Chapter Four

 Judith 4:

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.


COMMENTARY:  Again, “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?



 4) So 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 war.


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.



6) 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 near Dothan,


COMMENTARY:  In those days the High Priest was not only a cleric but also an officer, charged with managing the protection of his congregation.
    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 time.


COMMENTARY:  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 passage.  That doesn’t rule out its existence; over the millennia so narrow a space could easily have filled up 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 moved.



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.


COMMENTARY:  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.

          But I 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.

          We hear 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 purposes, normally. 

The 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.

Wearing 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.



 11) And 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.

As 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.

Another 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 today!

         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 of Israel.


COMMENTARY:  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 this source.

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