Judith (fl. early 6th c. BCE)

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Judith (fl. early 6th c. bce)

Hebrew heroine-slayer and Biblical widow of Bethulia who, through insistence on absolute fidelity to Mosaic Law, saved Judea from the Assyrians by decapitating their commander, Holofernes. Name variations: Judith of Bethulia; Judith of Bethulin. In the Biblical account, Judith was born in Bethulia (near Jerusalem) after the Jews returned from exile in Babylonia (537 bce); died in Bethulia at 105 years of age; married Manasses (died); no children.

Lived in devout seclusion until Judea was threatened by an Assyrian army, at which time Judith saved her people by a feigned defection to the enemy which allowed her the opportunity to decapitate their general, Holofernes. The Book of Judith is contained in the Apocrypha. There is no evidence, however, that the incident related in the book of Judith corresponds to a single historical event, and we should not think of Judith as a real person, but as a composite or a symbol of Judaism generally.

According to the Book of Judith, in the 12th year of his reign Nebuchadnezzar, the Assyrian king, commanded the peoples of the Fertile Crescent to join him in war. When his summons was disregarded, the king sought to punish the inhabitants of the land: he sacked cities, massacred townspeople, routed armies, collected booty, and forced into submission the region from Egypt to Persia. General Holofernes, second in command to the king, was sent with an army 132,000 strong to subdue the western cities, to fill the valleys with their dead, make their mountains drunk with blood, choke the rivers with their corpses, and send survivors into captivity. Holofernes followed orders well. He devastated Put and Lud, plundered Rasses, and ravaged all the towns along the Euphrates River, destroying crops and animals, throwing down shrines and putting the inhabitants to the sword. Town after town, fearing destruction, sent envoys to Holofernes suing for peace.

Only the Israelites of Judea held strong within their fortified hill towns, for submission to the Assyrians would result in violation of their sanctuaries and desecration of the newly restored temple in Jerusalem. Holofernes was enraged at the resistance he encountered from the hill-country. He summoned Achior, leader of the Amonites, and questioned him about these people who dared defy him. Achior assured the Assyrian that as long as the Israelites were faithful to their God no enemy could prevail against them; they would remain unmolested. This was unwelcome news to Holofernes. He had Achior seized and turned over to the elders of the small Jewish town of Bethulia with the threat that—when the town fell to the Assyrians—Achior would share the fate of the Israelites whose God he so revered.

The Assyrian host marched to Bethulia and encamped at the foot of the hill-country, thinking to bring the citizens to submission by cutting off their water supply. The plan was well laid. The Bethulians became so weakened by thirst that they decided it was better to come to terms with Holofernes than to perish for want of water. They resolved that if no deliverance came in five days they would surrender.

"Look," she said. "The head of Holofernes, the Assyrian commander-in-chief! The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman!"

—Judith (13.15)

News of these deliberations reached Judith, the pious widow of Manasses. She summoned the magistrates of Bethulia and chided them for testing God by placing Him under a five-day constraint. She assured the elders that if they remained faithful, God would deliver the Israelites by her hand. That night, after prayer, Judith took off her widow's weeds, donned her gayest clothes, anointed herself with perfume, put on her bracelets and rings and, with her maid, left Bethulia. When the two women were apprehended by the Assyrian outpost, they declared that they had deserted their town because the Hebrews had offended God and would, indeed, fall to Holofernes. She claimed that the citizens, in their hunger, had decided to eat the meat and first-fruits reserved for the tithe and dedicated to God. The guards took her to the general's tent where Holofernes reclined under a purple net interwoven with gold, emeralds and precious stones. All were struck by Judith's beauty and convinced by her story. It was agreed that each night she and her maid would go alone to the plains outside the camp to carry out rituals of prayer and bathing, and when God revealed to Judith that the Bethulians had sinned, the Assyrians would begin their sortie.

On the fourth night of her stay, Holofernes gave a banquet to which only his personal servants and Judith were invited. The general hoped to allure the Hebrew woman whom he had desired since she first entered camp. In anxious anticipation of the seduction, he ate and drank immoderately. It grew late and the servants retired. Judith and her maid were left alone in the tent with Holofernes who had, by this time, passed out with drink. The devout widow now steeled herself to carry out the plan which would deliver her people from the Assyrians. She seized Holofernes' sword and, grasping the hair of his head, struck twice at the neck of the great general. The maid stashed the severed head in a bag while Judith rolled the body off the bed. She quickly grabbed the jeweled net and, with the general's head in her food bag, she and her maid left camp, as usual (thought the guards), to pray and bathe.

Judith quickly crossed the valley and climbed the hill to Bethulia, announcing her triumph. The citizens rejoiced and sang her praises as Judith displayed the head of the enemy. Achior, the alien Ammonite, was brought to identify the head. In his admiration of Judith's faith, he had himself circumcised and became a Jew. The next morning, the Israelites, on Judith's advice, hung the head of Holofernes on the battlements of the wall and took the offensive against the encamped army. The Assyrians, thrown into confusion by the unexpected attack, rushed to waken their general, only to find his headless body on the floor of his tent. So flummoxed were the Assyrians that they fled the plain of the hill-country in panic and disarray, closely pursued by the Bethulian host which swelled as the men of all the neighboring towns joined in the rout.

The Assyrian army was defeated; the Hebrews celebrated. All sang praises of the heroine, Judith, who struck up a hymn of thanksgiving as she led the women of Bethulia in a triumphal dance. The high priest of Jerusalem came to Bethulia to thank Judith. She was awarded the spoils from the tent of Holofernes which she dedicated to God and gave to the temple of Jerusalem. Now that her homeland was safe, Judith retired once more to her estates and resumed the life of a pious widow until her death at the age of 105. Judith's brave deed not only averted the imminent onslaught of the Assyrians, but assured peace in Judea for many years to come.

This story of Judith slaying Holofernes is preserved as one of the books of the Jewish, and subsequently Christian, Apocrypha. Although the earliest extant copy of the work is written in Greek, the book was almost certainly composed in Hebrew. It is not known definitively when the

work was written or by whom. There is no evidence, however, that the incident related in the book of Judith corresponds to a single historical event, and we should not think of Judith as a real person, but as a composite or a symbol of Judaism generally.

Most scholars agree that the book of Judith, as we know it, was composed in the mid-2nd century bce—possibly based on an earlier version. Although the author hoped to give his (or her) narrative some appearance of historicity, many of the people and places named cannot be identified. Also, the author has conflated known historical circumstances which actually occurred centuries apart. For instance, Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Babylonians (not the Assyrians) from 605 to 561 bce. The Assyrians were enemies of the Hebrews in the 8th century bce. Further, the story is set soon after the Hebrews returned from their exile in Babylonia (537 bce), by which time Nebuchadnezzar was dead. The author may have chosen to make Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians in an effort to evoke from his readers a potent image of Israel's archenemy. Some scholars guess that the oppressive general, Holofernes, may be an oblique reference to Artaxerxes Ochus who was campaigning in Syria about 350 bce. More important to the author, however, than historical exactitude was the moral lesson the story teaches. The author may have employed vague and contradictory historical information to indicate the fictional nature and timeless quality of the work. It was probably written at a time of trial and persecution and was meant to encourage and edify the people by providing a model of pious resistance. The story is an example of God's fidelity to his covenant people and a reminder that the power of Israel hinges on observance of the Law.

Judith, whose name means "Judean woman," is an allegory for the Jewish people themselves. Her city, Bethulia (which has not been identified), is a variant of a Hebrew term meaning "House of God." Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is characterized as a female: virgin, bride, whore, or widow. The 40 months of Judith's mourning for the death of her husband recalls the 40 years of Israel's wandering in the wilderness. Modeling the strict observance of righteous Israel, Judith is fastidious in prayer, fasting, and conformity to Mosaic dietary laws. Like a priest of Israel slaying a sacrificial lamb, the killing of Holofernes, whose goods are eventually dedicated to the temple, requires two strokes. Also, despite the fact that Judith does not correspond exactly to any historical character, she represents a type which recurs in Biblical literature. She is an analogue to Deborah , Miriam the Prophet , the wise women of Tekoa and Abel-beth-Maacah, Esther , and Jael . Both Jael and Judith slay an enemy by attacking his head; Jael, Deborah and Judith all act when their husbands are absent for one reason or another, and all three are childless; Deborah and Judith are steadfast in obedience to the will of Yahweh (a name of God) when the magistrates waver; both Jael and Judith use deceit and their physical appeal as weapons; neither Jael nor Judith are specifically commissioned to their deeds by God; and, finally, the victory song of Judith is reminiscent of the Song of Miriam and that of Deborah.

It is likely that the author of the book chose Judith as his messenger because of her gender. The notion that God uses the weak to manifest his strength is common in Biblical narratives. The fact that Holofernes was brought down by the "hand of a woman" is meant to provide evidence that it is Yahweh who is responsible for the defeat of Israel's enemies, and not his human agent, even one who represents Israel at its most devout. In her prayer, Judith praises God: "For your power stands not in multitude, nor your might in strong men.… [M]ake every nation … know that … you are the God of all power and might, and that there is none other that protects the race of Israel but you" (Judith 9.14).

The story of Judith, the Jewish heroine, has provided moral and didactic inspiration in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The Book of Judith, a Hebrew text which circulated among Jewish communities in Greco-Roman times, was not included in the Hebrew Bible after about 200 ce. It is, however, canonical in early Christian and Greek old Testaments. As early as the 2nd century ce, it was thought that the Apocrypha were omitted from the Hebrew Scriptures because they were written in Greek. We now know this is not true; the Apocrypha were originally composed in Hebrew. Although the term apocryphal can denote spurious, heretical works, or those of inferior sacred standing, it need not. In its earliest Hebraic usage, the term referred to books which were more valuable than the canon because they carried mysterious or esoteric wisdom meant only for the select. Augustine and other Church Fathers held that the Apocrypha were useful as allegory, profitably read in church, but should not be interpreted literally. In the Vulgate (the Latin version of the Bible), Jerome (following the Greek Bible) interspersed the Apocrypha among the books of the Old Testament, thus giving them an official standing as inspired works. Protestant reformers of the 16th century rejected the Apocrypha as divine works and Martin Luther excised and placed them at the end of the Bible as a sort of addendum (1534). Puritans rejected the Apocrypha altogether. The 16th-century Catholic reform Council of Trent upheld Jerome's acceptance of the Apocrypha as orthodox and adopted most of them (including Judith) as authoritative and declared, "If any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books … let him be anathema."

The drama of Judith and Holofernes has provided grist for artistic interpretation from the early Middle Ages to the present. The subject has been treated in medieval manuscript illuminations, miracle books, sculptures and frescoes. It appears in a 12th-century Jewish Piyyutim (liturgical poems included in the services on holidays and special Sabbaths in addition to the established prayers) and Latin church hymns. It is the basis of an Old English epic and two High German poems. Throughout the early modern era, painters, sculptors, printmakers, poets, and playwrights made use of the story. In the 17th century, Judith was repeatedly dramatized (including a puppet play); in the 18th century, oratorios (extended musical compositions usually based upon religious themes) and operas were derived from the story, as were poems and romantic fiction in the 19th century, and plays by Arnold Bennett and Jean Girardoux, and operas by Arthur Honegger and Mordechai Seter, in the 20th century. The varieties of interpretation of this simple Biblical chronicle are legion and allow scholars to chart social and artistic trends based on the way the themes are treated and which aspects of the narrative are emphasized.

The story of Judith is told in an Old English epic poem, of which only a fragment is extant. The work was likely produced between 950 and 1000 in Wessex. Although there have been efforts to connect the composition of the poem with the lives of heroic Anglo-Saxon women (such as Ethelflaed , Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great, and Judith Martel , stepmother of Alfred), it is more likely that the poem was inspired by the Viking invasions of England. The Judith of the poem is a holy warrior and a female saint. The existing fragments concentrate on the killing of Holofernes, and the only characters mentioned by name are Judith and the antagonist. The plot moves quickly to the poet's major alteration of the Biblical narrative—the addition of a protracted battle between the Assyrians and the galvanized Hebrews. Nothing is said of Judith's later life or the peace she secured for Israel. The trappings of this religious epic are true to their period. The feast, battle, kenning of the warriors, and armor are all Germanic.

In medieval pictorial interpretations, Judith's exploit is generally represented as a public expression of religious right-thinking and heroic devotion. In this context, artists tended to portray an enlarged version of the narrative, including as many scenes as possible. Because Judith stood for the entire community, it was important to show her emanating from the besieged city and returning to it having subdued the enemy. The 13th-century Arsenal Bible illustrates six scenes: the army of Holofernes, the council of Jewish magistrates, Judith excoriating the elders, Judith deceiving the Assyrians, the murder of Holofernes, and the jubilant Bethulians praising their deliverer as she stands in the orans position (arms outstretched in prayer) holding the head of Holofernes in her left hand. A 12th-century illustration by Herrad of Hohenberg , abbess of St. Ottile or Odile, telescopes the events of the narrative into two scenes: the decapitation and the return of Judith and her maid to the expectant city. This is an interesting piece because it demonstrates that even when the narrative must be abbreviated, the public consequences of Judith's deed are paramount. French liturgical celebrations of Joan of Arc included verses from the Book of Judith.

In some medieval Jewish prayer books, the story is stripped to the minimum. Even the character of Holofernes is missing. Judith stands in the tent—scene of God's triumph—sword in one hand and severed head in the other. Here, the audience is to associate the heroine with Judas Maccabaeus, another deliverer of the Jewish people. As in the prayer books, there are ample early examples from Byzantine and Christian sources of one symbolic scene isolated from the narrative. On the right portal of the north transept of the Cathedral of Chartres, Judith is sculpted kneeling in prayer. Marginalia often concentrate on the moment of decapitation. For Christians, Judith represented the Church militant. In this context, she is sometimes portrayed trampling Satan underfoot (in the form of Holofernes' head), forming a parallel to Christ and Mary the Virgin , who are often engaged in this same activity.

The inclination to emphasize a defining moment in the narrative was continued by Renaissance and Baroque artists. For them, Judith's private instant of crisis was often more interesting than an extended presentation of Bethulia's communal response to her accomplishment. The meaning of the decapitation scene, although presented in a private, even secretive setting, often had public significance. Judith became a symbol of civic virtue and patriotic rebellion, especially in the bellicose city-states of Renaissance Italy. The decapitation was depicted by Ghiberti, Donatello, Botticelli, Mantegna, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Michelangelo, Artemisia Gentileschi and others. On the podium of Donatello's statue of the triumphant Judith was engraved: "Kingdoms fall through Luxury; Cities rise through Virtue: Behold the Neck of Pride severed by the hand of Humility." Wolfgang Schmeltzl's play, Judith (1542), emphasizes the dangers of Turkish attack and exhorts the people of Vienna to take courage from the story. Jewish nationalists of the period used images of Judith in the same way. She became a popular figure on Italian Hanukkah candelabra, sometimes supplanting the crown of the Torah over the Ark. Baroque artists and literati of both Protestant and Catholic reform movements appropriated Judith to their cause. In the Catholic tradition, she was a favorite theme for Jesuit scholastic drama, and, for the Protestant dramatist Joachim Greff, Judith afforded a symbol of God's protection against papal tyranny.

The facility of the Judith story to express the sensibilities of whichever culture tells it continues to be evident in the 17th century. At this time, the association of Judith with communal interests waned in favor of her connection to triumph-of-love motifs. Although in the Biblical tale Judith's love was for her people, by 1600 she and Holofernes were correlated in art with other great male/female couples of which the females were women who betrayed the men who trusted them: Adam and Eve , Samson and Delilah , David and Bathsheba . Judith's deed came gradually to be seen as the act of a single woman dominating a man—clandestinely, viciously, and in a virile fashion, therefore unbecoming a woman. In the work of Caravaggio, Goltzius, and several caravaggisti, Holofernes, far from being the belligerent oppressor of the Israelites, becomes an innocent victim of feminine duplicity. These artists play upon a Western tradition in which nakedness represents honesty and simplicity while sumptuous clothing connotes falsehood and deception. The cunning Judith, who decked herself lavishly "to beguile the eyes of all men" (Judith 10.5), achieved her ends only through deceit. She is cold and unyielding—remorseless. Often entitled "The Tragedy of Holofernes," 16th and 17th-century dramas were devoted to Judith and Holofernes. In Christofano Allori's 1609 painting of the moment after decapitation, Judith is a portrait of a local beauty who scorned the artist, while the countenance of the severed head is that of Allori.

Judith, then, is a woman for all seasons. Her story has been molded to suit the ideologies and biases of each generation that portrayed her. That is no less true of the past than of the 20th century, when the Book of Judith came under the scrutiny of feminist scholarship. Some analyses point out that the character of Judith has not historically been treated differently than other female personages, like Athena and Mary the Virgin. She is an allegory, not a human woman, and for this reason it was possible for her to accomplish her heroic mission. For some feminists, the narrative makes clear that Judith is unusual and that her subjugation of the man, Holofernes, by a thinly masked castration (for decapitation is often analogous to castration in ancient literature) is not meant to be normative. Judith is set apart in many ways. She lives at the edge of town alone on her estates. She is childless and devout beyond the requirements of the Law. She bests the magistrates through her faith, the Assyrian soldiers through her cunning, and acts the part of priest in sacrificing the life of Holofernes to the good of her people. The actual deed, however, transpires outside the Jewish community. Her accomplishment is grisly and requires manly verve. (The 1536 drama, Judith, includes a scene in which the women of Bethulia congregate at the well and comment on the mannligkeyt—manliness—of Judith.) When Judith returns to Bethulia, she gives up her share of the plunder and retires to private life. This woman is thus a useful and safe vehicle for the author's purpose. She is a symbol for Jewish virtue without being a model for Jewish women. Because of her gender she embodies that weakness through which God displays his strength. Because she never fully interacts with quotidian village life she does not upset established gender roles.

Another line of feminist analysis has concentrated on unveiling and critiquing the dynamic of Judith's portrayal through Western history. Although praised and admired in both religious and secular exegeses, Judith has also been criticized because she realized her ends by guile and the promise of sexual favors. Her act of heroism is tainted because it was carried out covertly and against an unarmed adversary. In short, although courageous, it was not honorable, and therefore not truly manly. Some contemporary scholars argue that this condemnation of Judith, of which there are strains throughout Jewish and Christian history, reveals the uneasiness of male commentators and interpreters with the notion of a woman subduing a man. The chief argument in the 16th century by those who wished to remove Donatello's Judith from the public square in Florence was that it is not appropriate for a woman to kill a man. Judith was replaced by Giambologna's statue, Rape of a Sabine Woman.

Seldom does a figure as provocative as Judith belong to one period or one people. Although the pious widow never lived, never slew her Assyrian foe, and never delivered the citizens of Bethulia, for centuries she has fired the imagination of readers, writers, poets, artists and scholars and has lent her name to a multitude of ideologies and interpretations.


Charles, R.H, ed. The Book of Judith in The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.

Dancy, J.C., ed. The Shorter Books of the Apocrypha. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Dobbie, Elliott Van Kirk, ed. Beowulf and Judith. NY: Columbia University Press, 1953.

Dubarle, A.M. Judith: Formes et Sens des Diverses Traditions. Rome: Institut Biblique Pontifical, 1966.

Garrard, Mary D. Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Moore, Carey A. Judith. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.

Purdie, Edna. The Story of Judith in German and English Literature. Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion, 1927.

Timmer, B.J., ed. Judith. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1978.

Tkacik, Arnold J., ed. The Book of Judith in The New English Bible with the Apocrypha. NY: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Vanderkam, James C., ed. "No One Spoke Ill of Her": Essays on Judith. Atlanta, GA: Scholar's Press, 1992.

suggested reading:

Craven, Toni. Artistry and Faith in the Book of Judith. Chico: Scholar's Press, 1983.

Enslin, Morton, and Solomon Zeitlin. The Book of Judith. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1972.

Williams, James G. Women Recounted: Narrative Thinking and the God of Israel. Sheffield: Almond, 1982.

Martha Rampton , Assistant Professor of History, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon

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Judith (fl. early 6th c. BCE)

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