lamb-leftWhat the Bible Really Says by J. R. Hyland
From Humane Religion

Chapter 13: JUDITH AND ESTHER: Bloodthirsty And Beautiful

The story of Judith remains one of the canonical books of the Roman Catholic church. It was rejected from the canon of Protestant Bibles in 1867 but not on ethical or moral grounds. It was expunged because of religious infighting and biases over dogmatic issues.

The story of Judith is of the same genre as that of the account of Deborah and Jael, whose story is told in the Book of Judges.[1] In both accounts, women are credited with a God-given ability to massacre their enemies. The much revered “Song of Deborah” celebrates that violence and the Book of Judith also includes a victorious, if somewhat gory, song of assassination.

Along with similarities to the story of Deborah, the Book of Judith also repeats elements of the story of Queen Esther. Like Esther, Judith is described as being exceedingly beautiful and it was because of her beauty that the Jewish people were able to triumph over their enemies. And like the story of Queen Esther, the historicity of Judith is questionable. According to the narrative she lived circa 593 B.C. but as scholars unanimously point out, the book is rife with historical and geo-graphical inaccuracies. Nevertheless, Christian scholars view both stories as conveying valuable religious lessons.

In her beauty, Judith resembles Esther, but not in her methodology.  Queen Esther did not personally kill anyone. But with great skill and even greater insensitivity, Judith cut off the head of the military leader of an enemy army. He was General Holofernes, commander-in-chief of the Assyrians whose troops were about to take over the city of Bethulia in the Northern country of Israel.  If he succeeded, the defeated Hebrews would be forced to worship the Assyrian King.

Surrounded by their enemies, who had cut off the city’s water supply, the demoralized people were prepared to surrender. But deliverance came in the form of the very rich, very beautiful and very chaste widow, Judith. She prayed that God would come to the rescue of her people.

“Please God of my Father . . . hear my prayer. Give me a beguiling tongue to wound and kill those who have formed such cruel designs.”[2] Her prayer was answered; a beguiling tongue did gain her entrance into the enemy camp, but it was not her tongue that destroyed her prey. It was a sword.

Judith had gone to General Holofernes with the story that she would spy on her own people for him because they were offending God by breaking ritual, religious laws. Because of their sins, God would deliver them into the hands of their enemies and she was to be the instrument of their punishment.

After she delivered her message, Holofernes invited Judith for an evening of food, drink - - and his unexpressed hope for sexual activity. “She rose and put on her dress and all her feminine adornments. Her maid preceded her . . . then Judith entered and took her place. The heart of Holofernes was ravished at the sight. He was seized with a violent desire to sleep with her; and indeed since the first day he saw her, he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her.”[3]

“Drink, drink! Holofernes said.”[4]  But it was not Judith who drank herself into a stupor; the General did that. Once again she prayed: “make me strong today, Lord God of Israel.”[5] Apparently her prayer was answered because she took the man’s sword, caught him by his hair and with only two strokes managed to lop off his head. She then summoned her maid and together they stuffed the general’s head into a large food bag in which the pious Judith always carried her own, ritually pure food. The women left the camp and when they got to the city’s gate, called the people together.

“Judith raised her voice and said ‘Praise God! Praise him! (and) she pulled the head out of the bag and held it for them to see. . . Overcome with emotion, the people all fell on their knees and worshipped God.”[6] Then one of the leaders of the commun-ity, Uzziah, composed a song of tribute to her and to the Lord.

“May you be blessed, my daughter,
by God Most High . . .
by whose guidance you cut off the head
of the leader of our enemies,
the trust you have shown
shall not pass from the memories of men
but shall remind them
of the power of God. And all the people answered. ‘Amen! Amen!’ ”[7]

This canticle of praise is called “an inspired song” by a clergyman who includes Judith’s story in a book called “Forerunners of Christ.”[8] He characterizes her as someone “who had the ability to inspire confidence, stir up enthusiasm and promote great causes under God.” He also validates the high esteem in which he holds her by quoting Origen, the early Christian writer who described Judith as “heroic in deed and of all women the most illustrious.”

In the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, scholars present spiritual insights culled from this story. Among them is “the portrayal of God as the one, true, transcendent creator of the universe, who shows mercy to His people and crushes their enemies through the agency of a female.”

Under “Significant Theological Conceptions” the Commentary goes on to put the issue of beheading into proper perspective. “(Judith) models right relationship with God in ways that shatter narrow orthodoxy. It is unconventional (sic) in ancient Israel that a woman chops off a man’s head . . . (nevertheless) the Lord shows mercy to the faithful and crushes their enemies.”[9]

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) isn’t too sure about this and for once raises questions about whether or not the end justifies the use of “dubious or shabby means.” But in spite of this caveat, ISBE goes on to characterize Judith as “a heroine, altogether shining and admirable. She possesses incredible courage and pertinacity; her devotion to ritual Judaism under the most difficult circumstances is extraordinary.”

Like Judith, great beauty is also attributed to Queen Esther. And like her, their stories also have parallels in reports of the bloodbaths that followed the overthrow of their enemies.

After Esther was named the Persian Queen, she became a heroine to her people by following the plot of Haman, one of the King’s advisors, who was intent on persecuting the Jewish people. When Esther revealed to the unsuspecting king that she herself was Jewish and it was her own people who were to be attacked, the king ordered the death of Haman. In his place, the queen’s uncle Mordecai, was made Chief Advisor. And when her solicitous husband asked what more he could do for her, Esther asked that a decree be issued which would give the Jewish people power to enforce orders to “kill and annihilate” their enemies, anywhere in the Kingdom - - including women and children.

Obviously, the king had some sense of proportion because he set limits to the massacre: it was to be allowed only on the “thirteenth day of the month of Adar.” The edict was sent out in advance of this date and “wherever the edict of the king was sent, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with fasting and celebrating. And many people of other nationalities became Jews, out of fear.”[10]

On the thirteenth day of Adar, seventy-five thousand people in the various provinces were slaughtered and 500 more in the capitol city of Susa. At the end of the day, King Ahasuerus reported this statistic to Esther and asked if there was anything else she wanted. The queen did have a request: “let the Jews in Susa do again tomorrow what they were allowed to do today. And also hang the bodies of Haman’s ten sons on the gallows. . . On the fourteenth day of Adar the Jews of Susa got together and killed three hundred more people in the city.”[11]

It was enough. The next day, great celebrations were held; it was “a joyful day of feasting.” The annual festival that celebrates this triumph is called the feast of Purim and Christian commentators also celebrate that Jewish victory. The Evangelical Commentary points out that although “some readers may take offense at the idea of such vengeance.” they shouldn’t be concerned. Rather, they should remember that “vengeance is a root motive behind all justice and is given sanction when carried out for God’s glory.”[12]

A similar massacre is described in the story of Judith. Many people were annihilated after she beheaded General Holofernes. The Hebrews hung the head that Judith had hacked off on the ramparts. And when his troops found the decapitated body lying in his tent, they panicked and retreated in disarray. Uzziah, the leader of the Jewish people, sent work throughout the hill country of Galilee and all the way to Jerusalem, telling how the Assyrians were in desperate retreat and “urging them to hurl themselves on the enemy and annihilate them. As soon as the Israelites heard the news, they fell on them as on man and massacred them all the way to Choba.”[13]  The Israelites returned from the slaughter and for three months the people gave themselves over to rejoicing.

It is understandable that a group or a nation rejoices when it has been spared from destruction. But it is harder to understand how a contemporary religious spokesman can teach that an ancient massacre is “no more that a defensive weapon (that) serves to dramatize that God’s providence directs every factor in the drama (of Judith).” Other comments that it is an inspiring story, teaching the importance of depending on God when threatened by catastrophe.[14]

Another scholar claims that the Book of Judith “serves as a paradigm for human liberation.”  And the ISBE perpetuates the subjective view of antiquity: “Judith was a female savior, a patriot without equal, a Jewess without reproach. Judaism was not the aggressor; any weapons would seem justified.”

Whatever the appraisal of past massacres, no matter the identity of the original aggressor or how entitled to celebrate the victors, there should be an end to this ongoing religious and scholarly validation of such carnage. Instead of glorifying the endless slaughters of antiquity as God-ordained and God-blessed, these spokesmen should celebrate the greatness of a Judeo-Christian heritage that teaches people to turn weapons into plowshares; that warns the population to stop training their children for war; that tells of God’s vision for a world in which no creature is hurt or destroyed.[15]

Christian commentators who continue to celebrate the massacres of antiquity also have the witness of Jesus against violence, as well as that of the prophets. But these teachings are ignored or perverted by those who continue to celebrate the human appetite for violence and revenge by claiming God’s blessing on such mayhem. Jesus warned that although it was inevitable that false teachings would be promulgated, that did not excuse those who taught them. “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin. Such things come, but woe to the man through whom they come.”[16]

Religious educators ought to take that warning seriously.

[1]  Judges 4:17-22 TEV  and chapter 4 of this book

[2]  Judith 9:13, 18 JB

[3]  Judith 12:15-16  JB

[4]  Judith 12:17 JB

[5]  Judith 13:7-8  JB

[6]  Judith 13:17-18  JB

[7]  Judith 13:23-26   JB

[8Forerunners of Christ. Joseph Fichtner. O.S.C, The Bruce Publishing Co., Milwaukee. 1965. p.89

[9]  Jerome Commentary, p. 573

[10] Esther 8:11-13    NIV

[11]  Esther 9:11-13   NIV

[12]  Evangelical Commentary, Walter A. Elwell, edit  p.332

[13]  Judith 15:4-5

[14]  Modern Catholic Dictionary.  John A. Harden, S.J.

[15]  As set forth in the oracles of the Prophet Isaiah

[16]  Matthew 18:7  NIV

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