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.