Judith: Israel’s Great Heroine

Judith is the great apocryphal heroine of ancient Israel. Like an ancient Joan of Arc, she rises up during her nation’s time of need. She employs her guile, like Odysseus, adorning a misleading costume and she dramatically slays Holofernes, the fearsome general of Assyria, before his army destroys the town of Bethulia near Jerusalem.

“Judith Beheading Holofernes” by Caravaggio 1598-1599

The Book of Judith is exciting and intense! It frames the narrative perfectly – first the evil conquering empire strikes fear into the hearts of the region, and then the time-frame narrows. An army advances while supplies dwindle in Israel. Just when all hope seems lost, a lone woman (Judith -a widow) devises a scheme to outwit the Assyrians. In doing so, the text reaffirms the Homeric Greek supposition, that letters ultimately conquer arms (hence why Odysseus wins the Trojan War by outwitting the Trojans, rather than Achilles or Hector. Odysseus is also one of the few Achaeans to return home after many years away in Troy). At any rate, Judith credits all of her success to God, though curiously God is totally absent from the text. The chief action springs forth exclusively from Judith, herself.

Judith is the feminine form of Judah, meaning something like “praised.” As with certain other Biblical texts, the events are almost entirely anachronistic (i.e. echoes of the book of Esther). Nevertheless, this should not detract from its beauty, as an ancient hero-tale. The dramatic scene of Holofernes’s beheading has been re-captured numerous times in great works of art.

To recount the story:

The Book of Judith begins with a threat from the Assyrian Empire under King Nebuchadnezzar. He issues a declaration of war to all in the surrounding regions, but none take his threat seriously, so he sends out his fearsome general, Holofernes, who decimates major cities, killing many men, enslaving women and children. This strikes fear into the hearts of smaller communities, like Israel. However, they decide to defend their territory at the small mountain pass of Bethulia, an area north of Jerusalem. When Holofernes hears of their defenses, he asks his council about this strange mountain people. His counselor advises Holofernes against attacking the Israelites because of what their God did to the Egyptians, but the counselor is ridiculed by Holofernes. His punishment is to be bound and abandoned near Bethulia.

In the ensuing battle, the Israelites grow despondent, fearing the Lord has forsaken them. Judith does not appear until Chapter 8. She is a widow because her husband had died of a sunstroke during the barley harvest.

Judith prostrates herself and prays to God, then she adorns herself in beautiful clothing, enough to turn the gaze of any man, and she leaves outside the town gate of Bethulia where she is soon intercepted by a group of advancing Assyrian troops. When questioned, Judith claims she is defecting from Israel because Assyria will soon conquer it, and she wants to provide helpful information to Holofernes about the quickest route to conquer Israel. She is brought before Holofernes who becomes entranced with Judith. At a great meal, Holofernes asks Judith to join him. He drinks considerable wine and collapses in his tent, alone with Judith. Once he is no longer a threat, Judith cuts off Holofernes’s head, and she and her maid escape out the tent as if going to pray, but instead they sneak away bringing the head of Holofernes back to Bethulia. The next morning, the Israelites advance on Assyria, and in confusion without their general, the Assyrians scatter and flee, while Israel plunders their tents.

In the end, Judith is praised as a hero in Jerusalem and Israel celebrates with song and dance -Judith sings a song of thanks and praise to God.

As mentioned above, the book of Judith is apocryphal, and therefore it is not a part of most major Biblical canons, however the Catholics include it in the Bible, while the Protestants and Jews believe it to be non-canonical.

For this reading I used an internet-based Project Gutenberg translation.

Thoughts on the Prayer of Manasseh

The Prayer of Manasseh is a fascinating little prayer. Today, it is included among the biblical apocrypha -and sometimes it is included among the Psalms or at the end of Second Chronicles.

It is an imagined prayer of Manasseh, successor king to Hezekiah of ancient Judah, as he makes an apologia in penitence for his sins -praising of other gods. The prayer is divided into fifteen verses, and was likely originally written in Greek many hundreds of years after the life of Manasseh. A separate work of the same title was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in Hebrew, though this work has no relation. Recall that in Second Kings and Second Chronicles, Manasseh is remembered as an idolatrous king of Israel, and he was taken captive by the Assyrians, only to be freed after praying to God, and he was eventually restored to the throne. Only after he fully prostrated himself before God, did Manasseh regain human power. God is conscious of humans becoming drunk on power, lusting for decadence. After all, God despises human power, and perhaps He even finds it challenging to His own divine rule.

Manasseh begins the prayer by axiomatically praising the greatness and power of God. He contrasts God’s power with his own inferiority, and he acknowledges his sinfulness and weakness. However, Manasseh speaks to God from a position of fear and trembling – he begs God to forgive him and not to ‘condemn him to the lower parts of the earth.’ He is afraid of death and suffering. He wants Christian forgiveness, a redemption not offered to the ancient Hebrews, as the God of the Hebrew Bible is complex, though not typically not a forgiving deity. Manasseh is aware that he has committed some sort of divine crime, and he sees his exile as punishment from God rather than the result of his own political failings, but he is not willing to accept divine retribution from God. Like all living things, Manasseh seeks a certain degree of power, and he appeals to God’s pity so that he may rise to be king once again. Note, this appeal to the pity of the gods is wholly different from the spirit of the power-loving, but decadent Greeks.

Jerome included the Prayer of Manasseh at the end of Second Chronicles in his Vulgate (the pre-eminent Latin translation of the Bible), and Martin Luther later included the Prayer in his translation, as well. It appeared in the 1537 Matthew Bible and the 1599 Geneva Bible, and has since appeared in many other Biblical versions around the world, such as the Book of Common Prayer most notably in the Apocrypha of the King James Bible.

The full text of the Prayer is copied below:

“O Lord, Almighty God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of their righteous seed; who hast made heaven and earth, with all the ornament thereof; who hast bound the sea by the word of thy commandment; who hast shut up the deep, and sealed it by thy terrible and glorious name; whom all men fear, and tremble before thy power; for the majesty of thy glory cannot be borne, and thine angry threatening toward sinners is importable: but thy merciful promise is unmeasurable and unsearchable; for thou art the most high Lord, of great compassion, longsuffering, very merciful, and repentest of the evils of men. Thou, O Lord, according to thy great goodness hast promised repentance and forgiveness to them that have sinned against thee: and of thine infinite mercies hast appointed repentance unto sinners, that they may be saved. Thou therefore, O Lord, that art the God of the just, hast not appointed repentance to the just, as to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, which have not sinned against thee; but thou hast appointed repentance unto me that am a sinner: for I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea. My transgressions, O Lord, are multiplied: my transgressions are multiplied, and I am not worthy to behold and see the height of heaven for the multitude of mine iniquities. I am bowed down with many iron bands, that I cannot lift up mine head, neither have any release: for I have provoked thy wrath, and done evil before thee: I did not thy will, neither kept I thy commandments: I have set up abominations, and have multiplied offences. Now therefore I bow the knee of mine heart, beseeching thee of grace. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge mine iniquities: wherefore, I humbly beseech thee, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me, and destroy me not with mine iniquites. Be not angry with me for ever, by reserving evil for me; neither condemn me to the lower parts of the earth. For thou art the God, even the God of them that repent; and in me thou wilt shew all thy goodness: for thou wilt save me, that am unworthy, according to thy great mercy. Therefore I will praise thee for ever all the days of my life: for all the powers of the heavens do praise thee, and thine is the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

For this reading I used an internet-based Project Gutenberg translation.

Haggai: A Plea To Rebuild the Temple

There are four prophecies contained within the two chapters of the book of Haggai (whose named means something akin to “my holiday” though the root word in Hebrew means something like “to make a pilgrimage”). The text is believed to have been written after the Babylonian exile, during the reign of Darius, the Persian emperor, as stated at the outset of the book.

Each of the four prophecies, come from the Lord to Haggai, and in total they are a passionate plea to the people of Israel to stop dragging their feet and rise up to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus, a predecessor to Darius, conquered Babylon and freed the Jews. The Persian support for the Jews to practice their own customs and rebuild the temple was instrumental to Haggai’s efforts. According to the text, why does Haggai want the temple to be rebuilt in the first place? Because God will take “pleasure in it” (1:8) and for the “glory” of Judah (2:9). Otherwise, if the people do not rebuild the temple, a great drought will continue to spread across the land from God.

Haggai bookends his text with a praise of the then-governor of Jerusalem, Zerubbabel. He pays deference to the politics of his age, and thereby cloaks his biases from persecution.

For this reading I used the King James Version.

The Just Shall Live By His Faith: Habakkuk Considered

The book of Habakkuk is told in three short chapters. Habbakuk’s vision is described as a “burden” (per the King James translation) as Habakkuk is a troubled prophet of Israel. All around him he sees destruction and decay. His name likely comes from an early Hebrew word meaning “embrace.”  Unlike other prophets, Habakkuk has the gaul to question God in the text – “how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear!” (1:2). In the following lines, Habakkuk has an unusual exchange with God, wherein God shows Habakkuk how He will raise up the Chaldeans, and he condemns the imperial powers of Mesopotamia, in praise of the ‘just man in faith.’

We imagine Habakkuk as a broken man, crying out to heaven about the failures of Israel’s laws and of the impending violence he foresees for the people. Habakkuk looks around him and he sees a coming collapse of civilization, in a land that is immersed in banality. We are left to guess as to the timeframe of the text – perhaps Habakkuk prophesied the downfall of Assyria. Habakkuk is popularly considered to have been a contemporary of Nahum and Zephaniah.

As a reply to Habakkuk’s cries, God raises up the “bitter and hasty” nation of the Chaldeans (1:6) and He instructs Habakkuk to “write the vision” (2:2) that is revealed. Then, in the most significant section of the text, God says: “…the just shall live by his faith” (2:4). What does this mean? It is a quote that will later be addressed by Paul in his Epistles, and it foreshadows a new, existential religious ontology, whose primary objective is faith.

In the text, the “soul” of the enemies of Israel (perhaps Assyria or Babylon) are contrasted with the “just,” implying that the people of Israel must live independently and privately in faith, regardless of the evils of the world. To borrow from Augustine, the just man contains within himself the keys to the “city of God.” One must give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give unto God what belongs to God – and thus modern man becomes a kind of duality between political man and faithful man. Those who are just (sometimes translated as “righteous”) do not care for the dealings of the evil empires, but at the same time they are not revolutionaries. They dwell upon their faith in private. The new testament cites this quote at least three times in Paul’s Epistles, as the Christian reorientation from Judaism changes to a theology of faith alone. No longer will there be a particular ‘chosen people’ by God. Instead, the people of God need only to have faith and hope in God’s judgment; which is universally offered to all people.

Chapter Three of Habakkuk is unusual, as it is a song of prayer in praise of the power of God. It is notably absent from the recovered texts at Qumran, unattached to the first two chapters, but nevertheless is a beautiful poem of hope.

For this reading I used the King James Version.