our exploration of the Deuterocanonical texts with Judith 2:
1) In the eighteenth
year, on the twenty-second day of
the first month, there was a discussion in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, king
of the Assyrians, about taking revenge on all the land, as he
This is the year when, according to Babylonian records, Nebuchadnezzar
2) He summoned all
his attendants and officers, laid before them his secret plan, and with his own
lips recounted in full detail the wickedness of all the land. 3) They decided to destroy all who had refused to obey
the order he had issued.
COMMENTARY: The Bible considers oathbreaking wicked,
whether made to one of one’s own faith, race or nationality or any other. This contrasts strongly with policies where governments
in the Americas—to this day—decide at will that treaties with the indigenous
people don’t count.
When he had fully recounted his plan, Nebuchadnezzar,
king of the Assyrians, summoned Holofernes, the ranking general of his forces, second only to himself in command, and
said to him:
COMMENTARY: Holofernes (who matters quite a bit in this story) bears here a Persian name. But that
and other Persian names do crop up in the records of a later Chaldean King.
says the great king, the lord of all the earth: Go forth from my presence, take
with you men of proven valor, one hundred and twenty thousand infantry and
twelve thousand cavalry, 6) and
proceed against all the land of the west, because they disobeyed the order I
Nebuchadnezzar epitomized hubris, as his self-proclaimed titles
show. If one looks symbolically at his
later madness (historic or literary, who can now say?) it makes sense that one
with such an extreme inflation of ego would crave to rebalance himself by
becoming, for a time, a non-predatory animal.
7) Tell them to have earth and water ready, for I will come against them in my wrath; I
will cover all the land with the feet of my soldiers, to whom I will deliver
them as spoils.
those days one signaled surrender to conquest by symbolically handing over some
dirt and some water, to represent all of the land and the bodies of water in
8) Their wounded will fill their ravines
and wadies, the swelling river will be choked with their dead;
most graphic threat! And worse even than
it sounds. The wounded who tumbled down
into ravines and wadis could not easily be rescued again, and if there were too
many, they would have to die slow deaths of neglect. And rivers choked with the dead become unfit
to drink, causing great hardship and death to noncombatants as well. Nebuchadnezzar was not known for his mercy.
and I will deport them as
exiles to the very ends of the earth.
COMMENTARY: A significant threat to exiles reading this
many years later. This tells them how it
came about for Judea, after the fall of Israel.
“Go before me and take possession of all their
territories for me. If they surrender to you, guard them for me until the day
of their sentencing. 11) As for those who disobey, show them no mercy, but deliver
them up to slaughter and plunder in all the land you occupy.
Surrender would mean only the execution of the leaders who had defied
Nebuchadnezzar. Kings had to ponder
whether they would certainly die, but save their people’s lives, or gamble at a
chance of survival, with the massacre of their charges at stake, and very bad
12) For as I live, and by the strength of my kingdom, what I have spoken I will
accomplish by my own hand.
COMMENTARY: Customarily, people swore by their deities
this way. “As The Lord Our God lives,” “As
Baal lives,” etc. and they would attribute their victories to the hand of their
deities. Nebuchadnezzar swearing by his
own life and insisting that all he accomplished was by his own hand, showed
hubris to the point of blasphemy in any nation of the region.
13) Do not disobey a
single one of the orders of your lord; fulfill them exactly as I have commanded
you, and do it without delay.”
the surface this sounds like an admonition not to even think about
mercy to those who resist. But as it turns out, Holofernes
was more likely to err in the opposite direction.
14) So Holofernes left the presence of his lord, and
summoned all the commanders, generals, and officers of the Assyrian forces. 15) He mustered one hundred and twenty
thousand picked troops, as his lord had commanded, and twelve thousand mounted
archers, 16) and drew them up
as a vast force organized for battle.
While these numbers probably have symbolic meaning unknown to me, the
overall message is that this guy can field a lot more soldiers than anybody
else. This does not bode well for his
17) He took along a very large number of
camels, donkeys, and mules for carrying their supplies; innumerable sheep,
cattle, and goats for their food;
COMMENTARY: And it’s not just the numbers that he has,
but also the wealth and provisions necessary to make it all actually work. One of the most important determinants in
battle—and a common factor in disastrous military errors—is securing and
maintaining the supply-lines. That was
how the USA won against the British empire with a smaller and less well-trained
force: they suffered defeat after defeat, but each time retreated deeper into
the continent where they themselves could readily obtain provision but where
the British soldiers could not.
18) abundant provisions for each man, and much gold and
silver from the royal palace.
COMMENTARY: I wondered to myself, “Why would Holofernes
need gold and silver, if he’s bringing along his own provisions? And who would sell anything to somebody
intent on conquering them?” But then it
dawned on me—maybe he needed it for bribes!
Traitors make a conquest much easier and more efficient.
19) Then he and all his forces set out on
their expedition in advance of King Nebuchadnezzar, to overrun all the lands of
the western region with their chariots, cavalry, and picked infantry. 20) A huge, irregular force, too many to
count, like locusts, like the dust of the earth, went along with them.
COMMENTARY: “Irregular force” is a polite term for “camp-followers”. But these women (often with their children in
tow) provided indispensable services beside the one for which they got their
bad reputation. Most
bound wounds and tended the sick. No army lasts for long
without nursing, and disease killed off more soldiers than battle,
when men invaded regions where their own force had not built up an
immunity to the local germs
and parasites. Even within a country, as in the American Civil
War, the North lost many soldiers to the malaria endemic in the south.
On top of that the women also
cooked, washed clothes, and performed other domestic
functions. They even sometimes engaged
in espionage. And on occasion they were
known to pick up their fallen lover’s arms and avenge him in battle.
the Great valued them so much that he would offer a fortune in gold to any soldier
who would marry his camp-follower. He also adopted any of their orphaned or
father-abandoned offspring, training them to become soldiers in their turn. Sadly, most of the soldiers divorced these
poor women as soon as Alexander died.
21) After a three-day march from Nineveh, they reached the plain of Bectileth,
and camped opposite Bectileth near the mountains to the north of Upper Cilicia.
COMMENTARY: A three-day march would not be possible for
an army of that time. But it sounds
scary to exaggerate how fast they could move.
there Holofernes took all his forces, the infantry, cavalry, and chariots, and
marched into the hill country. 23) He
devastated Put and Lud, and plundered all the Rassisites and the
Ishmaelites on the border of the wilderness toward the south of the Chelleans.
24) Then, following the Euphrates, he went through
Mesopotamia, and battered down every fortified city along the Wadi Abron, until
he reached the sea. 25) He seized the
territory of Cilicia, and cut down everyone who resisted him. Then he proceeded
to the southern borders of Japheth, toward Arabia. 26He surrounded all the Midianites, burned their tents,
and sacked their encampments.
COMMENTARY: Each community named built up the tension for
those listening to the storyteller. They
knew these places. It’s like when you
have a wildfire in your region and listen to the reports of the fire coming
nearer and nearer to your home, spreading across a wider and wider region.
Put and Lud, however, seem out of place, especially when
listed together. Near as translators can
figure, Put might be Libya in Africa, and Lud might be Lydia in Asia
Minor. The storyteller might have
inserted these to increase the sense of the vastness of this war.
to the plain of Damascus at the time of the wheat harvest, he set fire to all
their fields, destroyed their flocks and herds, looted their cities, devastated
their plains, and put all their young men to the sword.
COMMENTARY: Damascuis not only lost their
soldiers, but also their most basic means of survival. After this war, inevitably, must come famine. This is a disaster of epic proportions!
28) Fear and
dread of him fell upon all the inhabitants of the coastland, upon those in
Sidon and Tyre, and those who dwelt in Sur and Ocina, and the inhabitants of
Jamnia. Those in Azotus and Ascalon also feared him greatly.
The storyteller brings the fear home with the specific names of cities
close to Judea and well-known to its traders.
Who will be the hero to deliver them from someone against whom no soldier
can prevail? What if that hero’s not a
man of arms? Stay tuned.