A Catholic reads the Bible, week 24: Girl power

The books of Judith and Esther read like engrossing novels, says Laura Bernardini.

Laura Bernardini is director of coverage in CNN's Washington Bureau. The views expressed in this column belong to Bernardini.

Laura Bernardini

(CNN)This is week 24 of an ongoing series: A Catholic Reads the Bible. Read Week One, Week Two and Week Three.

Speeding through the stories of Judith and Esther this week, I came to a crashing stop when I realized something important: The more amazing and engrossing the biblical narrative, the more meditation is required.
Those early books of the Bible were so new to me that the possibilities were endless.
    Then the narrative flow started picking up with the Book of Nemehiah.
    All of a sudden, it was like I picked up a great novel. You don't want to analyze your favorite book, you just want to read it. It's more entertainment than a source for spiritual reflection.
    So this week, with the books of Judith and Esther, I really had to force myself to slow down and think about what I was reading.
    Though the stories of Nehemiah and Tobit really moved me personally, this week was different.
    These two women were so powerful and so audacious, it made me want more of their stories.
    First came the Book of Judith, another book that is not in the Jewish or Protestant versions of the Bible. Her story is a jumbled "historical" tale of a widowed woman who lures an evil general to save her people.
    The introduction was clear that this had multiple characters from different times. When I did some additional research, the U.S. Conference of Bishops' summary points out that all these details happened over five centuries.
    In other words, I am reading historical fiction.
    Back to Judith: After she makes herself so alluring that the general falls under her spell, she decapitates him. She actually shows off the head. Hello, "Game of Thrones," anyone?
    And it gets better.
    Judith shows the Israelites the head, and they are safe. They love and revere Judith. Yes, this is really in the Bible.
    Next up is Esther. This story was also full of intrigue.
    Esther is the niece of Mordecai, who angered one of the generals in the court in Persia. He was referred to throughout the book as the "Jew," and the general vowed to annihilate all the Jews because of him.
    At the same time, the king gets mad at his wife, and she conveniently disappears. The king is in the market for a new wife and chooses the fairest of them all: Esther. Of course, the king can't know that she is Jewish.
    So, when the king falls in love with his new wife, she asks for the general to be killed and all the Jews spared. Rather than lose this head, as in Judith, the evil guy this time falls victim to a gibbet -- a form of public hanging. (Yes, I had to look that one up.)
    I am learning a lot about violent ends.
    To this day, Jews honor Esther's intelligence and pluck on the holiday of Purim.
    Thus far in the Bible, I've read quite a bit about ordinary men doing amazing things; now, finally, we have female characters stepping up to save the day and the faith.
    I am not used to this. And I love it.
    It was a fun week. I can see that even being entertained by an engrossing story got me through.
    Now, I am just looking for my invitation to a Purim party.