Monday, July 30, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (2)

One day when cleaning your parents’ attic, you discover what appears to be your grandfather’s journal. You pore over it enthusiastically. It’s full of fascinating details you never heard from your parents about Grandpa’s travels, working life and relationship with his siblings.

But something about the journal is fishy. The child who sounds exactly like your father is named Carl rather than Clark, the account makes him out to be a cartographer rather than a stenographer, and the family home is a decaying mansion in New Iberia rather than a turn-of-the-century Boston townhome. Turning to the inside front cover of the journal, you discover what you are reading is actually your grandfather’s long-abandoned attempt at writing a novel.

You might feel something like me, immersed in the Book of Judith. Great story, but the details are all wrong.

2. The Book of Judith

You can read the New Revised Standard version of Judith, thought to have been written a century or two before Christ, right here. Unlike Tobit, I sort of recommend it. I actually suspect it IS a seminal work of historical fiction.


Our story begins as the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria [No, that’s not a typo, Ed.] are challenged by the truculent Medes. Nebuchadnezzar calls on the armies of the nations within his influence to come and support his troops, but all disregard his command. Enraged, the Assyrians make short work of the Medes, and the king commissions his army commander Holofernes to punish the unresponsive nations. 180,000 men march south bent on dispensing death and destruction, only to be met by repentant envoys from Ammon, Moab, Edom and absolutely every nation that initially refused Nebuchadnezzar’s call ... with the solitary exception of Israel.

Holofernes then surrounds the city of Bethulia and prudently cuts its inhabitants off from their water supply. The Israelites are pushed to the brink of surrender. Just in the nick of time, a beautiful, devout, rich Simeonite widow named Judith talks the leadership out of laying down their arms. She promises deliverance.

Judith dresses up, makes herself pretty, takes wine, oil and food, and goes out to meet the Assyrians, claiming to be on the run from Bethulia and eager to speak to the army commander. She claims to have inside information that will make for an easier conquest. Holofernes, overwhelmed by her beauty and spirit, determines to seduce her. He invites her to a private dinner, becomes incredibly drunk and falls asleep, whereupon Judith summarily decapitates him. She then sneaks out of his tent and returns to Bethulia with the severed head of the Assyrian commander under her arm.

Upon seeing the grisly contents of Judith’s food bag, the Israelites are emboldened to fight. Upon finding the decapitated body of their commander, the Assyrians flee in terror and are routed by Israel, who then plunder their camp for a month. Much celebration ensues and everyone in Israel lives happily ever after.

Go Directly to Jael. Do Not Pass Go ...

Bonus points if you have noticed that the Book of Judith sounds like kind of a neat synthesis of the stories of Esther and Jael.

But even if its themes are a little derivative, unlike the Book of Tobit, Judith contains no glaring theological inconsistencies. Taken on its own, it reads like history, its characters are generally fairly believable, and it is uncomplicated by the bizarre supernatural elements and implausible plot twists present in Tobit.

No, it’s only when you put the Book of Judith side-by-side with the Old Testament canon that the problems emerge; they are not theological but historical. Christians familiar with the story of Israel will feel as if they have stepped into one of those weird alternative histories with which the “multiverse” is supposedly rife. Where Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah and the OT books of prophecy either fit directly into or follow logically from the sequence of major historical events established in the books of Kings and Chronicles, Judith feels like a hodgepodge of elements pulled at random from the histories of three different major world powers over several centuries. All the familiar place names and people-names are there, but they seem to be in weird and unlikely places.

King of the Who?

Nebuchadnezzar, for instance, is specifically noted to be headquartered in Nineveh (1:1) rather than in Babylon, as we find in Daniel. The problem is that Nineveh was destroyed the year before Nebuchadnezzar came to the throne of the Babylonian empire, and the Assyrians, who are a huge presence in the Book of Judith, were then subsumed into the new Chaldean world order and effectively ceased to exist.

Further, it was only 19 years into Nebuchadnezzar’s reign that Jerusalem was finally besieged and destroyed, and Solomon’s temple razed. In Judith, which specifically claims to be set in and after the twelfth year of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (1:1) (which would have been c. 593 B.C. by the secular chronology), Jerusalem is still standing, the temple as yet untouched (4:2). That would be fine if the Book of Judith allowed for its demolition to have occurred some time in the next seven years or so. But no. The following claim is made in the last verse of Judith:
“No one ever again spread terror among the Israelites during the lifetime of Judith, or for a long time after her death.
The “lifetime of Judith”. Hmm. The woman is said to have died at the age of 105 (16:23) and is depicted as spectacularly attractive throughout the book. It is her beauty that drives the whole plot. Thus, even if she were sufficiently splendid to have successfully seduced Holofernes at the ripe old age of 75, and even if “a long time after her death” means only a single generation, we’re talking about Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem standing for an absolute bare minimum of sixty years longer than it actually did — realistically, more like a century — or, alternatively, having been rebuilt more than a century earlier than it was. That puts the Book of Judith wildly out of sync with both the biblical and secular chronologies.

The Returning Exile Problem

Then there is the problem of the returning exiles. The fourth chapter of Judith reads as follows:
“When the Israelites living in Judea heard of everything that Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Assyrians, had done to the nations, and how he had plundered and destroyed all their temples, they were therefore greatly terrified at his approach; they were alarmed both for Jerusalem and for the temple of the Lord their God. For they had only recently returned from exile, and all the people of Judea had just now gathered together, and the sacred vessels and the altar and the temple had been consecrated after their profanation.”
Now, Assyrian cuneiform indicates the captives taken from the Ten Tribes of Israel between 740 and 722 B.C. numbered 27,290. If the descendants of these were the returning exiles referred to in Judith 4:3, the numbers might be fiddled to make some sort of quasi-reconciliation with biblical and secular chronologies. But they are not. The Book of Judith specifically refers to the profanation of the “sacred vessels”, the “altar” and the “temple”, which had to be consecrated. That profanation did not occur until the conclusion of the siege of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.

Further, the book of Judith makes no mention of a king in Jerusalem, which makes perfect sense in a post-exilic setting, but none whatsoever in pre-exilic Judah between the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities.

More Inconsistencies

Then there’s the mysterious Israelite city of Bethulia, located somewhere to the south of Jerusalem, where all this takes place. It’s sufficiently big and defensible to hold off 180,000 Assyrian troops, but so insignificant it rates no mention at all in the rest of scripture.

To top it off, there’s Judith’s claim (8:18) that her people have forsaken idols:
“For never in our generation, nor in these present days, has there been any tribe or family or people or town of ours that worships gods made with hands, as was done in days gone by.”
This could only be said with any degree of seriousness more than a century later, after Judah’s exiles had returned from Persia. Right up until the moment they were taken into captivity, both the inhabitants of Samaria and Jerusalem were avid worshipers of “gods made with hands”, as Ezekiel 23 spells out in no uncertain terms.

In short, in many different ways, the timelines and truth-claims in the Book of Judith just do not work. Little about the story can be made to reconcile with either the secular or the biblical accounts, though many of the smaller details are no doubt authentic; people generally write what they know. Catholics preserve Judith as part of their Bibles and are generally committed to its historicity, but even so, the 1913 Catholic Encyclopaedia lists numerous “very serious difficulties” much like those I have mentioned. These historical problems have yet to be satisfactorily resolved despite more than a century having passed since the encyclopaedia’s original publication, and notwithstanding the many archaeological and textual breakthroughs of the 20th century.

What Would We Lose Without It?

Despite the major historical issues in the book, I’m rather fond of Judith chapter 5. It retells the story of Israel from the point of view of Achior, an Ammonite mercenary. His version sounds pretty well researched. He refers to the Hebrews as “descended from the Chaldeans”, and goes back all the way to Abraham. Everything from the famine in Jacob’s day to the conquest of Canaan after the Egyptian sojourn is spelled out with sufficient emotional distance that it sounds like it is being described by someone authentically non-Jewish. It’s an interesting spin, quite consistent with scripture, and shows the impression that the God of Israel had made on the neighboring nations over the centuries.

The argument is made that there is a great deal more said about God in Judith than in Esther. That is certainly the case. On the other hand, God or no God, the events of Esther fit seamlessly into the Old Testament chronology, whereas the events in Judith clash with it at every turn.

Readability: 9/10
Plausibility: 3/10

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