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THE BOOK OF JUDITH
LIKE Tobit, the Book of Judith is a historical romance, in which dates, historical characters and events are used somewhat at random to afford a picturesque setting for the unfolding of great national and religious ideals. It was evidently written at a time of trial, perhaps during the Maccabæan revolt, to stiffen the courage of the people. The writer was of the Pharisaic party, and wrote in Hebrew, from which our Greek versions must all have been translated. He had full knowledge of his own sacred books, and shows considerable literary skill in working up to the climax of his story. If the “Song of Judith” is really part of the original book, and not an earlier writing incorporated by the writer, he was also a man of the deepest spiritual insight and poetic feelings.
With regard to the historical setting the story is placed in the time of “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Nineveh," who died in the year 562 B.C., and who is regarded as sending his expedition after the return of the Jews from captivity, at the earliest 536 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar did not reign at Nineveh, nor attack Media, nor capture Ecbatana, as here represented. Various attempts have been made to find some historical personage who may be disguised under the name of Nebuchadnezzar. The historical framework seems most likely to have been suggested by the campaign of Artaxerxes Ochus, King of Persia, against Phoenicia and Egypt, though there is no historical confirmation in
any records of anything corresponding to the events of the Book of Judith. This campaign took place about 350 B.C., and there was a Holofernes, who is stated to have died in his own country, and a Bagoas concerned in it (Diodorus Siculus, xxxi. 19; xvi
. 47). The problem must remain insoluble, why the writer should misname this monarch, or whether he was intentionally disguising the names of persons of his own day. But the real interest of the Book of Judith does not turn on the accuracy of the writer's historical knowledge. Nor would it be increased if it could be proved to be, as some have thought, a romance founded on a local legend, which had a kernel of actual truth. Its real interest lies in the extremely dramatic figure of the heroine, and the vigorous enunciation from her lips of the faith and practice of the Jewish race. And it is also a remarkable presentment of the views of the typically Pharisaic party before their final crystallization into hidebound legalism.
The first seven of the sixteen chapters are introductory, and relate how Nebuchadnezzar sends a punitive expedition under Holofernes of 120,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry to chastise Syria and Egypt for not joining him in a war against Media. Arriving at Esdraelon he finds the Jews of Bethulia (a rocky fortress-town which may be Shechem) have stopped the passes leading to Jerusalem. Achior, an Ammonite, tells him that the Jews can only be conquered if they offend their God, and as a punishment for his impertinence is handed over to the enemy. Holofernes gets possession of Bethulia's water-supply and sits down to starve the Jews out. After thirtyfour days it is determined by the besieged that the town shall only hold out for five more days.
In the eighth chapter the rich widow Judith appears from her retirement, and proposes to go and work a deliverance. With a maid, bearing, clean food,” she is admitted to the presence of Holofernes, and assures him that the Jews are about to incur God's anger by eating the sacred food, and that she would inform him the moment they could be safely attacked. For three nights she is allowed to go outside the camp for prayer, but on the fourth she consents to go to
Holofernes' feast. He drinks much more wine than he had drunk at any time in one day since he was born, while Judith partakes only of her own food. The servants depart and leave them together, and Judith after prayer takes Holofernes' sword, “and smote twice upon his head with all her might, and she took away his head from him, and tumbled his body down from the pillars; and anon after she went forth, and gave Holofernes his head to her maid; and she put it in her bag of meat.' They escape to Bethulia, and are received with joy. The Jews make a sortie, and the enemy attempt to rouse Holofernes, and discovering what has been done, flee in disorder.
The last chapter contains Judith's beautiful song of praise“ For their mighty one did not fall by young men,
Neither did sons of the Titans smite him,
(XVI. 7.) Though the book was not received in the Canon, it is mentioned in the Liturgy for the Feast of Dedication, founded by Judas Maccabæus. It was quoted by Clement of Rome, and most of the early Fathers, and was a favourite subject for Art in the Middle Ages.
Its Pharisaic character is very evident. Obedience to the law is the essence of righteousness, and the secret of a good conscience. Judith observes not only the feasts, but their eves; she is careful not to eat forbidden food; she fasts constantly. She teaches that God will punish disobedience to these ritual ordinances not only here but hereafter.
THE BOOK OF SIRACH
“ECCLESIASTICUS "is the name in the English Bible for the book whose original title was probably
The Wisdom of Jesus Ben-Sira." Ecclesiasticus means the Church Book," and the name dates from the fourth century A.D., when it was regarded as a useful book of instruction for catechumens.
Ben-Sira wrote in Hebrew somewhere about the year 175 B.C. And his book, as the Prologue tells us, was translated into Greek by his grandson at Alexandria, probably in the year 132 B.C. The Hebrew original had been lost since the eleventh century, and the discovery of the greater part of it sheet by sheet, in the Genizah at Cairoby Prof. Schechter and others from the year 1896 onwards, is among the romances of modern research. As might be expected, there are considerable differences between the Hebrew and the Greek, both having passed through many copyings and editions.
The book belongs to the Wisdom [Hokmah) Literature of the Jews, which was the proverbial philosophy, or commentary on life and duty, that naturally developed out of the homely sayings and fables that seem from the early books of the Old Testament to have been as common among the Jews as among other peoples. In the time of Jeremiah the specifically wise man or ethical student and teacher stood with the priest and the prophet as one of the leaders of the religious life of the Jews (Jer. xviii, 18). The Hebrew mind realized that all Wisdom came to man from God, both the knowledge of God Himself, and the wisdom of ordinary practical life. The wisdom-writers loved to paint Wisdom as a personal being in the company of God from the beginning, and sent by Him to holy souls. The attainment of it depended on human effort and concentration; earnestness in its pursuit was always rewarded, but its growth in the community required a leisured class wholly devoted to its cultivation.
From the time of Alexander the Great the Jews had been affected by Greek culture, and had learned to make wisdom or knowledge the root-principle of virtue. As“ virtue" to the Hebrew could only mean obedience to the divinely given Law, we can see how he was forced to identify the true wisdom ultimately with the Law, and to say the fear of the Lord is the consummation of Wisdom.". Thus in his pursuit of Wisdom, unlike the Greek thinkers, he was in a sense searching for something, the main outlines of which were already known to him. He always comes back to the precepts of the Law. Of this literature of practical philosophy, Ben-Sira proclaims himself a humble and belated follower. He comes last of all, as one that gleaneth after the grape-gatherers.” But he has filled his wine-press. And the stream he led into his garden to irrigate it has become a river, and the river a sea. He has developed to the full the hints of the Proverbs and the Psalms for the guidance of his own day. Thus his book became a comprehensive guide of life in every particular. It explores with the reserve of his Sadducæan limitations the deep questions of sin and freewill, death and retribution. It lays down rules for tactful behaviour in the Council, in the market and at home. It teaches care and circumspection in men's relation with women, and with associates in business. It includes detailed advice on behaviour in society and at the dinnertable. Its writer is evidently one who has travelled and figured in the highest society of his day; he is no mere student cut off from the experience of life.
Relishing a good table, music and congenial company, but moderate in his enjoyments; genuinely pious, and a constant reader of holy books, but not