Chapter Sixteen


 Judith 16:

1) And Judith sang:

“Strike up a song to my God with tambourines,

sing to the Lord with cymbals;

Improvise for him a new song,

exalt and acclaim his name.


COMMENTARY:  I once answered the door to a couple of grim-faced young woman trying to persuade me to attend their church.  They professed themselves strict followers of the Bible.  For instance, their church never used instruments in the hymns, because these were not mentioned in the Bible.  I pointed out that the Bible is full of hymns accompanied by tamborines, trumpets, harps, and all kinds of instruments, to which they sternly looked at me and said, “But they are not mentioned in the New Testament!”  That is the kind of legalism that gives Christianity a bad name.

And innovation is not taboo.  Here Judith proclaims, “Improvise for him a new song”, and this is not the only scripture where somebody writes a new song, or makes some other change.  Jesus Himself brought change a-plenty.  Core values exist, in this and any other religion, and anything in general, that must not be tampered with or the whole will lose its identity and purpose, but around that core we may elaborate according to the needs of the time.  On this occasion the people needed a new song to teach people how to trust when they felt weak and outnumbered.



2) For the Lord is a God who crushes wars;

he sets his encampment among his people;

he delivered me from the hands of my pursuers.

COMMENTARY:  An interesting choice of words!  Not “crushes our enemies” but “crushes wars”.  Although this hymn glorifies a victory, it does not glorify war itself.  The Israelites did the minimum necessary to expel Holofernes’ invasion and did not press their advantage further.  God made it possible for them to escape without becoming aggressors in their turn.

Contrast this to Rome, later in history, which started out as a sleepy farm-town that worshiped a farm-god, Mars (who, interestingly enough, before then was a god of the wilds.)  Beset by hostile neighbors trying to conquer them, they beseeched Mars to defend the farms over which he had charge, according to their beliefs.  But then mission-drift crept in.  Next they wanted to make themselves feel even more secure by conquering their neighbors.  And then they were on a roll and Mars became a war-god and they became empire-builders and made slaves do their farming for them.  All of their values shifted over time.  The Coliseum was not, in their eyes, a sign of decadence but an attempt to stave decadence off, as they understood it, by teaching people to resist pity and stay faithful to Mars as they now perceived him.

Most of the early converts to Christianity came from poor or enslaved cityfolk and the women of the wealthy—the two most oppressed groups in the Roman Empire.  The last holdouts against conversion were the Pagani—the farm-folk, slaves who rarely ever saw their corrupted masters except in festivals and on their best behavior, who remembered something older, something not all tangled up in wars and politics.  And that’s how we got our word, “Pagan”.

I hear some today who would, if they could, transform Jesus in much the same way as the Romans transformed Mars, into a heavenly excuse for war, nationalism, conquest and subjugation.  This temptation has always been with us, in fact, and sometimes we have fallen for it.  But so long as we keep repenting and reforming, and remembering who we really serve, there is hope for us.

We are never to use more force than necessary to protect ourselves.



3) “The Assyrian came from the mountains of the north,

with myriads of his forces he came;

Their numbers blocked the wadies,

their cavalry covered the hills.

COMMENTARY:  Judith reminds future listeners just how far the odds were against them, so that they can remember, in their own trials, that it isn’t about odds.  Victory—achievement of any kind—is not up to a random roll of the dice.


4) He threatened to burn my territory,

put my youths to the sword,

Dash my infants to the ground,

seize my children as plunder.

And carry off my virgins as spoil.


COMMENTARY:  Judith reminds future listener of the stakes, and why she had to do what she did.



5) “But the Lord Almighty thwarted them,

by the hand of a female!


COMMENTARY:  An important assertion in a region where all surrounding cultures tempted them constantly to devalue women.



6) Not by youths was their champion struck down,

nor did Titans bring him low,

nor did tall giants attack him;

But Judith, the daughter of Merari,

by the beauty of her face brought him down.


COMMENTARY:  Taking Judith as a symbol of Judaism, this reminds the Israelites that you don’t have to be a great and powerful nation to hold onto your freedom and identity.  Nor does she show false modesty about her beauty—it was as much of a fact as the numbers of the enemy.  God’s every blessing is a resource, and we are not to disregard some blessings as less important than others.



7) She took off her widow’s garb

to raise up the afflicted in Israel.

She anointed her face with fragrant oil;

8) fixed her hair with a diadem,

and put on a linen robe to beguile him.


COMMENTARY:  There is a proper time to set aside the rituals and disciplines that we might impose upon ourselves.  In listening to the Divine will we can discern when and how to make the exceptions.



9) Her sandals ravished his eyes,

her beauty captivated his mind,

the sword cut through his neck!


COMMENTARY:  The writer in me likes this contrast.



10“The Persians trembled at her boldness,

the Medes were daunted at her daring.


COMMENTARY:  Boldness and daring can count for more than strength.  I remember when my husband worked construction.  The temp company had plenty of bigger, stronger men to send out, but he got sent out on more jobs because they could count on him to actually show up.  Boldness can simply mean showing up.  And sometimes that takes daring.



11) When my lowly ones shouted,

and my weak ones cried out,

The enemy was terrified,

screamed and took to flight.


COMMENTARY:  When your back’s to the wall, you have nothing to lose by charging forward.  And predators only like easy prey.



12) Sons of maidservants pierced them through;

wounded them like deserters’ children.

They perished before the ranks of my Lord.


COMMENTARY:  This says something tragic about the state of warfare in those days.  Camp-followers often had children by the soldiers, and rarely had any option except to take those children along with them from battlefield to battlefield.  A deserter abandoned not only his country but his camp-family; a child of a deserter had no protection in a dangerous world.

In a sense Holofernes had deserted his army by letting his passions overrule his common sense.  His army became like children with no one to turn to who could tell them what to do to get out alive.



13) “I will sing a new song to my God.

O Lord, great are you and glorious,

marvelous in power and unsurpassable.


COMMENTARY:  There is nothing new in this part, but a deeper understanding is, of how (from the Judeo-Christian perspective) it is not our greatness, not our glory, not our power alone that can save us.  Now I know many who would see this humility as disempowerment, but I have also seen many destroyed from believing that everything always is 100% up to them.


As I said before, Judith has no time for false-modesty.  She knows that she took responsibility to seek God’s will and to use everything He gave her, from her beauty to her intelligence, and she won’t hesitate even to praise herself for that if it gives a good example.  But she never kids herself about doing anything all by herself, either.  Holofernes did, and look where it got him.



14) Let your every creature serve you;

for you spoke, and they were made.

You sent forth your spirit, and it created them;

no one can resist your voice.


COMMENTARY:  Catholics use this passage in defense of the ecology.  What right do we have to cause the extinction of any creature that God saw fit to put on this Earth?


I also see in this a layer of meaning about how no one can resist the call to come to life.  The very will to breathe comes from the Divine.  Therefore we should cherish our life; we should treat our bodies well and do whatever is healthy.



15) For the mountains to their bases

are tossed with the waters;

the rocks, like wax, melt before your glance.

“But to those who fear you,

you will show mercy.


COMMENTARY:    The region does experience earthquakes, and people knew of volcanoes near enough for the stories to travel.  No one could make assumptions about solid ground.



16) Though the sweet fragrance of every sacrifice is a trifle,

and the fat of all burnt offerings but little in your sight,

one who fears the Lord is forever great.


COMMENTARY:  Mistranslation alert—what we translate as “fear of the Lord” is understood by most Jews as “awareness of the Lord”  It is the same kind of awareness as a rabbit or squirrel watching a fox’s every move, hence the confusion, but if you know rabbits and squirrels, you know that curiosity and fascination has a surprising lot to do with their attention.  It has a kind of excitement to it, in its intensity of focus.  Small prey animals would die of stress if they didn’t feel a certain thrill in the uncertainties of their lives—which becomes evident by anyone who has ever seen a rabbit or squirrel tease a dog.  So the translation could have gone, “one who watches God’s every move with a thrilling sense of hyperalertness.”

Anyway, the gist of the verse is that it’s what’s behind our rituals that counts; the rites simply give an outward sign or a point of focus.  I had a dream about that, once. 

In the waking world, I had only recently found my way to my maternal tribe, the Yaqui community, and I wanted so badly to participate fully in the Lenten/Easter Ceremonies, but time after time my body just could not keep up, and I felt ashamed.  Later that year, on Christmas Eve, I dreamed that I went to a Christmas party where the Surem (the Yaqui little people/ancestors) exchanged presents with Yaquis, and one gave me this big, gaudy, gilded purse.  I felt embarrassed; this seemed much too flashy—where could I go with something like this?  But then a Yaqui man came up to me and said, “Don’t worry about the purse itself—that is just pah’kowame.  The real gift is inside the purse.”

When I woke up I inquired from anyone I could about what pah’kowame meant, but nobody could tell me. I  finally found it in an old Yoeme/English dictionary, as an archaic word no longer seeing much use.  It meant ceremoniousness—the quality of ceremony.  When I learned that I looked at the Ceremonies in a new light and thereafter tuned in as much as I could to what they contained.

There was one tragic year when all of the elders among the Tropos (men ritually involved in the Yaqui Ceremonies) had died at the same time, except for one old man who, confined to a wheelchair, could no longer participate.  The young men did the very best they could to carry on the traditions, but they had no experience or guidance.  At the Gloria, when the most outsiders come to witness and support us, the old man was there, on the sidelines with them.  An old White woman came up to him and said, “I have watched this ritual every year, for my whole life, and I’ve never seen it done this way before.  Are they doing it correctly?”

The old man laughed and said, “Oh no, they’re doing it all wrong, and have been since Lent began!”

“Then why don’t you correct them?” she asked.

“Because it is better that they should do it wrong with sincere and devout hearts, than I should step in and correct them and risk resentment entering their hearts.  The heart with which one serves matters more than any service.”

God doesn’t need anything from us, no more than a mother needs a card that her child makes for her, with paper and crayons that the mother bought, clumsily drawn and unevenly cut.  It is the love which the child puts into that card that makes it a treasure to the mother.



17) “Woe to the nations that rise against my people!

the Lord Almighty will requite them;

in the day of judgment he will punish them:

He will send fire and worms into their flesh,

and they will weep and suffer forever.”



COMMENTARY:  Mistranslation alert.  The Hebraic word used to translate “forever” actually is never used to describe a process, but only the result of a process.  Granted, “Judith” was written in Greek, but we now know, thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, that it was translated from earlier Hebraic sources, and one would expect this “forever/eternal” to be consistent with other Hebrew writings where it’s used in the same context.  The fire would have been understood as the fires of regret that burn away everything unworthy in a soul, and the dead would weep and suffer while it burned, while worms ate away the flesh of their bodies, but what would last forever would be their unmaking—the fact that there would be nothing left of them. 

Confession: this is not Catholic doctrine.  My church teaches everlasting hellfire, not everlasting ashdom and oblivion.  I am heretical in believing what Jews have said about what their own scriptures say. 

When in doubt, I fall back on what the Bible says is the method to test doctrines.  “By their fruit so shall ye know them.”  The fruit of believing in everlasting torment, I have observed, is callousness.  One can justify all kinds of brutality if one believes that a merciful God can torment people for all eternity.  How does any punishment a human being could inflict compare with that?  In fact, the justification for burning heretics at the stake was the belief that one night’s fire would save them from burning forever; the more an inquisitor saw the agony that he caused, the more committed he would be that such suffering must be prevented from going on without end—thus even empathy turned against itself.

I keep by my desk at all times a list of the fruits of the Holy Spirit with which to guide me.  And these are Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, and Faithfulness.  I do not see the doctrine of hellfire bearing any of these fruits.  Some might argue for faithfulness, but obedience at the end of a lash is not faithful, it is merely servile, and the slave who thus obeys always watches for a chance to escape, whereas the faithful stand by the one they love no matter how hard it gets.

So no, I don’t believe in eternal hellfire.  I believe in more Catholic doctrines than the doctrines of any other religion, and I love the saints who have gone before us in this faith, and so I remain a Catholic.  But I would lie if I said that I believe everything.  Since God reads my most secret thoughts anyway, why should I pretend otherwise?  For the sake of appearances? 



18) When they arrived at Jerusalem, they worshiped God. As soon as the people were purified, they offered their burnt offerings, voluntary offerings, and donations.


COMMENTARY:  Although, in this same chapter, Judith seems to make light of such rituals, she recognizes their value, just not their supremacy.  The people make these offerings from their heart.  In a dream once the Virgin Mary told me, “Pray the rosary for your sake, not for mine!”  Ritual is a gift to us.  It gives us something concrete to do that focuses and expresses the stirrings of our soul.  Without that stirring they mean nothing, but with that stirring they mean everything.

Science tells us that gestures, positions, even the movements of our eyes, can bodily help us retrieve memories and states of mind.  I saw this in action in my own life.  When I was a baby, my first words were in Spanish, but then a traumatic thing happened and I stopped speaking till I was three years old (so my father has told me.)  When I resumed speaking, I only spoke English.  Spanish classes could not seem to overcome this.  But years later, in adulthood, an emergency required that I give assistance to people who spoke only Spanish.  I fell asleep, dreamed in Spanish, and upon waking could converse with them, and I remembered my Spanish until we parted company.  This told me that my soul still spoke Spanish.

So whenever I had the opportunity, after that, I attended Mass in Spanish, trusting that the sermons would sink into my unconscious where my soul could translate them, and thus they would inform me on a deeper level.  Soon I found myself starting to remember enough Spanish to pray along and sing the hymns! 


But then one day I arrived late, after the opening hymn had already begun.  So long as I stood leaning on my cane, I couldn’t understand a word of it, and wondered whatever convinced me that I had any business attending Spanish mass anyway?  But as soon as an usher found me a seat, and I could lay my cane aside and clap my hands with the rest of the congregation, the meaning of the words rushed back into me!  And I worshiped in song with my whole heart.


We need our rituals.  God has been gracious in granting them to us.



19)  Judith dedicated to God all the things of Holofernes that the people had given her, putting under the ban the canopy that she herself had taken from his bedchamber.


COMMENTARY:  In this way she makes clear that she did nothing for personal profit or glory, but all for God.



20) For three months the people continued their celebration in Jerusalem before the sanctuary, and Judith remained with them.


COMMENTARY:  Judith might be an ascetic, but a wise heart knows that some things are worth celebrating.  And what a celebration!  Three months?  Those folks did nothing by halves!



21) When those days were over, all of them returned to their inheritance. Judith went back to Bethulia and remained on her estate. For the rest of her life she was renowned throughout the land.


COMMENTARY:  She earned respect.  That renown would mean that people consulted her wisdom, and that she had a responsibility to pray and answer.  In a patriarchal world, this meant something.



22) Many wished to marry her, but she gave herself to no man all the days of her life from the time her husband, Manasseh, died and was gathered to his people.


COMMENTARY:  This was the way female mystics sidestepped patriarchal restrictions in the ancient world.  St. Paul refers to this when he praises celibacy among Christian woman, saying that a married woman must worry about pleasing her husband, but a celibate woman needn’t worry about pleasing anybody but God.



23) Her fame continued to increase, and she lived in the house of her husband, reaching the advanced age of one hundred and five. She set her maid free. And when she died in Bethulia, they buried her in the cave of her husband, Manasseh;


COMMENTARY:  I must say, I’m certainly glad that she did right by the maid!  As for her age, longevity was considered a blessing.  The Maccabean period lasted a hundred and five years, so this might relate to why the author gave her that age.  Numbers in the Bible were understood to be symbolic in Jewish culture; the literal interpretations we too often give them are a European innovation.  Literalism in numbers was for merchants and carpenters; symbolic numbers led to a deeper and more nuanced truth.



24) and the house of Israel mourned her for seven days. Before she died, she distributed her property to the relatives of her husband, Manasseh, and to her own relatives.


COMMENTARY:  Seven days of mourning was standard for family, but “The House of Israel” meant that all Israelites, whether in Judea or in exile, mourned her as family.



25) During the lifetime of Judith and for a long time after her death, no one ever again spread terror among the Israelites.


COMMENTARY:  This was the sort of thing said about heroes in the Book of Judges.

And thus we end with Judith.  Next week we will start something a bit more complicated with the Book of Esther.  Parts of Esther are in the Protestant Bible, and parts found only in the Catholic Bible.  It shall be interesting to see what adding all the pieces together amounts to!

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