During the next three weeks, I will discuss the famed book Judith that was composed before the beginning of the Common era, which the rabbis refused to incorporate into the Bible. Why?


                                                       The first seven chapters


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 religious observances, while Ruth and Esther, which they did include in their Bible, have 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]Is there a worldview in Judith that the rabbis did not want Jews to act upon?

Scholars have been debating for centuries whether Judith is true history or a legend, when it was composed, and why.[3]  The problem is that 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 a couple of winks, as if he is saying, “You know that what I am going to tell you never happened.”    

The first seven of Judith’s sixteen chapters 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 be told in a single chapter?


The story

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 who refuse. Nebuchadnezzar swears revenge against the nations who 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 exert his revenge against the obstinate nations, to invade, loot, kill, and deport the inhabitants. Holofernes marches with 120,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry.[4] He vanquishes every country north of Judea and destroys their sanctuaries and sacred items of worship and insists that the natives worship Nebuchadnezzar as their god.[5]

The Judeans had just returned to Judea after being exiled from the land in 586 BCE and rebuilt their temple around 516 BCE. They are concerned about the safety of their temple and their religion. The high priest Joakim orders the Judeans to prepare for war.[6] He orders the town of Bethulia, north of Jerusalem, to secure the mountain pass, the only way Holofernes’ forces could make its way to Jerusalem and the temple.[7] 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 about 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 place 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 beg their leader to surrender. They rather be slaves to the Assyrians than be dead. Uzziah, the chief magistrate, persuades the people to wait five days. If God does not intervene and save them during the five days, they will surrender.


Religious acts in Judith 1-7, but not in Ruth or Esther

(1) The Judeans believe that God would save them from Holofernes and the author seems to state that they were right. 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.”[8] Everyone 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 on their distress,” The Judeans throughout all of Judea fast and pray for many days wearing sackcloth. Joakim the high priest and the other priests offer sacrifices. They cry to the Lord for help with ashes on their turbans.[9] Our author states “So the Lord heard their prayers and looked kindly on their distress.”[10] But did God do so? Certainly our author wants readers to see the Judeans thinking God did so. Perhaps he also wants his readers themselves to 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?

(2) While the Judeans make some somewhat passive defensive military preparations against the invaders, their principle response is a religious one, a reliance on God.[11] Under orders from the high priest, they occupied 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).”[12]

(3) Achior informs 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.”[13] Later, when brought to the Judean camp, he tells the Judeans what he had told Holofernes. We should observe three things: First, Achior is reflecting the Judean hope that God gets involved in human affairs and aids Judeans if they act as God desires.[14] 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 it to save her people. Third, Uzziah’s name is clearly ironic. It means “God is my strength.” Yet, he is weak and passive. He reflects the notion to rely on God for help. He is the foil of Judith.

(4) After Achior tells 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.”[15] Should we understand Uzziah giving the elders a banquet during the fearful siege as irony? It reminds us of the banquets that the self-assured King Ahasuerus had in the book of Esther and the two banquets instituted by Esther.

(5) The next day, Holofernes moves his massive army into the plain facing Bethulia. The Judeans “cry loudly” again to God for their courage had failed them.[16] 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’ people and all his army…. For although we shall become slaves, our lives will be spared.” They are convinced that God is punishing “us for our sins.” [17]

(6) Uzziah implores 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.”[18]



We read of six times that the Judeans referred to God and engaged in pious prayer. But their behavior was passive. Although they closed the passage to Jerusalem, they didn’t engage in any battles. They covered themselves in sackcloth and ashes, fasted, prayed, and relied on God. When God did not respond they cried and prayed again. They were 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. During the biblical period, they were open miracles. Today, they are performed in secret.[19]

The opening seven chapters stand in stark opposition to the philosophy of the rationalist Maimonides (1138-1204) 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 change natural law. When the Bible states that God did something, that something occurred according to the laws of nature. The Bible states that God caused it because God created the laws of nature which brought the matter about naturally.[20]

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 which 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 which Protestants and Jews exclude.

[2] As I discussed in my commentary on Ruth chapter one, Ruth’s statement “your God shall be my God” does not mean that Ruth converted to Judaism, but Ruth accepted the notion of her time that each nation had 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, The Anchor Bible, Judith, Doubleday & Company, 1985, page 67.

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

[5] This is one of the multitudes of inaccuracies in the book. Neither the Babylonians nor Persians insisted that conquered nations worship their god. The insistence 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 Nicanor, the Syrian general and a victory, celebrated by the holiday of Hanukkah. But Nicanor died in battle, not by the hand of a woman.

[6] This is another contradiction. 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. This is another joke by our author.

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

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

[9] Verses 4:9-15.

[10] Verse 4:13.

[11] As seen in the preceding quote.

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

[13] Verses 5:5-21.

[14] 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.

[15] Verse 6:21.

[16] Verse 7:29.

[17] Verses 7:25-28.

[18] Verses 7:29-31.

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

[20] Guide of the Perplexed 2:48.