Holofernes and Bin Laden
by Pastor George Van Alstine
In the outpouring of relief by Americans in hearing that Osama bin Laden had been killed, I bet I’m the only one who thought of the assassination of the Babylonian general Holofernes over 2,500 years ago. That’s because my wife’s name is Judith, and Holofernes’ death has served as a warning to me for many years. I guess I’d better explain.
Judith is the name of a book that is in the Old Testament Apocrypha, which means it’s part of the Catholic Bible, but not our Protestant Bible. It tells the story (maybe factual, maybe not) of a ruthless general named Holofernes who was sent by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, sometime in the sixth century BC, to punish nations along the Mediterranean coast that had not submitted to Babylonian authority. One of these nations was Israel, and General Holofernes had moved his mighty army from recent conquests in Syria and Lebanon to its borders. The whole Jewish nation was living in fear, anticipating the worst.
But one young Jewish woman, whose name was Judith, took matters into her own hands. She infiltrated the camp, pretended to be a local loose woman, and seduced the great military leader. She encouraged him to have one more drink of wine, then another, until he was completely drunk. In his helpless state, Judith took his sword and cut his head off. Holofernes was not the first or the last strong man to lose his head over a beautiful woman, but in his case his misfortune turned the tide of battle and sent the Babylonian army home without a military victory over the tiny nation of Israel.
The image of Judith in the act of decapitation or holding the severed head at arms’ length became a favorite theme of Renaissance artists. Judith’s courageous action served as a demonstration of the power of a single, apparently weak person to change the course of history. These paintings have also fed into secret revenge fantasies of women, who have often felt powerless in what has usually been a “man’s world.” I know the story has always given me second thoughts about crossing my Judith.
Back to Osama bin Laden. When I saw the TV coverage of Americans celebrating outside the White House, I actually thought of the ancient Judith holding up Holofernes’ head. It was that kind of special moment, when a sense of failure and impotence was suddenly replaced by the euphoria of victory.
Some commentators have warned that, in spite of the need for such popular celebrations, American leaders should avoid gloating or expressing what some have called “American triumphalism,” as if the successful assassination of bin Laden proves that America is righteous in all she does and stands for. They cautioned that we need to continue to think about the fact that some of the roots of terrorism can be found in real inequities in the world that we have helped create.
This lesson, too, has a parallel in the old story of Israel’s victory over Holofernes’ forces. It’s humbling to realize that only a few short years after the Judith heroism event was supposed to have happened, an even stronger Babylonian force marched on the nation of Israel. They destroyed the city of Jerusalem, including the Temple, and took the entire leadership class of the nation into a captivity that lasted for more than one hundred years (read about this in 2 Kings 24 -25, 2 Chronicles 36, Jeremiah 37-39, Daniel 1-4). The prophet Jeremiah described this conquest and captivity as God’s punishment for Israel’s sin. The people were confident they were his favorite, thinking “perhaps the Lord will perform a wonderful deed for us, as he has often done” (Jeremiah 21:2), but the Lord’s response was, “I myself will fight against you” (verse 5).
It’s in this context that the Lord, through Jeremiah, gave the challenge he has put before every nation and every individual in every age:
“See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of death.” verse 8
Holofernes and Osama bin Laden may seem scary at a given point of time, but the Lord God of the universe is the only one we really have to answer to.