1) It was
reported to Holofernes, the ranking general of the Assyrian forces, that the
Israelites were ready for battle, had blocked the mountain passes, fortified
the high hilltops, and placed roadblocks in the plains.
COMMENTARY: Okay, so they did block the passes. I wasn’t
sure I had understood that. Why, then,
leave the one narrow entry? If they hadn’t,
Holofernes’ army would have no choice but to engage one of the passes in
battle, which would put Judea at a disadvantage. But if somebody “leaks” the information that
there’s this obscure other way, he’d take it, hoping that it had been
overlooked. It would seem to promise an
easy victory by stealth, when in fact it would be a trap, giving Judea the only
advantage they could get.
great anger he summoned all the rulers of Moab, the governors of Ammon, and all
the satraps of the coastland
COMMENTARY: The satraps
would be people that he appointed to rule these little countries and
city-states, under Nebuchadnezzar, after having executed their original
leaders. Most likely they’d be members
of the conquered peoples, themselves, willing to collaborate with Babylon, and
typically members of the original royal family.
3) and said to them: “Now tell me, you Canaanites, what sort
of people is this that lives in the hill country? Which cities do they inhabit?
How large is their force? In what does their power and strength consist? Who
has set himself up as their king and the leader of their army?
COMMENTARY: He’s pumping them for military intelligence.
4) Why have they
alone of all the inhabitants of the west refused to come out to meet me?”
big Question behind the other questions.
He’s expecting a military answer.
He’s wondering what they’ve got up their sleeves that makes them think
they can take on his army.
Achior, the leader of all the Ammonites, said to him: “My lord, please listen
to a report from your servant. I will tell you the truth about this people that
lives in the hill country near here. No lie shall escape your servant’s lips.
(the name means “Brother of Light” in Hebrew) might be modeled on or a variant
of Ahiqar (whom we met in “Tobit”) a proverbial wise man. This happens in folklore a lot, that the
legends of all the people who behave like a certain character become that
character in the popular imagination.
Just because they were legends, though, does not mean they never
existed, just that the names got changed and consolidated. There might have been several King Arthurs,
Robin Hoods, or Merlins, more likely than none, compounded with actual,
fictional, and/or exaggerated deeds.
Achior/Ahiqar is the archetype of the wise Jewish counselor to Pagan
kings during exile.
6) “These people
are descendants of the Chaldeans.
COMMENTARY: Abraham, in the Bible, left “Ur of the
Chaldees”. Ur was the first city in the “Old
World” of the conjoined Asia, Europe, and Africa, and was formerly thought to
be the oldest city in human history.
Archaeologists have since found still older ruins of a city, called
Caral, on the coast of Peru, in the so-called “New World”. (Remember that the next time somebody tries
to claim that “even the Indians are immigrants” to the Americas and therefore have
no indigenous claims. But I digress.)
7) They formerly lived in
Mesopotamia, for they did not wish to follow the gods of their ancestors who
were in the land of the Chaldeans. 8) Since they
abandoned the way of their ancestors, and worshiped the God of heaven,
the God whom they had come to know, their ancestors expelled them from the
presence of their gods. So they fled to Mesopotamia and lived there a long
COMMENTARY: We tend to think of Abraham as an individual,
for the Bible tells his story as the life of a man. But “They” would have meant a large extended
household, not only consisting of Abraham and his family, but of everyone
traveling with them—riding herd on large flocks of domesticated animals was no
job for one man childless until late in his years. Abraham would have been the chieftain of a
interestingly, does not mention any religious conflict with the rest of
Chaldea. Abraham simply packed up and
went wherever God sent him. But isn’t
that usually the case, whenever we follow what we’re sure is the voice of God,
that somebody else is bound to get uncomfortable with that? And the discomfort can manifest in anything from
snark to execution. Societies want God
to be something you learn about (according to approved teachings) not somebody
you have an actual relationship with.
That gets inconvenient, and makes you difficult to manipulate. They try to stuff God into a book that one
can open and close at will, pinned down in unchanging letters. But God’s too big and wriggly and ornery to
stay put where people try to confine Him.
God told them to leave the place where they were living and go to the land of
Canaan. Here they settled, and grew very rich in gold, silver, and a great
abundance of livestock.
much goes along with Genesis.
10) Later, when famine had gripped the land of Canaan, they
went down into Egypt. They stayed there as long as they found sustenance and
there they grew into such a great multitude that the number of their people
could not be counted.
matches Genesis and Exodus. Archaeology
doubts that their numbers would have impressed anybody in modern times, but we
have much more sophisticated ways of estimating the numbers of large groups
than they did, not to mention a less-unwieldy mathematical system, so it wouldn’t
take much then to tip a population into the “uncountable” range.
11) The king of Egypt, however,
rose up against them, and shrewdly forced them to labor at brickmaking; they
were oppressed and made into slaves.
Christian translations of this and Exodus use milder language than the
original Hebrew. The Jewish translations
preserve the crushing nature of the labor, deliberately excessive with intent
to break the body and the spirit.
12) But they cried to their God, and he struck the whole land
of Egypt with plagues for which there was no remedy. So the Egyptians drove
COMMENTARY: A controversial Egyptian text seems to relate
a similar series of plagues as the classic Biblical 10 (but no mention of slaves escaping, but why
would they mention that? And at the same
time, if you were a slave and those holding you suffered one catastrophe after
another, wouldn’t you seize your chance and make a run for it?) all of which
could have come from a perfect storm of natural events.
theory: 1) A red tide makes the waters look bloody and
kills the fish. 2) Fish fail to eat frog or toad eggs causing an
excess of amphibians, who then die in droves in an ecology that cannot sustain
such numbers. 3) Gnats and then 4) flies breed in the dead
frog bodies (along with a proliferation of snakes and other creatures—since Jewish
translators say that the word we call flies means many unpleasant animals--who
had come to eat all the frogs and after their demise remain behind to look for
whatever’s left) The unsanitary
conditions (including all of those gnat and fly bites) cause diseases among 5) animals
and 6) boils among people. 7) Then, “coincidentally”
a storm whips up and rains down hail, around the same time the 8) seven-year
locusts arrive, but this year, since the hailstorm would have destroyed most of
the early crop that they normally would have set aside against this
inevitability, it had more impact than usual.
9) The locusts destroy not only farms but every green thing in sight,
which means nothing left to anchor the soil against the dust storms to which
Egypt is prone, in this case a “darkness” lasting three days.
whatever crop they’d hastily rescued from the hailstorm would have been stored
damp and in this darkness wouldn’t dry right, making it prone to mold. And the starving Egyptians would give the
only food they had to the most treasured members of their families: the
firstborn sons, who would then die of diseases that the Egyptians didn’t
While all this went
on, the great building projects would have halted and the Israelite slaves
would have been sent off to their other work, of shepherding. The Egyptians liked the mutton and wool, but
not the stinky sheep themselves, and kept the sheep (and their shepherds)
pastured where they couldn’t smell them—some ways away from the thriving Nile
community, on the other side of hills where the winds wouldn’t carry the odor
of manure to them--which incidentally protected the shepherds from the various
God dried up the Red Sea before them
stone ridge does indeed lie under the waters of the Red Sea, which rare, powerful
winds have been known to sweep dry for intervals. The miracle was not in the parting per se but
in the timing of it—precisely when the fleeing slaves needed it the most, and
closing up after, just in time to destroy their pursuers.
I’m not saying God couldn’t part the sea without a stone ridge whenever He felt
like it; I’ve seen miracles with no scientific explanation. But I think that He also loves His creation,
like any artist would, and prefers to work within its parameters whenever
possible. And at the same time, I feel
that we undervalue the miracles of perfect timing that each of us experiences
sooner or later. Some combinations of
events, and the amazing tight schedules by which they come, should strike us
14) and led them along the route to Sinai and Kadesh-barnea.
They drove out all the inhabitants of the wilderness 15) and settled in the land of the Amorites. By their strength
they destroyed all the Heshbonites, crossed the Jordan, and took possession
of all the hill country. 16) They drove
out before them the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Shechemites,
and all the Gergesites, and they lived there a long time.
Archaeology confirms the fall of these various states, they weren’t the
bloodbaths popularly imagined. Each
citadel showed burning only in the innermost circle, where the royalty and
elites lived. Rather than an invading
force annihilating an enemy, evidence points towards the escaped slaves from
Egypt fomenting uprisings among slaves and peasants along their track, who then
apparently swelled their numbers, adopting their deity (some evidence might
point to the God of the Israelites originally being perceived as a God of
Liberation—for generations the Israelites refused to have a king, and the
prophet that they finally asked to choose one for them counseled strongly
against it before he gave in) which then would have entitled them to intermarry. The ban against marrying outsiders only
applied to non-converts.
17) “As long as the Israelites did not sin in the sight of their
God, they prospered, for their God, who hates wickedness, was with them. 18) But when
they abandoned the way he had prescribed for them, they were utterly destroyed
by frequent wars, and finally taken as captives into foreign lands. The temple
of their God was razed to the ground, and their cities were occupied by their
19) But now they have returned to their
God, and they have come back from the Diaspora where they were scattered. They
have reclaimed Jerusalem, where their sanctuary is, and have settled again in
the hill country, because it was unoccupied.
Finally Achior gets to the point of this history lesson, and answers
Holofernes’ question. This is why the
Israelites feel so confident. They
believe that God is on their side.
20) “So now,
my master and lord, if these people are inadvertently at fault, or if they are
sinning against their God, and if we verify this offense of theirs, then we
will be able to go up and conquer them. 21) But if they
are not a guilty nation, then let my lord keep his distance; otherwise their
Lord and God will shield them, and we will be mocked in the eyes of all the
giving Holofernes what he feels is good military intelligence: If you want to conquer this people, first
tempt them to sin, or discover a sin that they have collectively committed. But Holofernes is not a subtle man and doesn’t
As for that “if these people are inadvertently at fault”
it doesn’t mean that they would be blamed for an honest mistake, but rather for
hiding their mistakes from themselves.
If their confidence is misplaced, it would be because they weren’t being
honest with themselves or thought they could pull the wool over God’s eyes (For
those for whom English is your second language, “pull the wool over one’s eyes”
is a colloquial term for tricking somebody by keeping them distracted from
seeing what you’re doing.)
Self-deceit makes all sins ten times worse than they
ought to be. This was the difference
between two Nazis, Adolph Eichmann and Oskar Schindler.
Schindler knew that he was a wicked man from the
beginning. He was a professional con artist. He joined the Nazi party
because he could hire free Jewish slave labor.
But the evil reached such a pitch that he couldn’t stand it anymore; he
repented and changed sides, saving as many Jewish lives as he could.
Eichmann, on the other hand, convinced himself that what
he did was virtuous, because he was following orders. The more evil he did, the more he felt he had
to do, to prove to himself that he still believed that it was right. To admit one sin would mean that he’d have to
admit to them all, and he couldn’t stand that.
None of us leads a perfect life. The “good” people are the ones who admit
their faults promptly and fix them. The “bad”
ones cannot stand to admit that they’re ever wrong, and so they never correct
22) Now when Achior had
finished saying these things, all the people standing round about the tent
murmured; and the officers of Holofernes and all the inhabitants of the
seacoast and of Moab alike said he should be cut to pieces.
COMMENTARY: Another colloquial term in English would call
this “Shooting the messenger”. It means
to punish someone for telling you a truth that you don’t want to hear. This tendency of the wicked to hate truth can
frustrate the good people when trying to persuade them of something important,
but it also can bring hope, for it’s the big strategic flaw in all evil plans—there’s
always some critical fact that evil people can’t bear to look at, and so all of
their plans depend on falsehoods that won’t hold up in the face of reality.
23) “We are not afraid of the Israelites,” they said, “for they
are a powerless people, incapable of a strong defense. 24) Therefore let us attack, master Holofernes. They will
become fodder for your great army.”
The chief line of defense that the Jewish people have—the favor of their
God—cannot be quantified in military terms.
It has ever been the fatal error of materialistic people to discount
what they cannot quantify as nonexistent.
This matters not just in religion, but also today in those who discount
unquantifiables like the importance of beauty, nature, culture, honor, or the
lives of those not of obvious use to them.