October 31, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: God saves the Jews through Judith

John F. Fink(Forty-third in a series of columns)

The Book of Judith has long been a popular religious novel among artists and composers. Classical composers have written oratorios about Judith, and she has often been depicted on canvas. The name “Judith” means “Jewess.” The book was written as a pious reflection on God’s providential care for the Jews and to give the Jews a heroine.

It appears to be history in the time of Nebuchadnezzar. But it says that he was king of Assyria when he was actually king of Babylon. The siege of the city of Bethulia, in the story, never happened.

According to the story, Holofernes, the commander of the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar, led an overwhelming force against the vassal states that refused to help in the Assyrian war against the Medes. The Jews resisted Holofernes at Bethulia. Holofernes laid siege to the town and, after 34 days, the Jews were ready to surrender.

Then Judith came to the rescue. She was a widow, “beautifully formed and lovely to behold” (Jdt 8:7). But for three years and four months she had worn sackcloth and widow’s clothing. She was known to be a God-fearing woman.

When she learned that the elders of Bethulia were ready to surrender, she called them to her house and gave them a lengthy speech about how God was with the Jews as long as they didn’t offend him. She asked them to let her out of the city and not to surrender for five days. The Lord would rescue Israel by her hand, she said.

Judith took off her widow’s clothing and “made herself very beautiful, to captivate the eyes of all the men who should see her” (Jdt 10:4). She and her maid made their way to the enemy camp. When she was captured, she asked to be taken to Holofernes, who was taken by her beauty. She praised King Nebuchadnezzar and said that she would help Holofernes defeat the Jews.

Holofernes gave her a room next to his and asked her to join him at table, but she insisted on eating only the provisions her maid had brought in a food pouch. She asked only to be permitted to go out each night to wash and say her prayers. Holofernes ordered his men not to hinder her coming and going.

On the fourth day, Holofernes gave a banquet and asked Judith to join him. She did, after putting on all her best clothing and jewelry. During the banquet Holofernes drank more wine than he had ever drunk before. Then the servants withdrew, leaving Holofernes and Judith alone.

Holofernes had passed out. Judith took his sword and, after saying a prayer, struck him twice in the neck, cutting off his head. She quickly took his head and passed it to her maid, who put it in her food pouch. Then the two women went out as they were accustomed to do for prayer. Unhindered by Holofernes’s men, they made their way back to Bethulia.

With Holofernes dead, his army went into confusion, and the Jews overwhelmed them. †

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