The Apogryphical Book of Judith and Its Historical Context Revisited
The Whole Judith Defended - A Reply to Eric Aitchison
by Damien Mackey
Sargon is Sennacherib
Achior the Cupbearer
Rise of David|
Judith - in Deutsch
The Book of Judith, in its present form, lends itself to - and has been located to - various historical epochs. It appears as a conflation. To follow Eric's quote, "... Judith is replete with conflated details drawn from at least five centuries of real history ...". It is seemingly such an historical potpourri that modern scholars tend to relegate it to the category of 'pious fiction', saying that it opposes holy Israel - represented by the Simeonite heroine "Judith" - to all the traditional enemies with whom 'she' ever had to contend . The very first verse of the book introduces us to a Babylonian-named king, "Nebuched-nezzar", ruling from the Assyrian capital of "Nineveh", at war with a Chaldean-named king of the Medes, "Arphaxad", based at "Ecbatana" .
But 'pious fiction' was by no means the description traditionally applied to Judith down through the centuries. Until the C16th, Judith had been regarded as truly historical; even by those (e.g. Jerome) who did not consider it to be scripturally canonical. Judith is saturated with historical type detail from beginning to end - that no doubt being the reason why so many have tried to nail it to an historical mast.
Most recently, Eric Aitchison has made a valiant attempt to find its historical matrix, in the time of Nebuchednezzar (c.600 BC). Unfortunately, though, Eric is not able to sustain his early promise that he will show the historicity of Judith to be more accurate than others have, so that Judith will "pass from a pious fiction to real history". In the end this book in its entirety becomes also for Eric - as it has for so many before him - a 'stone of stumbling'. He will have to abandon the last (and indeed main) part of the story because he cannot honestly find a niche for it in c.600 BC. Eric thus ends up doing exactly what he had set out not to do, relegating it to "pious fiction". At least Eric is honest enough to admit that the latter part of Judith cannot be force fed into his c.600 BC matrix.
Like that other deuterocanonical book, the highly popular Tobit, Judith must have been copied many times. And, like Tobit, names became changed - e.g., in Tobit the original "Bathania" and "Midian" became replaced by the geographically nonsensical "Ecbatana" and "Media". The trick of course is to rediscover the original names, and this can be done only, I suggest, by running down the main incident: in Judith's case the un-equivocal stranglehold upon Jerusalem by a world-conquering army (preferably Assyrian) of in excess of 182,000 (Judith 7:2), and then sudden defeat of that army.
Eric tries valiantly to keep alive the pervading Assyrian element of the Judith story by backdating the beginning of Nebuchednezzar's rule to what he calls "the Assyrian accession", about the time of the final destruction of Nineveh in 612 BC. Not a very propitious time though for one to be ruling from Nineveh. Eric can produce no solid historical data to back up his hypothesis. Most noticeably of all, Eric fails to accommodate the main incident of Judith. King Nebuchednezzar would in fact be the last invader of Jerusalem to whose army one would venture to attribute an annihilation at the hands of the Jews. And 600 BC would be the last era of which an editor of Judith could honestly say, after Israel's victory: "No one ever again spread terror among the Israelites during the lifetime of Judith, or for a long time after her death" (16:25) .
For Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed by Nebuchednezzar's forces within a mere decade or so of Eric's choice of 600 BC.
There is only one biblico-historical situation that can possibly be matched to the main incident in Judith, and that is Sennacherib's invasion of Palestine, and, ultimately - according to the Bible - his defeat (c.700 BC). Sennacherib's army of 185,000 Assyrians, led against Jerusalem by the king's Turtan (e.g. II Kings 18:17), admirably fits the Judith scenario of the "Holofernes"-led army of 182,000+ Assyrians whose goal was Jerusalem.
With the historical era of Judith thus pin-pointed to c.700 BC, as I believe, then one can begin to tidy up the copyists' errors regarding persons and places:
Read the annals of Sargon and Sennacherib and you will find there being described the exact same eastern war between Assyria and the Chaldean coalition as in Judith 1.
Moreover, virtually all of the major characters in Judith can be found in II Kings, II Chronicles & Isaiah [KCI] for this era. Apart from those kings already mentioned, we find:
On the Assyrian side|
On Israel's Side|
Conspicuously absent from Judith though is KCI's king Hezekiah. But we need to recall that Hezekiah [715-686 BC] was critically ill in this his crucial 14th year of reign (cf. Isaiah 38:1-4 & II Kings 18:2), and Eliakim had taken charge, as in Judith. In regard to the king's incapacity, note this possible subtlety, that, whereas Sennacherib had actively "sent" his three chief men to Jerusalem, there is no mention of Hezekiah's having actively and personally reciprocated. His three officials noticeably "came out"; were not sent (cf. II Kings 18:17,18) .||"And the king of Assyria sent Tartan and Rabsaris and Rabshakeh from Lachish to king Hezekiah with a great host against Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem ... they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is in the highway of the fuller's field. And when they had called to the king, there came out to them Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, which was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and Joah the son of Asaph the recorder." [2.Kings 18:17,18]|
The misdeeds of Ahaz
He made molten images of Baalim ... burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom and burned his children in the fire after the abomination of the heathen whom the Lord had cast out from before the children of Israel ... He sacrificed also and burnt incense in the high places, on the hills, and under ever green trees ... [2.Chronicles 28:1-5]
|The whole background scenario described in Judith 4:3 of a recent return from captivity, after the Temple, altar and sacred vessels had been profaned - which some have confused with the Babylonian Exile, though Judith says it was "of recent date" - can all in fact be accounted for during the turbulent reign of Hezekiah's impious father, Ahaz, who personally profaned the Temple (one can read the long litany of Ahaz's misdeeds in e.g. II Chronicles 28:1-5). His son, Hezekiah, spurred on no doubt by Isaiah, had to undo all of his father's damage and instigate a massive religious and civil reform (cf. 29:3-31:1-20).|
As for Judith's town of "Bethulia", which was apparently facing Dothan across the Esdrælon (Jezreel) plain (7:3), it has been likened by Torrey to the fort of Shechem , also called 'the geographical capital of Palestine'; a very important strategic site. I think this approximate location is preferable to Eric's view that "Bethulia" stood in the 'Way of Horus' on the maritime plain, since the Assyrians in Judith already had control of that sector even as far south as Ashkelon (cf. 2:28-3:8). Probably Beth Millo the fortress tower of Shechem - but situated somewhat apart from Shechem  - fits better Judith's "Bethulia", both in name and description, than does Shechem itself. Beth Millo may well be the northern Bethel against which Isaiah's father, Amos, had railed (Amos 7:13) , and Isaiah may have settled there to keep an eye on the north . Certainly Hezekiah would have stationed captains in various strategic cities in anticipation of the Assyrian invasion.
There is apparently no historical problem whatsoever with a Simeonite presence so far north of Judah .
And, finally, what about Judith herself in the Bible or history?
Well, did not Isaiah predict that "the Assyrian" would ultimately fall "by the hand of no man" (or male) (Isaiah 31:8)? Did the great prophet here have Judith in mind after he, as the "Uzziah" of Judith, had watched with admiration as this beautiful woman, accompanied by her maid, walked out of the gate of "Bethulia" and passed on down the valley into the Assyrian camp, convinced that she had gone forth as an instrument of Israel's deliverance - and with "Uzziah's" own blessing (Judith 10:6-9) ?
Isaiah/"Uzziah" would then have been able to relay this intelligence back to the nerve-wracked Hezekiah in Jerusalem.
A few days later Isaiah's calculated prediction was fulfilled. So, when Judith sang her victory pæan, she was able to echo Isaiah's words, that the Assyrian would fall "by the hand of no man":
'The Assyrian .... But the Lord Almighty has foiled them|
by the hand of a woman.
For their mighty ones did not fall by the hands of the young men,
nor did the sons of the Titans strike them down,
nor did tall giants set upon him; but Judith daughter of Merari
with the beauty of her countenance undid him'. 
This appears to me to be the true story of what happened to Sennacherib's ill-fated army of 185,000, which fled in chaos, with enormous casualties, after its all-conquering general had literally lost his head to this Jewish beauty (Judith 14:11-15:7).|
The ancient Jews were so impressed by what their heroine (an ancient Joan of Arc) had done for them (cf. Judith 13:17-20; 15:8-10, 12; 16:21-22) that - as in the case of Queen Esther - they dedicated an entire book to her .
The Book of Judith is a vital supplement to KCI in regard to Sennacherib's invasion.
Notes and references
See e.g. The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 38:17.|
All quotes taken from NRSV (Catholic Edition) unless otherwise indicated. See also: The online Vulgate Version of Judith and Tobit|
Judith, apparently a very young woman (a "girl") when she confronted the Assyrian general, lived to be 105 years of age (cf. 12:13 &16:23).|
Thereby placing before revisionists of neo-Assyrian history a further intriguing consideration: namely, the possibility that Shalmaneser V = Sargon.|
Sargon:"In my twelfth year of reign, Marduk-apal-iddina (Merodach-baladan) ..."|
Sennacherib: "In my first campaign I accomplished the defeat of Merodach-baladan, king of Babylonia, together with the army of Elam, his ally, in the plain of Kish. ...".
Luckenbill, D., Ancient Records of Assyria, No.39: "Dûr Iakini, whose defences [Merodach-baladan] had strengthened. (The length) of a chain he removed (the earth) from the front of its great wall and made the moat 200 cubits wide. ... [9 cubits] he made it deep and reached the nether waters ...". There is a certain degree of similarity in sound between the names Bit-Yakin and Ecbatana.|
The Douay version of Tobit actually calls him by the same name as in Judith: namely, "Achior", the nephew of Tobias. Judith 6:2; Tobias 11,19; and from Judith 6,2 (Septuaginta) we learn, that Arioch was an Ephraimite even though elsewhere he is called an Ammonite. The reason for this difference may be lost to history today.|
The translation "over the House [or household, or Palace]" (II Kings 19:2) should therefore be amended to "over the Temple". Same Hebrew word.|
In fact when the Assyrians actually "called for the king [Hezekiah], there came out to them [the king's three officials]".|
Torrey, C., JAOS (1899, 160 sqq.).|
See E. Nielsen's Shechem (G. Gad, Copenhagen, 1955), 165f.|
This at least is the view of C. Conder, Tent Work in Palestine, Vol.II (Richard Bentley & Son, London, 1878), 106-108.|
In various articles I have proposed that the prophet Hosea may have been Isaiah in his more northerly ministry.|
KCI has recorded that, at about the time of King Asa of Judah (c.C9th BC), Simeonites had settled amongst the Ephraïmites and Manassites. The Encyclopedia Judaica elaborates on this: "Nor ... is the most important geographical detail in the book, namely the reference to a Jewish (Simeonite) settlement on the border of the valley of Dothan, a fabrication. For a combination of various sources (Meg. Ta'an, for 25 Marheshvan (chap. 8); Jos., Ant. 13:275f., 379 f; Wars 1:93f.; and also apparently I Macc. 5:23) shows that at the time of the return in the region of Samaria, in the neighbourhood of what was known as "the cities of Nebhrakta," there was a Jewish-Simeonite settlement (which may in effect have existed as early as in the days of the First Temple and being of Semite origin: cf. II Chron. 34:6, 15:9; and also I Chron. 4:31) ...".|
A scenario that I suggest the Greeks lifted straight out of the Book of Judith and applied to Helen in The Iliad, Bk.3., 145- (Helen 'the Hellene', being largely the Greek version of Judith, 'the Jewess').|
"Strike up the instruments, a song to my God with timbrels, chant to the Lord with cymbals; Sing to him a new song, exalt and acclaim his name.|
For the Lord is God; he crushes warfare, and sets his encampment among his people; he snatched me from the hands of my presecutors.
The Assyrian came from the mountains of the north, with the myriads of his forces he came; Their numbers blocked the torrents, their horses covered the hills.
He threatened to burn my land, put my youths to the sword, Dash my babes to the ground, make my children a prey, and seize my virgins as spoil.
But the Lord Almighty thwarted them, by a woman's hand he confounded them.
Not by youths was their mighty one struck down, nor did titans bring him low, nor huge giants attack him; But Judith, the daughter of Merari, by the beauty of her countenance disabled him.
She took off her widow's garb to raise up the afflicted in Israel. She anointed her face with fragrant oil;
with a fillet she fastened her tresses, and put on a linen robe to beguile him.
Her sandals caught his eyes, and her beauty captivated his mind. The sword cut through his neck.
The Persians were dismayed at her daring, the Medes appalled at her boldness.
During the life of Judith and for a long time after her death, no one again disturbed the Israelites." [Judith 16:1-15, 25]
I see no reason to disagree with the tradition that Judith was composed by Joakim/Eliakim whom I here identify as the high priest. The book's very pious style is consistent with how a zealous priest would write.|
To read the book of Judith online click here!
A Very Interesting Portion
Now after that she had ceased to cry unto the God of Israel, and bad made an end of all these words.
She rose where she had fallen down, and called her maid, and went down into the house in the which she abode in the sabbath days, and in her feast days,
And pulled off the sackcloth which she had on, and put off the garments of her widowhood, and washed her body all over with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment, and braided the hair of her head, and put on a tire upon it, and put on her garments of gladness, wherewith she was clad during the life of Manasses her husband.
And she took sandals upon her feet, and put about her her bracelets, and her chains, and her rings, and her earrings, and all her ornaments, and decked herself bravely, to allure the eyes of all men that should see her.
Then she gave her maid a bottle of wine, and a cruse of oil, and filled a bag with parched corn, and lumps of figs, and with fine bread; so she folded all these things together, and laid them upon her.
Thus they went forth to the gate of the city of Bethulia, and found standing there Ozias and the ancients of the city, Chabris and Charmis.
And when they saw her, that her countenance was altered, and her apparel was changed, they wondered at her beauty very greatly ...
Thus they went straight forth in the valley: and the first watch of the Assyrians met her,
And took her, and asked her, Of what people art thou? and whence comest thou? and whither goest thou? And she said, I am a woman of the Hebrews, and am fled from them: for they shall be given you to be consumed:
And I am coming before Holofernes the chief captain of your army, to declare words of truth; and I will shew him a way, whereby he shall go, and win all the hill country, without losing the body or life of any one of his men.
Now when the men heard her words, and beheld her countenance, they wondered greatly at her beauty, and said unto her,
Thou hast saved thy life, in that thou hast hasted to come down to the presence of our lord: now therefore come to his tent, and some of us shall conduct thee, until they have delivered thee to his hands.
And when thou standest before him, be not afraid in thine heart, but shew unto him according to thy word; and he will entreat thee well.
Then they chose out of them an hundred men to accompany her and her maid; and they brought her to the tent of Holofernes.
Then was there a concourse throughout all the camp: for her coming was noised among the tents, and they came about her, as she stood without the tent of Holofernes, till they told him of her.
And they wondered at her beauty, and admired the children of Israel because of her, and every one said to his neighbour, Who would despise this people, that have among them such women? surely it is not good that one man of them be left who being let go might deceive the whole earth.
And they that lay near Holofernes went out, and all his servants and they brought her into the tent.
Now Holofernes rested upon his bed under a canopy, which was woven with purple, and gold, and emeralds, and precious stones.
So they shewed him of her; and he came out before his tent with silver lamps going before him.
And when Judith was come before him and his servants they all marvelled at the beauty of her countenance; and she fell down upon her face, and did reverence unto him: and his servants took her up.
Then said Holofernes unto her, Woman, be of good comfort, fear not in thine heart: for I never hurt any that was willing to serve Nabuchodonosor, the king of all the earth.
Now therefore, if thy people that dwelleth in the mountains had not set light by me, I would not have lifted up my spear against them: but they have done these things to themselves.
But now tell me wherefore thou art fled from them, and art come unto us: for thou art come for safeguard; be of good comfort, thou shalt live this night, and hereafter:
For none shall hurt thee, but entreat thee well, as they do the servants of king Nabuchodonosor my lord.
Then Judith said unto him, Receive the words of thy servant, and suffer thine handmaid to speak in thy presence, and I will declare no lie to my lord this night.
And if thou wilt follow the words of thine handmaid, God will bring the thing perfectly to pass by thee; and my lord shall not fail of his purposes.
As Nabuchodonosor king of all the earth liveth, and as his power liveth, who hath sent thee for the upholding of every living thing: for not only men shall serve him by thee, but also the beasts of the field, and the cattle, and the fowls of the air, shall live by thy power under Nabuchodonosor and all his house.
For we have heard of thy wisdom and thy policies, and it is reported in all the earth, that thou only art excellent in all the kingdom, and mighty in knowledge, and wonderful in feats of war. ...
Then her words pleased Holofernes and all his servants; and they marvelled at her wisdom, and said,
There is not such a woman from one end of the earth to the other, both for beauty of face, and wisdom of words.
Likewise Holofernes said unto her. God hath done well to send thee before the people, that strength might be in our hands and destruction upon them that lightly regard my lord.
And now thou art both beautiful in thy countenance, and witty in thy words: surely if thou do as thou hast spoken thy God shall be my God, and thou shalt dwell in the house of king Nabuchodonosor, and shalt be renowned through the whole earth. Then he commanded to bring her in where his plate was set; and bade that they should prepare for her of his own meats, and that she should drink of his own wine.
And Judith said, I will not eat thereof, lest there be an offence: but provision shall be made for me of the things that I have brought.
Then Holofernes said unto her, If thy provision should fail, how should we give thee the like? for there be none with us of thy nation.
Then said Judith unto him As thy soul liveth, my lord, thine handmaid shall not spend those things that I have, before the Lord work by mine hand the things that he hath determined.
Then the servants of Holofernes brought her into the tent, and she slept till midnight, and she arose when it was toward the morning watch,
And sent to Holofernes, saving, Let my lord now command that thine handmaid may go forth unto prayer.
Then Holofernes commanded his guard that they should not stay her: thus she abode in the camp three days, and went out in the night into the valley of Bethulia, and washed herself in a fountain of water by the camp.
And when she came out, she besought the Lord God of Israel to direct her way to the raising up of the children of her people.
So she came in clean, and remained in the tent, until she did eat her meat at evening.
And in the fourth day Holofernes made a feast to his own servants only, and called none of the officers to the banquet.
Then said he to Bagoas the eunuch, who had charge over all that he had, Go now, and persuade this Hebrew woman which is with thee, that she come unto us, and eat and drink with us.
For, lo, it will be a shame for our person, if we shall let such a woman go, not having had her company; for if we draw her not unto us, she will laugh us to scorn.
Then went Bagoas from the presence of Holofernes, and came to her, and he said, Let not this fair damsel fear to come to my lord, and to be honoured in his presence, and drink wine, and be merry with us and be made this day as one of the daughters of the Assyrians, which serve in the house of Nabuchodonosor.
Then said Judith unto him, Who am I now, that I should gainsay my lord? surely whatsoever pleaseth him I will do speedily, and it shall be my joy unto the day of my death.
So she arose, and decked herself with her apparel and all her woman's attire, and her maid went and laid soft skins on the ground for her over against Holofernes, which she had received of Bagoas far her daily use, that she might sit and eat upon them.
Now when Judith came in and sat down, Holofernes his heart was ravished with her, and his mind was moved, and he desired greatly her company; for he waited a time to deceive her, from the day that he had seen her.
Then said Holofernes unto her, Drink now, and be merry with us.
So Judith said, I will drink now, my lord, because my life is magnified in me this day more than all the days since I was born.
Then she took and ate and drank before him what her maid had prepared.
And Holofernes took great delight in her, and drank more wine than he had drunk at any time in one day since he was born.
Now when the evening was come, his servants made haste to depart, and Bagoas shut his tent without, and dismissed the waiters from the presence of his lord; and they went to their beds: for they were all weary, because the feast had been long.
And Judith was left alone in the tent, and Holofernes lying along upon his bed: for he was filled with wine.
Now Judith had commanded her maid to stand without her bedchamber, and to wait for her. ...
... coming forth, as she did daily: for she said she would go forth to her prayers, and she spake to Bagoas according to the same purpose.
So all went forth and none was left in the bedchamber, neither little nor great. Then Judith, standing by his bed, said in her heart, O Lord God of all power, look at this present upon the works of mine hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem.
For now is the time to help thine inheritance, and to execute thine enterprizes to the destruction of the enemies which are risen against us.
Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes' head, and took down his fauchion from thence,
And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day.
And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.
And tumbled his body down from the bed, and pulled down the canopy from the pillars; and after she went forth she gave, Holofernes his head, to her maid;
And she put it in her bag of meat: so they twain went together according to their custom unto prayer: and when they passed the camp, they compassed the valley, and went up the mountain of Bethulia, and came to the gates thereof.
Then said Judith afar off, to the watchmen at the gate, Open, open now the gate: God, even our God, is with us, to shew his power yet in Jerusalem, and his forces against the enemy, as he hath even done this day.
Now when the men of her city heard her voice, they made haste to go down to the gate of their city, and they called the elders of the city.
And then they ran all together, both small and great, for it was strange unto them that she was come: so they opened the gate, and received them, and made a fire for a light, and stood round about them.
Then she said to them with a loud voice, Praise, praise God, praise God, I say, for he hath not taken away his mercy from the house of Israel, but hath destroyed our enemies by mine hands this night.
So she took the head out of the bag, and shewed it, and said unto them, behold the head of Holofernes, the chief captain of the army of Assur, and behold the canopy, wherein he did lie in his drunkenness; and the Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman.
As the Lord liveth, who hath kept me in my way that I went, my countenance hath deceived him to his destruction, and yet hath he not committed sin with me, to defile and shame me.
Then all the people were wonderfully astonished, and bowed themselves and worshipped God, and said with one accord, Blessed be thou, O our God, which hast this day brought to nought the enemies of thy people.
Then said Ozias unto her, O daughter, blessed art thou of the most high God above all the women upon the earth; and blessed be the Lord God, which hath created the heavens and the earth, which hath directed thee to the cutting off of the head of the chief of our enemies.
For this thy confidence shall not depart from the heart of men, which remember the power of God for ever.
And God turn these things to thee for a perpetual praise, to visit thee in good things because thou hast not spared thy life for the affliction of our nation, but hast revenged our ruin, walking a straight way before our God.
And all the people said; So be it, so be it.
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