This is part of a series I am writing on my first reading of the Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. As I said in the initial post, Catholic Bible includes those books and writings that are usually removed in Protestant Bibles (helpful comparison chart), and I figured it was about time to start reading them. I am recording my initial thoughts here (you can follow along at Apocrypha.org if you do not have your own copy).
“Judith” is the feminine form of “Judah.” In the story, Judith is a daring and beautiful widow, upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, with whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved. Though she is courted by many, Judith remains unmarried for the rest of her life.
Outline and Summary
- Nebuchanezzar Wars Against Arphaxad
- Holofernes Chosen for Revenge
- Holofernes Conquers All
- Israel Prepares for War
- Achior Explains Israel’s History
- Achior is Handed Over to Israel
- The Siege of Bethulia
- Judith Admonishes Uzziah
- Judith’s Prayer
- Judith Surrenders to Holofernes
- Judith Plots with Holofernes
- Holofernes Seduces Judith
- Judith Beheads Holofernes
- The Assyrians Panic
- Israel Routes the Assyrians
- Judith’s hymn of Victory
Judith begins with Nebuchadnezzar threatening those around him with annihilation if they do not bow down to him. After defeating his primary opponent Arphaxad, he sends Holofernes (his #2) to all the disobedient lands to crush all opposition. Holofernes does so – even destroying the territories of those who surrender – in an attempt to establish Nebuchadnezzar as the only one worthy of worship. When Israel hears about Holofernes’ activities, they prepare for war (both militarily and prayerfully). When Holofernes hears about Israel’s preparations, he questions Achior (leader of the Ammonites) about them. Achior recounts Israel’s history, and explains that if they are in sin, they can be beaten – but if not, their God will not let them be defeated. Holofernes is not impressed, and replies, “Who is God beside Nebuchadnezzar?” He then hands Achior over to the Israelites so that he will be killed along with them – promising that Achior will not see his face again until then (heh heh). Bethulia is then besieged, cutting off the water to the city. After over 30 days of going almost completely without water, the Bethulians lose heart and ask the leaders to surrender to Holofernes. Their leader, Uzziah, says that if God does ont come through for them within 5 days, he will do so. Enter Judith.
Judith was a fairly wealthy widow, beautiful, and “No one had a bad word to say about her, for she feared God greatly” (8:8). Judith slams Uzziah and the other elders for vowing to hand the city over and presuming on God in doing so – for, “he has it equally within his power to protect us at such time as he pleases, or to destroy us in the sight of our enemies” (8:15). She argues that because idolatry no longer takes place, God has no reason to punish them as he had in former times – therefore, she says, “let us give thanks to the Lord our God for putting us to the test as he did our ancestors” (8:25). She recounts God’s previous dealings with Israel and concludes (in very New Testament fashion!) that, “He has not tested us with fire, as he did them, to try their hearts, nor is he taking vengeance on us. But the Lord chastises those who are close to him in order to admonish them” (Judith 8:27). She promises them that she will “perform a deed that will go down from generation to generation among our descendants . . . within the days you have specified before you will surrender the city to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand” (8:32-33), and begins to pray.
Here are the Assyrians, a vast force, priding themselves on horse and chariot,
boasting of the power of their infantry, trusting in shield and spear, bow and sling.
They do not know that you are the Lord who crushes wars. (Judith 9:7)
Judith gets all prettied up, beguiles the Assyrian guards, and “surrenders” to Holofernes. She offers to tell Holofernes how to defeat the Israelites, and cleverly promises him, “If you follow the words of your maidservant, God will successfully perform a deed through you, and my lord will not fail to achieve his designs” (11:6). She says to spy on Israel and wait for them to desecrate the holy foods of the temple, for then their God will hand them over. She is given a place to stay, and after a few days Holofernes cannot control his passion for her anymore and tries to seduce her at a party. After Holofernes passes out drunk, Judith sends the servants away so she can pray – and that she does: ““O Lord, God of all might, in this hour look graciously on the work of my hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem. Now is the time for aiding your heritage and for carrying out my design to shatter the enemies who have risen against us” (13:4-5). And with that, she draws Holofernes’s sword and cuts his head off. She returns to Bethulia, and tells the Israelites to attack so that the Assyrians will panic. They do panic, and Israel utterly routes them. The people plunder the Assyrian’s camp and celebrate Judith’s victory. The book closes with a hymn, and a brief summary of the rest of Judith’s life.
Right off the bat readers need to know that it is generally accepted that the Book of Judith is not meant to convey literal history. Early Church Fathers seemed to consider Judith an allegorical figure, and most contemporary scholars see the book as parabolic historical fiction – basically a propaganda story from the times of Seleucid oppression of Israel. Several historical conflations are just too obvious to be non-purposeful (like listing Nebuchadnezzar as king of Assyria). Much like St. John conflates the national-symbolic beats of Daniel 7 into one (Rev. 13), the tale of Judith is set in a historically-representative context picturing many of Israel’s primary enemies as overlapping (e.g., Babylon, Assyria, Medea, Chaldea, and perhaps even the time of Antiochus Epiphanies).
A traditional theological understanding of this conflation links Judith prophetically to Mary. Genesis 3:15 promises that the Serpent/Dragon (the devil) would be at enmity with the Woman and her Seed – and we see this battle in Revelation 12-13 when we are introduced to a Woman (Mary), the dragon (the devil), and the Beast (political enemies). This beast fights against the Woman to kill her son (Jesus), but she escapes and her child eventually crushes both the beast and the dragon. It is also hard to miss the marian theme of Judith 13:18 where we read, “Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God, above all the women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth, who guided your blow at the head of the leader of our enemies” – phrases which seem to bookend Mary’s life and ministry.
Another odd feature of Judith is how self-consciously she lies. That she intends to lie is evident form her planning and prayers as well as the eventual deed. What is interesting, though, is how cleverly she speaks to Holofernes. Although she is certainly misleading, I am not sure she ever actually tells a lie that she could not get out of if necessary.
The names are also interesting. Although most Hebrew names have deeper meanings, probably the name meanings in the book of Judith are far more important to the story than their historicity: Judith = Jewess, Holofernes = stinking in hell, while Uzziah = the Lord is my strength, Achior = brother of light, and the city of Bethulia (which is unknown) is probably a form of “Beth Elohim” = house of God.
Once one gets passed the historical and moral oddness, the story of Judith is an interesting look into the values of the culture of the day (the audacity of women heroes and misinformation!). The themes of trusting in God, not presuming on his timeline, and the interplay between human virtue and vice are well displayed. It was a fun read, and there were some pretty awesome quotes during Judith’s prayers. Overall a good addition to the canon.
Not by youths was their champion struck down,
nor did Titans bring him low,
nor did tall giants attack him;
But Judith . . . by the beauty of her face brought him down. . .
Her sandals ravished his eyes,
her beauty captivated his mind,
the sword cut through his neck! (Judith 16:6-9)