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Women in the Old Testament: Judith

Monday, September 10, 2012
The book of Judith is a carefully crafted work that combines a good story with a powerful theological punch. The opening chapters set the scene: King Nebuchadnezzar of Nineveh and Assyria determines to punish the vassal states on his western border after they fail to send soldiers to support him in his war against King Arphaxad. He orders his General Holofernes to take his huge army and go and plunder the cities of Syria, Moab, Ammon, Judea, and Egypt, expunging the local religions as he goes so that all might worship Nebuchadnezzar as a god. Holofernes obeys and sweeps all before him until he reaches the borders of Judah. Here, to his surprise, he finds that the House of Israel has mobilized for war. The Jews, we are told, had only recently returned from exile and were determined that the temple of God should not be desecrated again. They fortified the hill villages and the narrow passes through which the invaders must pass, and then by prayer and fasting implored God to come to their aid. 

Before commencing his attack, Holofernes decides to seek the advice of Israel’s neighbours, all of whom have already surrendered to him. Achior the Ammonite briefly outlines the history of Israel, the people of God, and concludes that if Israel has been faithful to God’s commands then any attempt to conquer that land will fail. God, Achior claims, will protect his people. If, however, Israel has sinned and followed false gods, then God will allow them to fall into the hands of their enemies. Holofernes himself will to some extent become an instrument of God’s vengeance. The dramatic tension is thus established: has Israel been faithful? Will God protect or condemn his people? (Judith 5: 20-21). 

Holofernes has no time for Achior’s advice and lays siege to Bethulia, a city on top of a mountain that if captured would allow easy access to Jerusalem, the Israelite capital and the location of the temple. After 34 days Bethulia began to run out of water and the desperate populace begged Uzziah, who ruled the city, to surrender lest they be forced to watch their own children die of thirst. Thus far Uzziah’s decision making has been impeccable. He has acted prudently by human standards by fortifying the strategically important hill country, and he has commended both himself and his people to God in his prayer. Yet even Uzziah’s faith is running low: Give God five more days, he tells the people, and if he has not acted in this time then we will surrender (Judith 7: 30-31). Uzziah, it seems, is not prepared to trust in God to the bitter end. When the suffering becomes too great he will take his chances with Holofernes. 

At this point we are introduced to the very beautiful and virtuous widow Judith. Before continuing his narrative, the author takes great care to inform his reader that Judith is both prudent of heart and discerning in judgement. This is significant as it highlights the contrast between the worldly wisdom of Uzziah which is willing to contemplate surrender, to the faith filled wisdom of Judith who will trust until death. Judith rebukes Uzziah and the elders for caving in to the peoples weakness by setting God a deadline. This, she claims, is to put God to the test. The truth of the matter, according to Judith, is that God is putting Israel to the test so that the nation’s faithfulness might be made manifest. In other words, just as Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, Israel is being asked to sacrifice her very existence. Judith is confident that Israel will be redeemed just as, ultimately, Isaac was redeemed and a ram died in his place. The wisdom, the prudence, of Judith is to view the sufferings of this life against the horizon of God’s fidelity and his promises. 

Uzziah accepts the rebuke, but points out that he has already given the people his promise and so God must act soon. Judith therefore comes up with a plan. She makes herself beautiful (the vulgate suggests that because her motives were pure, God even added to her beauty), left the city with Uzziah’s blessing and made her way to the enemy camp. After persuading the amorous Holofernes that she was a defector and gaining the General’s trust, she eventually finds herself alone in his tent while the great man lay on his bed ‘overcome’ with wine. With two blows from Holofernes’ own sword, she cut off his head and escaped with her maid back to the Israelite city. The next day the Israelite army came out of the city to attack and the Assyrian’s discovered that their leader was dead. In panic the Assyrians fled, pursued by the Israelites who plundered their camp.  After this there was peace in Israel until Judith's death many years later.

Beneath the pacy narrative of the book of Judith there is, then, a subtle reflection on the fidelity of God to his promises and the role that trials and sufferings play in both purifying and manifesting our faith. There is also a reflection on the nature of true wisdom and this, perhaps, is the key to unlocking the somewhat unusual conclusion to this work. The Old Testament typically associates an abundance of offspring as a blessing from God, indeed, to be a childless is usually presented as something of a curse. Yet the wise and beautiful Judith seems to be childless and, despite having many potential suitors, she chooses not to remarry. Instead, as an old woman, she set her maid free and distributes her wealth to her kinsman and her dead husband’s kinsman. Judith, it seems, died with nothing but her hope and trust in God. We seem to have in Judith, then, an anticipation of the celibate widows of early Christianity who devoted themselves to prayer and good works. These widows of the early Church were themselves an embryonic expression of what would become known as the religious life, that is, the life of monks, nuns, friars, sisters etc, the life of poverty, chastity and obedience. The author of the book of Judith may then be making a similar point to St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians (1:23). Total dedication and fidelity to God may look like foolishness by worldly standards, but viewed against an eternal horizon, it is the only rational way to live.

Nicholas Crowe OP


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