Who was Judith?

                                                                                       

Most people do not know who Judith was and, therefore, are unable to compare her with Ruth and Esther. Here is the first chapter in the section dealing with Judith from my book “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Ruth, Esther, and Judith.”

 

                                                                                        Who was Judith?

 

While Roman Catholics and Eastern churches included the book of Judith as part of their Bible, Jews and Protestants did not – even though virtually every one of Judith’s sixteen chapters has references to God and prayer observances, while Ruth and Esther, which they did include in their Bible, contain little or nothing about God or religion.[1] What does Judith say and why was it not included in the Jewish and Protestant Bibles?[2]

The Composition of Judith

Scholars have been debating for centuries whether Judith is true history or a legend, when it was composed, and why.[3] The story has many indications that it is a cleverly composed ironic fable. For instance, the book begins: “It was in the twelfth year of the reign on Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians from his capital Nineveh.…” Students of the Bible and ancient readers of the tale knew that Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Babylonians, not of the Assyrians, and Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BCE, two decades before Nebuchadnezzar’s twelfth year. Thus Judith’s author begins his tale with winks, as if he is saying, “You know that what I am going to tell you never happened.”

Rabbi Dr. Sidney B. Hoenig,[4] scholar of Bible history, notes in his The Great Sanhedrin that the term “gerousia” occurs a few times in Judith “in referring to an authoritative institution in Jerusalem at the head of which was the high priest.”[5] The Greek term means “elders.” The high priest would summon the elders when their counsel was needed. He writes: “Though the actual date of the translation of Judith is unknown, there is definite evidence that the book itself was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic before or during the Maccabean Revolt.” Since the institution of the “gerousia,” mentioned in Judith, existed for only a short period until the end of the Maccabean revolt, this fact supports the view that Judith was composed around that time and may be a fiction based on the Maccabean revolt and the death of the Syrian general Nicanor.

The first seven of Judith’s sixteen chapters, totaling 146 verses, seem to offer only the story’s background. It prompted many scholars to ask why we need these chapters. Couldn’t the background to Judith have been told in a single chapter?

Summary of Chapters 1–7

Judith begins when Nebuchadnezzar decides to wage war against a Median king. He invites other nations to join his armed forces. Many do, but Judea is among the few that refuse. Nebuchadnezzar swears revenge against the countries that do not join. Five years later, after defeating Media, Nebuchadnezzar appoints Holofernes, the general in command of his armies and second in command to himself, to exact revenge against the obstinate people – to invade, loot, kill, and deport the inhabitants. Holofernes marches with 120,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry.[6] He vanquishes every country north of Judea, destroys their sanctuaries and sacred items of worship, and insists that the natives worship Nebuchadnezzar as their god.[7]

The Judeans had just returned to Judea and rebuilt their temple in around 516 BCE, after being exiled from their land in 586 BCE. They hear about Holofernes and are concerned about the safety of their temple and their religion. The high priest Joakim orders the Judeans to prepare for war.[8] He tells the town of Bethulia, north of Jerusalem, to secure the mountain pass, the only way Holofernes’s forces could make their way to Jerusalem and the temple.[9] The Judeans recognize the religious menace to their lives and worship. They clothe themselves in sackcloth and ashes, pray to God, fast, and beg God for assistance. Holofernes advances against Bethulia and besieges it because local non-Judeans advise him that if he cuts off the water supply and besieges the town, the occupants will have to surrender rather than die of hunger and thirst.

Achior, commander of the Ammonite forces that had joined Holofernes, tells the general the history of the Judeans from their first appearance on earth through their enslavement in Egypt, the miracles God performed for them, their entrance into Canaan, their exile, and their return to their land. He emphasizes – and this becomes the theme of the book – that as long as Judeans act properly, their God will protect them and Holofernes has no chance of defeating them. Holofernes is outraged. He orders his soldiers to shackle Achior and set him in an area where the besieged Judeans can take him prisoner. The Judeans find him and bring him into Bethulia, where he tells the occupants what he told Holofernes.

The Bethulians are overcome by hunger and thirst and ask their leaders to surrender. They would rather be slaves to the Assyrians than be dead. Uzziah, the chief magistrate, persuades the people to wait five days. He promises that if God does not intervene and save them during the five days, they will surrender.

Religious acts in Judith 1–7

We have noted above that religious acts are markedly absent from the books of Ruth and Esther. In contrast, numerous displays of religion are recorded in the first seven chapters of Judith:

  • The Judeans believed that God would save them from Holofernes. They cry fervently “to God, every man of Israel, and they humbled themselves with much fasting. They put on sackcloth, they and their wives and children, their cattle, every resident alien, and every hired or purchased servant.”[10] All living in Jerusalem “prostrated themselves before the Temple and put ashes on their head and spread out their sackcloth before the Lord. They even draped the altar with sackcloth, and with one voice they cried out to the God of Israel, fervently begging that he not allow their children to be carried off, or their women raped, or the towns of their heritage destroyed, or the Temple profaned and reviled to the malicious delight of the heathen. So the Lord heard their prayers and looked kindly upon their distress.” The Judeans throughout all of Judea fast and pray for many days, wearing sackcloth. Joakimthe high priest and the other priests offer sacrifices. They cry to the Lord for help, with ashes on their turbans.[11] Our author states: “So the Lord heard their prayers and looked kindly on their distress.”[12] But did God do so? Certainly our author wants readers to see the Judeans thinking God did so. Perhaps he also wants his readers to themselves think God did so for the Judeans of old and does so today. But is this irony? Is it the same kind of humor, the same winking of his eyes that we saw in his very first sentence?
  • While the Judeans make some defensive military preparations against the invaders, their principle response is a reliance on God; they do not fight.[13] Under orders from the high priest, they occupy the “passes up into the hill country because access into Judea was through them, and it would have been easy to prevent an army from entering (for the approach was only wide enough for two men at a time to pass).”[14]
  • Achiorinforms Holofernes of the Israelite history, stressing the involvement of God in the past and the miracles God performed to save the people. He emphasizes that “as long as they did not sin against their god, they prospered; for theirs is a god who hates wrongdoing.” Therefore, “if this nation is not guilty, then let my lord please bypass them. For their lord and god will defend them, and we shall become the laughingstock of the whole world.”[15] Later, when brought to the Judean camp, he tells the Judeans what he had told Holofernes. We, the readers of this tale, should observe three things: First, Achior is reflecting the Judean belief that God gets involved in human affairs and aids Judeans if they act as God desires.[16] This is the same passive notion that Haman’s wife and advisors tell Haman in the book of Esther. Second, Judith, as we will read, hears that Holofernes was told that God helps Judeans as long as they act properly, and she will use this belief to save her people. Third, Uzziah’s name is clearly ironic. It means “God is my strength.” He is weak and passive, reflecting the thinking that righteous people should rely on God for help. He is the foil for Judith.[17]
  • After Achiortells the assembled Judeans what transpired, “Uzziah took him from the assembly to his house and gave a banquet for the elders, and throughout that night they called upon the God of Israel for help.”[18] Why is Uzziah giving the elders a banquet during the fearful siege – is this intended as irony? It reminds us of the banquets that the self-assured King Ahasuerus held in the book of Esther and the two banquets instituted by Esther.
  • The next day, Holofernesmoves his massive army onto the plain facing Bethulia. The Judeans “cry loudly” again to God for their courage had failed them.[19] They had little water left. People are fainting. They gather before Uzziah, shout, and beg “God has sold us into their hands.… Contact them at once and hand over the whole town to be sacked by Holofernes’s people and all his army.… For although we shall become slaves, our lives will be spared.” They again see God as being involved in and controlling their lives; they are convinced that God is punishing “us for our sins.”[20]
  • Uzziahimplores the people to have courage. “Let us hold out for five more days. By then the Lord our God will have pity on us, for he will not abandon us altogether. But if these days go by and no help comes to us, then I will do as you say.”[21] His promise to wait five days will later bind Judith: she must complete her plan within the five-day period.

Analysis

We read of six times that the Judeans referred to God and engaged in pious prayer. But their behavior is passive. Although they close the passage to Jerusalem, they do not engage in any battles. They cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes, fast, pray, and rely on God. When God does not respond they cry and pray again. They are convinced, like the later mystical sage Nachmanides (1194–1270), that God is involved in all that occurs on earth and the “greatest secret” is that God performs miracles daily. Nachmanides taught that God’s involvement manifested as open miracles during the biblical period. Today, they are performed in secret.[22]

It is true that Judith will later ascribe her ability to overcome Holofernes to God when she states, “The Lord will deliver Israel by my hand.”[23] This passage can be interpreted to mean that she understood that God is involved and will give her strength. It could also be just a conventional way of saying, “I sure hope I have enough strength to do what I plan to do.” In any event, even if she believed God would help her, she acted, while the rest of the people depended on God to act.

The opening seven chapters stand in stark opposition to the philosophy of the rationalist Maimonides (1138–1204), who wrote that the world functions according to the laws of nature. God gave people intelligence and they are expected to use their intelligence to solve their problems and not rely on God to interfere and meddle with natural law. When the Bible states that God did something, that something occurred by the laws of nature. The Bible states that God caused it because God created the laws of nature, which later produced the matter naturally.[24]

Thus the opening seven chapters of Judith are more than a background to the story of Judith. They express a worldview of passive reliance on God, a notion that Judith will reject.

 

[1] Judith is included in what is called the “Apocrypha,” the fifteen books and parts of books composed before the onset of the Common Era that Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Eastern churches accept as part of their Bible in whole or in part but that Protestants and Jews exclude.

[2] As I discussed in my commentary on Ruth chapter 1, Ruth’s statement “Your God shall be my God” does not mean that Ruth converted to Judaism, but that Ruth accepted the notion of her time that each nation has its own god, and she was saying, “I will come with you where your god will be my god.”

[3] “Judith was probably composed in the Hasmonean period, most likely either toward the end of the reign of John Hyrcanus I (135–104 BCE) or at the beginning of the reign of Alexander Janneus (103–78 BCE). Converging lines of evidence, both historical and theological in character, support such a date” (Carey A. Moore, Judith, Anchor Bible [Doubleday, 1985], 67).

[4] He was my mother’s brother, my uncle.

[5]  The Great Sanhedrin (Philadelphia: Dropsie College, 1953), 148–51. Sometime during the second-temple period (beginning 516 BCE), contrary to prior Israelite history and for unknown reasons, high priests became the political leaders of the Judean nation.

[6] The number twelve is often used in Scripture.

[7] This is one of the multitudes of inaccuracies in the book. Neither the Babylonians nor Persians insisted that conquered nations worship their god. The demand to abandon their own god happened during the Hasmonean period, 165 BCE, by the Syrian Greeks. The Judeans felt forced to fight to retain their religion, as in this story, resulting in the death of the Syrian general Nicanor and a Judean victory, celebrated by the holiday of Hanukkah. But Nicanor died in battle, not by the hand of a woman.

[8] This is another contradiction, another joke by our author. The book starts by speaking of Nebuchadnezzar who lived during the destruction of the temple, but now describes events about a century later when the temple had been rebuilt.

[9] We have no knowledge of a city called Bethulia and there is no mountain pass that controls entry from northern to southern Israel.

[10] All of the quotes in my commentary on Judith are from Moore, Judith, Anchor Bible. Mordecai put on sackcloth in the book of Esther, but the book does not say he prayed.

[11] Verses 4:9–15.

[12] Verse 4:13.

[13] As seen in the preceding quote.

[14] But they did not engage the enemy. This pass does not exist. It is a fable based on the famed Spartan act at Thermopylae.

[15] Verses 5:5–21.

[16] Perhaps this is why our author calls him Achi, which in Hebrew means “brother,” and or, which means “light.” He saw the light like the Judeans and was their brother in understanding how God acts.

[17] Nachmanides expressed this view when he wrote that Abraham (called Abram at that time) acted improperly when he failed to rely on God’s help and, instead, urged his wife Sara (called Sarai) to save his life by claiming that Abraham was not her husband but her brother (commentary to Genesis 12).

[18] Verse 6:21.

[19] Verse 7:29.

[20] Verses 7:25–28.

[21] Verses 7:29–31.

[22] In his commentary to Numbers 36:7 and elsewhere.

[23] Verse 8:3.

[24] Guide of the Perplexed 2:48.

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