Paolo Veronese, Judith Receiving the Ancients of Bethulia, oil on canvas.
I’m pleased to make available a draft of my translation of the commentary by the Blessed Rabanus Maurus on the eighth chapter of Judith. This chapter was nearly twice the length of previous chapters and so took some extra time (in addition to relaxing my focus on this work during Lent).
In this chapter Judith chastises the elders for setting dates. They had essentially given God a timeline to dish out his mercy upon them and agreed to give up the city if God hadn’t made himself known in five days. Judith, and rightly so, tells them that this was a very audacious thing to do and that they now need to pour out their souls in fasting, prayer, and repentance and hope they haven’t angered God. She makes her own plans and leaves them at the city gates to watch and pray.
There are a few interesting highlights in the commentary that I’d like to point out. First, Rabanus, like other Fathers before him, likes numerology. The strongest example of this follows (verse 7):
Furthermore, the very same Judith is found in the Scripture begotten in the fifteenth generation, which undoubtedly signifies that the Church itself emerged from the Patriarchs and Apostles through the number seven and the number eight of the Law and of the Gospel, and is appointed so that the glory of Heaven might be merited; for this number of steps was mystically presented in the Psalter and will reveal a type of the future ascension into the heavens, arriving at which the saints are justly able to say, “Behold now bless ye the Lord, all ye servants of the Lord: Who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God” (Ps 133:1).
Rabanus follows the example of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who uses this same combination of seven and eight in discussing how high the water rose above the mountains during the flood. Augustine connects the fact that the water rose fifteen cubits above the mountains with baptism, which represents our regeneration, noting that the seventh day of rest (which epitomizes the Law), is thus connected with the eighth day of our resurrection (which epitomizes the Gospel) through this aggregate number of 15.
In the Vulgate and Septuagint, Psalms 119-133 (in translations based on the Masoretic Text like the King James Version, these are Psalms 120-134) are a sequence of fifteen Psalms or Odes of Ascent, also known as Graduals (note that gradus is the Latin word for step). Some scholars believe that these Psalms were sung by the Israelites as they made the journey to Jerusalem for the three great feasts. These Graduals continue to play a significant role in both the eastern and western liturgies. In the eastern rite, their principal use comes as the Church progresses through Lent toward Pascha. In the traditional western rite, these are sung at the third, sixth, and ninth hours on weekdays.
The second highlight that I would like to emphasize is that Rabanus sees the Ten Commandments as a an ancient and obsolete law. He likens Judith’s dead husband to the ten commandments, saying (verse 9):
She had Manasses for a husband, whose name is interpreted forgetful or necessity; who also, standing in the barley harvest over those binding sheaves in the field, died when the heat came upon his head. This is because she is discerned to be bound and subject either to the Ten Commandments of the Law or to a tribal custom from ancient times, but, with the coming Christ and with the sun of the Gospel growing brighter in the world, all that observance of the flesh ceased, and just as the gathering of the meager harvest came to a rapid finish, it was transferred through Christ to cultivation of the spiritual.
Rabanus teaches that the ancient law is a practice “of the flesh” and under the new covenant we are to cultivate the spirit rather than the flesh.
The third highlight that I would like to emphasize is how Rabanus Maurus speaks about prayer (verse 26).
“When therefore she had heard that Ozias had promised that he would deliver up the city after the fifth day” (Jdt 8:9), she reproved the idea, judging it inappropriate to establish for the Lord the time of His mercy, since He alone knew both the time and the manner of His mercy before all things; and because of this it is inappropriate for anyone to impudently demand anything of the Lord, but rather to refer everything to his judgment, just as a certain one of the Fathers is observed to have said as much in a prayer: “Son of God, as you will and as you know, have mercy on me.”
Rabanus is here quoting a prayer of Saint Macarius the Great. The full saying follows:
Abba Macarius was asked, ‘How should one pray?’ The old man said, ‘There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy.1
Finally, while Judith, who represents the Church, chastises the ancients, the priests of the Church should still be respected by those of us who have been placed under their leadership. The Blessed Rabanus describes it this way (verse 37):
Judith entrusts the ancients with the gate, because the Holy Church commends the careful protection of the camp of God to the priests of Christ, so that intently vigilant and skilled in oversight they might in this way strive unharmed to fortify and to protect against the ambushes of the enemy through the weapons of prayers.
For further information about this translation project, please see my series of posts on Judith.
1 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, trans. Benedicta Ward, (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications 1975), p. 131.