January: We are Responsible for our own Learning
“Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom, And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited.”
These words of inspiration were recorded by Joseph Smith after he sought guidance from the Lord about the status of an ancient, sacred book – called the Apocrypha.
During the approximately 400 years between the Book of Malachi and the Book of Matthew, life and the recording of life did not stop in Israel. The collection of 14 or 15 books known as the Apocrypha were the product of this period. This collection was preserved and respected but disputed when it came to their standing as equally authoritative to other canonical scripture of the Old Testament.
Apocrypha means “secret, hidden.” The idea of hidden, secret, sacred books is quite familiar to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Our beloved Book of Mormon is a collection of sacred historical records that were literally hidden in a stone box by an ancient prophet named Moroni, who returned to earth to reveal the writings to the young prophet Joseph Smith, counseling him to keep the record secret and hidden from almost all others until he was instructed to do otherwise.
But the Apocrypha we are considering today were not found in the Hill Cumorah. Rather, they are an assortment of intriguing, and in many ways inspiring writings, “historical, novelistic, didactic, devotional, epistolary [think epistles, like the letters of Paul], and apocalyptic” “Intro to the Apocrypha, New Oxford Bible.” Squirreled away in some editions of the Bible, eliminated in many others, probably because it was cheaper to do so, the Apocryphal texts are always included in the Catholic Bible.
In the 91st section of the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith shared this inspired insight from the Lord:
“Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men…”
Joseph Smith recommended that it is ultimately the spirit who leads us to correct insights in our reading of the Apocrypha, “therefore, it is not needful that it should be translated.”
The period when the Apocrypha was written, between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, known as the intertestamental period in Protestant circles and as the deuterocanonical period among Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faithful, lasted from around 300 years preceding the birth of Christ to the time of John the Baptist’s ministry — about 300 AD to 100 BC. These stories were not necessarily well documented; many jumps all over the map and all over history in ways that are amusing and improbable. Nevertheless, there are serious lessons to be learned from the sermons, stories, and insights of The Apocrypha.
The Apocrypha have been grouped differently by different groups of religious scholars and authorities, but they’re generally regarded to include these 15 books;
- The First Book of Esdras
- The Second book of Esdras
- The Additions to the Book of Esther
- The Wisdom of Solomon
- Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach
- The Letter of Jeremiah
- The prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men
- Bel and the Dragon
- The Prayer of Manasseh
- The First Book of the Maccabees
- The Second Book of the Maccabees
Some scholars believe that around 80 AD, the Sanhedrin, or the presiding body of Jewish high priests, decided NOT to include these often-fanciful stories in the official Canon of The Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, the Greek version of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, included all the Apocryphal books but the 2nd Esdras. Jerome, the authorized Catholic translator of the Bible, produced its Latin Vulgate translation in the 5th century. He included the Apocrypha, though he clearly separated it from other Old Testament scriptures with a special preface. But future copyists often omitted this preface, and eventually, the Catholic Church decided to integrate most of the Apocrypha into the Bible they use. These stories are an intrinsic part of the Catholic Bible. They are called deuterocanonical which means: “Later added to the Canon.”
When the Protestant reformation was taking place in the 15th and 16th centuries…Martin Luther (who thought Hebrews, Jude, James, and Revelations were disputed books, so put them separately at the end of his translation of the New Testament) decided to follow the Hebrew Bible and leave the Apocrypha out of the Protestant canon, labeling them “books which are not held equal to the sacred Scriptures, and nevertheless are useful and good to read.”
Probably to create a leaner and less costly volume of scripture, the apocryphal books were often left out of Bible editions beginning in the very late 16th century. Interestingly, the Bible read by the young Joseph Smith did include the Apocrypha, as did many Bibles of that period. It is now harder to find non-Catholic Bibles with the Apocrypha, but the New Oxford Annotated Bible continues to include it to this day.
Since we are women reading the scriptures, and since we already have far too much curious Apocrypha content to cover during the time we have together, today we’ll focus solely on the Book of Judith. It is a tale of extraordinary, feminine heroism.
The Book of Judith book begins on a rather unconvincing note. We learn that Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian bad boy responsible for throwing fits generally and throwing Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace specifically…is now reigning in. . . Assyria? Many hundreds of years later. Yeah, no; that didn’t happen. Some scholars believe this wild disregard for historical accuracy was perhaps intentional, to signal that the story you are about to hear is more fiction than fact. Either way, Old King Nebu is at it again, raging that the Western nations in his (now Assyrian) sphere did not send armies to support him in his campaign against a historically unknown entity named King Arphaxad. He wins that war regardless, but far be it from Nebu to leave any opportunity for domination, fury, blood, or gore on the table. After another one-hundred-and-twenty-day feast (remember those wild and wooly days of feasting at the palace in Shushan, before Esther comes on the scene?):
Judith 2:5,6 (RSV)
”Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, called Holofernes, the chief general of his army, second only to himself, and said to him,
‘Thus says the Great King, the lord of the whole earth: When you leave my presence, take with you men confident in their strength, to the number of one hundred- and twenty-thousand-foot soldiers and twelve thousand cavalries. Go and attack the whole west country because they disobeyed my orders.”
We do not meet Judith in the first seven chapters of her book. Nebu rants, promises to rain terror upon all who will not bow down to him, and then sends Holofernes out to do his dirty work…which he willingly and enthusiastically does.
“He seized the territory of Cilicia and killed everyone who resisted him…Then he went down into the plain of Damascus during the wheat harvest and burned all their fields and destroyed their flocks and herds and sacked their cities and ravaged their lands and put to death all their young men with the edge of the sword.”
Judith 3:27 RSV
When the high priest in Jerusalem hears, along with everyone else in the neighborhood, of the ruthless advance of Holofernes, he exhorts the Jewish citizens of the surrounding areas to fortify their positions and hold Holofernes off at the pass. Obediently, the post-exile population of the mythical town of Bethulia prepares to defend against the advance of Holofernes.
“So the Israelites did as Joakim the high priest and the senate of the whole people of Israel, in session at Jerusalem, had given order. And every man of Israel cried out to God with great fervor, and they humbled themselves with much fasting.”
Holofernes is infuriated to learn that, despite the overwhelming might of his army, these intended victims are preparing to fight back. His fury is stoked when an Ammonite leader, Achior, warns him that if the Jews are faithful to God, they will be able to undermine any attack. Achior then enumerates the miracles of the sacred history of the Jewish people — from Ur to Canaan to Egypt to their return to Israel and subsequent Babylonian captivity. He warns that if Israel transgresses, they will be vulnerable, but if not, “their God shall protect them and we shall be put to shame before the whole world.”
Outraged, Holofernes, egged on by his troops, binds Achior and throws him outside the walls of Bethulia. He is retrieved by the Jewish leaders and explains to them why he was punished and what devastation Holofernes is planning to visit upon them. Meanwhile, Holofernes is again advised, this time by the Moabites and “chieftains of the people of Esau”, to:
“Remain in your camp, and keep all the men of your forces with you: only let your servants take possession of the spring of water that flows from the foot of the mountain for this is where all the people of Bethulia get their water. So thirst will destroy them and they will give up their city.”
Judith 7:12, 13
The ruthless plan “pleased Holofernes…and he gave orders to do as they had said.” Judith 7:16
The blockade seemed to be working,
“The people of Israel cried out to the Lord their God, for their courage failed…then all the people gathered around ….the rulers of the city …and said…’ God judge between you and us! For you have done us a great injury in not making peace with the Assyrians. 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 breaths.’”
Judith 7: 24-27
Uzziah, their leader, bargains for five more days…hoping God will come through for them…”But if these days pass by, and no help comes for us, I will do as you say.”
ENTER JUDITH. A righteous, childless widow of three years, she is appalled at the prospect of God’s people giving up and distressed at their lack of faith. Though the leaders are impressed with her faith and determination to trust and do God’s will, they feel their hands are tied — they cannot revoke their commitment to the people to give up after five days. So, alone, Judith hatches a plan to save her people and all of Israel. “Judith said to them, “Listen to me. I am about to do a thing that will go down through all generations of our descendants. Stand at the city gate tonight, and I will go out with my maid; and within the days after which you have promised to surrender the city to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand. Only do not try to find out what I plan; for I will not tell you until I have finished what I am about to do.”
Judith, in sackcloth and ashes, begs the Lord to help her, help her people remain true to their covenants, and escape domination by the Assyrians who trust in their own might:
“ Behold their pride, and send thy wrath upon their heads; give to me, a widow, the strength to do what I plan. By the deceit of my lips strike down the slave with the prince and the prince with his servant; crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman.
For thy power depends not on numbers, nor thy might upon men of strength; for thou art God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forlorn, savior of those without hope. Hear, O hear me, God of my father, God of the inheritance of Israel, Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of all thy creation, hear my prayer! Make my deceitful words to be their wound and stripe, for they have planned cruel things against thy covenant, and against thy consecrated house…And cause thy whole nation and every tribe to know and understand that though art God, the God of all power and might, and that there is none other that protects the people of Israel but thou alone.
Judith prays fervently in a most unusual way. She begs the Lord to help her deceive the lethal enemy of her people. (This is not the first example of wise Biblical women employing deception to achieve their saintly purposes.) Then, she takes off her mourning garb, bathes and perfumes herself, and puts on the most gorgeous clothes and jewelry she wore when her husband, Manasseh, was alive. She combs her hair and places a tiara on her head.” and made herself very beautiful to entice the eyes of all men who might see her.” Judith 10:4. Next, with her handmaiden carrying a bag she has filled with pure food and wine they can eat, they leave through the city gate, admired by the Elders of the city who, along with many other starstruck men, watch as she goes down the mountain and through the valley until they no longer can see her. The two women are met by an Assyrian patrol. They take Judith into custody and ask who she is and where she has come from and where she is going? She is a daughter of the Hebrews, she explains, and she is on her way to help Holofernes obliterate her faithless people. With her words and wiles, she wins the hearts of the guards, who choose 100 men to take her to the tent of Holofernes. Holofernes is charmed and intrigued by her explanation of how she will go out every night to pray and when the time is right, she will advise him to strike. For three days, she does this, sleeping each night in a tent that has been provided for her. Then on the fourth day, she is summoned to a festivity Holofernes has orchestrated for his servants. She makes herself extremely beautiful, and she says the most humble and ingratiating things. Holofernes is utterly smitten at her stated willingness to drink with him and drinks “ much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born.” Finally, all the servants leave, and Judith is left alone with Holofernes — who is laying in a drunken stupor on his bed. She takes his sword, prays for strength to do what must be done, and severs his head from his body in two mighty blows. After pushing the unfortunate Holofernes so he “tumbles to the ground,” Judith summons her handmaiden, who is waiting outside the tent as instructed. They put the head in the food bag and go out of the camp as they have each night – only this time, they just keep walking until they reach the gates of Bethulia. Judith is admitted and shares the wonder of her triumphant mission. The Assyrian troops are routed and plundered, the children of Israel remain faithful, and there is a great celebration and epic Psalm of praise to conclude the story. As for Judith (which means Jewish woman,) she remains a prosperous, childless, and beloved widow until the end of her days. “And no one ever again spread terror among the people of Israel in the days of Judith, or for a long time after her death.”
Question: How did Judith summon the vision, wit, and strength to save her people and Israel. What was her secret weapon?
DEVOUT PRACTICE AND DEVOUT PRAYER; LIVING FOR GOD AND OTHERS
Question: Why do you think so many Biblical women have felt the need to use deception to accomplish the Lord’s purposes in their lives or the lives of others? Who are some of these women? What and why did they deceive?
[Sarah and Abraham With Pharaoh
Rebecca’s tricking Isaac to bless Jacob with Esau’s blessing
The Hebrew midwives who don’t kill the Jewish Male children as charged
Moses’ mother hides Moses in a basket boat to escape the Pharaoh’s decree
Pharaoh’s daughter takes baby Moses and saves his life.
Rehab, the woman who hides Joshua’s scout’s who are spying in the land they will conquer through God’s intervention
Michael, David’s first wife, puts a dummy in their bed to trick her father who wants to kill David out of jealousy]
What distinguishes Judith’s brand of heroism from Esther’s? What do the two stories have in common?
Self-initiated courage; No one asks her to step up. Distinguishes her from Esther
She is profoundly self-motivated and has no doubt this is her responsibility and calling Distinguishes her from Esther
What she does share with Esther is;
She uses her wit and feminine wiles to get where she needs to be to do what she needs to do
She prays and fasts!
She finishes the job.