The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

22 February. Judith chapters 14-16

These final chapters following the murder of Holofernes recount how the Jews took their revenge on the Assyrians, and then celebrated their victory.  It is notable that Judith, clever strategist that she was, warned her own soldiers against engaging the enemy in combat, as she judged correctly that the panic ensuing from discovering their commander’s headless body would be enough to send them running.  So without any fighting, the Assyrians were defeated.

The victory song attributed to Judith, like several others in the Old Testament, combines celebration of human achievement with praise for God’s power and protection.  If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it is that both faith in God, and willingness to take risks in his service, are needed to achieve great things.   If the Jews had trusted in conventional military power they would have been overwhelmed by the Assyrians.  If they had merely prayed to God in their distress at being besieged, but done nothing, would he have saved them by a miracle?   But the combination of the people’s faith in God, their willingness to listen to a woman with gifts of prophecy and leadership, and her boldness and cunning, was enough for the victory to be achieved.

As I wrote at the start, Judith is almost certainly a fictional character.   But her story can still inspire us to faith and action.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 21 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

21 February. Judith chapters 11-13

The scene has been set, the characters introduced: now comes the climax.  Judith, as I noted in yesterday’s post, brought together various skills including those of orator and spy.  She uses both those skill sets as she weaves a just-about plausible tale to her antagonist Holofernes.  She acknowledges that, as their own prophet Achior had said, God would not let the Jews be defeated – unless they had sinned against him.   She then claims that in the dire straits of the siege they would seek permission from authorities in Jerusalem to eat non-kosher food and the firstfruits that had been dedicated to God; and that furthermore as a prophet she would know when sin had been committed, at which time she would guide his forces to their God-given victory.

Holofernes could have thought carefully and realised the trap – the story has holes in it for a start, such as how would the besieged people of Bethulia be able to get a message to Jerusalem?  And anyone coming from the enemy claiming to be a turncoat willing to help one’s own side should be regarded with great suspicion.  But he was besotted with Judith’s beauty and fell into a trap of his own making, perhaps believing that a beautiful woman could not be a danger to him.  As Shakespeare put it in one of his poems, “Is she kind as she is fair? For beauty lives with kindness”.

When Holofernes calls her to a banquet, she knows the time has come to put her plan into action.  Wisely having already said she could only eat her own food (presumably for religious reasons, but perhaps also to avoid the risk of being poisoned), she also (I presume) drinks in moderation while letting Holofernes get drunk.  As Shakespeare also wrote, wine “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”, and the lustful but drunken Holofernes  falls into a sleep.  Left alone with him, and perhaps inspired by the Old Testament character Jael who drove a tent-peg through the head of an enemy commander, Judith uses his own sword to bring about his destruction, then bringing home his head as a trophy and proof of her action.

Is Judith a true heroine or a flawed one, since she lied in order to gain a place in Holofernes’ affection?  Opinions may differ, and of course the story is probably not historical, but there may be times when “white lies” are the lesser of two evils, the greater evil in this case being the inevitable death of her people when their food and water ran out.


The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 February.

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

20 February. Judith chapters 8-10

These chapters introduce the main protagonist in the story, and show us various different aspects of her complex character.  In chapter 8, Judith is shown as a widow who has been mourning her late husband for several years: a pitiable figure, though she had been left riches.  When the siege reaches crisis point, though, she comes out of her shell and takes part in the discussions.

In ‘democratic’ Britain it is only in the last few decades that we have had elected women leaders (though of course we have had a hereditary Queen for more than half of the last two hundred years). Before that, misogyny ruled. But the Bible, written so long ago, shows us that women can be born leaders.  Judith is not the only example – Miriam and Deborah (and as we shall see, also Jael) would have been her inspiration.  In the presence of the male elders, Judith comes across as a good orator and a courageous leader: the Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel of her day, if you like (without comment on their policies).  Except that unlike them, she was also beautiful, which was an extra string to her bow in what she was planning.

In chapter 9, Judith is seen as a holy woman, willing to cast aside any privilege and pride and humble herself before God.  Her prayer is in the Hebrew tradition of praising God for his mighty acts of the past, before petitioning him for present needs, although she starts with reference to some recent incident when the enemy’s use of rape as a tactic of war resulted in God (through the men of her tribe, presumably) taking vengeance on them.  At the core of her prayer is a statement of dependence on God which has echoes of Mary’s Magnificat: “Your strength does not lie in numbers, nor your might in violent men: since you are the God of the humble, the help of the oppressed, the support of the  weak, the refuge of the forsaken, the saviour of the despairing” (9:11).

Then in chapter 10, she becomes the Mata Hari figure, the glamorous double-agent who charms her way into the enemy camp as a friend while actually being a spy.  So this complex woman – widow, orator, politician, intercessor, beauty and spy – takes her place ready to let God work through her.

Each of us will have been given a different mix of gifts by God, but not all of them may seem to be used all the time. There might only be one time in our lives when all that we are will come together to achieve something for him that no-one else could.  But as Judith acknowledges in her prayer, all we can do is make ourselves available to be used.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 19 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

19 February. Judith chapters 5-7

In these chapters we see different approaches to warfare.  Holofernes the Assyrian general believes in sheer weight of numbers: he trusts in his 120,000 men to overcome the Israelites in battle as he has the other subject peoples of the empire.  The Moabites however (relatively near neighbours of Israel, and their historic enemies) have a more practical suggestion which involved far fewer troops: lay siege to the hilltop towns by cutting off access to food and water.  It’s a strategy that many military commanders have used in the course of history, and Holofernes takes their advice.  By the end of chapter 7 things are looking desperate for the Israelites in Bethulia as their water has virtually run out.

There is another perspective, though: Achior, “leader of the Ammonites” (another ancient enemy of Israel) knows the history of Israel and how God has repeatedly delivered them.  He bravely tells Holofernes that not all the troops and horses in the world will help, unless God has chosen to let his people be defeated on this occasion.  Not surprisingly the pagan  Holofernes, who is willing to worship his own emperor as a god, rejects such advice.  But he gives Achior a chance by having him handed over to the Israelites, saying that he will meet his fate with them.  When he explains to the men of Bethulia what has happened, he is welcomed as an honoured guest.   Achior, then, represents the “god-fearers” who are found throughout Scripture, those who are not Jews by descent nor converts through circumcision, but who believe and trust in the one God.

These three approaches to human conflict are universal, and pretty much cover every situation: trust in human strength, or in human cunning, or in God’s will.  That’s not to say that strength and cunning never have their place, but unless they are offered as subservient to God’s will, they will not be enough on their own.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 18 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

18 February. Judith chapters 1-4

The first chapters of the story of Holofernes and Judith are scene-setting.  The context is of the approach of a vast army of Assyrians, who have already conquered all the territories north of Judea, and now threaten Judea itself.  In this, the 8th year (I think) of the war in Syria between the forces of Assad (supported by Russia) and those of Daesh and other groups, we know all too well what all-out war in the Near East looks like.  The weapons may have changed, but the attitudes of fighting men and terrified civilians have not.

Footnotes to the Jerusalem Bible that I am using make it clear that although Nebuchadnezzar is a real historical character, the story is wildly out with its timing and historical accuracy. Nebuchadnezzar was not “king of Assyria” but of Babylon; the 18th year of his reign, which in this story is dated as after the return of the Jews from exile, was in fact before the exile; and there is no evidence outside this apocryphal book of the Bible that he ever commanded people to worship him as a god (although other eastern rulers sometimes did).  So as with Tobit, this story should be regarded as a pseudo-historical novel.

The contrast is presented, then, between General Holofernes who will carry out his king’s orders to destroy whole cities, civilisations and religions without compassion, and the people of Judea who call on their God to save them from the enemy.  God had saved them from enemies before (but not always) – will he save them this time?