Judith, Book of

views updated Jun 08 2018


JUDITH, BOOK OF , a historical narrative dating from Second Temple times, included by the Septuagint and the canon of the Catholic and Greek churches in the Bible and by the Protestants in the Apocrypha.

The story is as follows: Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria who reigned in Nineveh, after having defeated Arphaxad, king of Media, in the valley of Ragau, sent Holofernes, his commander in chief, on a campaign of conquest, in the course of which he overran all the countries from the border of Persia to Sidon and Tyre. When he reached the valley of Esdraelon before the narrow pass leading to Judea and Jerusalem, he found that, by order of the high priest in Jerusalem, all the passes had been occupied by the Jews living in the fortified mountain-pass towns of Bethulia and Betomesthaim. At this Holofernes summoned a council, as a result of which he ordered that Achior, the Ammonite chief, who had spoken confidently of the victorious power of Israel so long as they remained faithful to God, be sent to the Jews of Bethulia. Holofernes then laid siege to the town. After a month, when there was no water left in Bethulia and its leaders had already decided to open the gates to the enemy, there suddenly appeared a widow named Judith the daughter of Merari. She was of the tribe of Simeon and a resident of Bethulia, young and beautiful, righteous and wealthy. With the permission of the leaders of the town she went down to the camp of Holofernes who, attracted by her wisdom and beauty, invited her to a feast. When Holofernes fell asleep, overcome by wine, Judith took his dagger, cut off his head, and handing it to her maid returned with her to Bethulia. Deprived of their commander in chief by Judith's courageous deed, the panic-stricken Assyrian soldiers fled.

There are many obscure elements in the story. Its date has been assigned to the period of the return to Zion after the Babylonian Exile. At that time the kingdoms of Assyria and Media no longer existed, and hence various other theories have been advanced by scholars. Some (following Luther) have maintained that it is merely an allegory. More probably it is a historical novel written in the days of the Hasmoneans to inspire courage, its historical kernel being found in the events which took place under Artaxerxes iii, when in 352 b.c.e. a Cappadocian prince named Holofernes fought against the Egyptians (Diodorus Siculus xvii, 6, 1). However, even this theory presents some difficulty, since the story contains no Greek features (and its geographic and ethnic background even conflicts with such an interpretation). On the other hand it contains definitely Persian names (Holofernes, Bagoas) and elements (such as άκινακή for "dagger"; presenting "earth and water" to the king as a sign of surrender; the appellation "the God of heaven" for God of Israel; and the royal designation, "the king of all the earth"). It has therefore been suggested that the entire book is a "Persian" production. While, according to this view, the background of the story is Darius i's war against Phraortes, the "king" of Media at the time of the return to Zion (which is mentioned in the book), it was written only at the end of the Persian period, in the wake of the great revolt of 362 b.c.e. (in the reign of Artaxerxes ii) which also spread to Ereẓ Israel. Nor, according to this theory, is the most important geographical detail in the book, namely the reference to a Jewish (Simeonite) settlement on the border of the valley of Dothan, a fabrication. For a combination of various sources (Meg. Ta'an. for 25 Marḥeshvan (chap. 8); Jos., Ant. 13:275f., 379f: Wars 1:93f.; and also apparently i Macc. 5:23) shows that at the time of the return in the region of Samaria, in the neighborhood of what was known as "the cities of Nebhrakta," there was a Jewish-Simeonite settlement (which may in effect have existed as early as in the days of the First Temple and being of Semite origin: cf. ii Chron. 34:6, 15:9; and also i Chron. 4:31). The supposition is that in the great revolt at the end of the reign of Artaxerxes ii (404–359 b.c.e.) this region fulfilled some function.

From a literary standpoint, by virtue of its epic description, the book is one of the most finished productions of Second Temple times. A prose work, it embodies two poems, Judith's prayer before setting out for the camp of Holofernes (9) and the thanksgiving of Israel after the victory (16). Very close to the later biblical poetry, in its structure and poetic imagery, this song of thanksgiving antedates those found at Qumran. The book is also significant by reason of both the halakhah it contains and the religious faith it reflects. Yet it reveals no trace of sectarianism, as do the works written in the post-Hasmonean period.

As is clearly evident from its many Hebraisms, the book was originally written in Hebrew (cf., for example, the expressions: "the space of 30 days"; "all flesh," as a designation for human beings; "let not thine eye spare"; "the face of the earth"; and "smote with the edge of the sword," etc.). In the precise Greek translation there is also discernible the special Ereẓ Israel spelling (the substitution of the ע״ו verb by פ״י).

The book is extant in four principal Greek versions (A, B, Codex 58, and Codex 108), all of which derive from the Hebrew. In ancient times an abridged Aramaic translation was made, on the basis of which Jerome translated the work into Latin (this being the Vulgate version). At an early stage the Hebrew book was lost, but in one form or another (chiefly through translations and adaptations from the Latin), from the 10th–11th centuries, several abridged Hebrew versions of the work found their way back into midrashic literature.

[Yehoshua M. Grintz]

In the Arts

Judith has attracted more writers, artists, and composers than any other figure in the Apocrypha. Two of the earliest literary works were Judith, a fragmentary Old English epic, and a Middle High German poem of the same title dating from the 13th century. One of the first recorded plays about Judith and Holofernes was that staged at Pesaro, Italy, in 1489 by the local Jewish community. By the beginning of the 16th century, the subject was arousing fresh attention – particularly among Protestant writers, who reinterpreted it in terms of the triumph of virtue over wickedness. Martin *Luther favored the use of Old Testament material as a basis for drama, especially recommending Judith as a tragic theme. Two pioneering works of the Renaissance era were Judita (1521), a religious epic by the Croatian humanist Marko Marulić and the German playwright Sixtus Birck's Judith (1532). Another Judith (1551) was written by the German Meistersinger Hans Sachs. In Italy, where the subject was treated in an orthodox Catholic fashion, Luca (Ciarafello) de Calerio produced the drama Giuditta e Oloferne (Naples, 1540), and G. Francesco Alberti the tragedy Oloferne (1594). The subject retained its popularity throughout the 17th–19th centuries and was the subject of plays in various countries. Thus in Spain, the Marrano dramatist and preacher Felipe *Godínez wrote Judit y Holofernes (1620); and Iyudif (1674), a seven-act Russian prose drama, was one of the first biblical works to be staged in Moscow. An anonymous work of 1761, Sefer Yehudit ve-Sefer Yehudah ha-Makkabi, appeared at Amsterdam. Two curiosities of the 19th century, both written in *Judeo-Italian and titled La Betulia liberata, were a poem by Luigi Duclou (1832) and an epic by Natale Falcini (1862). An outstanding tragedy on the theme was the German dramatist Friedrich Hebbel's Judith (1841). In the United States, the Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier included "Judith at the Tent of Holofernes" (1829) among his biblical poems, while Thomas Bailey Aldrich dramatized his Judith and Holofernes (1896), and Adah Isaacs *Menken wrote her sensual story, "Judith" (in Infelicia, 1888). An impressive number of works about Judith have been written by authors of the 20th century. The German expressionist Georg Kaiser adopted an original approach in his comedy Die juedische Witwe (1911). The urge to "modernize" the subject was particularly evident in England, where Thomas Sturge Moore's Judith (1911; staged 1916) suggested that the heroine became the tyrant's mistress before she killed him. The Judith of Lascelles Abercrombie (in Emblems of Love, 1912) contained strong undertones of suffragette thinking, while Arnold Bennett's heroine (1919) created a furore by appearing on the stage in a revealing costume. Among the plays that appeared between the world wars were Henry *Bernstein's drama Judith (1922), Bartholomaeus Ponholzer's Judith, die Heldin von Israel (1927), and Ricardo Moritz's Giuditta (1938). In his psychological tragedy, Judith (1931), the French writer Jean Giraudoux went even further than the British by treating the whole story as a myth, transforming the heroine into a courtesan and the villain into the more likeable character.

Judith has often been portrayed by artists. For medieval Christianity, the Jewish heroine's slaying of Holofernes represented the triumph of the Virgin over the devil. It also signified the victory of sanctimonia (chastity and humility) over lust and pride. Judith is usually shown either with the sword in her right hand and Holofernes' head in her left, or dropping the head into a receptacle held by her servant. A dog, the symbol of fidelity, often accompanied her. In Renaissance and later painting she was sometimes shown nude. The story was treated in narrative cycles and in isolated incidents. An early cycle exists in the Bible of San Paolo fuori le Mura (Rome, ninth century). The arches over the north portal of Chartres Cathedral (13th century) depict several episodes, as does a window of the same period in La Sainte-Chapelle, Paris. The subject was found suitable for tapestry, two examples being a Tournai cycle (15th century in Brussels' Musées royaux d'art et d'histoire), and a French version (c. 1515; now in the Cathedral of Sens). In the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, there is an ornate sculpture of the subject by Donatello. Among the Renaissance painters, Andrea Mantegna treated the subject several times and Botticelli painted some episodes from the story of Judith that are not commonly illustrated: Judith and her maid arriving home with the head, and the discovery of the dead body of Holofernes (both in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence). There is a painting of Judith with the head by the same artist in the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam. Michelangelo included figures of Judith and her maid in his Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Several of the great Venetian artists painted Judith. There is an upright figure of the heroine delicately trampling on Holofernes' head by Giorgione (Hermitage, Leningrad). Paolo Veronese painted a very attractive Judith (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), and there is a study of her in the act of killing Holofernes by Tintoretto (Prado, Madrid). Of the later Italian artists, Caravaggio painted the same scene (Naples Museum) with a certain violence. The German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach was particularly attracted by the subject of Judith and Holofernes and painted it several times. One version is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Rubens used a dramatic chiaroscuro to portray Judith in the act of killing Holofernes (Brunswick Museum).

In Jewish musical tradition, the story of Judith is represented by the singing of the piyyut, Mi Khamokha Addir Ayom ve-Nora (Davidson, Oẓar, 1143) on the Sabbath of Ḥanukkah, a custom retained in several communities. The "Canticle of Judith," Hymnum cantemus Domino (Judith 16: 15–21), is prescribed in the Catholic Church for the Laudes (dawn service) on Wednesdays, and intoned to a simple psalmodic melody. Polyphonic settings of the text appear only rarely: one instance is O bone Deus, ne projicias by Jacobus Gallus (Handl), the text being a combination of verses from chapters 8, 14, 16, and 19 of the Apocryphal book. With the rise of the oratorio, the subject – possessing a naturally dramatic plot – came into its own and it continues to maintain its popularity. Two factors contributed to the remarkably frequent appearance of Judith oratorios in the second and third quarters of the 18th century: first of all, the appeal of Metastasio's libretto, Betulia liberata (commissioned by the emperor Charles vi of Austria, and first performed in the Imperial Chapel, Vienna, with music by Georg Reutter, in 1734); and secondly, the reign of Maria Theresa (1740–80), who was symbolized as a latter-day Judith standing up to the new Holofernes – Frederick the Great of Prussia. The regular production of operas about Judith only began toward the middle of the 19th century, by which time biblical subjects were permitted on the stage and the early romantic "horror opera" had prepared audiences for the sight of Holofernes' severed head.

The following is a selective list of compositions about Judith; all are oratorios, if not designated otherwise: Caspar Foerster, Dialogus de Holoferne (1667); Antonio Draghi, La Giuditta (1668–69); Giovanni Paolo Colonna, Bettuglia liberata (1690); Alessandro Scarlatti, La Giuditta vittoriosa (1695); Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Judith sive Bethulia liberata (c. 1700); Antonio Vivaldi, Judith triumphans devicta Holofernis barbarie (1716); Giuseppe Porsile, Il trionfo di Giuditta (1923); Wilhelm de Fesch, Judith (English libretto: London, 1733); Georg Reutter, Betulia liberata (first setting of Metastasio's libretto; Vienna, 1734); Joseph Anton Sehling, Firma in Deum fiducia… in Judith Israelis Amazone (melodrama; Prague, 1741); Niccolò Jomelli, Betulia liberata (Metastasio's text; Venice, 1743; the composer's first oratorio); Antonio Bernasconi, Betulia liberata (Metastasio's text; 1754); Giovanni Battista Martini, In cymbalis and Hymnum novum, two puzzle canons in his Storia della musica, 1 (1757), 165, 334; Ignaz Holzbauer, Betulia liberata (Metastasio's text; 1760); John Christopher Smith, Judith (scenic oratorio; 1760, not performed); Thomas Augustine Arne, Judith (1761, restaged 1773; first use of female choristers on the English stage); Domenico Cimarosa, Giuditta ("opera sacra," 1770); Florian Gassmann, Betulia liberata (Metastisio's text; Vienna, 1771; inaugurating the concerts of the Tonkuenstlersozietaet); Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Betulia liberata (Metastasio's text; 1771; see also below); Leopold Anton Koželuch, La Giuditta (c. 1780) and Judith und Holofernes (after Metastasio; as opera, c. 1779; as oratorio, 1799); Ludwig van Beethoven, three canons on "Te solo adoro" from Metastasio's libretto (1823); Samuele Levi, Giuditta (opera; Venice, 1844); Julius Rietz, Judith (ouverture and entr'actes to Hebbel's drama, 1851); Emil Naumann, Judith (opera, 1858); Alexander Serov, Judith (opera; text by the composer and three collaborators; St. Petersburg, 1863; his greatest success); Giacomo *Meyerbeer, Judith (operatic fragment, 1864; unpublished); Albert Franz Doppler, Judith (opera, 1870); Paul Hillemacher, Judith ("scène lyrique," 1876); Charles Lefebvre, Judith (opera, 1879); Cart Goetze, Judith (opera, 1887); Sir Hubert Parry, Judith (1888); George W. Chadwick, Judith ("lyric drama," 1901); August Reuss, Judith (for orchestra; "after Hebbel," 1903); Carlo Ravasenga, Giuditta e Oloferne (for orchestra, 1920); Max Ettinger, Judith (opera, 1920); Emil von Resniček, Holofernes (opera; libretto by the composer, based on Hebbel, 1923; the overture, in the form of an arrangement of Kol Nidre, was also performed and published separately); Arthur Honegger, Judith (opera; text by René Morax, 1926); Eugene Goossens, Judith (opera; text by Arnold Bennett, 1928); Gabriel Grad, Judith and Holofernes (opera in Hebrew; only parts published, 1931 and 1939); Carl Nathanael Berg, Judith (opera, 1931–35); Mordechai *Seter, Judith (ballet, 1963; reworked in 1967 as a "symphonic chaconne" for orchestra). Metastasio's Betulia liberata was translated into Hebrew by David Franco *Mendes in 1790–91 as Teshu'at Yisrael. It is not certain whether the translation was made for a performance with Mozart's music, since the manuscript bears only the direction Lahakat Meshorerim ("group of singers," i.e., chorus), and does not indicate the solos. F. Clément, in his Dictionnaire des Opéras (18972, 624), reports the United Hebrew Opera Company's performance in Boston of an opera titled Judithund Holofernes (1861), which was "sung in German, with the program printed in Hebrew." Both the performance and the program were probably in Yiddish.

[Bathja Bayer]


Y.M. Grintz, Sefer Yehudit (1957), incl. bibl., 209–19; idem, in: Molad, 17 (1959), 564–6; A. Schalit, Namenwoerterbuch zu Flavius Josephus (1968), 130–3; A.M. Habermann, in: Maḥanayim, 52 (1961), 42–47; A.M. Dubarle, Judith, Formes et Sens des Diverses Traditions (1966); Y.L. Bialer, in: Min ha-Genazim, 2 (1969), 36–51. in the arts: R.E. Glaymen, Recent Judith Drama and Its Analogues (1930), incl. "a list… of plays based on the whole Bible": 112–34; E. Purdie, Story of Judith in German and English Literature (1927), incl. bibl., 1–22; M. Sommerfeld (ed.), Judith-Dramen des 16./17. Jahrhunderts (1933). add. bibliography: C.A. Moore, "Judith: The Case of the Pious Killer," in: Bible Review, 6 (1990), 26–36.

Judith, Book of

views updated May 18 2018


The Book of Judith relates the story of the heroic and devout Hebrew woman, Judith, who singlehandedly saved her city and country from the enemy. The content, text, canonicity, and literary form of the book are discussed in this article.

Content. nebuchadnezzar, who is described as king of the Assyrians, dispatches his chief general, Holofernes, to punish the Western countries for refusing to pay tribute to him. The general so terrifies his enemies that they hasten to submit. The Hebrews, however, fearing for the safety of their temple, resist. After a long siege of Bethulia by Holofernes's forces, the famished inhabitants urge their governor to surrender. At this point, the beautiful and wealthy widow, Judith, indignant because of the people's lack of confidence in God, initiates her own plan. After a lengthy prayer, Judith enters the Assyrian camp, explaining that she is a deserter. Holofernes, lured by Judith's beauty, invites her to his tent to eat and drink. When Holofernes is overcome by excessive drink, Judith decapitates him and returns to Bethulia with the severed head. The next day the besieged put the confused enemy to flight. So highly acclaimed is Judith that the high priest comes from Jerusalem to honor her. The book ends with the Canticle of judith and an account of her last days. The Vulgate adds a note concerning a holy day instituted in remembrance of the victory.

Text. The original Hebrew (or Aramaic) text of the Book of Judith has been lost. Of the three recensions of the Greek, the best is represented by codices Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, and Sinaiticus. The translation of St. jerome in the Vulgate is based on an Aramaic text and takes into account the readings of the Old Latin Version; it is about one-fifth shorter than the Greek text (LXX). There exist also a few Hebrew renderings of the text and a number of midrashic résumés of late date. It has long been assumed that the Hebrew versions were mere translations of the Vulgate, but the careful study of A. M. Dubarle has shown that this supposition is unfounded; it is more probable that the existing Hebrew texts depend upon an Aramaic text similar to that used by St. Jerome.

Canonicity. Although never accepted as canonical by official judaism, the deuterocanonical story of Judith was popular enough to merit reading at the feast of Hanukkah (see dedication of the temple, feast of), the date of its introduction into that liturgy, however, is not known. As part of the Greek Scriptures, the Book of Judith was used by the early Church. It has been argued that St. Paul alludes to Jdt 8.14 (LXX) in 1 Cor 2.1011, and there may be a reminiscence of Jdt 15.1011 in Lk 1.42,48. Although St. Jerome did not accept the book's canonicity (and he was by no means alone), he admitted that it was "read" by the Church. The Church terminated all doubts by affirming the inspired character of the book at the Council of Trent.

Literary Form. Catholic scholars have long manifested reserve in accepting the Book of Judith as a historical work. The prevailing tendency today is to classify this work as an edifying fiction or as an apocalypse. The most serious objection to the factual content of the book arises from the difficulty in identifying the Nebuchadnezzar who is called "king of the Assyrians who reigned in niniveh" (Vulg 1.5; LXX 1.1). It would be naive to view this statement as a crude error concerning the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. The statement represents either an obvious declaration that the author is not dealing with facts, or that he is employing pseudonyms. The view that Nabuchodonosor in this passage represents some other king has been the most popular explanation among Jewish and Christian exegetes alike until recent times. Of the various candidates proposed, Christian writers have favored the Persian King Artaxerxes III (see persia); Jewish tradition has leaned toward one of the Seleucid kings. The German scholar Gottfried Brunner, basing his conclusions on the Behistun inscription of darius i, identifies the Nebuchadnezzar of the Judith narrative with a certain Araka, a pretender to the fallen Babylonian throne. According to Brunner, Araka, who styled himself Nebuchadnezzar IV, probably established himself in the Syrian city of Ninus-vetus (whence Nineveh) until he

was crushed by Darius I. Such an identification might support a literal interpretation of the narrative, but it raises new problems without eliminating all the old ones. The high priest in the Judith narrative is Joachim (LXX4.68; 15.8; the Vulgate gives the name first as Eliachim[4.510], but then as Joachim [15.9]). Such a figure should certainly be identifiable. A succession of high priests is listed in ch. 12 of Nehemiah. A Joachim does appear in that list, but he is too early to have been a contemporary of Artaxerxes III and too late to have held office when Araka was posing a threat to Darius I. It has been suggested, therefore, that the Joachim in the Book of Judith is the high priest Alcimus of the Maccabean times (1 Mc 7.525; 2 Mc 14.326), who, according to Josephus, was also called άκειμος. There are also references in the text that point to the Maccabean era, e.g., the Sanhedrin (LXX 4.8; 11.14; 15.8).

The geographical background of the narrative is as difficult to understand as its historical framework. There have been many scholarly attempts to locate the strategic citadel of Bethulia, but from the evidence thus far obtained it must be concluded that under the name of Bethulia no such place ever existed. The name, of course, has been diversely interpreted. The simplest explanation is probably the correct one: it is a transliteration of the Hebrew word for "virgin" (betûlâ ), and is, like the name Judith (Heb. yehûdît, "Jewess"), symbolic.

This confusing mixture of historical allusions, of which only the most important have been indicated, on the one hand, suggests that Dubarle and others are correct in judging that the Book of Judith has undergone extensive revision; and, on the other, indicates rather clearly that the present book does not pretend to present a historical account. Some exegetes see in the narrative a historical event that forms the nucleus around which the author has composed a free narrative with elements gathered from various periods of Israelite history. There is no agreement, however, concerning precisely what that event was. Consequently, the majority of exegetes consider the narrative a parable dressed in historical clothing. The parable seems to be a demonstration of the truth found in the words of the Jewish enemy Achior: "But if there be no offense of this people in the sight of their God, we cannot resist them, because their God will defend them; and we shall be a reproach to the whole earth" (Vulg 5.25; LXX 5.21; cf. words of Judith, Vulg 9.1516; LXX 9.11). The story of Judith illustrates this truth in a striking manner, for it is a woman who singlehandedly defeats the formidable enemies of her people.

The points of contact with the forces of irreligion depicted in Ezekiel (ch. 38), Daniel (ch. 78, 1011), and the New Testament Revelation of St. John (ch. 13, 17) are obvious, and it is for this reason that the parable of Judith has also been called an apocalypse. The Judith narrative is history, parable, apocalypseall these things woven together by a gifted and inspired craftsman who will probably remain forever unknown.

See Also: midrash.

Bibliography: a. barucq, tr., Judith (Bible de Jérusalem, 43v., each with intro. by the tr. [Paris 194854]; single v. ed. of the complete Bible [Paris 1956] 14; Paris 1959). a. miller and j. schildenberger, eds. and trs., Die Bücher Tobias, Judith und Esther (Bonn 194041). y. m. grintz, Sefer Yehudith (Jerusalem 1957). j. steinman, Lecture de Judith (Paris 1953). p. f. ellis, The Men and the Message of the Old Testament (Collegeville, Minn.1963) 523530. a. lefÈvre, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928) 4:131521. c. c. torrey, The Apocryphal Literature (New Haven, Conn. 1945). a. m. dubarle, "Les Textes divers du livre de Judith," Vetus Testamentum 8 (1958) 344373; "La Mention de Judith dans la littérature ancienne, juive et chrétienne," Revue biblique 66 (1959) 514549. r. harris, "A Quotation from Judith in the Pauline Epistles," Expository Times 27 (191516) 1315. g. brunner, Der Nabuchodonosor des Buches Judith (Berlin 1959). h. cazelles, "Le Personnage d'Achior dans le livre de Judith," Recherches de science religieuse 39 (195152) 125137. j. e. bruns, "Judith or Jael," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 16 (1954) 1214. p. w. skehan, "Why Leave out Judith?" Catholic Biblical Quarterly 24 (1962) 147154; "The Hand of Judith," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25 (1963) 94110.

[j. e. bruns]


views updated May 14 2018


According to many scholars, the Book of Judith was written during the Hasmonean period (140 bce–37 bce). It has been a source of fascination in the Western world, and that interest has resulted in a profusion of literary and artistic renditions of Judith's story. Among the strong women of the Bible, Judith is the most popular heroine, although she is an ambiguous model in light of the scheme she devises to resolve the struggle for Jewish sovereignty. Her use of seduction and deceptive rhetoric in conjunction with female violence provides a rich performance of gender identity from the margins of the religious and social establishment of a traditional society.


The accumulation of historical, geographical, and chronological inaccuracies in the story of Judith and Holofernes allows the anonymous author to accentuate the sense of danger inherent to the history of the Jewish people. The first seven chapters chronicle and provide a vivid account of the feats of the powerful armies of Nebuchadnezzar, who is presented as an Assyrian king. Under siege, the city of Bethulia is about to surrender when Judith ("Jewess" in Hebrew), a name that might suggest a symbolic identity, is introduced in the narration and becomes the central character of the book.

Despite the marginal role of women in a society dominated by male authority, the righteous widow in mourning garb, living in isolation on the rooftop of her house since her husband's death, assumes a leading role in a moment of crisis. As an independent agent Judith succeeds in redefining herself outside the boundaries of her socially prescribed role and status. In this volatile situation her contact with and prayers to God place Judith in the position of a priest. As Amy-Jill Levine (1999) states, she assumes, both part of and apart from her people, the male role of protector-avenger. Judith's intrusion into the public sphere through the beheading of Holofernes gives her a new status and access to power. Her behavior not only relativizes gender norms, but also calls into question the complex articulations of the social and cultural practices of established notions of the masculine and the feminine. Ironically, it is "by the hand of a woman" (Book of Judith 9:10; 13:15; 16:5) that the superiority of the enemy is overturned, bringing the downfall of the great warrior Holofernes and the disarray in his armies.

Judith's normative performance of femininity in the enemy's camp matches Holofernes' excess of masculinity. But the sexually desirable and beautiful seductress ultimately blurs gender norms and behavior when, on the third night, taking advantage of Holofernes' drunken stupor, she seizes his sword and with two blows cuts off his head, metaphorically castrating him. In sharp contrast with her femininity, the violence she is capable of conjures images of strength, power, and domination, all of which are male prerogatives.

The subversion that takes places further problem-atizes existing rigid assumptions about the nature of masculinity. Judith crosses the borders imposed on her gendered body; however, she skillfully deflects attention from her bold action by invoking divine agency, presenting herself on three occasions as the instrument of God. Her triumphant return to Bethulia with the head of Holofernes the idolater mobilizes the population to fight back and drive away the enemy. Judith then returns to her marginalized position, and to her voluntary seclusion. The threat she represented vanishes with the restoration of patriarchal authority.


Emerging rabbinic Judaism closed the Hebrew canon at the end of the first century ce, in the process rejecting works not written during the early postexilic period; those works were of an unreliable authority and were composed originally in Greek. Judith's patent sexuality and "unconventional sexual behavior" also posed a dilemma for the Church Fathers, but they were able to overlook it and incorporated the Book of Judith in the Holy Scriptures alongside other apocryphal and apocalyptic books (Brenner 2004, p. 14).

Medieval midrashim (commentaries on Hebrew scriptures compiled between 400 and 1200 ce and based on exegesis, parable, and haggadic legends) and liturgical poems reflect the regained interest among oppressed Jewish communities of Western Europe in this uncompromising heroine who was able to subordinate her personal destiny to the liberation of her people. They identified her symbolically with Judah Maccabee and included her in the celebration of Hanukkah.

The transformation of social and political institutions by the end of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, accompanied by a new distribution of power, was characterized by increased anxiety about masculine identity. In literature that anxiety was translated into the virulent misogyny of the Querelle des femmes (the controversy about the nature and value of women); in the arts it took the form of the representation of Judith as an ambivalent heroine who relativized the instability of the binary gender system.

The confusion that this manly woman generated is more noticeable in visual representations. Although in Christian medieval imagery Judith embodied the type foreshadowing the Virgin Mary—a sublimated powerful image—her representations also reached out to the other extreme of stereotyping: the reductively physicalized woman (Stocker 1998). In Italian art from that period, artists freed their composition from the biblical text; thus Israel's salvation was secondary to their main interest and was almost forgotten. The theme of Judith and Holofernes became the triumph of virtues with religious and civic dimensions, a warning against tyrants (Philpot 1992). With the sudden inversion of roles occurring under the tent, the anxiety and the indeterminacy brought about by the brutal act were transferred by the artists to Holofernes' body, which was portrayed in a feminized posture.

Judith's popularity reached its apogee during the religious turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a period when people were fascinated with strong biblical women. Although the Book of Judith was not accepted in the Protestant canon, Judith epitomized revolt and Holofernes was viewed as a heretic.

Only extraordinary circumstances permitted Judith, who had been marginalized by the power base, to enter the public space and become "the woman on top." However, independence and violence, two expressions of usurpation and transgression in the female character, are only temporary. Normality is reinstated at the end of her story, but the restabilization of gender roles and identity at the end only partly covers up an unstable gendering of men.


Abend Cellehah, Leslie. 1998. "Ambiguity and Appropriation: The Story of Judith in Medieval Narrative and Iconic Traditions." In Marvels and Tales: Medieval Narratives and the Folk Tradition, ed. Francesca Canadé Sautman, Diana Conchado, and Giuseppe di Scipio. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Brenner, Attalya, ed. 2004. A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna, vol. 7. London and New York: T&T Clark International.

Levine, Amy-Jill. 1999. "Sacrifice and Salvation: Otherness and Domestication in the Book of Judith." In Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader, ed. Alice Bach. New York: Routledge.

Philpot, Elizabeth. 1992. "Judith and Holofernes: Changing Images in the History of Art." Translating Religious Texts: Translation, Transgression, and Interpretation, ed. David Jasper. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Stocker, Margarita. 1998. Judith: Sexual Warrior—Women and Power in Western Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

                                         Rosa Alvarez Perez


views updated May 08 2018


JUDITH (c. 200 c.e.), the wife of R. Ḥiyya. She was the mother of twin daughters, Pazi and Tavi, and twin sons, Judah and Hezekiah. Having suffered unusually in childbirth, she disguised herself and asked her husband whether a woman was commanded by the Torah to propagate the race. On being told that she was not, she drank a sterilizing potion – a form of birth control permitted to women (Shab. 111a). Ḥiyya, however, was greatly displeased (Yev. 65b). According to another account, she claimed unsuccessfully that her father had betrothed her to another man when she was still a child, so that she was forbidden to cohabit with Ḥiyya (Kid. 12b). Judith constantly tormented her husband – so much so that he once told his nephew Rav, "May God deliver you from that which is worse than death," i.e., a bad wife (cf. Eccles. 7:26). He nevertheless used to buy her many gifts, explaining to his surprised nephew, "It is sufficient for us that they bring up our children and save us from sin" (Yev. 63a).


Hyman, Toledot, 430, 616.

[Moses Aberbach]


views updated May 29 2018

1. Oratorio by Parry, f.p. Birmingham Fest. 1888
2. Opera in 3 acts by Honegger to lib. by R. Morax, comp. 1925, prod. Monte Carlo 1926
3. Opera in 1 act by E. Goossens to lib. by Arnold Bennett, prod. London and Philadelphia 1929
4. Oratorio by Thomas Arne, words by Bickerstaffe, f.p. London 1761.


views updated Jun 27 2018

Judith in the Apocrypha, a rich Israelite widow who saved the town of Bethulia from Nebuchadnezzar's army by seducing the besieging general Holofernes and cutting off his head while he slept. Also, a book of the Apocrypha recounting the story of Judith.

Judith, Book of

views updated May 21 2018

Judith, Book of. Apocryphal Jewish book dating from the second Temple period. The book was probably written to encourage the people during the Hasmonean campaigns.


views updated May 21 2018

Judith Heroine of an Old Testament book that is considered apocryphal by Protestants and Jews. Judith is described as a beautiful young widow who heroically rescued the Israelite city of Bethulia from siege by the Assyrians.


views updated May 18 2018


Biblical woman, one of the six wives of Esau. Name variations: Aholibamah. Daughter of Beeri (also known as Anah), the Hittite; married Esau; children: three sons.

Judith, the daughter of Beeri, was one of the six wives of Esau. A district in the mountains of Edom (probably near Mt. Hor) was named after her. Her three sons founded the three tribes of Edomites.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Biblical woman. Name variations: Aholibamah. Dau. of Beeri (also known as Anah), the Hittite; m. Esau; children: three sons.

Was one of the 6 wives of Esau, whose 3 sons founded the 3 tribes of Edomites.

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