From the Book of Judith:
Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs? You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test, but you will never learn anything! 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?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Judith 8:12-14a – September 25, 2012)
The Book of Judith is part of the Apocrypha or Deutercanon, those books accepted as Holy Writ by part of the Old Testament by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but rejected by Protestants and by rabbinic Judaism. As Anglicans, we Episcopalians adopt the position taken in the 39 Articles of Religion: they are the “other Books the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” (Art. VI, BCP 1979, page 868)
The story of Judith is relatively simple. She was a widow living in the city of Bethulia when it is under siege by Holofernes, a general of the Ninvite king Nebuchadnezzar. Facing starvation, the people of the city demand that their rulers surrender. The elders of the town, named Uzziah, Chabris, and Charmis, calm them by promising to surrender Bethulia to Ninevites unless God helps rescues the city within so five days. This angers Judith who upbraids the town rulers (the selected verses are from her speech to the three elders). She then takes things into her own hands, wins entrance into the enemy camp, finds Holofernes passed out, drunk in his tent, and decapitates the general. She escapes from the camp, brings the head to the town elders, and saves the city.
While I find the book a wonderful story of faith in action, and its heroine a woman to looked up to, the verses I’ve quoted from its eighth chapter are troubling. I believe that it’s perfectly all right to put God to the test and that searching out God, trying to find out God’s mind, and seeking to comprehend God’s thought are worthy endeavors that God encourages. In the book of Prophet Malachi, when the people fail to pay their tithes, God says, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.” (Mal. 3:10) I believe that it is not only in regard to tithes and offerings that God encourages us to “put me to the test;” God wants us to seek understanding, to try to comprehend God.
The Franciscan writer St. Bonaventure in his essay Itinerarium mentis in Deum (“The Journey of the Mind to God”) wrote of this comprehension or understanding as an ascent or journey and offered this advice:
He, therefore, who wishes to ascend to God must first avoid sin, which deforms nature. He must bring the natural powers of the soul under the influence of grace, which reforms them, and this he does through prayer; he must submit them to the purifying influence of justice, and this, in daily acts; he must subject them to the influence of enlightening knowledge, and this in meditation; and finally, he must hand them over to the influence of the perfecting power of wisdom, and this in contemplation.
Obviously, it takes effort and practice; it takes study and work. To make this effort is not (as Judith berated the Bethulian elders) to “set oneself up in the place of God,” but it is an endeavor to learn and understand. It is an effort blessed by God – we read in the Book of Proverbs:
My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures –
then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones. (Prov. 2:1-8)
So, as much as it pains me to disagree with a heroine of Scripture . . . Judith, you’re just wrong about this! You were right to cut off Holofernes’ head, but not to try to shut down the minds of those who seek to comprehend the Almighty!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.