For a rough summary of the Book of Judith’s plot, see Faith and FAITH.
I got a few thoughts about faith and wisdom in my Judith quiet time, which I finished last night:
1. The Ammonite Achior tells the Assyrian general Holofernes that God will fight for the Israelites if they’re good. Holofernes then exiles Achior to the besieged Israelites, angry that Achior doesn’t recognize the only god to be King Nebuchadnezzar. The beautiful and pious Jewess, Judith, then decks herself out and goes to Holofernes’ camp. Her goal is to find Holofernes in a state of vulnerability and to kill him.
Judith tells Holofernes that God is angry with the Israelites, since they have eaten from the tithe in their hungry desperation. (Remember that Holofernes has cut off Israel’s water supply!) Judith then says that, with God’s help, Holofernes can defeat the Israelites, and she will assist him in that endeavor. She just needs to seek God’s guidance on what to do.
What’s interesting here is that Holofernes seems to believe in Israel’s God. He shipped off Achior with the claim that there is no god but Nebuchadnezzar, but that may not be how he feels deep-down. He wonders if God truly will help the Israelites. He’s probably relieved to learn that Israel has sinned and that God will help him defeat her.
Of course, there’s a possibility that he really does believe that Nebuchadnezzar is the only god, and he’s only playing along with Judith because he wants to get her in bed. But let’s assume that he actually did believe in the power of Israel’s God. Do atheists think deep-down that there might be a God? I’ve heard evangelicals claim that homosexuals are defensive about their lifestyle because they feel that God condemns it, regardless of what they may say out loud.
Who knows? I can’t read the thoughts of non-believers. I do know that one thing that hampers my own faith life is my belief that certain parts of the Bible may in fact be true. For example, Jesus says in Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That verse really troubles me, since I have a hard time letting go of grudges. Often, I don’t feel as if I’m holding on to them, but rather that they’re holding on to me. I can blow off the passage and focus on the “God is love” texts. But there’s a question that haunts me deep-down: Maybe God will ditch me if I don’t forgive others.
2. On a more positive note, Judith is an example of someone whose relationship with God leads her to have wisdom. Judith fasted throughout her widowhood, except on Sabbaths and other holy occasions. Judith 9 indicates that she was familiar with Israel’s religious history, as are Christians who regularly study the Bible. Her devotion enabled her to be a fountain of wisdom to her people as well as come up with a plan to defeat Holofernes.
The people of Israel are giving God an ultimatum: they will surrender to Assyria if God does not help them in five days. But Judith tells them not to put God to the test. She states:
“Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs?…You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?…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…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…But we know no other god but him, and so we hope that he will not disdain us or any of our nation. For if we are captured, all Judea will be captured and our sanctuary will be plundered; and he will make us pay for its desecration with our blood. The slaughter of our kindred and the captivity of the land and the desolation of our inheritance–all this he will bring on our heads among the Gentiles, wherever we serve as slaves; and we shall be an offense and a disgrace in the eyes of those who acquire us” (Judith 8:13-22 NRSV).
Like me (and many people with Asperger’s), the Israelites see the situation as a binary: either God helps them in five days, or their only option is to surrender to the Assyrians. But Judith gives them other things to think about: God can help them at the last minute, God loves them as his people, slavery to the Assyrians is not very pleasant, surrender can make things worse, etc.
Judith’s words are wise. She had something to offer the Israelites because she gained wisdom through her relationship with God (Proverbs 10:11). Testing God is a sign that we do not truly entrust ourselves to his love. And God can act at the last minute any time he wishes. I often wonder why God hasn’t blessed me with a job or a woman thus far. Well, the Israelites could easily ask the same sort of question: “Why hasn’t God helped us so far? We might as well not even wait for him. Where’s it gotten us up to now? Let’s give him five days, and, if he doesn’t help us, we’re doing it our way.” But God could help them at the last minute, within whatever time-frame he chose. Why he didn’t help them until that point is a mystery known only to him.
But Judith doesn’t just believe: she also acts. And she gets her plan on how to act from the Bible. In Judges 4, Jael kills the evil Canaanite general, Sisera, in her tent, after lulling him to sleep. And that’s pretty much what Judith does to Holofernes! The Bible gave her a game-plan on how to help her people.
That reminds me of the movie Signs. Mel Gibson plays an Episcopal priest whose wife dies in a car accident. Her last words seem so random: “Tell your brother to swing away.” Mel’s brother, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is an ex-baseball player who lost out on a promising career. Well, at the end of the movie, an alien is in Mel’s house and is about to hurt his family. Mel then looks at a wall, sees a baseball bat, remember’s his late wife’s words, and tells his brother to swing away. Joaquin then slams the bat at the alien!
A lot of ideas don’t come to us automatically. They need to be prompted by something, and Mel got his strategy for how to deal with the alien from his wife’s last words. Similarly, Judith gained wisdom on how to confront her situation from the word of God. She may have immersed herself in Israel’s tradition, so she had an idea of what to do.
This happens for so many Christians. God can use the Bible to provide us with general guidance on how to live a righteous life. But there are also times when he uses it to give specific instructions. I’m not saying that we should see the Bible as an oracle for every situation, since that can be disastrous. But God has guided his people with his word on many occasions, and things have worked out. That’s one reason I believe in God: because he has worked in other people’s lives. But, in any case, whether God speaks to us or not, the Bible is still a source of ideas on what to do.