1) When the
Israelites who lived in Judea heard of all that Holofernes, the ranking general
of Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians, had done to the nations, and how he
had looted all their shrines and
utterly destroyed them, 2) they were in
very great fear of him, and greatly alarmed for Jerusalem and the temple of the
Lord, their God.
“King of the Assyrians” here merely means “King of the Bad Guys”. The word “Shrines” can mean a holy place
(whether a building or location) or holy things, or a combination.
3) Now, they had only recently returned
from exile, and all the people of Judea were just now reunited, and the
vessels, the altar, and the temple had been purified from profanation.
COMMENTARY: This conflates two different events,
twenty-three years apart. But what’s
twenty-three years on the scale of Biblical times?
they sent word to the whole region of Samaria, to Kona, Beth-horon, Belmain,
and Jericho, to Choba and Aesora, and to the valley of Salem. 5)The people there
secured all the high hilltops, fortified the villages on them, and since their
fields had recently been harvested, stored up provisions in preparation for
COMMENTARY: Holofernes’ cruelty has made his job much
harder than necessary, leaving his enemies no reason not to fight. (This
is why most of the police dislike "three strikes" laws. Leaving
criminals feeling that they have nothing to lose by going out guns
a-blazing makes already tricky situations far more dangerous.)
And it couldn’t have come at a worse moment
for him, right when people have just finished the harvest, leaving them most
ready to withstand sieges. Sun Tzu’s
military classic, “The Art of War”, declares that sieges are one of the biggest
wastes of time, resources, and lives that a general can stumble into, and
should be avoided at all costs.
Joakim, who was high priest in Jerusalem in those days, wrote to the inhabitants
of Bethulia and Betomesthaim, which is opposite Esdraelon, facing the plain
COMMENTARY: In those days the High Priest was not only a
cleric but also an officer, charged with managing the protection of his
Bethulia might have been Bethel, and possibly means “House of God” or “House of
the Ascent”. Nobody today really has a
clue as to Betomesthaim, but there’s tons of ruins that archaeologists have not
yet had the funding to explore, especially in the Middle East. In all of the currently known ancient
manuscripts that we have, only Judith mentions either of these.
7) and instructed them to keep firm hold
of the mountain passes, since these offered access to Judea. It would be easy
to stop those advancing, as the approach was only wide enough for two at a
Standard practice for an outnumbered army is to try and maneuver the
enemy into fighting through a narrow passage, where you can take on a few at a
time instead of the whole force at once, which could otherwise quickly surround
you. Presumably Joakim meant that the
only approach left would be this narrow passage, once their forces held all of
the main passes.
There’s just one problem. Nobody in modern times has yet found this
doesn’t rule out its
existence; over the millennia so narrow a space could easily have
with rock slides or flash-flood silt, or closed in a flash from an
earthquake. After all, in those days Tyre was an island in
the Mediterranean, and today it stands quite a ways inland, yet has not
8) The Israelites carried out the orders
given them by Joakim, the high priest, and the senate of the whole people of
Israel, in session in Jerusalem.
COMMENTARY: Joakim went through proper channels before
giving his orders.
9) All the men of Israel cried to God with great fervor
and humbled themselves.
Humility is not much prized as a virtue today. I have heard the Mass called “poisoned” by
that point in which we ask for forgiveness of any sins we might have committed,
to clear them out of the way of our celebration. And it is true that some churches have gone
overboard to the point of degrading the very concept of humanity, to an extent
that seems to me would better please the devil than the God who made us.
think it’s healthy to admit that we’re not perfect, deal with it, and get on
with our lives. Pride, the opposite of
humility, is not the same thing as self-respect. Pride swells up like a blister, based on
injury, hollow, oversensitive, irritable and capable of violence to defend
itself. Self-respect builds up like
muscle, based on hard work, solid all the way through, strong, healthy,
confident, and capable of protecting others, needing no defense of itself.
a lot about narcissism these days. Its
sufferers live in agony, terrified of
anyone learning, including the afflicted themselves, that they are not and can
never be perfect. A great many evils
spring from trying to keep what they fear is the most dreadful of secrets. No one should have to live that way.
10) They, along with their wives, and
children, and domestic animals, every resident alien, hired worker, and
purchased slave, girded themselves with sackcloth.
COMMENTARY: Sackcloth is burlap. (I don’t know why Bible translations don’t
say what they mean.) It’s the cheapest
cloth you can weave from leftover reject linen fibers, used for commercial
point of this is that in those days, even more than today, you showed off your
status by what you wore. The more
hierarchical societies even had sumptuary laws saying that the “lower” classes
weren’t allowed to wear the same clothes as the “higher” classes.
burlap, therefore, meant putting aside your ego. Before God you claim no status. You let go of your pretentions and come to
God as a subject.
all the Israelite men, women, and children who lived in Jerusalem fell
prostrate in front of the temple and sprinkled ashes on their heads,
spreading out their sackcloth before the Lord.
COMMENTARY: To prostrate oneself means to surrender, to
put oneself in a vulnerable position before one stronger, with trust that the
other will not abuse the authority that you’re acknowledging. Canines do this, rolling onto their backs and
exposing their unprotected bellies to their Alpha.
for the ashes, that symbolizes several things.
One is a reference to Genesis, where God made humanity from what could
variously be translated as dust, ash, or slime
(Interestingly, the very first life-form on earth was slime mold, which
started the whole evolutionary ball rolling.)
To wear ashes says, “I know that you made me out of humble material, and
to this humble material I will return one day, when I die.
meaning is that, as we have discussed before, many Jews believed then and
believe today that after they die remorse will burn up anything of them that is
not worthy of heaven; if one is too wicked, there will be nothing left but ash,
but if one is basically okay, the worst part will be ash and the better part
will go on to join their ancestors in paradise.
So the ash symbolizes willingness to undergo whatever purification it
takes to win favor in God’s eyes.
12)The altar, too, they draped in sackcloth; and with one accord they cried out fervently to the
God of Israel not to allow their children to be seized, their wives to be taken
captive, the cities of their inheritance to be ruined, or the sanctuary to be
profaned and mocked for the nations to gloat over.
COMMENTARY: It is highly unusual to drape the altar in
sackcloth, too. This means humility even
in one’s practice of religion, that we human beings are as imperfect in our
sacred rites and understanding of God’s will as in anything else. I think we could use a lot more of that
And this follows up with
the stakes that they face. Notice that
the warriors don’t fear falling in battle (most ways of dying were far worse)
but what would happen after their deaths to those who remained behind.
13) The Lord heard their cry and saw their distress. The people continued fasting
for many days throughout Judea and before the sanctuary of the Lord Almighty in
Jerusalem. 14) Also girded with
sackcloth, Joakim, the high priest, and all the priests in attendance before
the Lord, and those who ministered to the Lord offered the daily burnt
offering, the votive offerings, and the voluntary offerings of the people. 15) With ashes upon their turbans, they
cried to the Lord with all their strength to look with favor on the whole house
As you will see, God will respond not through a miracle or some
cataclysmic event, but through inspiring someone who wouldn’t have occurred to
any of them as the vehicle of their salvation.
And the nation's humbling of itself will prepare Israel to accept help from