the Red Sea. And this post may end on that.

“Strike up, tambour, and cymbals beat in the Lord’s honour, sound a fresh song of praise; high enthrone Him, call aloud upon His Name! What power divine crushes the enemy, but the Lord’s great Name? Here in the midst of His people He lies encamped; come what enemy may, He grants deliverance. Came the Assyrian from the northern hills in his great strength, the valleys choked with his marching columns, the mountain glens black with his horses; to send fire through our country-side, put our warriors to the sword, mark down our children for slavery, our maidens for spoil. Great despite the Lord Almighty did him, that he should fall into a woman’s power for his death-blow. Not by warriors’ hands the tyrant fell; not giants smote him, not heroes of the old time barred his path; it was Judith, Merari’s daughter, Judith’s fair face that was his undoing. Laid aside, now, her widow’s weeds; festal her array must be; a feast waits for the sons of Israel. Ointment, there, for her cheeks, a band for her straying locks, a robe new-wrought to ensnare him! Her very sandals thralled his eyes; he lay there, his heart beauty’s prisoner, while the sharp steel pierced his neck through.”

Judith, 16: 2-11
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