Five Intertestamental Beauties
Don’t mess with these women.
“Are there any more babes like you up there? If so, we don’t stand a chance!” (Judith 10:19).1 That was an Assyrian military officer speaking to the Jewish Judith. She’d come down from her hillside village, heading toward the Assyrian general’s tent with murder in her heart.
The same statement could just as well have been applied, mutatis mutandis, to such other extraordinary women found in intertestamental literature as Esther, Vashti, Sophia, and Susanna. Which is to say, they were the sort who, despite a blindfold, could take creation apart and reassemble it again as though it were a Rubik’s Cube.
First thing one notices about these women is that they were smart.
Susanna was educated in the intricacies of Mosaic law at her father’s behest. Judith had a plan to resist when all the Jewish elders on the hillside village, fearing they’d be overrun, wanted to surrender. Sophia, an abstract Greek noun translated into English as wisdom, is spoken of so intimately by the author of the Book of Wisdom that she becomes a person; she’s personified as Dame Wisdom or Lady Wisdom or just plain Sophia. As such, she was educated beyond our competence to comprehend:
[God] introduced her to the various branches of knowledge; composition of the earth and names of the elements; measurement of time and calculation of calendars; seasons and cycles; festival days and ferial days; planets and stars; animal husbandry and animal behavior; wind power and the power of reason; horticulture and pharmacology. (Wisdom 7:17-20)
Inductive and deductive Sophia was, but she was also intuitive: “She’s more splendid than the sun, but like the stars prefers spot lighting, bright but not blinding, which is good after dark; owlish about evil, she can spot mischief at midnight” (Wisdom 7:29-30).
Second thing is that these women had guts, courage, intestinal fortitude.
Judith sweet-talked her way into the Persian encampment on the plain below. When the moment presented itself—about to rape her, the king fell into an alcoholic haze—her fingers, supple enough for cuticle scissors, couldn’t get the scimitar off the wall. But with another, and indeed divine, hand aiding her, she finally hacked the king’s head off (it took two hefty strokes). Then she wrapped it in a towel, put it in a picnic basket, and walked right out of the enemy camp before she was missed.
Susanna had the same sort of pluck. Every afternoon she’d leave her husband’s rather substantial home in Babylon for a walk in the nearby garden. One particularly hot day she decided to bathe in the pond; she sent her two young maids to the house to fetch the oils and salts. Alone at last—or so she thought—she was dipping a tentative toe in the water when two senior citizens—she recognized them as judges from the daily assembly—tottered down to the pond’s edge and started yelling at her. Apparently, they’d been drinking in the scene for some time.
“No one can see us,” they shouted. “We have you trapped, and either you do what we want, or we’ll give you worse than death” (Daniel 13:20).
Sexual arousal in these senior denizens would have been funny if it weren’t so serious. They wanted to have their way with her or else.
“If you refuse, we’ll ruin your reputation. We’ll testify against you. We’ll say that some young stud was shagging you, and you were enjoying it immensely” (Daniel 13:21).
“If I do the deed, I’ll die the death,” she cried out. “If I don’t, my reputation will be dead as a dodo” (Daniel 13:22). No, she didn’t give in; yes, she almost suffered the consequences.
Vashti too could hold her own against horrific odds. She was queen to King Ahasuerus, a mighty Persian leader who liked to entertain his suzerains with sazeracs. Which is another way of saying, every year he conducted all-male boozers that lasted a week. At the end of one he summoned his ravishing wife; he wanted her to walk the walk around and through the drunken horde sprawled on recliners.
Vashti said no. She was running a cocktail party of her own for the wives and women of the suzerains. The king’s advisors treated her refusal as the first step of a women’s rights movement; it had to be quashed before it spread to the rest of the kingdom and indeed the rest of the world. For her insolence and disobedience and for her insistence that women had rights too, she was destroyed.
Esther was an upwardly nubile young woman, the sort of character found on the streets of many societies and in the fairy tales of all societies; she eventually married the king. With the help of her influential uncle she rose to replace Queen Vashti, managing to hold that position for the rest of her life. She even revealed to her husband, who was by now a kinder, gentler sovereign, that she was Jewish. He even enabled her to provide the sizable Jewish population with some protection; they got to kill the pagans before the pagans killed them.
Third thing is that these women were beauts, divas, head-turners.
Susanna, daughter of Hilkiah and wife of Joakim in Babylon, is described as excessively beautiful. The judicial gents, fending off erectile dysfunction for one last fling, found her excruciatingly beautiful. When she attended the judiciary proceedings against her, she was hauntingly beautiful.
Sophia had the same stunning effect on a crowd: “When she swans into a room, heads turn; when she sweeps out of the room, hilarity noticeably lessens. Wherever she drops in, she’s treated royally; as belle of the ball she lives up to her reputation” (Wisdom 4:22).
When Judith met Holofernes’ female relatives, they nodded their approval (Judith 10:20). His male relatives couldn’t help but remark in their own language that, although a matron, she was still drop-dead gorgeous (Judith 10:23). When she made her entrance at the banquet, Holofernes rose and, if his relatives weren’t there, would have jumped her bones right on the spot (Judith 12:16).
Fourth thing is that these women were models, fashion plates, snazzy dressers:
[Sophia is] smartly dressed; her door is always open; she’s quick to make friends. These last she surprises, addressing them by name; no name tags for her. Those who join the line to meet her don’t have long to wait; as the sun rises, there she is, sitting on her porch.
You only have to look at her to get the picture; her smile eases tension, lifts depression. Those who need her the most become her pets; that has resulted in some hilarious encounters, every one of which she treats as providential. (Wisdom 6:12-16)
When Vashti received a command performance from her crapulous husband, he asked her to wear something revealing and put on the crown he gave her. Equivalently, she told him he could put that crown where the Persian sun god didn’t shine.
After her unhappy demise, the young lads among the king’s advisers proposed a national search for a potential queen. Virgins for Ahasuerus, as the campaign might well have been called, reached the boonies of the kingdom. Esther was swept up and deposited in Virgin House, where she along with the other finalists entered an accelerated charm and beauty program: “The school lasted twelve months and was divided into two semesters; one dedicated to oils, especially myrrh, one concentrating on cosmetics and perfumes” (Esther 2:12).
Judith is another example of extraordinary fashion sense, even as a new widow:
[She] stepped out of her underalls cut from haircloth and bathed with what little water she had left. A dab of perfume in all the right places, a comb through her hair, a tiara to hold it in place, and she was ready to dress. She picked out something sportive, even provocative, reminiscent of the sort she wore when her husband was alive. On her feet she put sandals. For accessories she chose a variety of bright shiny beads, bracelets and anklets, that went jing jing-a-ling as she moved along. (Judith 10:3-4)
Fifth thing is that, with the exception of Vashti, these women were pious, prayerful, observant.
Susanna, on being sentenced to death, cried out in prayer: “Eternal God, you who know all secrets, who knew everything before it was something, you know that these senior gentlemen are lying through their teeth. I’ve done none of the things they’ve accused me of. They’ve made it all up. Help me, Lord” (Daniel 13:42-43). God heard her prayer; to handle the dirty old men he sent a hotshot young lawyer named Daniel.
Esther, when faced with the possibility of genocide for the Jews, fell upon the ground from dawn to dusk and prayed: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, bless us. Bless me in particular, for I’m alone, I have no defender except you, Lord … . Free us from the hand of our enemies; convert our grief into joy and our pains into gains” (Esther 4:17q; 17hh).2
Judith, when she returned to her village with the enemy’s head in her picnic hamper, gave all the glory to God: “Open up! Open up the gate! God’s with us, our God’s with us! Today’s the day the Lord God has made good on his promise to help Israel and repulse our enemies!” (Judith 13:11). By the end of Judith’s tale she has become a sort of everywoman, a superheroine representing all Israelite women; in the hymn at the end of the work she’s hailed as Mother Israel.
Not all denominations of believers grant the same degree of historicity or canonicity to the intertestamentals. Nor did the great Jerome in the 4th century consider these works worthy enough to be put into the Catholic canon. But Catholic divines won the day, as did their Anglican counterparts—for a time, at least: both Douai-Rheims and the King James Version had them in their first editions.
As we read them today, the intertestamental books that include Judith, Esther, Vashti, and Susanna seem to be festival pieces, perhaps Passover presentations, meant to rekindle a waning piety in a dispersed but by no means impoverished people. Their common purpose, and indeed the purpose of the other intertestamentals, was good for intertestamental times and good for our post-testamental times. Alas, some denominations are indifferent to them; others consider them the work of the devil. Caveat lector!
David A. deSilva, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Ashland Theological Seminary and author of Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Content, and Significance (2002), puts it this way. “These texts have not only informed people of faith but also have inspired them throughout the millennia. Many of the ethical ideals taken up by Jesus and his disciples and promoted in the New Testament find their roots here and so are reinforced and strengthened by reading them.”
Historicity and authenticity aside, these intertestamental books have a pleasing literary and dramatic quality that can’t be denied. They’re neither history nor biography; as modern critics would label them, they’re creative nonfiction; pious yarns that may have some history about them, but they’ve been so festooned over the centuries, they’ve become rather splendid tales.
The Book of Wisdom is written in a different key. Sophia appears as the personification of Wisdom, but every time she does so, she represents Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude; these happy four would be recognized in later centuries as the cardinal or moral virtues, virtues empowered by reason, not by revelation.
As a book, Wisdom is remarkably sophisticated. It was written sometime between 200 and 100 BC in Alexandria, Egypt, a thriving port on the Mediterranean near the mouth of the Nile. The city sported a 445-foot high lighthouse, a population approaching a million (it would come to include the largest aggregation of Jews outside of Jerusalem), and a library that grew to 400,000 volumes.
Wisdom’s anonymous author is thought to have been a pious, well-educated Jew of the time. The task as he saw it was to write something that would appeal to his urban yet cosmopolitan community. What he came up with was a pocket history of the Israelites and a packet of wisdom sayings for successful administrators.
In Hebrew the book was titled “the Book of the Great Wisdom of Solomon”; in Old Latin, “the Wisdom of Solomon” or “the Book of Wisdom”; in Greek it was “Sophia.” In English today, given the exalted position ascribed to Sophia, we might well entitle it “The Divine Miss W.”
The finished work was copied many times in the library and translated into other languages. Also on the copyists’ bench were such biblical titles as Ecclesiasticus, or The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach, and the translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek, known as the Septuagint.
The wonder of Wisdom is that it could be read aloud or recited in the many synagogues of the Jewish quarter of the city. The hotshot young Solomons in the congregations were especially interested; brought up in the old traditions and according the old laws, they desperately wanted to know just where they fitted into this exciting new world.
Wisdom was also the sort of book that could be the subject of seminars held in and around the Alexandrian library, which was something of a safe place for Jewish and Gentile agnostics to gather. Under this guise Wisdom was more of a book club selection than a faith expression. And everybody was nuts about Sophia!
Wisdom was also the sort of book that could be read aloud or recited, and enjoyed with liquid refreshment, at the cafes and tavernas in the Greek and Egyptian quarters of the city. There the clientele was interested not so much in the would-be Solomons as the would-be Alexanders; Alexander the Great, who’d conquered a fair amount of the world before his death, founded the city in 332 BC. When Wisdom appeared in 132 BC or thereabouts, these young Alexanders were poised to manage the Mediterranean world and needed all the wisdom they could get.
Wisdom today should be required reading for CEOs around the world, Solomons and Alexanders alike. And it should be casual reading for the rest of us who work for these world leaders in a thousand different ways. Wisdom still promotes the virtuous life, whether it’s life with moral virtues or theological virtues. It still supports faith seeking reason and reason seeking faith. And it still leads to prayer, our personal connection with God.
Most of the intertestamental books deal with tradition and law as found in the Pentateuch. The Book of Wisdom, however, hints at the development of new doctrines. Life after death, for example, and cleansing the soul during the time, whether interval or interregnum, between the end of this life and the beginning of the next.
On the latter point I once had a delightful exchange with Billy Graham. During the writing of his memoir, Just as I Am, he and his associates felt they needed help. I was the help; I did plead the cause of several splendid evangelical writers, but to no avail.
One day, while having lunch on the patio of a beachside restaurant, Dr. Graham, feeling infirm, joined me; his associates went inside to order for him. As usual, we fell into an exchange, a good-natured and good humored theological scrum. No preliminaries; just jump right in.
“I can see what you Catholics have in mind with purgatory; at the end of life there’s just so much mess to clear up.”
Yes, he was arguing the Catholic point of view, the one found de novo in the Book of Wisdom; I countered by arguing the evangelical point of view.
“Such mess as may exist at the moment of death can be cleared up in an instant; hence, the evangelicals are surely right.”
He dropped a piece of cutlery on the sand and slowly, achingly, bent down to pick it up; I bent to help. Seizing the moment, a squadron of gulls descended upon the table to swipe the bread crumbs left by the diners before us. Then came a shriek from the waitress.
“Can’t you two read the sign on the table?” The sign read Don’t feed the birds!
Dr. Graham looked in my eyes, I looked in his, and the instantaneous rage we felt will surely appear at the end of our lives as messes yet to be resolved.
William Griffin, besides translating the intertestamental material found in the Catholic Bible, has done into English such Latin spiritual classics as Augustine’s Confessions, Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, and three other treatises of his; Griffin also writes novels, plays, and biographies.
1. The excerpts quoted in this essay have come from the intertestamental literature, both Apocrypha and Deuterocanonicals. They’ve been translated paraphrasally by me and, in edited form, will appear in an upcoming Catholic edition of The Message Bible by Eugene Peterson.
2. In 1980, I met Queen Esther in person. A few weeks after we’d moved into an orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York City—we were the token Christians—she rang our bell: a 12-year-old, dressed in a period costume not known to us and wearing a generic female mask. To both my wife and me she gave freshly baked cookies, one for each of us; then she told us about Purim, the celebration of the Jewish survival in Persia under Ahasuerus as described for the first time at the end of the Book of Esther.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today International/Books & Culture magazine.
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May/June 2008, Vol. 14, No. 3, Page 18