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Judith and Esther

Judith

Like the book of Tobit, that of Judith was also written in a Semitic language—probably Hebrew—but the original text was lost early on. There are now a number of Latin and Greek texts which can be used as controls on one another. Jerome made a free translation of an Aramaic text, cutting it down to approximately a fifth of its size, and this is the Latin version in the Vulgate, which the New Vulgate has corrected and expanded.

It is not known who the author was, but he very likely was a post-exilic Jew who probably lived around the third century B.C.. The text presupposes the repatriation of the Jews from Babylon; Palestine is depicted having a sizable population and the Temple being fully operational.

The book of Judith was excluded from the Jewish canon by Pharisees around the first century A.D. on very arbitrary grounds. Nor is it accepted by Protestants (who describe these deuterocanonical books as “apocryphal”). The Catholic Church has always regarded them as inspired. They are often quoted by the Fathers, and the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) included them among the Sacred Scriptures.

It is important to bear in mind, that this is a free narrative of a historical event, written with a teaching, moralizing purpose in mind. This explains, for example, why Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.), is described as king of Nineveh, whereas Nineveh is known to have been destroyed in 612. According to the narrative itself we are in the post-exilic period, after the rebuilding of the Temple (4:3-13; 5:18). There are no signs of idolatry (8:18), and the Law is being rigorously observed (12:2-9). All this suggests that the sacred writer, for some reason of symbolism, wanted to give fictitious names to people and places. His contemporaries would have had no difficulty in working out what the characters’ real names were, whereas we have the greatest difficulty.

What can be said is that here is a book built on a nucleus of historical fact but developed without paying much attention to historical detail: It was written in order to get across a message, that faithfulness to Yahweh saves Israel from every danger (8:11-27; 16:1-7).

Danger appears on the horizon when King Holofernes reaches the plains of Esdraelon, after crushing the cities of the Phoenician and Jewish coast, bent on destroying all forms of worship incompatible with the quasi-divine aspirations of Nebuchadnezzar. When they hear the news, the Jews get ready to fight him, even though they have very limited resources, which both surprises and annoys Holofernes.

The leader of the Ammonites, Achior, advises him to act prudently because whenever Israel is faithful to its God, he tells him, it has no reason to be afraid of anyone (5:1-21). The Jews are based in Bethulia. The Assyrians manage to cut off their water supply, and their situation becomes so desperate that they eventually decide that they will surrender in five days’ time unless God comes to their rescue (ch. 7)–a sensible decision, given their plight. Just at this point Judith, a young widow, comes in, beautifully prudent, devout. “Who are you,” she asks the rulers, “that have put God to the test?” They give their approval to the daring plan she proposes.

After doing penance (ch. 9) she dresses in her finery and jewelry, and, accompanied by her maid, she leaves the city and goes to Holofernes, whom she captivates with her beauty and intelligence. Holofernes invites her to attend a banquet, in the course of which he drinks too much. Judith is left alone with him and g.asps her opportunity (ch. 13). She calls on God to strengthen her and cuts off his head with two blows. As soon as she gets back to Bethulia she displays the head; all the people praise God for the great miracle. The Assyrians flee in panic, and the Jews sack their camp (ch. 14-15).

Judith spends the rest of her long life in peace and honor. She declines all offers of marriage. Before she dies she distributes her property to her relatives. When she dies she is buried with her husband and mourned for seven days by a grateful people.

The book of Judith is a well-told story in a literary form reminiscent of apocalyptic writing. Holofernes is shown as the epitome of the power of evil. Judith, whose name means “the Jewish woman,” represents God’s cause and symbolizes the Jewish people which wishes to stay faithful to their covenant with Yahweh.

Just when everything seems lost, God, who is ever faithful to his promises, causes the very weakness of his people to produce strength, in the form of a woman, who in this instance will be the instrument of his justice. Judith’s victory represents the just reward of her trusting prayer and exemplary life of penance.

The deception which Judith uses was of a type regarded as licit in a war against an invader. Judith did not seek or even fear Holofernes’ lust. God led her to act in the way she did (13:16-19). By beheading him without her honor being damaged in any way, she achieves a double victory, moral and patriotic. This is why Catholic piety sees in Judith a symbol of Mary Immaculate who, without being affected by the promptings of the tempter, crushes the head of the infernal serpent.

On the plain of Esdraelon, near that other plain of Armageddon, where John places the battle at the end of the world on the great day of God the Almighty (Rev. 16:15-16), the book of Judith exhorts us to be vigilant, through prayer and good works, so as not to lose faith or hope. The story is a simple one, told with a certain naivet, but it carries a message for all individuals and all nations. Jerome in fact in his preface to Zephaniah proposes Judith as a figure of the Church of Jesus Christ: Her personal qualities—of beauty, wealth, good repute, and public spirit—seem to reflect the Spouse of Christ, all beauty, without stain or wrinkle, adorned with the finest of gifts and prerogatives. She it is who defends us, despite our weaknesses, from the attacks of God’s enemies in this world.

Esther

Together with Tobit and Judith, the book of Esther forms a special grouping within the historical books of the Old Testament. The Jews include it as the eighth book of the Ketubim (= writings) and the fifth in the Meghillth (= scrolls), which were used in the liturgy. Her earlier name was Hadassah, the daughter of Abigail, of the tribe of Benjamin, of the house of Kish. Her family had been deported to Babylon in 597 B.C. Her kinsman Mordecai was born when his parents were already in captivity, which was why he was given a Babylonian name, derived from the name of the god Marduk.

To the Hebrew text, which is fairly complete, the Greek version adds seven chapters which are regarded as deuterocanonical; in the New Vulgate these are inserted into the text and their verses listed alphabetically.

The name of the author is not known. As far as the Greek text is concerned, it seems to have been written by a Jew who was familiar with Persian history and customs. He had access to Persian chronicles (2:23, 10:2) and the writings of Mordecai (9:20). He must have written the book in Persia between 300 and 250 B.C. The Jews in Palestine were already celebrating in 160 “Mordecai’s day” (2 Macc. 15:36), which implies that they not only knew of the story of Esther but also were very probably familiar with the book of Esther.

The book of Esther, as we saw in connection with the book of Judith on which it is dependent from the literary point of view, recounts a historical event which modern Catholic scholars classify as belonging to the literary genre of free narrative, that is, “an historical account freely embellished” (Spadafora). This does not mean that free narrative is the same as fiction, for the historical veracity of the book is confirmed by its precise knowledge of Persian customs, its detailed description of the royal palace at Susa, which recent excavations have made better known to us, and the narrative is fresh and full of detail, with no anachronism of any kind.

The whole story is quite dramatic. Mordecai has a dream in which he sees in a somewhat symbolic way the danger that lies ahead for his people and how they will escape it. In the third year of his reign Ahasuerus gives a magnificent banquet which his queen, Vashti, refuses to attend. The king is so incensed that he repudiates her and chooses Esther to take her place. Relations between Mordecai and Haman, the king’s first minister, become strained because Mordecai refuses to do obeisance to him. (It was quite customary for oriental courts to require people to prostrate themselves as a sign of subservience, but Mordecai refused to conform, on religious grounds: Adoration of a man he regarded as being in conflict with the worship he owed God). His conduct puts the Jewish people at risk.

Through Esther Mordecai apprises the king of a plot to kill him, but he is not rewarded as he expected: Haman in fact is so furious that he devises a sinister plan to exterminate Mordecai and his fellow Jews. He obtains a royal decree to this end, but Mordecai asks Esther to intercede with the king and beg for clemency for the Jews. The prayer first of Mordecai and then of Esther prepare the way for the king’s final decision: God inspires him to change his mind, and the scaffold which Haman has prepared for Mordecai is used for Haman himself.

After Haman’s death Mordecai’s honor and loyalty are immediately recognized, and he becomes the king’s first minister. He obtains a royal decree permitting Jews to use arms in self-defense. The Jews are not long in taking their revenge, and, with Ahasuerus’ approval, many Persians are put to the sword. To commemorate this victory the Jews establish the feast of Purim, more a secular than a religious celebration.

This book is reminiscent of the story of Daniel and even of that of Joseph, who, after being sold by his brothers, is victimized and then rehabilitated; promoted by Pharaoh, he later saves his people (Gen 37:2ff). In Esther direct intervention by God is not exactly mentioned, but, although the Hebrew version avoids mentioning God’s name, the whole book is impregnated with a sense of divine providence. The protagonists always place their reliance on him who controls all human events, beseeching his help and doing penance (4:3-17).

The liturgy prefers to use the Greek fragments of the text which makes explicit what the Hebrew writer only hints at. Here again God’s great mercy is evident; he never abandons his people, even though sometimes it seems that humanly speaking there is no way out for them. In this instance he uses a woman, Esther, to change a course of events which seem to be working against the people of Israel.

Jerome sees Esther as a figure of the Church. Unknown at first, she grows like a little stream to become a deep river which irrigates and brings fruitfulness to all the land. Even the persecutions which Esther suffers point up her exceptional qualities and virtues and her love of her people. This explains why the Church in its liturgy applies to Mary (on the feast of our Lady of Lourdes) some quotations from the book of Esther, though obviously Esther cannot be compared with the Blessed Virgin, the humble maid of Nazareth chosen to become the Mother of God.

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