Judith: Chapter 13 Commentary

August von Heckel, Judith shows her people the head of the Holofernes, c. 1857, Oil on canvas.

I have completed a draft translation of the Commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the thirteenth chapter of Judith. The entire translation project, An Explanation of the Book of Judith, is also available for viewing. I’d like to share some highlights from the chapter.

In chapter thirteen, the deed is done. Holofernes loses his head. (Chapter thirteen does seem apropos for the loss of one’s head). The Blessed Rabanus Maurus finds this event and its setting to be to be a veritable treasure trove of practical object lessons, rich with allegory.

As Holofernes lies completely sloshed in his bed, Rabanus crafts an image in which each object in the tent takes on an allegorical meaning. In verse 5 he says:

The pillar that was at the head of Holofernes’ bed signifies the hardness of the depraved heart that generated the error of faithless complacency. The sword that hung tied upon it is the malice of evil intention; the hair of the head: the exaltation of an arrogant mind; the neck, in truth: the stubbornness of evil action; and the canopy, which is a net for flies, signifies the snares of deceitful thought.

Recall that Judith represents the Holy Church. Rabanus now takes this symbolism and applies it to the way in which the Holy Church works even today in verses 6 and 7:

She goes to the pillar and looses the sword, by which she might cut off the head of the most wicked enemy; with the malice of a hard heart stripped away, she cuts off from the enemy the opportunity for fierce temptation [or attack].

She removes the canopy because she uncovers his deceptions, with which he strives to entangle the guileless and incautious, and in the same way she is “rolling away the headless body of the enemy” whenever she shows the enemy himself to be infirm and debilitated in every part, with the result that the easier the soldiers of Christ think the most wicked enemy himself can be overcome, the more thoroughly they learn that he will be weak and conquerable.

Later on in verse 24, Rabanus connects this remarkable defeat with the prophesy made in the book of Genesis, and also God’s enabling of the apostles (the founders of the Church) with power over the enemy. He says:

…the Lord says to the cunning serpent in the beginning, “She shall crush thy head” (Gn 3:15). And the Truth Himself says to Her in the Gospel, “Behold, I give you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy” (Lk 10:19).

But not only does God, through the Church, overcome the devil. The Church also uncovers what the devil and his minions are up to so that he is easily seen through. In Bethulia, Judith presents the head to her people in triumph. Rabanus likens this demonstration to the Church’s exposition of the devil’s deceptions in verse 27:

Judith is bringing forth the head of Holofernes in the view of the people and showing them “his canopy, wherein he lay in his drunkenness,” whenever the Holy Church exposes in lucid discourse the ancient enemy’s arrogant mind and plainly uncovers for them his deception, in which the majority wickedly believed, so that they might know how perverse their enemy is and the magnitude of the omnipotent God’s righteousness, by which, under the authority of faithful spirits, he was overcome and driven back.

This is a useful image. Judith holding the head of Holofernes is an image worth imagining every time the devil’s schemes are exposed by the Church. And what are we to do with this knowledge? Rabanus gives that answer very clearly in verse 28:

Divine protection preserves these unharmed from every fraud of the enemy and the contamination of error, so that, with all these things having been fully understood, they give proper thanks and they unceasingly give back devoted praises to their creator and redeemer in return for this.

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