Chapter Seven


 Judith 7:

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.


COMMENTARY:  Now 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.


COMMENTARY:  Numbers 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.



4) 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 their weight.”


COMMENTARY:  They 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.


Who 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.


8) 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.

COMMENTARY:  All 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.


COMMENTARY:  One 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 is. 

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.


COMMENTARY:  Seizing 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,


COMMENTARY:  “Servants” 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 tomorrow.



 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.


COMMENTARY:  Water 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 the king.


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.



16) Their words pleased Holofernes and all his attendants, and he ordered their proposal to be carried out.


COMMENTARY:  Their 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 any safer?



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.


COMMENTARY:  Their 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 any good.)



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.



23) 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:


COMMENTARY:  When 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.


COMMENTARY:  “May 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 utter exhaustion.


COMMENTARY:  This 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 their last.


COMMENTARY:  A 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 rules.


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.


COMMENTARY:  I 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.”


COMMENTARY:  Some 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 misery.


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.

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