Judith: A Remarkable Heroine

udith with the Head of Holofernes by Gustav Klimt; oil on canvas (1901). Image: Erich Lessing

The Book of Judith — considered canonical by Roman Catholics, Apocrypha Literature by Protestants, and non-canon by Jews, included in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) —tells the story of the ignominious defeat of the Assyrians, an army bent on world domination, by the hand of a beautiful Jewish widow named Judith who left the besieged city in pretended flight and foretold to Holofernes that he would be victorious.

14 Judith then cried out in a loud voice: “Praise God! Praise him! Praise God who has not withdrawn his mercy from the house of Israel but has destroyed our enemies by my hand this very night!” (Judith 13:14 New Catholic Bible)

20 For thirty-four days the entire Assyrian army, with infantry, chariots, and cavalry, kept them surrounded, until all the water jars possessed by the inhabitants of Bethulia were empty. (Judith 7:20 NCB)

Artemisia Gentileschi’s 17th century depiction of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

 

Indeed her beheading of Holofernes, the invading Assyrian general — in his own tent, with his own sword, and surrounded by his own heretofore victorious army, no less! — marks her as a political saviour in Israel on a par with David.

https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/robin-gallaher-branch.jpgRobin Gallaher Branch, professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, .writes about Judith entering the book bearing her name when the Assyrians have cut off the water supply of Bethulia, the town at the entrance of the narrow corridor leading to Jerusalem (Judith 7:7, 4:7). The siege, which has lasted 34 days, has made the people fractious, thirsty, and bitter (Judith 7:20, 29). Uzziah and the town’s other magistrates succumb the townspeople’s demands and say they will surrender to the Assyrians in five days—unless the Lord takes pity (Judith 7:29-30).

29 The entire assembly then wailed bitter lamentations and called on the Lord God with loud cries. 30 In response, Uzziah said to them: “Have courage, my people! Let us continue to hold out for five more days. By that time the Lord, our God will show his mercy toward us. He will not abandon us completely.  (Judith 7:29-30 NCB)

Upon hearing this, Judith, instead of going to Bethulia’s leaders, summons them to her home (Judith 8:10). Chiding them for testing God (Judith 8:11–12), she declares she has a plan to save Bethulia, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the people. Declining to reveal it, she nonetheless proclaims her deed will

“go down through all generations of our descendants” (Judith 8:32).

Not only do the leaders listen without interruption, they also acclaim her for her wisdom and —l ike all men in this tale! — do her bidding (Judith 8:28–29). She demands that the gates be opened and that she and her maid be let out of the city (Judith 8:33, 10:9).

33 Be present at the town gate tonight to let me go out with my maid. Before the days have ended that have been designated by you to surrender the town to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand. (Judith 8:33 NCB)

“Order that the town gate be opened for me so that I may go forth and carry out the things you have just said to me.” They complied with her request and ordered the young men to open the gate for her. (Judith 10:9 NCB)

In her Bible History Daily presentation of Judith Robin Gallaher Branch tells about the other women wordsmiths in the Biblical text, being Lady Wisdom who takes her stand, dwells with prudence, and possesses knowledge and discretion (Proverbs 8-9), Abigail (1 Samuel 25:23–31), Deborah who rose up as mother in Israel (Judges 5), and the Beloved in Song of Songs.

According Robin Gallaher Branch Judith displays extraordinary courage.
Anticipating the gruesome outcome of the 34-day Assyrian siege against Bethulia, Judith describes it this way:

“The slaughter of our kindred and the captivity of the land and the desolation of our inheritance” (Judith 8:22).

If the little town at the gateway to Jerusalem falls, Jerusalem will be exposed and the sanctuary looted. But unlike the Bethulian magistrates who cry to the Lord for rain and hope for deliverance from the Assyrians (Judith 8:31, 7:30), Judith acts. Correcting their theology, she proclaims the siege as a test from God, like the one he put to Abraham and Isaac, and even thanks God for it!

25 Despite all this, let us offer thanks to the Lord, our God, for he is putting us to the test as he did our ancestors. 26 Remember how he dealt with Abraham, and how he tested Isaac, and what happened to Jacob in Syrian Mesopotamia while he was tending the sheep of Laban, his mother’s brother. (Judith 8:25–26 NCB)

Everyone knows that the Bethulian men, while brave, present no match for the Assyrian’s 170,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry (Judith 7:2). Judith, unarmed, alone but for her accompanying maid, steps forward being convinced that God will be at her hand.

33 Be present at the town gate tonight to let me go out with my maid. Before the days have ended that have been designated by you to surrender the town to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand. (Judith 8:33)

In her exposition Mrs Branch recalls a silent beautiful, anonymous maid who shadows Judith throughout her adventure and shares equally in it. Serving as an inclusion (Judith 8:10, 16:23), the maid summons the magistrates to Judith’s home and receives emancipation just before Judith dies at age 105.

The maid, it seems, also is beautiful, for the awestruck Assyrians marvel,

“Who can despise these people when they have women like this among them?” (Judith 10:19) (italics added).

The maid cares for the physical needs of her mistress — her food and clothing — and acts as chaperone and attendant, necessary qualifications adding to the mystique and credibility of a great lady claiming she flees in distress from her doomed countrymen to the Assyrians because the Hebrews

“are about to be devoured” (Judith 10:12).

The professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee finds that the text hints at a deep bond between Judith and her maid and the deep faith they share both being members of the covenant community; the maid observing Judith’s lifestyle of prayer and fasting.

Judith is introduced with a lineage virtually unparalleled in the Biblical text (Judith 8:1–2). A descendant of Simeon, her genealogy includes 16 progenitors and doesn’t even make it back to Simeon! The genealogy, a significant textual marker, establishes her as a formidable literary character. In an interesting psychological insight, her prayer for help with her plan to save Israel and assassinate Holofernes, the besieging Assyrian general, begins with a remembrance of Dinah’s shame (Genesis 34:2; Judith 9:2–4). Judith, by her upcoming valor and good deed, expresses determination to erase this early, but still remembered, defamation.

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Find to read more:

Judith: A Remarkable Heroine Part 1

Judith: A Remarkable Heroine, Part 2

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Preceding

Was there a “Septuagint Canon”?

Women of the Bible

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Find further to read:

First Person: Art as Bible Interpretation

3 thoughts on “Judith: A Remarkable Heroine

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