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Judith

Author: Unknown

Date Written: c. 150 BC

 

Judith is often characterized as an early historical novel.  Yet ironically, its content is unhistorical.  The book begins by telling us that Nebuchadnezzer was the king of Assyria ruling in Ninevah.  But Ninevah was destroyed seven years before Nebuchadnezzer became king.  And he was king of Babylon, not Assyria.  It would be similar to an author beginning a book, "In 1776, when Abraham Lincoln was the president of Canada..."  The author of Judith clues us in that he is not telling a typical story.  While the story is replete with proper names of places and people, many of them are not placed "correctly" and many of them are unknown from other sources.

 

The book of Judith is not trying to narrate an historical event nor is it presenting a regular historical novel with fictional characters in a "real" setting.  Rather, Judith is iconic of all of Israel's struggles against surrounding nations.  By the time of its writing, Israel had been dominated by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks.  The name "Judith" means "Jewess."  The character of Judith is therefore representative of the whole nation of Israel.  In an almost constant battle against the surrounding nations, the Israelites depended on the Lord for their survival and sustenance.  Judith represents the best hopes and intentions of the Israelites-the vanquishing of the oppressors and the freedom of the land of Israel.

 

The general Holofernes, whom Judith assassinates, represents the worst of the oppressors.  He is bringing 182,000 troops against a small city in a corner of Israel to force them to worship the head of foreign oppression: Nebuchadnezzer.  The city is terribly outmatched, but Holofernes opts for a siege rather than a battle.  When the people are at the point of despair because they have run out of water, Judith volunteers to try an unusual tactic.  She leaves the city with her maid and gets close to Holofernes because of her beauty.  She uses a series of tricks and half-truths to find Holofernes drunk and vulnerable.  Then she beheads him with his own sword!

 

It is crucial to see the irony of the story and of Judith's words.  For example, the Ammonite Achior who Holofernes rejected was supposed to share the cruel fate of the Israelites at the hand of the Assyrians, but he is saved with the Israelites instead (6:5-9).  Judith uses the phrase "my lord" (Adonai in Heb.) several times, but it is unclear whether she is referring to Holofernes or to God.  The great nation is defeated by a humble woman.  The story is similar to the famous David and Goliath episode.  The reader should look for ironic moments where a character's intentions or statements are fulfilled, but in the way that he or she would least expect.

 

The book of Judith is divided into basically two sections, ch. 1-7 and 8-16.  The first seven chapters lay out the "historical" background and describe the political situation which led to Holofernes attack on Israel.  It is important to understand that the events are not historical, but they are full of details that one finds in a good novel.  Achior plays a key role by narrating Israel's history and firmly believing in God's protection of his people (5).  He eventually converts to Judaism after the Assyrians are defeated (14:10).  The second half of the book (8-16) focuses on Judith herself and her heroic acts.  Once the Assyrians discover Holofernes decapitated body, they flee in confusion and the Israelites rout them.  Ch. 16 contains a hymn about Judith's deeds.  Like Tobit, Judith is a deuterocanonical book.

 

Judith is a book of the Bible that is meant to be enjoyed.   By enjoying the story and the Lord's victory over the great nations through Judith, we can appreciate the paradoxical way God chooses to work on earth, using the weak to conquer the strong, the poor to outdo the rich.

 

By Mark Giszczak

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