The Book of Judith has an extraordinary teaching about what God is and is not (Judith 8:12-17).
It says that God is not a human being to be bargained with or put to the test. Nor can we ever hope to understand God’s mind. If we do not know what the person beside us is thinking, even if it is someone we love, how can we expect to know what is in God’s mind?
King Nebuchadnezzar takes revenge
Judith 1:1, 7-9, 11-12
1 In the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh, in the days of Arphaxad, who ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana —
‘Judith’, stained glass window, Diane Goodpasture
7 Then Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians sent to all who lived in Persia and to all who lived in the west, those who lived in Cilicia and Damascus and Lebanon and Antilebanon and all who lived along the seacoast, 8 and those among the nations of Carmel and Gilead, and Upper Galilee and the great Plain of Esdraelon, 9 and all who were in Samaria and its surrounding towns, and beyond the Jordan as far as Jerusalem and Bethany and Chelous and Kadesh and the river of Egypt, and Tahpanhes and Raamses and the whole land of Goshen,
11 But all who lived in the whole region disregarded the orders of Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians, and refused to join him in the war; for they were not afraid of him, but looked upon him as only one man, and they sent back his messengers empty-handed and shamefaced. 12 Then Nebuchadnezzar was very angry with this whole region, and swore by his throne and kingdom that he would surely take revenge on the whole territory of Cilicia and Damascus and Syria, that he would kill them by the sword, and also all the inhabitants of the land of Moab, and the people of Ammon, and all Judea, and every one in Egypt, as far as the coasts of the two seas.
‘Thus saith the Great King..’
Judith 2:4-9, 14-16
4 When he had finished setting forth his plan, Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians called Holofernes, the chief general of his army, second only to himself, and said to him, 5 “Thus says the Great King, the lord of the whole earth: When you leave my presence, take with you men confident in their strength, to the number of one hundred and twenty thousand foot soldiers and twelve thousand cavalry. 6 Go and attack the whole west country, because they disobeyed my orders. 7 Tell them to prepare earth and water, for I am coming against them in my anger, and will cover the whole face of the earth with the feet of my armies, and will hand them over to be plundered by my troops, 8 till their wounded shall fill their valleys, and every brook and river shall be filled with their dead, and overflow; 9 and I will lead them away captive to the ends of the whole earth.
14 So Holofernes left the presence of his master, and called together all the commanders, generals, and officers of the Assyrian army, 15 and mustered the picked troops by divisions as his lord had ordered him to do, one hundred and twenty thousand of them, together with twelve thousand archers on horseback, 16 and he organized them as a great army is marshaled for a campaign.
Judea is defiant
1 By this time the people of Israel living in Judea heard of everything that Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar the king of the Assyrians, had done to the nations, and how he had plundered and destroyed all their temples; 2 they were therefore very greatly terrified at his approach, and were alarmed both for Jerusalem and for the temple of the Lord their God.
19 The people of Israel cried out to the Lord their God, for their courage failed, because all their enemies had surrounded them and there was no way of escape from them.
20 The whole Assyrian army, their infantry, chariots, and cavalry, surrounded them for thirty-four days, until all the vessels of water belonging to every inhabitant of Bethulia were empty; 21 their cisterns were going dry, and they did not have enough water to drink their fill for a single day, because it was measured out to them to drink. 22 Their children lost heart, and the women and young men fainted from thirst and fell down in the streets of the city and in the passages through the gates; there was no strength left in them any longer.
Enter Judith, heroic Jewish widow
Judith 8:1-2, 7-8, 9-17, 32-35
1 At that time Judith heard about these things: she was the daughter of Merari the son of Ox, son of Joseph, son of Oziel, son of Elkiah, son of Ananias, son of Gideon, son of Raphaim, son of Ahitub, son of Elijah, son of Hilkiah, son of Eliab, son of Nathanael, son of Salamiel, son of Sarasadai, son of Israel. 2 Her husband Manasseh, who belonged to her tribe and family, had died during the barley harvest.
Judith and Holofernes, Galizia, detail of the painting
7 She was beautiful in appearance, and had a very lovely face; and her husband Manasseh had left her gold and silver, and men and women slaves, and cattle, and fields; and she maintained this estate. 8 No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion.
9 When Judith heard the wicked words spoken by the people against the ruler, because they were faint for lack of water, and when she heard all that Uzziah said to them, and how he promised them under oath to surrender the city to the Assyrians after five days, 10 she sent her maid, who was in charge of all she possessed, to summon Chabris and Charmis, the elders of her city. 11 They came to her, and she said to them, “Listen to me, rulers of the people of Bethulia! What you have said to the people today is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the city to our enemies unless the Lord turns and helps us within so many days. 12 Who are you, that have put God to the test this day, and are setting yourselves up in the place of God among the sons of men? 13 You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test — but you will never know anything! 14 You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart, nor find out what a man is thinking; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought? No, my brethren, do not provoke the Lord our God to anger. 15 For if he does not choose to help us within these five days, he has power to protect us within any time he pleases, or even to destroy us in the presence of our enemies. 16 Do not try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God; for God is not like man, to be threatened, nor like a human being, to be won over by pleading. 17 Therefore, while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him.
32 Judith said to them, “Listen to me. I am about to do a thing which will go down through all generations of our descendants. 33 Stand at the city gate tonight, and I will go out with my maid; and within the days after which you have promised to surrender the city to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand. 34 Only, do not try to find out what I plan; for I will not tell you until I have finished what I am about to do.” 35 Uzziah and the rulers said to her, “Go in peace, and may the Lord God go before you, to take revenge upon our enemies.”
The Prayer of Judith
Judith 9:1, 7-10
1 Then Judith fell upon her face, and put ashes on her head, and uncovered the sackcloth she was wearing; and at the very time when that evening’s incense was being offered in the house of God in Jerusalem, Judith cried out to the Lord with a loud voice
7 “Behold now, the Assyrians are increased in their might; they are exalted, with their horses and riders; they glory in the strength of their foot soldiers; they trust in shield and spear, in bow and sling, and know not that thou art the Lord who crushest wars; the Lord is thy name. 8 Break their strength by thy might, and bring down their power in thy anger; for they intend to defile thy sanctuary, and to pollute the tabernacle where thy glorious name rests, and to cast down the horn of thy altar with the sword. 9 Behold their pride, and send thy wrath upon their heads; give to me, a widow, the strength to do what I plan. 10 By the deceit of my lips strike down the slave with the prince and the prince with his servant; crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman.
Judith prepares for the worst
Judith 10:1-4, 6, 11-13, 20-23
1 When Judith had ceased crying out to the God of Israel, and had ended all these words, 2 she rose from where she lay prostrate and called her maid and went down into the house where she lived on sabbaths and on her feast days;
Jewelry excavated at the women’s quarters in Nimrud
3 and she removed the sackcloth which she had been wearing, and took off her widow’s garments, and bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment, and combed her hair and put on a tiara, and arrayed herself in her gayest apparel, which she used to wear while her husband Manasseh was living. 4 And she put sandals on her feet, and put on her anklets and bracelets and rings, and her earrings and all her ornaments, and made herself very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all men who might see her.
6 Then they went out to the city gate of Bethulia, and found Uzziah standing there with the elders of the city, Chabris and Charmis.
Detail from Caravaggio’s ‘Judith and Holofernes’
11 The women went straight on through the valley; and an Assyrian patrol met her 12 and took her into custody, and asked her, “To what people do you belong, and where are you coming from, and where are you going?” She replied, “I am a daughter of the Hebrews, but I am fleeing from them, for they are about to be handed over to you to be devoured. 13 I am on my way to the presence of Holofernes the commander of your army, to give him a true report; and I will show him a way by which he can go and capture all the hill country without losing one of his men, captured or slain.”
20 Then Holofernes’ companions and all his servants came out and led her into the tent. 21 Holofernes was resting on his bed, under a canopy which was woven with purple and gold and emeralds and precious stones. 22 When they told him of her he came forward to the front of the tent, with silver lamps carried before him. 23 And when Judith came into the presence of Holofernes and his servants, they all marveled at the beauty of her face; and she prostrated herself and made obeisance to him, and his slaves raised her up.
20 Her words pleased Holofernes and all his servants, and they marveled at her wisdom and said, 21 “There is not such a woman from one end of the earth to the other, either for beauty of face or wisdom of speech!” 22 And Holofernes said to her, “God has done well to send you before the people, to lend strength to our hands and to bring destruction upon those who have slighted my lord. 23 You are not only beautiful in appearance, but wise in speech; and if you do as you have said, your God shall be my God, and you shall live in the house of King Nebuchadnezzar and be renowned throughout the whole world.”
Judith at Holofernes’ Banquet
10 On the fourth day Holofernes held a banquet for his slave only, and did not invite any of his officers. 11 And he said to Bagoas, the eunuch who had charge of his personal affairs, “Go now and persuade the Hebrew woman who is in your care to join us and eat and drink with us. 12 For it will be a disgrace if we let such a woman go without enjoying her company, for if we do not embrace her she will laugh at us.” 13 So Bagoas went out from the presence of Holofernes, and approached her and said, “This beautiful maidservant will please come to my lord and be honored in his presence, and drink wine and be merry with us, and become today like one of the daughters of the Assyrians who serve in the house of Nebuchadnezzar.” 14 And Judith said, “Who am I, to refuse my lord? Surely whatever pleases him I will do at once, and it will be a joy to me until the day of my death!” 15 So she got up and arrayed herself in all her woman’s finery, and her maid went and spread on the ground for her before Holofernes the soft fleeces which she had received from Bagoas for her daily use, so that she might recline on them when she ate. 16 Then Judith came in and lay down, and Holofernes’ heart was ravished with her and he was moved with great desire to possess her; for he had been waiting for an opportunity to deceive her, ever since the day he first saw her. 17 So Holofernes said to her. “Drink now, and be merry with us!” 18 Judith said, “I will drink now, my lord, because my life means more to me today than in all the days since I was born.” 19 Then she took and ate and drank before him what her maid had prepared. 20 And Holofernes was greatly pleased with her, and drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born.
Judith Hacks Off Holofernes’ Head
1 When evening came, his slaves quickly withdrew, and Bagoas closed the tent from outside and shut out the attendants from his master’s presence; and they went to bed, for they all were weary because the banquet had lasted long. 2 So Judith was left alone in the tent , with Holofernes stretched out on his bed, for he was overcome with wine. 3 Now Judith had told her maid to stand outside the bedchamber and to wait for her to come out, as she did every day; for she said she would be going out for her prayers. And she had said the same thing to Bagoas. 4 So every one went out, and no one, either small or great, was left in the bedchamber. Then Judith, standing beside his bed, said in her heart, “O Lord God of all might, look in this hour upon the work of my hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem. 5 For now is the time to help thy inheritance, and to carry out my undertaking for the destruction of the enemies who have risen up against us.”
6 She went up to the post at the end of the bed, above Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that hung there. 7 She came close to his bed and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, “Give me strength this day, O Lord God of Israel!” 8 And she struck his neck twice with all her might, and severed it from his body. 9 Then she tumbled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts; after a moment she went out, and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, 10 who placed it in her food bag. Then the two of them went out together, as they were accustomed to go for prayer; and they passed through the camp and circled around the valley and went up the mountain to Bethulia and came to its gates.
A Grisly Head Hangs From The Wall
Reconstruction of ancient city walls
11 As soon as it was dawn they hung the head of Holofernes on the wall, and every man took his weapons, and they went out in companies to the passes in the mountains. 12 And when the Assyrians saw them they sent word to their commanders, and they went to the generals and the captains and to all their officers. 13 So they came to Holofernes’ tent and said to the steward in charge of all his personal affairs, “Wake up our lord, for the slaves have been so bold as to come down against us to give battle, in order to be destroyed completely.” 14 So Bagoas went in and knocked at the door of the tent, for he supposed that he was sleeping with Judith. 15 But when no one answered, he opened it and went into the bedchamber and found him thrown down on the platform dead, with his head cut off and missing. 16 And he cried out with a loud voice and wept and groaned and shouted, and rent his garments. 17 Then he went to the tent where Judith had stayed, and when he did not find her he rushed out to the people and shouted, 18 “The slaves have tricked us! One Hebrew woman has brought disgrace upon the house of King Nebuchadnezzar! For look, here is Holofernes lying on the ground, and his head is not on him!” 19 When the leaders of the Assyrian army heard this, they rent their tunics and were greatly dismayed, and their loud cries and shouts arose in the midst of the camp.
1 When the men in the tents heard it, they were amazed at what had happened. 2 Fear and trembling came over them, so that they did not wait for one another, but with one impulse all rushed out and fled by every path across the plain and through the hill country. 3 Those who had camped in the hills around Bethulia also took to flight. Then the men of Israel, every one that was a soldier, rushed out upon them.
The Happy Ending
21 After this every one returned home to his own inheritance, and Judith went to Bethulia, and remained on her estate, and was honored in her time throughout the whole country. 22 Many desired to marry her, but she remained a widow all the days of her life after Manasseh her husband died and was gathered to his people. 23 She became more and more famous, and grew old in her husband’s house, until she was one hundred and five years old. She set her maid free. She died in Bethulia, and they buried her in the cave of her husband Manasseh, 24 and the house of Israel mourned for her seven days. Before she died she distributed her property to all those who were next of kin to her husband Manasseh, and to her own nearest kindred. 25 And no one ever again spread terror among the people of Israel in the days of Judith, or for a long time after her death.