Judith at the head

The next of the books in a straight-through reading a Septuagint Bible introduces Judith — literally the Jewess — who like Esther cunningly saves the Jewish people from extermination.

Set sometime after the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity, the land of Judah is once again under threat of being overrun and plundered, this time by Holofernes, general-in-chief to Nebuchadnezzar II, king of the Assyrians in Nineveh. (Trying to set this against known history does get tangled, since he’s also credited with destroying the city.)

Enter Judith, a woman of astonishing beauty who sets out to defeat the invading army. It’s great movie material but, oh my, simplistic with more than a touch of the fairy tale. And it’s also quite sanitized story. Where do she and Holofernes really find such privacy in the culture that no one hears his death cries? Or do others assume these are cries of climax? And how does she waltz out of the battleground so casually? The movie version would certainly demand more tension on these fronts? Why doesn’t she take his foreskin as a souvenir, too, rather than the head atop his neck? Or place his whole male genitalia in the basket she carries? There’s certainly Biblical precedent for similar trophies.

Can she be seen as a Jewish Delilah? Well, it is refreshing to see one of their own cast as desirable, rather than the usual strong appeal of shikshas.

Caravaggio’s Judith beheading Holofernes.

 

Tiziano Vecelli takes a less violent stance around 1515. Does he see Judith as more passive?

Somehow, troubling, though is the refusal to cast Judith as a woman-warrior outright. No, we’re back in the dangerously seductive nature of beautiful women, who conquer by virtue of cunning and stealth, as we’ll see in Esther as well. Too much of the Scripture up to this point has invoked the inability of males to resist the seductive scent of women, a dark fear that easily slides into misogyny. No matter the gloss of victory and the joy of good triumphing over evil, the story has hints of deepening toward its finale.

Missing here is an overt invocation of the war-god on her part. (What? A woman has no connection to this deity? Or even no need?) When the Jews attack and defeat the Assyrians, their hymns of thanksgiving honor the Lord Almighty, rather than the Lord of Hosts. Could something be shifting in their awareness?

So what do we make of her decision not to remarry after the death of her husband, Manasseh, despite having many suitors? Maybe that’s the real movie material, with her being independent and honored in a patriarchal society.

The touching faithfulness of Tobit

The charming story of Tobit the Exile is one of the shorter books found in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon but not those of Jewish and Protestant Bibles. It tells of events in Nineveh in Assyria, as will the brief book of Jonah. (In the straight-through reading, we’re skipping around in the historical timeline. Oh, well, in getting to Ezra/Nehemiah, we skipped over most of the profound experience of exile. Now it’s time to start filling in the gap.)

Jan Massays, The Healing of Tobit. Note to dog, the most famous one in the Bible.

Unlike his brothers when they all lived in the northern kingdom of Israel, Tobit is a righteous man, one who risks his life to steal the bodies of slain fellow Jews in order to give them proper burial and who never neglects to aid the poor. As he relates all too modestly, “I, Tobit, have walked in paths of truth and in good works all the days of my life.” But misfortune strikes and he’s blinded.

His wife, Anna, becomes the breadwinner and has her own lovely strand to relate. When customers pay her more than the agreed upon for a piece of work, he’s embarrassed and wants her to return the excess. She replies, “What about your own alms? What about your own good works? Everyone knows what return you have had for them.”

Their gentle son, Tobias, enters the picture, along with Raphael (“one of the seven angels who stand ever ready to enter the presence of the glory of the Lord”) and Sarah, a friend’s daughter who’s suffered the misfortune of having bridegroom after bridegroom die before they’d ever slept with her.

As a writer, I love the structure of the unfolding story and the interplay of its characters. There are poignant quotes throughout, reflecting the emotional depths of this faith. And, best of all are the happy endings, although I wouldn’t gloat over the destruction of Nineveh among them. Well, I will allow others that sense of “smite my enemies” from time to time as a basic strand of human nature.

~*~

Considering the detail of Tobit’s being native to the land and people we just encountered as Samaria in Ezra/Nehemiah, can we see this as a veiled rebuke to the harsh decisions rendered in redefining the faith in Jerusalem and Judah?

I’ll take it that way.

Mentions of lost books or missing scriptures

Another curiosity in the straight-through reading is a realization that the approved Scriptures mention other writings that have since vanished. Among them are these:

  • Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14).
  • Book of Joshar or Jasher (Joshua 10:13, 2 Samuel 1:18), possibly a collection of ancient war songs, source of the reference to the sun and the moon standing still. Also known as the book of Jasher the Upright,
  • Book of the Annals of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41).
  • Samuel the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29).
  • Gad the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29).
  • Nathan the Prophet (1 Chronicles 29:29, 2 Chronicles 9:29).
  • Prophecy of Ahijah (2 Chronicles 9:29).
  • Visions of Iddo the Seer (2 Chronicles 9:29, 12:15, 13:22).
  • Shemaiah (2 Chronicles 12:15).
  • Jehu (2 Chronicles 20:34).
  • Sayings of the Seers (2 Chronicles 33:19).
  • Second book of Esdras (Ezra).
  • Jason of Cyrene’s five-volume history of the Maccabee events.

And then we have the Gnostic writings, which aren’t mentioned at all in the New Testament.

Also of concern are the stories that could have been told from the women’s perspective.

We’re missing their side of the experience.

The priestly cult evolves

In the book of Joshua, the Levites do not get their own province but are instead given cities (more likely villages) spread throughout the lands of the other 11 tribes. Later in Joshua, when cites of sanctuary are designated, they happen to be those of the Levites — linking the priestly class with a concept of heightened mercy.

Finding refuge in a city of sanctuary.

When the duties of the priests are first delineated in the books of Moses, there are enough details to keep one twelfth of the adult male population busy (as we’ve already noted, I don’t buy the 600,000 Israelites in Sinai but a much smaller band).

Somewhere in the Holy Land, a shift in their emphasis seems to occur.

The Levites appear to evolve into a learned class. Are they also the teachers and scribes throughout the nation? How do they relate to their kindred tribes? And then, with the establishment of the temple in Jerusalem and later the captivity, how do they carry their authority?

What is their connection to the judges?

For most readers, when Hannah dedicates her infant son Samuel to the service of the Ark, lost is the connection of Zuphite as a subset of Levites. In other words, not every mother could make such an offering.

There’s a shift under Ezra, with his renewed austerity. How do they become the enforcers of the edicts?

Do they become like the Brahmins in the Hindu caste system an elite class, to some extent ruling over the rest? They have the law, after all, like lawyers. What’s the source of their income, and how does it compare to the rest of the people’s?

I see this as another element in a much larger story than the histories presented in the Biblical canon.

Were all of the Levites priests in the Temple, once it was built by King Solomon?

This matter of being a special people

With all of the focus on prophets and kings, a reader can easily lose sight of the Bible as a story of a people in relationship to their God. Indeed, I wish there were more stories of everyday people.

For now, here are a few elements to consider.

Gathering a people

Is it really twelve tribes descending from Jacob? Or, once we’re down to Judah alone, just one or two of the tribes all along — the core all along or truly a remnant?

Rather than twelve tribes descending from Jacob, could they in fact be twelve independent tribes that are cobbled together in a confederation?

Can they be seen not as a chosen people but as separated people who stand apart from their surrounding cultures? That is, a unique people? As in “holy”?

Or as a choosing people … or covenanted people? Even the obligated people?

How do we identify them, anyway? I had always assumed that the Israelites or Hebrews were Jews all along, but in my reading I now see that the very word Jew is a shorter version of Judean.

What do we make of the repeated breakdown, generation after generation? As the Mennonites say, “God has no grandchildren.” Mennonites do not pass down their faith. They pass it on, to grow afresh, like seed.

(I see the story from Eden as focusing on one strand of descendants while ignoring all others. How often the threat appears to be from “outside,” from either armies or wives who harbor competing cultures, yet there’s enough to see it can arise from within the people as well.)

Jacob flees Laban, as the Twelve Tribes take shape.,
Nation-building

Is a nation necessary to ensure the free worship of this monotheistic deity? Purity?

Is a nation necessary for preserving a faith?

This Biblical arch as a narrative primarily of failure! Unique, contrary to most histories that are written by the victors, this can be seen as one of remorse and lamentation … in its times of exile, an underground counterculture!

Woven into this is Ezra’s implicit concept of Holy Seed — the genetic endowment from Jacob on down — which overlooks Ruth and other outsiders or Isaiah’s vision of a house of worship for all peoples.

With Ezra/Nehemiah, the definition coming down through the male sperm, the holy seed, rather than via the mother, overlooks the reality that the child’s religious formation comes under her care. This definitely casts Judaism as a male fertility cult.

Faith or culture?

Again, drawing from a Mennonite insight. For any individual in a religious community, we can ask whether the identity arises primarily out of personal spiritual encounter and experience and how much relies on the culture of the faith.

We can certainly see this dynamic in the Hebrew Bible — and in congregations and peoples today.

Joseph and his brothers carry Jacob back to Canaan to be buried in the cave with the tomb of Abraham and Sarah.