21 Aug 2013

Prayer in the Apocrypha 3: Judith’s Psalm of Praise

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Church History, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Judith, Prayer, Spiritual Disciplines
Therefore this is a fine, good, holy, useful book, well worth reading by us Christians. For the words spoken by the persons in it should be understood as though they were uttered in the Holy Spirit by a spiritual, holy poet or prophet who, in presenting such persons in his play, preaches to us through them.” (Martin Luther, “Preface to the Book of Judith,” in Luther’s Works, vol 35, pp. 338-339).

Judith of Bethulia, Most Blessed of All Women

Few biblical characters have fascinated Jews and Christians as much a Judith of Bethulia.  As early as the first century Christian, Clement considered the “blessed Judith” to be a model of God given virtue and piety (1 Clement 55). Prudentius’ “massively influential” Psychomachia (written about AD 405) inculcated the traditional Christian virtues of chastity, temperance, justice, fortitude, wisdom and humility through iconography of Judith [1].  Psychomachia remained very influential throughout the medieval period.  The lore of Judith found its way into sermons, Passover haggadah, Purim liturgy, Christian liturgy, prayer, plays, poems and art of the period molding and shaping of Judeo-Christian values.  Judith was a feature of one of the greatest “silent” movies of all time, Judith of Bethulia by D.W. Griffith in 1913.  She was a revered woman until the age of then Enlightenment.

The Book of Judith falls into two basic parts.  The first part describes the war of the “Assyrians” against the Jews (chapters 1-7); the second relates the deliverance wrought by God through the widow Judith (chapters 8-16). [2]
Hostilities had broken out between the Assyrians and the Medes.  Nebuchadnezzar, who is pictured as ruling the Assyrians, calls on the western nations to help him against his enemies, however, they refused (1.7-11).  Angry and vowing to take revenge on them – including the Jews.  After defeating the Medes (1. 12-16) Nebuchadnezzar decides to destroy those who wished his downfall in the west.  He sends out his General, Holofernes, with 120.000 men and a further 12,000 cavalry.  Soon the nations were frightened into submission.
Meanwhile in the city of Bethulia the citizens, fearful that the Assyrians would defile the holy Temple of God, decide they will not acquiesce to Nebuchadnezzar.  The store provisions in anticipation of siege.  They seek God’s favor through prayer and fasting in sackcloth (4.1-15).  After thirty four days of siege with supplies running low the inhabitants of Bethulia began to loose heart and call upon the city elders to surrender to the Assyrians.  A leader, Uzziah, plead with them to hold out five more days, “By that time the Lord our God will show us mercy, for he will not forsake us utterly” (7.30).  Nevertheless, he agreed to capitulate to the Assyrians should help not come (7.19-32).
At this crucial point we are introduced to the Unlikely Source of God’s salvation for the Jews: a woman named Judith.  Her name simply means “Jewess.”   She is what all of God’s children ought to be.  Having heard what Uzziah has decided she steps way out of her “traditional” bounds as a woman.  She summons him and the elders and upbraids them for their lack of faith – and for attempting to force the hand of God with the time limit on him.  She says,
Listen to me, rulers of the people of Bethulia! What you have said to people today is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the town to our enemies unless the Lord turns and helps us within so many days. Who are you to put God to the test today . . .You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his though?” (8.12-14).
Judith volunteers for a dangerous mission – to be used by God to defeat the mighty Assyrian army.  She prays.  She emphasizes her weakness and vulnerability but also expresses amazing confidence in the God who is “God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak” (9.11).  She concludes her prayer by bringing to expression the main issue, her (and the author) the manifestation of who truly is God in this world (9.14).
Judith ends up using the weakness of Holofernes, his arrogance and his desire for her beauty, to bring him down.    In one of the most painted scenes in western art, Judith decapitates a drunken Holofernes. Judith frankly acknowledges, “It was my face that tricked him to his destruction, and yet he committed no act of sin with me, to defile or shame me” (13.16).  Thus God wrought a powerful victory through the most unlikely of place for his people.  It is a delightful book with a powerful message.  Craven’s conclusion is worth quoting,
“She is a widow in the midst of arrogant, cowardly, and uncompromising people. Her strength is striking precisely because it opposes the weakness of those around her.  Her heroism in Part II is in counterpoint to the hubris of Assyrian pride and Israelite presumption and despair in Part I.” [3]

You can read more on the story of Judith in this “Judith: Radical Woman of God.”

Brief Look at “Modern” Critical Issues

In the “modern” period Judith has suffered considerably at the hands of enlightened Protestant critics.  Totally reversing the early church view, and even the opinion of Martin Luther himself noted in the opening, Judith has been turned into a liar, a sexual predator, a murderer and simply a dangerous woman!  Protestant scholarship of the Enlightenment till prior to World War II reflects not only the prejudice of those times but frequently is blatantly anti-Semitic (see deSilva’s all to kind comment, in my opinion, of E. C. Bissell’s frequently quoted Introduction) [4].  The “problems” with Judith are not unique to her and often are simply problems because we do not understand the cultural issues involved in an honor/shame society [5].  I need not dwell on these issues.

The fascinating character Achior should be mentioned briefly.  Achior is the leader of the Ammonites (5.5).  When Holofernes is seeking counsel on how to defeat the Israelites of Bethulia in the quickest possible manner Achior delivers an amazing speech.  Achior reviews this history of God with Israel from the call of Abraham down to the Exile. Sounding like summaries of God’s faithfulness through Samuel’s Farewell Speech (1 Sam 12), Nehemiah’s Prayer of Repentance (Neh 9), and Stephen’s speech (Acts 7) Achior testifies that as long as the Israelites are faithful to “the God of heaven” (5.8) the Assyrians can never win.  Ironically this pagan has more confidence in the God of heaven than the ready to surrender inhabitants of Bethulia! Achior is ridiculed by Holofernes men and they declare, “We are not afraid of the Israelites; they are a people with no strength or power for making war. Therefore let us go ahead, Lord Holofernes, and your vast army will swallow them up” (5.23-24).  Achior is expelled from the Assyrian camp and is captured by the Israelites.  Later in the in the book, after Judith has slain Holofernes he “converts” to Israel.  “When Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God. So he was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this day” (14.10).

The author makes a direct parallel with the Abraham story in Genesis 15.6.  The expression episteusen to theo occurs only in two places in the Greek Bible (LXX) that is in Judith 14.10 and Genesis 15.6. Thus as Roitman has correctly noted, “according to the book of Judith, the righteous pagan who converts to Judaism would also have, as the native Jew has, Abraham as his model or ‘father.‘” [6] Such a perspective would be important in the Jesus movement embracing Gentiles on the model of Abraham.


Judith’s Psalm

Prayer is an integral part of the story of Judith, just as we discovered of Tobit [7]. In the tradition of Moses, Miriam, and Deborah, Judith leads the children of Israel in praise and worship of the Lord through a “new psalm.” What else can be done when God has delivered us and through the most unexpected means, but praise him?  Judith continues the long line of piety in the Hebrew Bible especially in the Psalter.  As with other biblical literature there is the rich use of previous biblical literature to nourish the Spiritual well being of God’s people in a new day and situation.

And Judith said, 
Begin a song to my God with tambourines,
and sing to my Lord with cymbals.
Raise to him a new psalm;
exalt him, and call upon his name.
For the Lord is a God who crushes wars; 
he sets up his camp among his people; 
he delivered me from the hands of 
my pursuers.
(Judith 16. 1-2b)

Judith, like the Prophet Miriam (Ex 15.20) and the young ladies in procession in the temple (Ps 68.25) grabs a tambourine and assumes the role of worship leader.  In the Bible, God’s fresh act of grace demanded fresh praise.  We do not just sing the old song but now in light of God’s new act we sing our own song of worship and praise.

The call to a psalm of praise is grounded in what God has done and is doing.  God “crushes” war.  Those drunk on the liquor of combat will be disappointed for the Lord will simply put an end to all war.  The vision or dream of the prayer is for a world without any more Holoferneses. What a day that would be.

But not only does Judith call us to praise because God destroys war but because “he sets up his camp among his people.” Following the destruction of God’s enemies (i.e. war, etc) Judith praises God for one of the great blessings attested to throughout the Hebrew Bible, God lives with his people.  It is a vivid image that God “camps” with us.  God himself is the desire of the redeemed.

After narrating the magnitude of Israel’s dire straits from the Assyrian threat in verses 3 and 4, Judith gives God glory for the unbelievable way in which salvation was granted.  Only God could have accomplished salvation through a woman!

But the Lord Almighty has foiled them
by the hand of a woman.
For their mighty one did not fall by the
hands of the young men,
nor did the sons of the Titans strike
him down,
nor did tall giants set upon him;
but Judith daughter of Merari
with the beauty of her countenance
undid him.” (vv. 5-6)

The Lord God is given total credit for the unusual means of salvation from the tyrannical Assyrians.  Judith does not even give God’s enemy, Holofernes, the honor of being named, he is just the “mighty one” who suffers the unbelievable shame (in that culture) of being done in by a woman, a widow no less! The irony drips form this portion of the psalm.  God did not use the demi-gods known as the “sons of the Titans,” nor the legendary “giants” of the land.  God used a weapon fit for the occasion to undo the arrogance of an insatiable oppressor.  The beauty of an old lady (what delicious irony).  Should God not be praised?

Judith continues to narrate in the psalm how the God inspired actions of a widow had cosmic consequences.  The Persians and the Medes “tremble” with the news of what God has accomplished through one regarded so helpless (v.10).  Kicking into high gear Judith continues her “new song” of praise to the Lord.

I will sing to my God a new song;
O Lord, you are great and glorious,
wonderful in strength, invincible.
Let all your creatures serve you,
for you spoke and they were made.
You sent forth your Spirit, and it
formed them;
there is none that can resist your 
For the mountains shall be shaken to
their foundations with the waters;
before your glance the rocks shall 
melt like wax.
But to those who fear you
you show mercy.
For every sacrifice as a fragrant offering
is a small thing,
and the fat of all whole burnt
offerings to you is a very little thing;
but whoever fears the Lord is great forever.

Woe to the nations that rise up against 
my people!
The Lord Almighty will take 
vengeance on them in the day of 
he will send fire and worms into their
they shall weep in pain forever.”
(vv. 13-17).

Judith has unwavering faith in the majesty and uniqueness of our God.  He is the Creator of all things.  Through the instrumentality of the Spirit, life is given and the world is made. God’s all powerful word (voice) cannot be resisted by his creation. Those in rebellion against his lordship (like Holofernes) will find themselves missing their head but mercy is the lot of those who walk the dangerous road of faith.

Judith warns her listeners that simply going to church and performing perfunctory acts of religious service like sacrifices, the “five acts” of worship, etc have no manipulative power over God.  Far from being some kind of legalism, Judith sees that such acts of worship are “little things” when divorced from the heart that “fears the Lord” has standing (and mercy!).


What Jesus and the Early Church Heard

It is exceedingly unlikely that Jesus did not know the story of Judith.  The very epitaph of Uzziah for Judith was applied to his own mother, “O daughter you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women …” (13.18; Lk 1.42).  It is irrelevant, for our purposes, if he believed it was or was not Scripture, though obviously many people of the day did.  But the story was one of those things that “filled the air.”

Through the story of Judith, Jesus heard that God overcomes insurmountable obstacles through the most extraordinary and surprising means.  He heard that God can accomplish things even through scandalous means.  Jesus and the Jews of his day learned from the story of Judith that women were people in an unique relationship with God and not mere appendages. Jesus and the Jews around him knew of stories of how God used women to do what no man could do.  Jesus heard that women were incredible prayer warriors and were inspired to not only deliver by His power but to lead in the worship of fresh new praise to the King of Kings.  Jesus and Jews of his day learned in the story of Judith that crises, oppression and suffering may be a means of divine testing rather than punishment [8].  Jesus learned through such stories as Judith that trust in the Lord is the primordial basis of life.

These are not things that Jesus alone heard.  The first century church did as well.  We do not know when, or by whom, but Christians in the city of Rome knew the story of Judith even as John was penning his Gospel.  They assumed the Christians in Corinth knew who Judith was too.  It is difficult to believe that Clement learned this on his own.  He almost surely learned if from an earlier disciple. In all likely hood taken over directly from Jewish believers attached to synagogue. I realize I cannot prove that but it is certainly a reasonable supposition. Clement was asked to respond to a letter from the same church Paul had had so many issues with, that letter is known as 1 Clement and it is contemporary with the writings of John.  He exhorts them to unity and many other things.  A model of selflessness, graceful courage, and prayer is held out to the Corinthians.  It is one they surely already know, Judith.  I close with Clement’s words for this is what the early church heard, just as Jesus had.

Many women being strengthened through the grace of God have performed many manly deeds. The blessed Judith, when the city was beleaguered, asked of the elders that she might be suffered to go to the camp of the aliens. So she exposed herself to peril and went forward out of love for her country and of her people which were oppressed; and the Lord delivered Holofernes into the hand of a woman” (1 Clement 55)

Judith’s daring act of faith, her willingness to sacrifice herself, her psalms of prayer and praise were among the things the Corinthians needed to appropriate to themselves.  Judith what a blessed woman she is.

Here is the movie, Judith of Bethulia, which was on of the most extravagant of films from the Golden Age of Silent Film.  Enjoy.


1] See the richly textured study by Margarita Stocker, Judith Sexual Warrior: Women and Power in Western Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press 1998), quotes from pp. 24ff.

2] Toni Craven has shown that Judith is an exquisite work of literary art.  The book falls into perfectly balanced halves where Judith emerges as the counterpart of the hubris of Assyrian pride and Israelite presumption.  See “Artistry and Faith in Judith,” Semeia 8 (1977): 75-101.

3] Craven, “Artistry and Faith in Judith,” p. 95.

4] David A. deSilva, “Judith the Heroine? Lies, Seduction, and Murder in Cultural Perspective,” Biblical Theological Bulletin 36 (Summer 2006), 55-61.  deSilva writes “Bissell was particularly disturbed about Judith’s flirting with the ruing of her own sexual purity, going so far as to claim that she would have gone all the way with Holofernes if he didn’t oblige her by passing out before consummating his desires … Perhaps we should not be to surprised to find Bissell in a manner typical of late 19th century thinking about Judaism, condemning the religion of the author, which was able to stomach – indeed to bless – deception, teasing, and murder, but not the violation of the ceremonial law” (p. 56).  deSilva squashes this point of view for the make believe that it is.  Luke certainly thought enough of Judith to use her as a model for Mary herself and probably Anna.  See the comparisons and contrasts in Brittany Wilson’s excellent “Pugnacious Precursors and the Bearer of Peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1.42,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (2006): 436-456.

5] In addition to the case specific study by David A deSilva mentioned in note 4 I recommend the very user friendly intro to the issues of “honor and shame” in the Eastern cultures in Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien’s Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible (Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), 113-136.

6] Adolfo D. Roitman, “Achior in the Book of Judith: His Role and Significance,” in No One Spoke Ill of Her: Essays on Judith, (Scholars Press 1992), 40, See p. 45 note 54 on Judith 14.10 and Genesis 15.6 in the LXX.

7] Toni Craven, “From Where Will My Help Come?: Women and Prayer in the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books,” in Worship and the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honor of John. T. Willis, ed Patrick Graham, Rick Marrs and Steven McKenzie (Brill,    ), pp. 105-108.

8] Carey A. Moore, Judith: Anchor Bible (Doubleday 1985), 63.

One Response to “Prayer in the Apocrypha 3: Judith’s Psalm of Praise”

  1. Jenny Says:

    Great article! Personally, I don’t think Christians today give the Book of Judith enough credit, as many did in the past (and many Jews apparently do today). The Book of Judith does have a powerful message, although it’s historical anachronisms and inaccuracies do make me uneasy.

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