The Book of Judith, the Jewish People, and the Advent of the Messiah

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This is the fourth part of Dr. Noll’s series, “Reading and Enjoying the Apocrypha.”


The Daily Office readings for November (BCP page 760) insert ten days of readings from The Book of Judith, from the Apocrypha. This book picks up themes from the Books of Maccabees, which I reviewed earlier, and adds some gender balance to an all-male honor roll of Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, chapter 44. One could even paraphrase the theme of Judith as “Let us now praise famous women!”

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Judith and the Women of the Old Testament

In this respect, The Book of Judith picks up on a scarlet thread through the Old Testament: the role of women in the history of salvation. One thinks of Rahab the harlot, who hid the Hebrew spies and helped them escape from Jericho (Joshua, chapter 2), or the prophetess Deborah, who rallied the tribes against the Canaanite general Sisera, and her accomplice Jael, who hammered a tent peg into his temple (Judges, chapters 4-5). Then there was Esther, who was elevated by her beauty to become Queen “for just such a time as this” and risked her life to save her people from the wiles of the proto-Nazi Haman the Agagite.

In the case of Judith, we are dealing with a fictional character. Indeed, the Apocrypha contains several books which can be called novellas (e.g., Tobit and Susanna). The first chapter tips us off to this genre when we meet Nebuchadnezzar the Assyrian. There was no historical Nebuchadnezzar the Assyrian, but the author doesn’t mind this. He meant to create a type, “the Great King, the Lord of the whole earth” (2:5), whose arrogance extends to the heavens, “for it had been given him to destroy all the gods of the land so that all nations should worship only Nebuchadnezzar and all their tongues and tribes should call upon him as god” (3:8; cf. Daniel chapter 3).

The Story of Judith

The Book of Judith is a finely tuned story. The lectionary plunges you into the crisis facing the Jews (chapter 4) and introduces the heroine, Judith (chapter 8). I would encourage you to read the book from start to finish (it only takes a couple of hours). The first half of the book describes the gathering storm of military violence that breaks on the Middle East, right up to the hill country of Judea and the border town of Bethulia (also fictional), and the resulting terror that falls upon the priests, elders, and people in Jerusalem.

In Holofernes’ Camp

The author then delays the climax by introducing a sub-plot in the camp of Holofernes, Nebuchadnezzar’s commander-in-chief. At the war council of allied tribes, Holofernes mockingly asks:

Tell me, you Canaanites, what people is this that lives in the hill country? What cities do they inhabit? How large is their army, and in what does their power or strength consist? Who rules over them as king, leading their army? And why have they alone of all who live in the west, refused to come out and meet me? (5:3-4)

The general is answered by Achior the Ammonite (Ammon being one of the tribes that opposed Moses and the people of Israel). Achior, like Rahab, is a pagan friend of Israel, and he recites the history of the Exodus and warns Holofernes:

Now therefore, my master and lord, if there is any unwitting error in this people and they sin against their God and we find out their offense, then we will go up and defeat them. But if there is no transgression in their nation, then let my lord pass them by, for their Lord will defend them, and their God will protect them, and we shall be put to shame before all the earth. (5:20-21)

Holofernes is incensed by this advice and has Achior bound and deposited outside Bethulia, where its elders receive and unbind him. The other traditional enemies of Israel, the Edomites and Moabites, advise Holofernes to encircle the town and capture its water supply rather than rush head-on into the mountain pass. The city being cut off, the people cry out to the elders to surrender to Holofernes. The chief elder Uzziah offers a feeble compromise:

Have courage, my brothers! Let us hold out for five more days; by that time the Lord our God will restore to us his mercy, for he will not forsake us utterly. But if these days pass by and no help comes for us, I will do as you say. (7:30-31)

Enter the Magnificent Judith

Finally, at the book’s mid-point, we meet Judith. Linguistically, her name means “Jewess,” recalling the Scriptural reference to God’s people as “virgin daughter.” Judith is not a virgin but a widow, seemingly in perpetual mourning (8:6). At the same time, she is beautiful and rich.

I can’t think of any woman in the Old Testament quite like Judith. She combines the guile of Rahab, the brawn of Deborah and Jael, the brains of Abigail, the beauty of Esther, and chutzpah like no one else. She comes out of her house of mourning, sheds her widow’s weeds, and summons the elders and the people:

Listen to me, rulers of the people of Bethulia! What you have said to the people is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the city to our enemies unless the Lord turns and helps us within so many days. Who are you, who have put God to the test this day and are setting yourselves up in the place of God among the sons of men?… Do not try to bind the the purposes of the Lord our God; for God is not like man, to be threatened, or like a human being to be won over with pleading. Therefore while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him. (8:11-12,16-17)

Judith does not just heckle the crowd. She has a secret plan, no doubt revealed to her from above during her days of fasting. The plan unfolds in the remainder of the book, and I’ll leave you, the reader, to enjoy it. I say enjoy because I think there is an implicit joviality, even bawdiness, to the story. It is like the festivity accompanying the reading of Esther on the feast of Purim.

Judith and the Jewish People Today

I cannot relate the story of Judith without noting the recent horrific attack in Israel by Hamas, a militant Islamist organization. The Book of Judith was probably written during the brief “Hasmonean” period of political independence brought in by the Maccabees. The story recognizes the fragility of that freedom, which ended in 63 BC when the Romans conquered Judaea and did not return until 1948 when the United Nations recognized the sovereign state of Israel.

The creation of the state of Israel sparked a long and complex conflict with the Palestinians and other majority Muslim states and groups, who rejected the partition of the land. The calculated and indiscriminate brutality of the recent attack makes clear that, in the eyes of Hamas and like-minded others, the final solution to the Jews in Israel is expulsion or extermination. One finds a similar threat in the Book of Esther, where Haman convinces King Ahasuerus to proclaim an edict “to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day… and to plunder their goods” (Esther 3:13).

The Church and Christian nations have in the past perpetrated similar outrages against the Jewish people. Today, we are called to stand with them. I would go so far as to say that we should pray for them as an extended branch of the persecuted church (cf. Romans 9:1-5; 11:1-15). This is not a blanket endorsement of any government nor a condemnation of any religion. It is also not a denial of our general duty to pray for innocent victims of war and violence. However, it is to acknowledge the unique spiritual root and bond of the Old Covenant and New Covenant people of God.

Judith and Advent

How does our reading of the Book of Judith help prepare us for the upcoming Advent season? Here are a few thoughts.

The Theme of Victory

The victory of Judith concludes with a Song of Triumph (chapter 16). Women often collaborate in victory celebrations (see Miriam and Moses in Exodus 15:1-21 and Deborah and Barak in Judges, chapter 5). In this book, Judith is both the celebrant and the center of acclaim. Similarly, Advent begins with celebrating the coming victory of the Messiah. The Sunday before Advent is dedicated to Christ the King, and Advent Sunday celebrates His Second Coming. In the words of the Charles Wesley hymn:

Lo, he comes in clouds descending,
Once for our salvation slain!
Thousand, thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.

The Church as the Bride of Christ

Judith herself is an ascetic figure. Despite her beauty and fame, “she remained a widow all the days of her life after Manasseh her husband had died and was gathered to his people” (16:22). The Church, too, is called to withstand external threats like those of Holofernes primarily by spiritual disciplines and hopeful expectation of the Coming Bridegroom. The Wesley hymn continues:

Answer thine own bride and Spirit,
Hasten Lord, the general doom,
The new heaven and earth t’ inherit,
Take thy pining exiles home,
All creation, all creation, all creation
Travails! groans! and bids thee come.

The end of history. Judith’s victory ushered in an era of peace: “and no one ever again spread terror among the people of Israel in the days of Judith or for a long time after her death” (16:25). The book does not claim the end of history here and now because that can only be brought by the Messiah. However, it proposes a kind of truce in the midst of history such as the nation experienced during the Maccabean period.

Come, Ye Thankful People

Advent marks not only the end but the beginning of history. It features Malachi, the last of the Old Testament Prophets, who foresaw a coming Elijah, and the first Prophet of the new era, John the Baptist, who announced the Coming One, “the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” The Advent season begins with the Second Coming of the Messiah. It ends with his first coming, the conception and birth of Jesus through another woman, the virgin Mary of Nazareth. The end of history has dawned in the midst of history.

I think of Advent as a kind of wrap-around season. It ends the church year and then starts it up again. In the USA, Advent Sunday often follows directly from Thanksgiving Day, which celebrates the harvest. The annual harvest itself gives us a foretaste of the harvest of heaven when God’s people throughout time and space greet the coming Savior. Another overlap hymn captures this well: “Come, ye thankful people, come!”

Even so, Lord, quickly come,
bring thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin;
there, forever purified,
in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest home.

May we, the Bride of Christ, prepare our hearts and join our voices with Judith and the people of Israel in joyfully greeting our Messiah and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!


Next month, Dr. Noll will post an article on the Wisdom of Solomon. Need a copy of the Apocrypha? Check out the ESV Bible with Apocrypha from Anglican House Publishers.


Image: Judith Cutting Off the Head of Holofernes by Trophime Bigot (c. 1640)

Published on

November 10, 2023

Author

Stephen Noll

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

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