Lesson 5: Judith, Esther, 1 and 2 Maccabees

Judith: (16 chapters; Ca. 100 B.C.)

The historical setting of the book of Judith does not square with recorded history; this is an indication of the literary form. The author is not writing history as we understand it. The book has been called a "historical romance." The situation is the following: Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria, decides to invade Israel. He sends his general Holofernes with an army of 120,000 soldiers and 12,000 cavalry to the West. They camp near Bethulia in Israel (there is no record of a city by that name).

The Israelites refuse to surrender so he begins the siege. When things go badly for the town, the elders want to surrender, but a young widow by the name of Judith comes forward to argue against surrender; she urges trust in God and promises to deliver the city. Judith prays before entering the camp of Holofernes; she flatters him and wins his affection because of her outstanding beauty and charm. The general invites Judith to a sumptuous banquet with him alone in his tent; he drinks too much and passes out and then she cuts off his head with his own sword. Judith and her maid take the head in a sack to Bethulia and show it to the elders. Taking courage at this, the Israelites attack the leaderless Assyrians and defeat them utterly. The story ends with a canticle of Judith; she lives in honor and dies still a widow at the age of 105.

We do not know what the historical basis of this story is, but it has great appeal because it dramatizes the confrontation between faith in the true God and the powers of this world in every age. For Holofernes intends to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and to force the Israelites to abandon the worship of Yahweh, the true God, and to worship a mere man, Nebuchadnezzar, and the gods of the gentiles. The point in the book of Judith is that the God of Israel is the true God and he protects those who recognize and worship him.

What saves Bethulia and all Israel is the faith, prayer and obedience to the law of a young, beautiful widow, Judith (which means, in Hebrew, "Jewess"). Judith is a type of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is a model of true Judaism, just as Mary is a model of the Church.

Esther: (16 chapters; ca. 125 B.C.)

The main theme of the book is the providence of God who watches over his chosen people and saves them from annihilation through two human agents, Queen Esther and her cousin / foster father, Mordecai. The purpose of the book seems to be to give an explanation for the Jewish feast of Purim. Secondary themes are the superiority of the wisdom of Israel over the gentiles, and also a lesson on how Jewish believers should conduct themselves when they live in a pagan, often hostile culture.

The book is named for a beautiful Jewish woman named Esther who rose from obscurity to become the Queen of Persia some time after the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C. The story begins when the king of Persia, Ahasuerus, decides to put away his queen Vashti because of her insubordination. Another queen is sought among all the beautiful maidens of the empire and the Hebrew maiden, Hadasseh, niece of Mordecai, is chosen. They give her the Persian name of Esther. Her uncle learns of a conspiracy against the life of the king and reveals it to him through Esther. But Mordecai is hated by the grand vizier or chief of state, Haman, because he will not bow down to him. So Haman, out of hatred of the Jews, gets the king to sign a decree that all Jews will be executed on a certain day. Mordecai asked Esther to appeal to the king on behalf of her people; in order to do this she had to take her life into her hands. But through prayer and fasting she wins the favor of the king, obviously helped in this by the power of God, who is not mentioned in the Hebrew account of the story. Esther made her appeal at a banquet which she prepared for the king and Haman.

When the king granted Esther's request at the banquet, she revealed to him that Haman was the enemy of the Jews. The king ordered Haman to be hanged on the scaffold he had prepared for Mordecai. The king then issues another decree giving the Jews permission to kill all their enemies. This great victory was celebrated on the feast of Purim.

There are some differences between the Hebrew short version and the Greek longer version. The name of God is not mentioned in the Hebrew text, but the underlying idea is that God's providence is working in history to preserve his chosen people. In addition to the idea of divine providence, the book also instills the idea that prayer and fidelity to the Lord are efficacious. God will never abandon those who trust in him.

There are no direct quotes of this book in the NT.

Maccabees: (16 chapters; ca. 100 B.C.)

The theme of the book is that God was with Mattathias and his sons in their struggles to liberate Israel from foreign, Greek occupation. The purpose of 1 Maccabees is clearly to defend the legitimacy of the Hasmonean dynasty, that is, the Maccabees and their descendants who rule Israel and Jerusalem in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C.

To understand the books of Maccabees it is necessary to know something of the political situation of the time. The action takes place between 175 and 134 B.C. in Palestine. A new Seleucid, i.e., Greek king came on the scene in 175. He was Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He began a campaign to outlaw Judaism and to persecute all practicing Jews. He even set up a pagan God on the altar of sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem.

A family of devout Jews, led by Mattathias and his three sons, resolved to fight a guerrilla war against the occupying Greek force. They are called the Maccabees which means "hammer." They were successful in defeating the Greeks and eventually captured Jerusalem and the Temple which they purified and rededicated to the Lord God of Israel.

The literary genre is history, but it is religious history. The dominant idea running through the story is that God is the master of history, as we have seen before in the OT. They are successful because they are faithful to the covenant and the Law of Moses. The theology is similar to that of the Deuteronomist, that is, God rewards in this life those who obey the covenant and he punishes those who violate it.

The Maccabees fought for the purity of the Temple worship and for a strict observance of the Law. In this they were the forerunners of the Scribes and Pharisees we are familiar with in the Gospels. 1 Maccabees is not quoted directly in the NT, but some of the ideas contained in the book had an influence on the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born over a century later. For, the success of the Hasmoneans in achieving liberation by the sword and violence contributed to the thinking during the time of Jesus that the promised Messiah would be a great military leader like Judas Maccabaeus. They also highlight the importance of Jerusalem and the Temple--an attitude reflected in the Gospels, especially in St. Luke.

2 Maccabees: (15 chapters; ca. 120 B.C.)

The author set out to show how the events of Jewish history from the time of Onias the high priest to the time of Judas Maccabaeus (from 180 to 160 B.C.) reveal a God who cares for the Jewish people by rewarding those who are faithful to the covenant and by punishing evildoers. He has great regard for the Temple and for fidelity to the Torah

The story begins with two letters from Jerusalem to the Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, urging them to celebrate the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem; this is the feast of Hanukkah or feast of lights. The author then says he will summarize the five volume work of Jason of Cyrene about the exploits of Judas Maccabaeus and his family.

The book has three parts: 1) the story about the miraculous conversion of Heliodorus in the Temple (ch. 3); 2) the desecration of the Temple and its rededication by Judas during the reign of Antiochus IV (chs. 4-10); 3) the final military campaigns and victories of Judas. The Temple predominates and the book emphasizes the high value of suffering and martyrdom for the faith; the motivation for this is the belief in the resurrection of the body and that God will reward his faithful people in the next life.

In the suffering of the Jewish mother and her seven sons (ch. 7) and in the suicide of the elderly Razis (ch. 14), the author says that suffering can have a positive value as a kind of divine education. Further, the suffering of the innocent leads the author to affirm his belief in the resurrection of the dead (7:9. 11. 14. 23; 14:46).

Important theological points in the book that are part of the theology of the Catholic Church are: 1) the resurrection of the body (chs. 7 & 14); 2) belief that the living can help the dead by their prayers and sacrifices (12:38-45); 3) God alone created the world by producing it from nothing (7:28); 4) the belief in intercessory prayer on the part of the saints in heaven, like the prophet Jeremiah (15:13-16).

Reading Assignment

Read the four books considered in this lesson. Look up in a dictionary of the Bible Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees.

Writing Assignment

Write an essay of about 1000 words on divine providence in Judith and Esther, or on martyrdom as found in the two books of Maccabees, or on intercessory prayer in all four books.


Learn by heart the names of the seven deuterocanonical books in the Catholic Bible and be able to explain to a Protestant why they are included in the Catholic Bible.


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