May have been written not long after the time of the Maccabean revolt against the ruling Seleucid Empire (Greeks--read not followers of the God that Jews recognized). This story of Judith is set much earlier during the Assyrian reign.
If you are better history scholars than I am, you may pick up some historical inaccuracies in the description of the foreign rulers and which empire they ruled. See Amy-Jill Levine’s contribution to Judith in the Oxford Bible Commentary, The Apocrypha.
Nebuchadnezzar sent Holofernes, the chief general of his army, to conquer all the lands to the west (what we think of as Syria and Egypt). He commanded him: Show no mercy to resisters. And for you, obey all my commands, and do it quickly.
The army was made up of 120,000 marching troops, 12,000 archers on horseback, enough animals for food, huge amounts of gold and silver, and more animals to carry all that.
Victory followed victory. Plunder and destruction; execution of all the young men. When they learned of the oncoming threat, the cities on the seacoast that had not yet been attacked surrendered, “Take our land, wheat fields. Take our inhabitants as slaves if you want to.”
Why do we read the Bible? Why do we read history? Should we be troubled by historical inaccuracies in the Bible?
How is our reading of this account differ if we live in a powerful nation or one without means of defense?
The army continued toward Judea. The Israelites were terrified. They had only recently returned from exile and were alarmed at the possibility of having the reconstructed temple destroyed again. Instead of surrender, they prepared for battle.
What would be the modern equivalent of sackcloth?
Israel’s defiance made Holofernes angry, “Who do they think they are? Where do they think that power and strength come from anyway?
One of the generals, Achior, summed up for him the history of the Israelites--prosperity and pain, their continued connection to God, but varying obedience to God’s commands: Their God hates sin so much that if they depart from the way he had prescribed for them, he lets foreign powers defeat them.”
Achior advised, “We need to find out if they commit some sin because that will be the time we will be able to defeat them.”
The army was incensed at the notion that Israel could withstand their power at any time, “Let’s don’t wait for them to make their God mad. We can beat them anyway.”
How do our actions indicate where we think that power and strength come from?
Holofernes had the same attitude, “Who are you to tell us not to attach them because their God will defend them: Nebuchadnezzar is our god, and he’s stronger than theirs.”
He ordered Achior to be taken to one of the Israelite towns, Bethulia, so he could see for himself which army was stronger. When the Israelites heard of Holofernes’ boast of his ability to thwart their God, they prayed to God for protection. And prepared for defense.
The invaders seized their water supply and cut off all approaches to Bethulia. Surrounded all all sides, the Israelites were in despair. They told their ruler Uzziah to surrender, that being slaves was better than being dead. Uzziah refused, “Let’s give God five more days.”
When can the inevitable become evitable?
The woman this book is named after finally makes her appearance in the story. Judith is a widow, religious, beautiful, and rich.
When she heard about Uzziah’s pleas for the five-day wait, she summoned the town officials, “Who are you to put God to the test? Don’t threaten God. Don’t try to bribe God. Ask for God’s help and he will hear if he wants to. In spite of everything, let us give thanks to God.”
Uzziah professed that her words were true, but the people were so thirsty that they couldn’t wait for divine intervention.
Judith said, “I’ll take care of this before the five-day time limit you set expires. Uzziah consented.
How reassuring are Judith’s assurances?
Judith prayed, “O Lord God, you have imposed vengeance before. These Assyrians are proud of their power and wealth and don’t admit that you are the Lord. Show them.
She continued her prayer, “For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope.”
After her prayers, she took off the sackcloth and changed out of her widow clothes into the kind she had worn to go to festivals with her husband. She had her maid pack a bag full of wine and special food. Uzziah consented to her leaving the city.
After traveling for a long distance, Judith and her maid were arrested by an Assyrian patrol. She told that she was fleeing from the upcoming destruction of her city and needed to talk to the commander Holofrenes. They were so struck by her beauty that they agreed to take her. The crowds on the way commented, “Who could despise the Israelites if they have women like these? We had better kill they all otherwise, they’ll take over the whole world.”
Does a fine appearance and words that we agree with affect the creditabilty of someone?
Invited into his tent, Judith told Holofrenes that everyone on earth should be loyal to King Nebuchadnezzar. She also told him that the advice Achior had given about timing the assault was true--that God would not protect the Israelites if they sinned.
She said “They are getting very close to sinning--they are hungry and thirsty enough to consume food and drink that has been consecrated.” She added, “When I heard about this upcoming sin, I decided to come tell you. I’ll lead your army through Judea to Jerusalem where you can set up your throne.
Holofrenes, pleased by her words in addition to her beauty agreed to do what she said. He added, “If your promises come true, your God will be my God, and you will live in the king’s palace.
Achior’s advice got him the death penalty. The same advice from the beautiful, rich woman was persuasive.