Waiting on the Lord: A Lesson from the Book of Judith

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.

Uzziah’s Compromise, and Judith’s Response

Simon Vouet,
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.


  1. There’s a flaw with your metaphor: it seems backwards. The Assyrians were coming to take the Israelites’ freedom away. The USCCB and other religious employers who are refusing to compromise that seem to be denying the freedom to choose artificial family planning.

    And why? With the Israelites, individuals deciding to join the Assyrians weakens the Israelites, they’re not able to defend their comrades. With religious beliefs on the other hand, this is not the case. If I have a vasectomy and have my employer pay for it, Northwestern University isn’t choosing to take my reproductive rights out of God’s hands, they’re simply covering my healthcare. I’m the one choosing.

    If the USCCB makes the choice for their employees not to pay for birth control, they’re simply denying their employees what is owed them. They’re not avoiding sin. If I pay an employee of mine money, and they buy child porn or a gun they use to commit murder, that’s not on my hands.

    1. what is owed to employees? do we owe them abortions? elective surgeries? how about alzeheimers medication? where is the line?

      there is a significant difference between my just payment for services resulting in your ability to choose evil and my active complicitness in purchasing evil for you. by the logic laid out above it seems that if i employ an individual who (unbenownst to me) chooses to use my just payment for evil acts (hired murder) my moral culpability is the same as if i had merely paid for the hired murder myself.

    2. Healthcare is owed to employees. It’s not up to the employer to decide what that is, since obviously most of them would choose that nothing is healthcare.

      Putting birth control pills in the healthcare category makes sense. It requires a prescription and a doctors visit, it prevents an unwanted medical condition, and is a medicine.

      Abortions, yes, I’d suggest that it’s not up to you to decide for your employee whether or not they can have an abortion.

      I think you might be confusing “elective surgery” with “plastic surgery.” Elective surgery simply means the surgery isn’t required immediately to save your life. If I have crippling hip pain and need to replace it to be able to function, that’s elective surgery, but that is healthcare, and yes, you would owe your employees that healthcare.

      Alzheimer medication? I’m not sure why anyone with any compassion would object to employers paying for that.

      >by the logic laid out above it seems that if i employ an individual who (unbenownst to me) chooses to use my just payment for evil acts (hired murder) my moral culpability is the same as if i had merely paid for the hired murder myself.

      Seems to me that’s the exact opposite of what I was saying.

    3. Anyone can use that kind of language, Phil. “The bad ol’ Israelites were denying the Holofernes the RIGHT to implement the CHOICE of Nebuchadnezzar to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem!” That, in fact, states the situation quite accurately from the Assyrian perspective. But words like “right” and “choice” are not so magical that they can make evil good and good evil.

    4. If they are owned Health Care, they are not owed contraception. Indeed, one would say that they were positively owe NO contraception, since its only purpose is to induce disease in a healthy woman.

      Yes, I am aware that the same drugs that are used as contraception are used medically for legitimate purposes. Then they are not contraceptives — the word itself shows it, because it means “against conception” — and are indeed legitimately covered.

    5. @Howard: I’m not sure what your point is. My argument doesn’t rest on language. Employees have a right to healthcare. Family planning is a health issue. Employers have an obligation to provide healthcare and don’t get to make medical decisions for it’s employees. Employers should pay for birth control pills because unwanted children aren’t helping anyone. Which part of that depends on twisting language?

      @Mary cantelli: Disease is an unwanted condition. Temporary infertility, when the subject wants it, is not a disease, and is not bad. Preventing unwanted pregnancy pregnancy has huge health benefits, saves a lot of money, is better for society as a whole, and is a personal right. You’re going to call it a disease? That’s absolutely disingenuous.

      Both of you, is this seriously what most of the religious arguments against birth control boil down to? Semantics? I have a hard time maintaining an open mind when someone uses such slimy arguments to justify their beliefs. I don’t believe that most Catholics opposed to abortion or birth control simply because of sexism, but tactics like these make me wonder.

    6. Phil, I’ll bite:

      It boils down to conscience, not sexism. *sigh* this accusation is really getting old. Contraception has been incompatible with Catholicism as far back as the early centuries of Christianity. Abortion, of course, has always been considered even more heinous.

      I am curious that you don’t see the gall it takes for someone to promise to protect conscience rights, then demand that they violate their consciences. I come from a family of small business owners(and shock, I’m a 20-something wife and mother of 3 that is a business owner herself!) who have all taken risks, paid their share of taxes, and been important parts of a local economy. Now the government is telling them they have to pay for contraception and sterilizations, things they have courageously not embraced in their own lives?

      Most of us who hold fast to church teaching on contraception do so because we truly see the wisdom in the church’s value of sexuality, children, the family. Why on earth would be quick to comply with something that we believe is harmful to women and families? You see, when people see something as harmful, they not only want to distance themselves from it, but they certainly would not want to take a casual, “I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t care if you do it” approach. THAT is disingenuous. The case of the matter here isn’t contraception itself, but whether someone whose conscience says it’s wrong should nevertheless be forced to support others in their use of it.

      I don’t want to go off topic in to these harms- others have done so much better- but perhaps if you truly want to know what “religious arguments about birth control” are, please read Pope Paul VI’s “Humane Vitae.” Please read about the background of the document as well. I think there you will find the most clear, concise reasoning of the church’s teaching on human life and sexuality.

  2. joe,

    this is such an awesome post! i loled at this: “The people around you may see (may, in fact, be) bored out of their minds”

    we miss you brotha…and your posts 😉

  3. “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.”
    This recalls a thought I had when I heard the parable of the Prodigal son. The ‘good’ son who stayed home was like those in our Church who don’t give up and leave for ‘spiritual greener pastures’ The Father said that he would have all of it in the end because of his faithfulness. I say we must hold fast.
    Thanks again for the post Joe. Always nutritious.

  4. Joe, this is an interesting post. It proves that you actually do read the Apocrypha and find spiritual nourishment from it. This is one of the strongest witnesses for your faith tradition. Keep putting it into practice and way that others can understand! Grace and Peace to you and all of your readers!

    1. Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, not Apocrypha, Rev. Hans. (The New Testament also has its deuterocanonical books, such as Hebrews and Revelation, but they are not in dispute.) Actually, Catholics make regular use of the deuterocanonical books. I’m a convert from Protestantism myself, and I was much taken with Wisdom chapter 2 (http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/book.php?book=Wisdom+of+Solomon&chapter=2&verse= if you’re a “King James only” Protestant, otherwise http://www.usccb.org/bible/wisdom/2 is probably easier.)

    2. This whole “Deuterocanonical” label is far worse actually. Catholics believe in one canon and not two or many. “Apocrypha” literally means “revealed writings”, and Catholics believe that these writings are revealing of the truth of God. Apocrypha is a much better title for these books. Plus the NOAB calls them Apocrypha, and the folks that compiled and worked on the NOAB are much smarter than any of us on these comments, so I will stick with them. I was trying to be nice by calling them Apocrypha. I should call them what they are, which is Pseudepigrapha!!!

    3. Rev. Hans,

      First of all, thank you for your original comment. It pleasantly surprised me, and I savored it. As for the terminological debate, it’s not a fight that I would have picked (since you clearly meant well, your use of “Apocrypha” notwithstanding). That said, Howard is right about the choice of terms:

      1) The chief advantages of “Deuterocanonical” are twofold: (1) it is the generally accepted term for the seven Books in question, and (2) it’s the most precise term: if I use it, you know exactly which Seven Books I’m referring to [there’s a New Testament Deuterocanon – Hebrews, 2nd Peter, 2nd and 3rd John, James, Jude, and Revelation – but that’s never referred to simply as “the Deuterocanon,” as far as I am aware].

      I do agree with you that the term “Deuterocanonical” causes some confusion I’ve read various Protestant websites claiming that we hold (or held) these Books as a “secondary” canon of inferior value to the Protocanon. That’s false. Using the term “Antilegomena” would avoid that confusion, but cause a lot of confusion on its own (namely, that nobody would know what you’re talking about).

      2) As for “Apocrypha,” you’re half-right about the literal Greek meaning. It meant “hidden” or “obscure,” and was sometimes used to describe Books whose authorship was unknown or dubious. But whatever it originally meant in Greek, this particular word has been subjected to centuries of Protestant abuse. The English connotations of “Apocrypha” are “secret, not approved for public reading”; hence words like “apocryphal,” meaning “of doubtful authenticity.” Calling these Books apocryphal suggests that they’re not-canonical and of doubtful authenticity. I understand that this may be your position, but it’s a loaded and pejorative term nevertheless.

      Just as damning is the fact that the term is grossly imprecise. Unlike “Deuterocanonical,” the “Apocrypha” refers to a wide range of Books, like Gnostic texts and the like. A few years ago, I used sample Google searches to show how searches for “Deuterocanon” brought up accurate materials about the seven Books in dispute, while searches for “Apocrypha” bring up materials mixing these seven Book in with the Assumption of Moses, the Book of the Secrets of Henoch, the “Forgotten Books of Eden,” Gnostic ‘Gospels,’ and “oracular Roman scrolls.” Using “Apocrypha” muddies the debate, both because it’s got invective connotations and is confusingly ambiguous.

      3) Calling these Books “Pseudepigrapha” is actually worse on both counts. That term literally means “false inscription,” and refers to works which are falsely attributed to a particular author. It’s the proper term for works like the so-called Gospel of Peter, which claims to be written by Peter, but isn’t. But most of the Deuterocanonical Books — like most of the Old Testament Books in general — are internally anonymous. Since Books like Tobit don’t have inscriptions, they can’t be coherently accused of having false inscriptions.

      So it makes absolutely no sense to describe the Deuterocanon as “Pseudepigrapha” since only someone who has never bothered to read them (or even open them) could possibly consider them Pseudepigraphal. And of course, it’s grossly imprecise: the term would include Books like Enoch and Peter, but not Books like 1 and 2 Maccabees. If you’re going to use “Pseudepigrapha,” you might as well just call them all “faulty math books,” since it’ll mark the triumph over empty Reformation-era rhetoric over reason or coherent terminology.

    4. 4) Let me give you a concrete example, showing why it’s silly to call these Books “Apocrypha” or  “Pseudepigraphal.” Mark Driscoll, an Evangelical mega-church pastor up in Seattle, argued against the Catholic Deuterocanon by saying:

      “During the four hundred years of silence between the end of the Old Testament and the coming of Jesus, many other works were written, including books of history, fiction, practical living, and end-times speculation. These books are known as the apocrypha, which means “hidden” or “secret” because the religious leaders of that time preferred that the books not be widely read by the people. [….]

      [M]any of the apocryphal books were also pseudepigraphal, meaning that they were written under a pen name so that the true identity of the author would be unknown. The pen names were often those of biblical people (e.g., Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Solomon), deceitfully leading readers to believe those books were written by these biblical men. It would be similar to me putting Billy Graham’s name on the book to sell more copies.”

      This argument is embarrassingly bad, because none of the Deuterocanonical Books have ever been attributed to the likes of Enoch or Abraham or Moses. He’s confusing the seven canonical Books with a lot of non-canonical books, heretical books, pseudepigraphal books, etc. As I said in my response:

      “Driscoll is conflating the Deuterocanonical Books (which Catholics consider inspired by the Holy Spirit) with the Pseudepigraphal books (which we don’t). So this isn’t an argument against the Catholic canon at all. Rather, it exposes a problem I’ve mentioned before: Protestants lump the Deuterocanon in with the Pseudepigrapha, and argue against the whole thing (under the heading “Apocrypha”) by arguing against the Pseudepigrapha.

      It’s a dangerous and misleading argument. It would be like Catholics grouping the writings of Luther and Calvin in with the writings of Muhammad and Joseph Smith, Jr., and claiming that these writings should be rejected since ‘many of them claim to be post-Biblical revelations.’ That claim, while perhaps technically true, would be wildly misleading, and unfair to Luther and Calvin.”

      You appear to have made the exact same mistake, and for apparently the same reason, having classified — and conflated — these Books with the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal writings. The obvious solution is to use a distinct term (like “Deuterocanon” or “Antilegomena”) to distinguish these two completely different categories of religious texts.

      5) As you know, we Catholics consider these seven Books canonical. But if we refused to discuss them except as “the canonical Books,” we’d be guilty of both (a) stacking the deck, and (b) using an imprecise term [since our terminology wouldn’t distinguish between, say, Exodus and Judith]. This is exactly what Protestants are doing when they call them Apocryphal: stacking the deck, and using imprecise terminology. The Catholic side has consistently avoided these cheap rhetorical tricks, at least in my experience. I don’t think it’s asking too much for you to reciprocate.

      Your brother in Christ,


  5. I loved this post. I’m almost finished reading Judith for the first time, after feeling led to read it as my daily devotional, and I’m loving it. But your post has made it even more relevant to my current situation and expanded on some of my thoughts. Sometimes it’s hard to see the relevance in OT history literature for our daily lives — I’m so glad you undertook this one.

  6. Thank you for this reflection, Mr. Heschmeyer! Writings on Judith are, unfortunately, few and far between.

    I have a question, if you’d be kind enough to answer it. You’ve argued (in your article “Is the Book of Judith Historically Accurate?” from July 21, 2009) for the position that Judith is an inspired fiction–a parable–dealing more with typology than history; many other apologists have made the same argument, too, and it seems to me to be pretty convincing. But, I’m confused about how it fits in with the tradition. Catholic writers from past centuries seem to all treat Judith as solidly historical–even though most admit that it’s unclear what certain statements in the book mean. Ronald Knox, even, writing in the 1950s, treats Judith as historical in the footnotes to his translation. (I’ve been told that Fr. Cornelius Lapide wrote a good defense of Judith’s historicity, but he wrote it in Latin–and, unfortunately, I can’t read Latin.)

    So, my question is, how can those two things (Judith’s seemingly obvious parabolic form and the tradition identification of it as historical) be reconciled? The best solution I’ve been able to think of yet is that it’s an account of historical events (or based on historical events), that was written with name-changes (and possibly detail-changes) to emphasize (or heighten) the story’s universal significance. If you’d be willing to address the question (or point me to someone who could or has), I’d be very grateful.


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