Saturday, 6 July 2013


So, to continue my journey thought the Apocrypha, here's a look at the Book of Judith.

Just like Tobit, Judith is best seen as a work of historical fiction, except that in this case it is even less historical and more fiction.  It is described as taking place during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar as emperor of Assyria, although historians are unanimous that he was emperor of Babylonia.  Yet the Israelites have already returned from exile and are ruled by their High Priest, something that that did not happen until the rise of the Persian Empire a century later.  Furthermore, the main action happens around the walls of the Israeli city of Bethulia, the location of which is, shall we say, "uncertain".  And this is all before we even get to the actual story!

The story itself is an exciting and amusing tale of deception, a late successor of the kind of holy trickery practiced by the patriarchs and Moses.  You can imagine its origin as a fireside tale, with voices, dramatic description, suspense and a triumphant ending with brings cheers and laughter from the hearers. 

Nebuchadnezzar calls for assistance from the Israelites and the various nations which surround them to put down a rebellion by the King of Media.  They refuse, and so after he has conquered Media he sends his general Holofernes with a huge army to punish them.  Holofernes receives the surrender of most of the nations, destroying their holy places and putting them on notice for future deportation.  However, the Israelites fortify the passes into their mountainous country and prepare to resist.  The city of Bethulia, which guards the main pass into Judea, stands between him and Jerusalem.  Instead of risking his troops in battle he besieges the city, cuts off its water supply, and waits for the inhabitants to expire from thirst.

The situation seems hopeless and the people of Bethulia berate their leaders for refusing to surrender.  However the widow Judith, both wise and beautiful, promises to deliver them.  Dressing in her most seductive finery, she leaves Bethulia for Holofernes camp, where she claims that she has abandoned her city because of its sin, that God has told her it will be destroyed because they have profaned the temple, and that she will help Holofernes identify the precise moment to attack.

Holofernes is taken in, partly by the story and partly by Judith's beauty.  After she has been in the camp a few days he attempts to seduce her.  She appears willing, has dinner with him and assists him to get blind drunk, his servants leave them alone, and she cuts off his head with his own sword.  Then she decamps back to Bethulia, taking his head with her, and urges the soldiers of Bethulia and the surrounding cities to attack while the camp is in chaos.  The victory is duly won and the invaders are chased back to Nineveh.

You could just read this as a fun story, and I'm sure many have down the centuries.  It involves a beautiful and intelligent woman who has become something of a feminist hero, a little bit of titillation, a clever trick perfectly performed, and a feel-good ending where the noble underdog prevails against the cruel tyrant.  What's not to like?

Still, there's more to it than that.  The transparent pastiche of historical periods and imaginary locations is surely a deliberate misdirection.  No-one could mistake this for history.  Perhaps the author just intended to make it clear to his or her readers that this is a work of fiction.  However, it's also possible that this smokescreen concealed a real historical tale close enough to the author and readers to require at least a fig-leaf of deniability. 

The likely date of composition is the late second or first century BCE, and the fictitious empire's drive to religious uniformity may point to the Seleucid empire.  Other scholars have identified Nebuchadnezzar with Tigranes, king of Armenia in the first half of the first century BCE and noted empire builder and destroyer of temples.  Judith, in this interpretation, is identified with Salome Alexandra, widow of King Judah Aristobulus and later wife of his brother Alexander Jannaeus, who successfully resisted Tigranes with a combination of military resistance and diplomacy.  If this latter interpretation is correct, the story is a tribute to this real life Jewish heroine and an encouragement to keep resisting foreign invasion even in the face of overwhelming odds.

If this is not enough, you can dig still deeper.  Judith's name is the feminine form of "Judah", from whom the Jews get their name.  Hence she represents not merely one woman but the whole nation.  Furthermore the name Bethulia could be either a version of Beth-El, the House of God, or a derivative of betulah meaning "virgin", or betulah-jah, Yahweh's virgin.  This could be a fictionalised Jerusalem, or could be intended allegorically.  Judith is defending the purity of the Holy Land in the face of those who would defile it. 

In the name of defending this holiness many compromises are permissible.  Judith can put aside her widow's garments and flirt with the enemy, but not actually sleep with him.  She can be a guest in his tent but must not defile herself by eating his food.  She can cut off his head and get covered in his blood without making herself impure. 

We can see these choices as literal, relating to the situation in the story, or as figurative.  The tribe of Judah cannot hope to hold out against the surrounding forces by military might alone.  They will need to, as we say, "get inside the tent" with these great empires, either by moving to live in their cities, or by making treaties and alliances with them and playing the political game.  However, they must do so, as Judith did, on terms which allow them to retain their purity.  Just like Tobit in his exile, they must not give up who they are.  But this story adds something extra to Tobit's message - their intention in this foreign tent will be subversive.  If the opportunity arises, they will not hesitate to behead the empire and make a break for freedom.

If you think there is something ethically a little suspect about this, you're not the only one.  Yet what is a small, vulnerable people to do in the face of an overwhelming force with genocidal intentions?  If Judith does not act, thousands of her countrymen will die and the women, including her, will be raped and enslaved.  The temple will be destroyed and the people will once again be homeless. 

These are the real moral calculations we make every day.  They are principled but pragmatic.  They recognise the reality of empire but do not sell their souls to it.  They are still a long way from the radical self-sacrifice of the Gospels, but they are feeling their way towards the Kingdom of God. 
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