Judith opens with an overtly fictional conceit: Nebuchadnezzar, the infamous king of Babylon who destroyed the Jerusalem temple
in 587 BCE, is named the ruler of Assyria, the empire which in 722 destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. He is depicted as ruling
from Nineveh, the Assyrian capital which his father had sacked in 612 BCE. This mythic setting makes the story always relevant: Nebuchadnezzar represents any who seek to obliterate the Jewish community.
The conceit also allows the horror of the scene to be contained; from the opening sentence, irony and not the destruction
of Jews will be the dominant motif.
Reinforcing this pattern, the first chapter continues to mitigate the ominous references to Nebuchadnezzar by means of exaggeration.
Arphaxad, identified as the king of Media but unknown to history, prepares to defend his lands against Nebuchadnezzar by constructing
major fortifications around his capital, Ecbatana: the towers are 150 ft. high, with foundations 90 ft. thick; the gates,
60 ft. wide, permitted entire armies to parade through. Contributing to the exaggeration of the fortifications is the language:
the opening sentence in Greek is several lines long, which English translations typically break up.
Nebuchadnezzar also seeks strength in numbers: he rallies much of what is now southern Turkey. However, the populations from
Persia to Jerusalem to Egypt to Ethiopia refuse to join him, for they regarded him as ‘ordinary’ or, literally, ‘as an equal’
). The irony continues: Nebuchadnezzar is more than the average king, as recognition of his name even today demonstrates.
Increasing the irony, Holofernes will insist that Nebuchadnezzar be worshipped as a god.
Prompted by Arphaxad's insult to his military strength, Nebuchadnezzar seeks revenge; among his targets are Judea, Egypt,
Moab, Ammon; thus Judea is now threatened together with, rather than by, its traditional enemies.
The battle begins with the despoliation of Ecbatana. The Greek literally states that the city's beauty was ‘turned to shame’
). Here the motif of shame appears for the first time (recurring at e.g.
4:12; 5:21; 8:22; 9:2
), anticipating Judith: by placing herself in a situation of seduction that would traditionally be considered shameful for
a woman, she will succeed in humiliating the Assyrian men.
Nebuchadnezzar's army returns to Nineveh for four months of recuperation. With the fall of Ecbatana, the fate of the rest
of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor is, apparently, sealed.
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