1) The following day Holofernes ordered his whole army,
and all the troops who had come to join him, to break camp and move against
Bethulia, seize the passes into the hills, and make war on the Israelites.
that he knows that the Judeans place their confidence in nothing practical,
Holofernes feels free to move against them.
2) That same day all their fighting men
went into action. Their forces numbered a hundred and seventy thousand infantry
and twelve thousand cavalry, not counting the baggage train or the men who
accompanied it on foot, a very great army.
in the Bible are rarely literal. If
anyone knows the cabalistic symbolism of these numbers, please share! Otherwise, the relevant words here for us are
“a very great army”.
3) They encamped at the spring in the valley near
Bethulia, and spread crosswise toward Dothan as far as Balbaim, and lengthwise
from Bethulia to Cyamon, which faces Esdraelon.
COMMENTARY: Besides the wide spread of their encampment,
we should take note of that spring! “Water
is life” soon becomes a critical point in this tale. Holofernes first makes sure that his own
troops have what they need.
When the Israelites saw how many there were, they were
greatly distressed and said to one another, “Soon they will strip the whole
land bare. Neither the high mountains nor the valleys nor the hills will bear
mean that so many people eating up everything that they can seize will trigger
a famine no matter what the outcome.
5) Yet they all seized their weapons,
lighted fires on their towers, and kept watch throughout the night.
COMMENTARY: Yet they don’t give in to despair. Faith is not an intellectual opinion. I don’t know of a deity pf any faith who
passes out true-false tests and weighs us on the exactitude of our theology,
but whether we live as though we believe it—regardless of whether we wholly
believe or struggle with doubt. Faith
means keeping faith—staying steadfast.
6) On the second day Holofernes led out all his cavalry
in the sight of the Israelites who were in Bethulia.
COMMENTARY: He wants seen. Psychology matters more than any other factor
in war, because a war ends when one side seizes all of the morale of the
others. People think that it’s the size
of the land taken or the number of casualties, but these are only means to the
end of breaking the will to resist. Some
surrender simply at the sight of the other side’s power, as happened to the
coastal communities earlier. Others
fight but soon fail, weakened with fear.
And here is where I argue with the “spiritual warfare” emphasis in some
churches. They obsess on demons
everywhere, attribute demonic influence to all manner of harmless things (I’ve
heard serious warnings, for instance, that one can invite demons in if you buy
a troll doll, practice yoga, or watch Smurf cartoons!) and generally live in
fear. And more make this error than one
might suppose—even those who don’t believe in supernatural demons can demonize
the world around them and make it a terrifying place.
does this serve, really? Chronic fear
wears down the body and the soul, fans the flames of doubt, and ultimately
leads to surrender. If we talk only of
evil and its power, we give evil power it didn’t have originally. I don’t support the opposite error, of
pretending that evil doesn’t exist and thus making no provision to deal with
it, but exaggerating or dwelling on its scope can destroy us more surely than
actually confronting it.
Holofernes does not exaggerate his army—he truly does have a colossal
force. But whether he does or not, what
matters most is that the Bethulians feel daunted.
7) He reconnoitered the ascents to their city and located
their springs of water; these he seized, stationing armed detachments around
them, while he himself returned to his troops.
COMMENTARY: Remember what I said earlier about that
spring? He has made sure that his troops
have water and the other side does not.
All the rulers of the Edomites, all the leaders of the
Moabites, together with the generals of the coastal region, came to Holofernes
and said: 9) “Master, please listen to
what we have to say, that there may be no losses among your forces.
those who want to ingratiate themselves with the conqueror, and perhaps thereby
negotiate a better deal for their own people, rush to give Holofernes aid.
10) These Israelite troops do not rely on
their spears, but on the height of the mountains where they dwell, for it is
not easy to reach the summit of their mountains.
of the most basic principles of strategy is to seize the high ground whenever
possible, because fighting an uphill battle always results in high
casualties. This rather concrete fact
has also become a metaphor for nonviolent confrontations. To seize the moral high ground means to make
your argument the better one by standing for a higher principle than those who
oppose you—and living by it.
But we often feel drawn to the folly of the opposite choice. We want to match baseness with baseness! If they insult us we want to insult them
right back (which doesn’t really show much of a track record for persuading
people to agree with us.) If they cheat,
we want to cheat, too, and say they started it.
If they visit senseless violence on us, we don’t just want to use what
force we must to restrain them, we want vengeance! (And what is more senseless than that?) If they torture our folk, then we want to
torture theirs, even though history has proven repeatedly how ineffective it
In this way, we raise those who do what we despise above us, elevating them to
the role of our teachers. And eventually
we graduate by becoming everything we hate.
Earlier I said that who or what you worship is who or
what has final say on the decisions that you make in your life. If you don’t seize the high ground and stay
true to it, you make your enemy your god.
11) Therefore, master, do not attack them
in regular formation, and not a single one of your troops will fall.
morale does not actually require casualties in battle.
12)Stay in your camp, and spare every man
of your force. Have some of your servants keep control of the spring of water
that flows out at the base of the mountain,
means soldiers of the conquered nations, who can thus curry favor. When you own the morale of someone else, they
will do anything to keep you happy, or at least not angry. But no decent person wants such power.
In any case, history has shown that this is the power
of a lit match, which soon burns the fingers of whoever holds onto it too long,
whether we’re talking about a subject nation, a bullied schoolyard or office,
or a battered wife. Because defeated
people sooner or later tire of constantly placating a tyrant; the minute he
relaxes, or shows any weakness, they will turn on him. A bully leads a miserable life perpetually on
guard, always having to escalate the stakes to keep control, until it drains
the last strength he has and those who bowed to him yesterday tear him apart
13) for that is where the inhabitants of
Bethulia get their water. Then thirst will destroy them, and they will
surrender their city. Meanwhile, we and our troops will go up to the nearby
hilltops and encamp there to guard against anyone’s leaving the city.
is life. And to this day, all over the
world, human beings make power-plays over other human beings by fighting as to
who gets to control water—where it flows, and whether it stays pure.
14) They and their wives and children will
languish with hunger, and even before the sword strikes them they will be laid
low in the streets where they live.
COMMENTARY: They don’t even mention the effect of thirst
directly on the soldiers; this is wholly psychological warfare. To attack the innocent, the noncombatants,
for no other reason than the soldiers’ love for them. And not even killing them, but causing them
prolonged and horrible suffering. This
is warfare at its worst, without honor, without the dignity of protecting the
innocent but instead especially targeting them.
It may be without honor, but it does offer prestige. To those who care nothing for right or wrong,
it promises an easy victory. If he can
pull this off, Holofernes can go home to parades in his name and the favor of
And this is why it matters
to teach not merely obedience, nor fear of how one looks in the eyes of others,
but true right and wrong, regardless of what anyone thinks. Because there will always be wicked men and
women who will reward obedience, and appearances of achievement supported by
shameful acts. But in the end none of
that matters, if you rot from the inside out.
Soul-sickness has brought low many of the mighty.
15) Thus you will render them dire punishment for their
rebellion and their refusal to meet you peacefully.”
COMMENTARY: Remember what I said earlier about bullies
always having to raise the stakes?
Holofernes treated the nations that surrendered horribly; now he has to
make resistance even worse.
Their words pleased Holofernes and all his attendants,
and he ordered their proposal to be carried out.
words pleased him because his god is Nebuchadnezzar. The fact that archaeology hasn’t uncovered
any literal cult of king-worship in Babylon doesn’t matter. The writer wrote words of worship and put
them in Holofernes’ mouth because that’s what his actions say, and so say the
words of a thousand like him throughout time.
People who will do anything, commit any crime, to win favor in the eyes
of others who don’t want to know the details of how they got what they wanted,
just that this person gave it to them.
We stand in at least as much danger of being
Nebuchadnezzar as of being Holofernes.
Do we hail the store that sells good, cheap goods, not caring about
children in sweatshops in another country making those goods? Do we vote for the politician most likely to
line our pockets without regard for how he increased our wealth? Do we support those who claim to keep our
streets safe, not asking about their methods or even whether we actually are
17) So the Ammonites moved camp, together
with five thousand Assyrians. They encamped in the valley and held the water
supply and the springs of the Israelites. 18) The
Edomites and the Ammonites went up and encamped in the hill country opposite
Dothan; and they sent some of their men to the southeast opposite Egrebel, near
Chusi, which is on Wadi Mochmur. The rest of the Assyrian army was encamped in
the plain, covering all the land. Their tents and equipment were spread out in
profusion everywhere, and they formed a vast multitude.
COMMENTARY: And so the evil plan comes into action.
19) The Israelites cried to the Lord, their God, for they
were disheartened, since all their enemies had them surrounded, and there was
no way of escaping from them.
prayers have changed from confident to disheartened. Yet to continue to pray, while disheartened,
shows the deepest faith of all.
20) The whole Assyrian
army, infantry, chariots, and cavalry, kept them thus surrounded for
thirty-four days. All the
reservoirs of water failed the inhabitants of Bethulia...
COMMENTARY: This number matters. Judith will later spend four days doing what
she does, and then what follows after will take thirty days.
21) ...and the cisterns ran dry, so that on no day did they
have enough water to drink, for their drinking water was rationed.
COMMENTARY: They aren’t dying immediately, but losing
ground a little every day to dehydration.
(For the record, survival
experts say that if you have water enough for one day, go ahead and drink it
all—it does more for you in your body than in the bottle, even if you have none
the next day. It could give you the strength
you need to find more, but if you’re weakened for two days it doesn’t do you
22) Their children were listless, and the women and youths
were fainting from thirst and were collapsing in the streets and gateways of
the city, with no strength left in them.
COMMENTARY: It is harder to watch those we love suffer
than it is to suffer, ourselves. And so
it should be, even though wicked folks might exploit it—because if we care
about no one but ourselves, life isn’t worth living.
So all the people, including youths, women, and
children, went in a crowd to Uzziah and the rulers of the city. They cried out
loudly and said before all the elders:
you’re in that much need, you don’t wait on the normal social order.
24) “May God judge between you and us! You
have done us grave injustice in not making peace with the Assyrians.
God judge between you and me!” was a particularly fearsome rebuke. It shows absolute confidence that one is in
the right by inviting God’s judgment, and that the other has something to fear.
25) There is no one to help us now! God
has sold us into their hands by laying us prostrate before them in thirst and
seems like a loss of faith, but the sentence right before it shows that the
supplicants still believe in God’s justice.
They don’t believe that God doesn’t exist, or is too weak to help them,
but that, for reasons unknown to them, God has sided with the invader.
26) So now, summon them and deliver the
whole city as plunder to the troops of Holofernes and to all his forces; 27) we would be better off to become their
prey. Although we would be made slaves, at least we would live, and not have to
see our little ones dying before our eyes, and our wives and children breathing
terrible choice that people sometimes must make to this day. I have heard people in prosperous places
speak in disgust of anyone who would sell their children into slavery in
harsher lands, but they don’t understand how often these parents are trying not
only to feed their remaining children, but save the child sold from starvation
or thirst as well.
28) We adjure you by heaven and earth and
by our God, the Lord of our ancestors, who is punishing us for our sins and the
sins of our ancestors, that this
very day you do as we have proposed.”
COMMENTARY: Due to their past history, the only way they
know how to understand what’s happening to them is to think that God must be
punishing them for some reason or other.
This saddens me—this is the route by which people become fanatics.
The decline into fanaticism begins with believing that all suffering must be a
punishment from God. (In fact, though, a
higher power could have many reasons to allow suffering to happen that have
nothing to do with sins.) After they
obey all the rules and still suffer, they decide that maybe they need to obey a
more extreme version of the rules. And if
that doesn’t work, then they create new rules, even harsher than before, which
leaves them still more miserable. So
then they decide that the sin must be that they allow their neighbors to get
away with not following these extreme rules, and so next they start forcibly
imposing these on everyone they can reach, or trying to. Ultimately they decide that they cannot be
happy until everyone in the world follows the most extreme version of their
Fortunately, the people of
Bethulia are wrong about this. God has
something else in mind.
29) All in the assembly with one accord broke into shrill
wailing and cried loudly to the Lord their God.
find this chilling to imagine. What if
every homeless person in our streets did likewise? I for one would shudder in fear of judgment!
30) But Uzziah said to them, “Courage, my
brothers and sisters! Let us endure patiently five days more for the Lord our
God to show mercy toward us; for God will not utterly forsake us. 31) But if these days pass and help does
not come to us, I will do as you say.”
commentators call this compromise a sign of lack of faith on Uzziah’s part,
which is why they consider his name ironic.
But it sounds reasonable to me.
He genuinely tries to discern God’s will. He feels confident that God won’t forsake
them, but is open to the possibility that God’s plans don’t include delivering
them from their enemies—which makes sense because his people have fallen to
conquerors before. So he’s giving God
five more days, to see what Divine plan might unfold.
32) Then he dismissed the people. The men
returned to their posts on the walls and towers of the city, the women and
children went back to their homes. Throughout the city they were in great
COMMENTARY: People and animals can survive longer if they
believe in a definite time limit to their misery. Even though they suffer, the Bethulians
believe that they will drink their fill of water in five days, whether as
slaves or by God’s intervention.