Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bible Study: The Book of Judith!

Our text today is from the Book of Judith:

I will sing a new song to my God.
Lord, you are great, you are glorious,
wonderfully strong, unconquerable.
May your whole creation serve you!
For you spoke and things came into being,
you sent your breath and they were put together,
and no one can resist your voice.

Should mountains topple
and mingle with the waves,
should rocks melt
like wax before your face,
to those who fear you,
you would still be merciful.

This is part the song Judith sings in celebration at the climax of her story, and she has every reason to celebrate, having single-handedly saved her city of Bethulia from the ravaging hordes of the invader.

The invader in this case is the mighty King Nebuchanezzar, lord of the Assyrian empire and self-styled king of all the world, who has sent his vast army under the command of General Holofernes into Israel and swept all opposition before him. The King did this despite the warning of Achior the Ammonite that it would be best not to disturb the Israelites, because you might thereby incur the wrath of their particularly nasty deity. Nebuchadnezzar doesn't take kindly to dissenting voices and banishes Achior to Israel, to suffer their fate right along with everybody else.

At first, the King seems to be right. The Israelites lament that their God isn't protecting them from the invading armies, and soon Bethulia is besieged. That brings Judith into the story: she's a beautiful young widow whose (henpecked, one suspects) husband died of heatstroke during a barley harvest, leaving her with property, servants, a nice house, and a spotless reputation. When Holofernes invades, she puts off her widow's weeds, dresses herself to perfection, and goes to his camp, telling him she's betraying her own people because they're wicked and obstreperous.
He'd have believed anything she said, of course, because he's jaw-droppingly besotted with her beauty from the first moment he sees her. This completely human trait is one of many Holofernes has; for a story's villain, he's surprisingly affable, as when he responds to Judith's comments about her own people:

"Courage, woman," Holofernes said, "do not be afraid. I have never hurt anyone who chose to serve Nebuchadnezzar, king of the whole world. Even now, if your nation of mountain dwellers had not insulted me, I would not have raised a spear against them. This was their fault, not mine. ... Courage! You will live through this night, and many after. No one shall hurt you."

Poor sap - too bad the same can't be said for him. Because of course Judith never intended to betray her own people, quite the opposite. After a brief enough stay in Holofernes' camp to cause everyone to let their guard down (including the eunuch Bagoas, whose job it is to watch over Judith while she's there) - the general even lets her eat her own specially-brought food, which she carries in - spoiler alert! - a big canvas sack - Judith lies in wait one night when Holofernes has had more wine than usual (he's working up his nerve to rape her, though she doesn't know that). With an imperiousness that comes through even the story's sparse narrative, she gets Bagoas to dismiss all the general's servants and take the night off himself, and she enters the tent of the passed-out Holofernes.

She takes his scimitar from his bedstead and with two mighty whacks cuts his head off. She then puts the head in her trusty canvas sack, stuffs the bed canopy in there too (no use leaving it, soaked with arterial spray to a height of nine feet, broadcasting to even the most casual onlooker what happened), and calmly makes her exit from the Assyrian camp.

When she shows the severed head to her people back in Bethulia, they fall on their knees with joy (well, except for wimpy Achior, who faints) (when he revives, he agrees to convert to the Israelite religion and is promptly circumcised, probably wishing he'd stayed fainted) - she predicts, correctly, that the Assyrians will fall to pieces when they find out what's happened to their mighty general, and when that happens, the Israelites drive the invaders from their land. We're told they knew peace for a long time afterwards.

And Judith? She was honored by her people and grew old in peace and prosperity. She lived to 105 and died in her bed (just like Holofernes, but you know what I mean).

And the lesson? To me it seems obvious: agnosticism is best. Despite Judith's elaborate praise to God in her "new song" (the first parts of which also slip in a lot of praise to herself), one of the most prominent features of her story is that God isn't in it; Judith doesn't get commanded by Him to kill Holofernes, and although she prays to Him for strength, the fact that she needs two whacks to decapitate her victim implies she had to rely on her own two arms, as the reader suspects all along. And really - given the rest of the Old Testament, can you imagine how much different the story would have unfolded, if God had been involved? In its present form, the Book of Judith is a tidy little story about one woman's plucky nationalism; Books where God takes an active hand are never neat. Had He been involved, Judith probably wouldn't have survived her own story - and if she had, she'd have been punished something awful for her success.

Nope, she did it all on her own: she reasoned, correctly, that the invading army would dissolve into chaos if it's head, so to speak, were cut off, and she resolved to do just that. And everything worked out fine, for her and the Israelites. All well and good to praise God after the fact, but the Book of Judith shows clearly that you really don't want Him involved while you're trying to get things done.

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