Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Bible in a Year: Tobit and Judith

Gustav Klimt, "Judith
and the Head of Holofernes"
(1901)
This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

I decided that as long as I’m undertaking all this extra Bible studying each week, I should also study the Apocrypha—because these are books that I’ve barely studied at all, if ever.

The Apocrypha are books that Protestant Old Testaments lack, because these books are not found in the Jewish Bible (that is, the Masoretic text, the Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Tanakh as accepted in Rabbinic Judaism). The Apocrypha is Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch (including the Letter of Jeremiah), and 1 and 2 Maccabees, plus extra material in Esther and Daniel. (The additions to Daniel include the story of Susanna, the Prayer of Azariah, and the Song of the Three Holy Children.) Roman Catholics include these books as deuterocanonical, “second canon."

The Eastern Orthodox Old Testament includes these books plus 1 Esdras (see my last post), the Prayer of Manasseh, and 3 Maccabees. Orthodox Christians use the word Anagignoskomena ("worthy to be read") for the deuterocanonical books--and, like the Catholics (and unlike the Protestants) integrate the books among the canonical books rather than placing them in a separate section. One or two Orthodox traditions include 4 Maccabees, the Book of Odes, and Psalm 151.

It’s interesting to read the history of the selection of biblical books. There is no mystery or intrigue about it, no "suppressing" of bombshell texts, but the history is long and involves several councils of the church and rabbinical decisions within Judaism. As my Harper Bible Commentary describes them, the Apocrypha includes historiography (1 and 2 Maccabees), historical fiction (Tobit, Judith, and 3 Maccabees), an apocalypse (2 Esdras), sapiential works (Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon), exhortations (4 Maccabees and the Letter of Jeremiah), and prayers (Prayer of Manasseh and Prayer of Azariah) (p. 760). The Book of Odes is a collection of songs and prayers from both Testaments, and Psalm 151 is an Eastern Orthodox canonical work found in the Septuagint but not the Masoretic text.

For these informal notes, I’ll mostly stick with deuterocanonical books of the Roman Catholic Bible. The book of Tobit follows Nehemiah.

As the story begins, Tobit is one of the Jews deported by the Assyrians to Ninevah, during Shalmaneser’s reign in about 721 BCE. He was of the tribe of Naphtali, married Anna, and they had a son Tobias. He was devout in his faith even in the foreign situation. For instance, he buried his kinsman who had died because of the king. Burial of the dead made one spiritually unclean because of contact with the corpse, but it was also a great act of love and righteousness, providing care and dignity to someone who obviously cannot thank you. When Sennacherib died, the new king appointed Tobit’s nephew as chief minster, and so Tobit—with Tobias’ help—continued to do good. Unforunately, as Tobit slept outdoors one night, he was blinded by sparrow droppings that fell into his eyes.

Meanwhile, as Tobit prayed for the restoration of his sight, a widowed woman named Sarah prayed for a husband. All her new husbands had been killed by the demon Asmodmus. Scholars note the similarity of Tobit's story with folktales like "the Grateful Dead" and "the Deadly Bride." In this case, the angel Raphael comes to the rescue as God hears the prayers of Sarah and Tobit in their separate situations.

Disheartened and thinking that death is near, Tobit sent Tobias to retrieve some money left in the care of a man named Gabael who lived off in Media. Tobias goes, accompanied by companion Raphael, whom Tobias doesn’t realize is an angel. At one point, Tobias washes in the Tigris river and a fish bites his foot. Raphael tells him to gut the fish and save its heart, liver, and gall.

Tobias and Raphael stay at the house of kinsman Raguel—who happens to be the father of widowed Sarah. Tobias asks to marry her but is warned about her husbands who had died. But Raphael instructs Tobias to use the fish’s heart and liver with incense, that that drives the demon away, saving Tobias from death.

Following the wedding celebration, Tobias receives the money from Gabael and, with Sarah, returns to Tobit and Anna. Again with Raphael’s instruction, Tobias places the fish’s gall on Tobit’s eyes, and he regains his sight.

Tobit offers Raphael some of the money in gratitude, but Raphael reveals his true identity as an angel. Tobit prays to God in thankfulness for God’s mercies.

In his later years, Tobit blesses his son and dies, ages 158 years. Tobias eventually dies, too, aged 127.

The book of Judith, which follows Tobit in the Deuterocanonical/Anagignoskomena order, purports to tell of events in the Assyrian era of Israel’s history but is likely from the era of the Maccabees. We are alerted that this is a fictional story, because King Nebuchadnezzar is said to be the Assyrian king—but he was actually the Babylonian ruler.

In part 1 of the book of Judith (chapters 1-7), Holofernes is the commander of Assyrian armies that attack Israel. The king ordered the attacks—not only against Israel but other nations—in response to their refusal to join his campaign against the Medes. Holofernes lay siege to the Israelite town of Bethulia, through which he could advance to Jerusalem. He is advised that the Israelites cannot be conquered unless they first sin against God—but after a month’s siege, the Bethulians are about to surrender. Fortunately, a local header named Uzziah is able to effect a five-day postponement.

Judith appears in Part 2. She was a widow, and strongly objected to the five-day compromise. Honoring God with a prayer for help, she basically asks God to help her lie effectively. She goes to the enemy camp, lies her way in to see Holofernes, and deceives him as well. Smitten with her, and eager to seduce her, he invites her to a banquet. But before he can make any moves, so to speak, he becomes very drunk and passes out. Judith takes his sword, beheads him with two blows, and she and her maid leave the camp with his head in a bag. Returning to Bethulia, Judith showed everyone the severed head, praised God for his help and protection, and urged the men to attack the Assyrians the next day. They do so, successful.

Judith is a hero and sings praises to God. Never remarrying, she lives to the age of 105.

Perhaps because of her feminine sexuality combined with her bold, male-shaming heroism, Judith has been depicted by many artists: Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Titian, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Klimt, Stuck, and numerous others. Beth and I saw the Klimt at the Belvedere in Vienna a few years ago.

The Jewish Women’s Archive Encyclopedia, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/judith-apocrypha , has a good summary of the book of Judith. You can certainly see the connection of Judith with the judge Deborah, also a fearless champion of her people, and with David, too, in the way she decapitates a dangerous enemy. The author notes that several women of the Bible told lies that had positive consequences—which is an interesting aspect of the Bible narratives! Besides Judith the women are Rebekah, Tamar, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, and Jael.

My Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible notes, that Judith "is a joyous and triumphant book. It revels in the unexpected way the People of God is delivered." Judith's fidelity to God along with her confident use of her own feminity--as her ability to deceive believably--makes it a wonderfully compelling story (p. 1472).


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