The Apocrypha – The Book of Judith: Another Strong, Capable Woman Takes Matters into Her Own Hands (with Fantastic Results)
When I was in 8th grade, I worked at a comic book and movie rental store for $3.50 an hour. This funded my comic collection. Beyond enabling me to amass a sizable collection, the best part of the job was what I learned from my co-workers, namely the three managers. Taking me under their wings, they spent a lot of time educating me about comic books, music and movies. Needless to say, at my young age, I had much to learn, and like most kids, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
That Fall of 1987, as the Oscar-bait slate of movies hit theaters, I was invited to tag along for late showings of films (at 10 pm on a Friday night, well past my usual curfew) and I was allowed, in part because of whom I was with. One of my favorites was John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, a “small” film about a boy growing up in Britain during World War II.
I could not stop talking about this film, and one night, while the store was slow, Julian, the manager that night, engaged my opinion: what about the film did I like? He wasn’t writing off my opinion because of my age; rather, he wanted to understand my thinking so he could turn me on to other films that might also interest me and would, in turn, deepen my film knowledge. Couldn’t I just react? Why did I need a reason (or several reasons) for liking something? Well, sure, but it helps to understand your interest if you really want to broaden them.
After replaying the film over and over in my head, I eventually hit upon my relating to the boy trying to find himself in a turbulent world even with a supportive, though at times distracted, family. I would later come to understand that I also appreciated the innocent tone that permeated the heavy, war-ravaged environment of the film’s setting. Julian used this information to recommend 1973’s Paper Moon, a film with family drama paired with con games. Having liked that, Julian recommended another con game film, David Mamet’s House of Games. By being open minded as well as clear about what I liked in a film, I was able to discover more and more interesting films.
Films don’t require an expert to recommend choices based on your interests, but not all films are well-known in the mainstream, so it helps to have someone handy who can locate a lesser-known gem.
By having its chapters excised from the Bible, the Apocrypha is really a series of marginalized stories that may or may not be of interest to Bible readers. Some of these stories are stronger than others. This opinion is based on the parts of the Bible I find appealing as well as the parts I don’t.
Although I enjoyed a lot of what I read in the Old and New Testament, the stories that resonated with me the most were the lesser-known stories. Among these is the story of Esther. This particular story held my interest, in particular because of how it depicts such a strong, capable woman. It’s also the lone story driven by an active female protagonist. So when I encountered the Book of Judith in the Apocrypha, I was looking forward to enjoying another story about a woman who appears to be not only the only person who can fix a situation but also willing to undertake the challenge.
Why this interesting story was excised from the Old Testament is strange. Perhaps the reason is, as Goodspeed point out, this is clearly a work of fiction, as the misinformation that opens this book makes clear to any literate person of that era would know immediately: the king at the center of the conflict, Nebuchadnezzar ruled over the Babylonians, not, as the opening lines suggest, the Assyrians. Fiction or no, this story offers much to enjoy.
So here’s the story: King Nebuchadnezzar wants to start a war and issues a call for neighboring peoples to join him—most refuse. He eventually conquers his enemy and decides to punish those who ignored his call. When the recently-back-from-Babylonian captivity Israelites hear of the plundering of neighbors, they start preparing for conflict. Nebuchadnezzar’s main general, Holofernes hears of Judea’s plans and asks Judea’s neighbors for some intel on these people. He learns of their history (parts of Genesis, Exodus, etc.) and how God protects them as long as they obey God (5:17). One lone advisor suggests Holofernes heed this warning while every other person of influence disagrees. So of course Holofernes opts for war.
Meanwhile, in the mountain pass area that leads to Judea, the Jews are concerned, and the prominent widow Judith hatches a plan. A devout believer, she prays to God to allow a woman’s hand to break down the enemy’s state (9:10) and to empower her deceitful words (9:13). She finds her way to the enemy’s camp, convinces them that she has fled her people because they have sinned, and will help this army punish them (11:19). After earning their trust, she gets Holofernes drunk, convinces him (through her beauty) that he can have her, and then, while alone with him in his tent, she beheads him and flees.
Back home, she relays what she did and shows the town council his head. She is blessed for her mission.
The enemy camp, discovers the beheaded body and the soldiers flee. The Israelites then plunder the rich camp and bestow the general’s riches on Judith. She’s fine to take the money, but she makes sure to give the glory to God and points out that a lone woman defeated an army (16:7-8). Now famous and rich, she refuses to give herself to another man, even though she has been a widow for more than three years. She has no use (or need) for another husband.
Lesson: Fear the lord, don’t just make an offering.
So aside from my appreciation of a strong female driven story, I enjoyed how one person can put herself in danger for the sake of her community because it was the right thing to do. It’s a shame that this story is not included alongside Esther in the Old Testament. The story can be found on its own (as I found it); however, a casual Bible reader might not make the effort, and how many Bible experts would take the time to recommend this story as supplemental reading? Thankfully, the Apocrypha has collected a handful of these worthy stories. But how many stories exist that haven’t?