The Assyrian came down from the mountains of the North;
He came with myriads of his warriors;
their multitide blocked up the valleys,
their cavalry covered the hills.--Judith 16:4
A year after the revolt begins; Manasseh dies--not at the point of the sword, but in his bed burning with the fever that sweeps down from the hill country. His kin, with Judith, and her maid Bethulia, bury him in the fields of his ancestors.
Judith oversees the fall planting of millet and the olive pressings for the next three seasons. When word comes that Gamla is now in Roman hands, Judith knows what must be done, but is Bethulia that packs their things and says it.
"We must go to Jerusalem. To your cousin, Eleazar."
"I know." But she wishes she didn't. "Bethulia, pack only water and food."
"And your jewelry. You'll need it." Judith smiles then, Bethulia always got the details.
When they reach Jerusalem they find it packed full of people and animals and fighting. They huddle in Eleazar's part of the city while the people and factions kill one another to pass the time till the Romans come.
And the Romans do come, overwhelming the guards and sentries. They flee with Eleazar's men and their families. They head Southeast, to the only place left for them. The fortress of Herod, the impious one, would be there salvation. The irony would escape most Judith suspects. Except perhaps, for Bethulia and Eleazar.
He walks beside her, breath hitching on the crest of a hill, "It is a blessed thing that Manasseh died so that he didn't see the temple burning." Judith does now know if Eleazar means his words for her, Manasseh, or himself. There are tears in Eleazar's eyes and Judith's burn. But she does not weep, there is no time for tears.
The Romans find them of course, in their third year on the mountain. They come with an army as vast as the sea, kicking up great storms of dust that fan out, blotting out the Salt Sea.
Judith is heading back from the cistern when Uzziah comes running, "You must come quickly, the Romans are near! Eleazar has ordered all to assemble." The jars fall from her fingers, feet flying across sand.
She arrives just after the old men and the children.
"Who will come to our aid? All other strongholds fallen to the enemy."
"Would it not be better to be slaves than to see our children and wives slaughtered?"
Judith wonders then, how quickly so many could forget row after row of crosses: the Kidron and Hinnon valleys brought level by bodies. Eleazar addresses the people from the balcony of the palace, voice drowning in the shouts from the crowd.
"Have courage my people. God will not abandon us if we remain steadfast."
Judith sees the truth written in his eyes. He doesn't know what to do. Eleazar dismisses them with a wave and a nod. The men take their places on the wall and the women disperse to quarters.
Judith goes back the way she came back to where the jugs lay on the thirsty ground. Romans or not, the people still need water to drink.
In the second month of the siege the Romans surround them on three sides. Only the snake path is open to them now. Late in the night words comes that Herodium and Machaerus have fallen. They are the only stronghold left.
Eleazar announces the next day that the strongest men will raid the settlement of En Geddi for supplies. When no one speaks up that the storehouses are full, Judith goes to see her husband's cousin.
She finds Eleazar studying a map. He doesn't bother to look at her.
"You can't will the army away."
"I know." Curt, short, uncertain. Judith knows that tone well.
"What do you hope to accomplish by stealing from your own people?" That was, even if they could defeat the militia at En Geddi.
"Stealing Roman money and grain used to feed those that would slaughter us."
Used to feed the old, the sick, the women, and children she thinks. "You're giving them the choice of starving or fighting."
He does look at her then, something unreadable in his eye. "Yes."
"That, didn't work in Jerusalem." She knows the only thing staying his hand from her cheek then is his grip on the table. "I know," he says again.
She retreats then up marble stairs to the balcony, watches the men leave. Judith watches the men go. She wonders then how any man that cannot plumb the depths of his own heart and mind can hope to fathom the heart and mind of God. The men return from Ein Geddi two days later, dark stains on their clothes. They carry sheaves of barley on their shoulders, like corpses.
Ein Geddi burns for three days. No villagers come to stand with them.
In the third month of the siege the Romans reign fire down on them. The storehouses and wall are saved. Hope burns. That same day Eleazar decides they all must die. Judith watches him, huddled with his mighty men, from the portico. Their hushed voices carry across the courtyard.
"What choice do we have?"
"We could fight. We have arms--"
Eleazar speaks low, "Better to die here than to live and die as slaves in Rome. We cannot fight what God has set against us."
There are no grand speeches, only grim faces and the rattle of lots against plaster.
Bethulia is in the women's quarters watching the younger children. She presses water skins into Bethulia's hands, "Take them, and the children to the cistern, draw water. Wait for me." There are so many questions in Bethulia's eyes; and Judith has no time to answer them. Trust me she wants to say, but Bethulia and the children are already gone.
The people are already gathering, waiting for Eleazar to speak. Judith takes olives and dates from the storerooms. There is no time to go back for bread. Bethulia and the children are hiding at the base of the cistern.
She tears strips of linen from the hem of her robe. Whispers quietly to the children, "You must put these in your ears." It is the only comfort she can offer.
"Judith, what are we doing?" Bethulia asks.
"The Romans will come in the morning. Eleazar believes it better to die by our own hands."
"The snake path is our only--"
Judith cuts her off, "Is suicide."
Bethulia glances at the children huddled and frightened, "So is remaining here."
When the screaming starts a few hours later Judith bitterly wishes for something to dull her hearing. They don't move from the caverns until the moon is high, and the only sound left is the bleating of a goat.
They take shelter in a cave half-way down the path and divide up the olives and dates. After the children fall asleep. Judith and Bethulia huddle close, sharing Bethulia's cloak.
"We can make it to Ein Geddi in two days, even with the littlest one. We'll leave at first light." It only occurs to Judith then that she doesn't even know the children's names.
"Do you really believe we'll make it?"
Judith grips Bethulia's cool fingers in her hand, "We have no choice, but to."
They make it of course. And soon enough the story is passed from house-to-house.
The stranger visits her at the height of the harvest season, a year after Masada. Judith comes in from overseeing the harvest, to find him perching awkwardly on a low stool. He's as far from a suitor as any that had come to see her-- men keen for the land bought with the last of the jewelry from Manasseh.
"Are you Judith?" Question tumbling from his lips as he stands.
"Forgive me, I am Joseph, son of Matthias."
Judith sits down heavily on dusty cushion The cut of his clothing and smooth chin betray him. You may be a son of Matthias but you are well fed by your Roman patron."
Something between paid and surprise passes over his weathered face. "Are you Judith, kin of Eleazar?"
"I am Judith, daughter of Merari and Martha. She pauses, "Kin of Eleazar, now why have you come to trouble me?"
"I came, because I had to know."
"How was it you survived? When no others did?" He speaks slowly now, as if to a child or old woman. He is not used to waiting, nor are his Roman patrons, Judith decides.
"You wish to know how it is we survived, when all others perished?" The bread filling her stomach twists and roils. The door creaks behind her as Bethulia comes in, panting from the walk back from the well. "We had to live."
Judith feels the heat of Bethulia's palms on her aching shoulders as she speaks, "For our people."
Yet there was an older woman, and another who was of kin to Eleazar, and superior to most women in prudence and learning, with five children, who had concealed themselves in caverns under ground.... Yosef Ben Matityahu/Titus Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews