The Book of Judith is read altogether too rarely. Protestants don’t have it in their Bibles, and many Catholics do, but wouldn’t know it. But it illustrates, quite vividly, the importance of holding fast to God.
This depiction comes from the seventh and eighth chapter of Judith, during the course of Holofernes’ campaign against the Israelites. The Israelites are holed up in a series of mountainous cities that are hard to access, so Holofernes and his men besiege Bethulia by cutting off the water supply. After 34 days, the Israelites in the city are ready to surrender, and complain to their leaders that it was only stubbornness that has prevented the Israelites from making peace with the Assyrians. To the elders, they say (Judith 7:24-28):
“God be judge between you and us! For you have done us a great injury in not making peace with the Assyrians. For now we have no one to help us; God has sold us into their hands, to strew us on the ground before them with thirst and utter destruction. Now call them in and surrender the whole city to the army of Holofer′nes and to all his forces, to be plundered. For it would be better for us to be captured by them; for we will be slaves, but our lives will be spared, and we shall not witness the death of our babes before our eyes, or see our wives and children draw their last breath. We call to witness against you heaven and earth and our God, the Lord of our fathers, who punishes us according to our sins and the sins of our fathers. Let him not do this day the things which we have described!”
The assembly then erupted into a “great and general lamentation,” as they cried out to God (Judith 7:29).
What we’re hearing from the Israelites in Bethulia is nothing new: it’s a perennial human temptation. In fact, we heard these cries during the readings from last Sunday. During the Exodus through the desert, the Israelites grew weary of eating only the manna, and cried out (Numbers 11:5-6):
“O that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
|Peter Paul Rubens,
The Israelites Gathering Manna in the Desert (1627)
They were ready to trade their freedom (with all its accompanying suffering) for comfort and physical security, even if it means submitting to slavery to the Egyptians. There’s a lot we can learn from this, because we’re prone to do the same thing. I’m sure there are plenty of political analogies that can be drawn, about preferring a secure state (even a security state) to a free one.
But I’m not particularly interested in that, nor do I think that Scripture includes these repeated illustrations for that purpose. Rather, I think the message is about faith, and in the case of Numbers 11, about the Eucharist. In the Bread of Life discourse, Christ draws out the connection between the manna and the Eucharist (John 6:49-51, 53-58):
“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. […]
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”
As Numbers 11 explains, the Israelites in the desert died, because they turned away from the manna and longed after the fleshpots of Egypt. It’s an important warning to those Catholics who leave the Church because they feel like they’re “not being fed.” I understand: the day-to-day life of many Catholic parishes is mediocre, at best. The Scriptural exegesis in the homilies may be weak, or non-existent, or even wrong / heretical. The people around you may seem (may, in fact, be) bored out of their minds. The other congregants (and, God forbid, the clergy) may be unwelcoming when you try to join.
I’m not blind to how bad some Catholic parishes are, nor do I intend to whitewash or defend their lukewarmness. But, barring the extraordinary, these Masses do have Jesus Christ in the form of the Eucharist: He is there, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The Eucharist is the Bread of Life, our Daily Bread, and the Flesh Sacrificed for the life of the world. So even if you’re getting zero spiritual support besides the Eucharist, even if you’re suffering like the Israelites in the desert, hold on. Hold fast to Our Lord in the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, and you’ll live forever. Leave Him, even out of legitimate frustration, and you’re killing yourself, spiritually.
But Numbers 11 and Judith 7 are making a broader point. So often in the spiritual life, it’s much easier to simply give in and be a slave to sin, then to continually fight our sinful desires. It can seem joyless and arid to do the right then, and the sins we’re resisting can seem as tempting as a platter of meat before a hungry pilgrim.
This is why spiritual disciplines like fasting exist: with the help of God, we cultivate the disposition to repeatedly say “no” to our immediate impulses. This process of self-mastery, even over relatively insignificant things (like voluntarily depriving yourself of meat on Fridays), builds the spiritual muscles that come in handy when we’re tempted with something worse than a steak. This theme is developed further in Judith 7-8, in the elder Uzziah’s answer to the crying Israelites, and then Judith’s rebuke of the city elders.
Judith with Head of Holofernes (17th c.)
Uzziah, one of the elders of Bethulia, arises to respond to the people’s wailing and despairing. He calms them by making this speech (Judith 7:30-31):
“Have courage, my brothers! Let us hold out for five more days; by that time the Lord our God will restore to us his mercy, for he will not forsake us utterly. But if these days pass by, and no help comes for us, I will do what you say.”
At first brush, Uzziah seems to have done a good job: the people wanted to give up immediately, and he compromised, he talked them down. But two things are very wrong here: (1) the elders are trying to force God into their timetable; and (2) the elders are compromising where they’re not allowed to be compromising: they’re not taking surrendering to the Assyrians completely off of the table.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of forcing God into our timetable. Here, there’s something subtle going on with the timing. Throughout Scripture, 40 days is the period used for preparation: Noah on the Ark (Genesis 7:17; 8:6), Moses on the Mountain (Exodus 34:28), Jesus in the desert at the start of His Ministry (Mark 1:13), etc. When Goliath and the Philistines taunt the Israelites, God waits 40 days before sending David (1 Samuel 17:16). When the people in Bethulia want to surrender, the meeting takes place on Day 34 of the siege (Judith 7:20), and Uzziah “buys” God 5 more days. In other words, the Israelites agree to wait until Day 39 to give up. But that’s not God’s timetable. They’re trying to force God to act before His time.
So that’s clear enough. By what’s so bad about the Israelites considering surrendering to the Assyrians? Well, the people of Sidon and Tyre already tried that approach. At the outset of the campaign, they sent this message to the Assyrians (Judith 3:2-4):
“Behold, we the servants of Nebuchadnez′zar, the Great King, lie prostrate before you. Do with us whatever you will. Behold, our buildings, and all our land, and all our wheat fields, and our flocks and herds, and all our sheepfolds with their tents, lie before you; do with them whatever you please. Our cities also and their inhabitants are your slaves; come and deal with them in any way that seems good to you.”
When Holofernes arrived, “these people and all in the country round about welcomed him with garlands and dances and tambourines” (Judith 3:7). Sidon and Tyre embrace complete abasement before the invaders. And sure enough, they’re not killed. However, Holofernes “demolished all their shrines and cut down their sacred groves; for it had been given to him to destroy all the gods of the land, so that all nations should worship Nebuchadnez′zar only, and all their tongues and tribes should call upon him as god” (Judith 3:8). In response, the Israelites in Judea become “alarmed both for Jerusalem and for the temple of the Lord their God” (Judith 4:2). This is why they’re holding out. And this is why it’s totally unacceptable for them to even contemplate surrender, whether immediately (as the crowds clamor for) or after a few days (Uzziah’s compromise).
You can’t turn forsake God for the sake of ease and comfort, or even for your physical well-being. If you want to know why the USCCB hasn’t been bought off by any of the HHS Mandate “compromises,” your answer is here. It doesn’t matter that Uzziah’s approach is better than the people’s: both are wrong, and must be rejected.
|August Riedel, Judith (1840)|
And this is the point at which Judith finally enters the scene, eight Chapters in the Book bearing her name. She summons the elders, rebuking them for both of the errors just discussed. First, she criticizes their desire to put God on their own timetable (Judith 8:11-13):
“Listen to me, rulers of the people of Bethu′lia! What you have said to the people today is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the city to our enemies unless the Lord turns and helps us within so many days. Who are you, that have put God to the test this day, and are setting yourselves up in the place of God among the sons of men? You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test—but you will never know anything! […] For if he does not choose to help us within these five days, he has power to protect us within any time he pleases, or even to destroy us in the presence of our enemies.”
Judith then criticizes the elders for threatening God with apostasy (Judith 8:16-17):
“Do not try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God; for God is not like man, to be threatened, nor like a human being, to be won over by pleading. Therefore, while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him.”
The elders and the people of Bethulia speak of God, and even when they contemplate apostasy, they put it in pretty religious terms. So often, we do this: we’ll pray things like “God, if you don’t want me to do this, give me some kind of sign,” even when we know the course of action is wrong. But that’s threatening God: give me a sign, or I’ll embrace this sin. Judith shows us what true faith looks like, holding fast to God on His schedule, even if it entails suffering or death. And if we want Him to move faster then He seems to be, our recourse is to “call upon Him to help us,” rather than threatening Him or telling Him what to do.