By Sarah Cornwell
Reading from Judith, 10:1-23
1 When Judith had stopped crying out to the God of Israel, and had ended all these words, 2she rose from where she lay prostrate. She called her maid and went down into the house where she lived on Sabbaths and on her festal days. 3She removed the sackcloth she had been wearing, took off her widow’s garments, bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment. She combed her hair, put on a tiara, and dressed herself in the festive attire that she used to wear while her husband Manasseh was living. 4She put sandals on her feet, and put on her anklets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and all her other jewelry. Thus she made herself very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all the men who might see her. 5She gave her maid a skin of wine and a flask of oil, and filled a bag with roasted grain, dried fig cakes, and fine bread; then she wrapped up all her dishes and gave them to her to carry.
6 Then they went out to the town gate of Bethulia and found Uzziah standing there with the elders of the town, Chabris and Charmis. 7When they saw her transformed in appearance and dressed differently, they were very greatly astounded at her beauty and said to her, 8“May the God of our ancestors grant you favor and fulfill your plans, so that the people of Israel may glory and Jerusalem may be exalted.” She bowed down to God.
9 Then she said to them, “Order the gate of the town to be opened for me so that I may go out and accomplish the things you have just said to me.” So they ordered the young men to open the gate for her, as she requested. 10When they had done this, Judith went out, accompanied by her maid. The men of the town watched her until she had gone down the mountain and passed through the valley, where they lost sight of her.
11 As the women were going straight on through the valley, an Assyrian patrol met her 12and took her into custody. They asked her, “To what people do you belong, and where are you coming from, and where are you going?” She replied, “I am a daughter of the Hebrews, but I am fleeing from them, for they are about to be handed over to you to be devoured. 13I am on my way to see Holofernes the commander of your army, to give him a true report; I will show him a way by which he can go and capture all the hill country without losing one of his men, captured or slain.”
14 When the men heard her words, and observed her face — she was in their eyes marvelously beautiful — they said to her, 15“You have saved your life by hurrying down to see our lord. Go at once to his tent; some of us will escort you and hand you over to him. 16When you stand before him, have no fear in your heart, but tell him what you have just said, and he will treat you well.”
17 They chose from their number a hundred men to accompany her and her maid, and they brought them to the tent of Holofernes. 18There was great excitement in the whole camp, for her arrival was reported from tent to tent. They came and gathered around her as she stood outside the tent of Holofernes, waiting until they told him about her. 19They marveled at her beauty and admired the Israelites, judging them by her. They said to one another, “Who can despise these people, who have women like this among them? It is not wise to leave one of their men alive, for if we let them go they will be able to beguile the whole world!”
20 Then the guards of Holofernes and all his servants came out and led her into the tent. 21Holofernes was resting on his bed under a canopy that was woven with purple and gold, emeralds and other precious stones. 22When they told him of her, he came to the front of the tent, with silver lamps carried before him. 23When Judith came into the presence of Holofernes and his servants, they all marveled at the beauty of her face. She prostrated herself and did obeisance to him, but his slaves raised her up.
We can say this about Judith: the lady is in charge. Her Israelite town was under siege; food and water had run out. The situation was desperate. The people called on Uzziah, their leader, to surrender. Uzziah asked that the people hold on five more days to see if the Lord would deliver them. If not, then he agreed to surrender. This seems a reasonable concession, but when word of this reached Judith, she politely but firmly rebuked Uzziah for making demands of the Lord and putting him on the clock. The Lord chooses whether to deliver or not, Judith reminded Uzziah, and in his own good time. Then (loosely translated) Judith said, “Stand aside; I’ve got this.” Uzziah agreed.
Judith then begins a marathon prayer session that lasts several days. Afterwards, she prepares for battle having received no answer to her prayer and therefore no guarantee of success. She dresses in her finest, and marches confident as you please out of the town and straight to the enemy’s camp. She speaks with such commanding authority that gates are opened for her and the enemy even provide her with an escort to take her to their commander. Again, Judith has no assurance of God’s protection. But she knows what she is being called to do, whatever the result.
As it happens, many of us have seen the gory paintings titled some variation of Judith and Holofernes, and most of us know the end of the story. It doesn’t turn out well for Holofernes. But Judith doesn’t know that going in. We do not always get direct communication from God, and we do not give God ultimatums. We are left to discern with great care and humility and walk the difficult path we discern with faith. Judith was more than just a pretty face; she was a warrior of the faith. May it be said of us all.
Sarah Cornwell is a laywoman, ballet teacher, and an associate of the Eastern Province of the Community of St. Mary. She and her husband have five children and they live in the Hudson Valley north of New York City.
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