The story of Judith would make a blockbuster movie, with its seduction, suspense, war, violence, and feisty, beautiful widow. Few biblical characters have generated as much controversy. One of only four women to lend her name to a biblical book (Esther and Ruth in the Hebrew Bible and Susanna in the Apocrypha are the others), Judith challenges stereotypes about women in both the ancient and the modern worlds. Taking the form of a Jewish novel, Judith’s story unfolds in the context of war. Holofernes, the general of King Nebuchadnezzar, has laid siege to the Israelite town of Bethulia, where Judith lives, in a campaign of terror against the western nations of the Fertile Crescent. Judith beautifies herself, leaves the protection of Bethulia’s walls, enters the enemy camp, seduces Holofernes, decapitates him with his own sword, and sneaks his head out of the enemy camp in her food bag to display on the walls of Bethulia. The Bethulians plunder the panicked enemy camp and, the foreign army vanquished, celebrate Judith’s victory. She returns home to continue to live as a widow, and “for the rest of her life she was honored throughout the whole country” (
Did you know…?
- Judith, the feminine form of the masculine name Judah, means “Jewess.”
- Judith is one of only four women for whom a biblical book is named (the others are Ruth, Esther, and Susanna).
- Interpreters argue about whether Judith is a positive or negative role model for readers then and now.
- Gender stereotypes are blurred and challenged by Judith’s actions. She moves from saintly widow to lying, seductive warrior and back to widow again.
- Deliberate historical inaccuracies, common to Jewish novels of the time, signal that Judith’s story is fiction.
- Critics censure Judith for her lies, for acting like a man, and for using her beauty as a weapon to seduce Holofernes.
- Supporters see Judith as a brave liberator and independent woman.
- Judith may have been too radical and sexy for her time to become part of the canon.
Lying murderer or saintly beauty?
Judith’s name means “Jewess” and may represent the nation Israel as it struggles to keep its Jewish identity in the Greco-Roman world. Childless and wealthy, she is not a typical widow. Judith prays and fasts regularly and keeps kosher, living an almost ascetic life after her husband’s death (
But Judith also lies repeatedly (
Judith invites our censure for bathing herself with water when primping for Holofernes (
Artists, poets, composers, and scholars through the centuries have understood Judith in widely different ways, saying more about their own times and concerns than about Judith herself. Judith’s chastity has linked her with the Virgin Mary, her manly courage with queens and Zionism, her beauty with eroticism, and her smarts with strong contemporary females.
Was Judith too sexy for the canon?
Though it is absent from the Protestant and Jewish canons, the book of Judith appears in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian canons among the deuterocanonical literature; Protestants include it in the non-canonical Apocrypha. Jewish tradition connects Judith with the Maccabbean revolt and Chanukah. Intentional historical inaccuracies, typical of Jewish novels of the time, mark Judith’s story as fictional and make it difficult to date. Bethulia is an unknown town. The Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar did not rule over the Assyrians in Nineveh (
It may be that Judith’s story was produced too late to achieve canonical status. Other problematic aspects of the book include the conversion of the Ammonite Achior (