Two strong women of the Old Testament: First, Judith
Heroines are not lacking in Scripture. In addition to others whom we meet in the various texts, whole books of the Old Testament are devoted to Ruth, Judith and Esther. Eve too is a heroine in her own way, as of course is Mary. In this series on the books of the Bible, it is time for a look at the two women highlighted during the post-exilic (Second Temple) period, Judith and Esther. They are thought to be largely fictional exemplars set against a historical background of serious danger to Israel.
If this is indeed the case, then we may read both books as teaching valuable spiritual lessons, just as in my reading of the previous Book of Tobit. But it would seem to be a mistake to take them as mere pious legends; they have a kind of muscle to them which suggests they were intended to give real encouragement to a nation under duress. Interest in both books today is surely increased by our own attitude toward women, for in our culture there is a great deal of confusion about feminine and masculine roles—the assumption too often being that, for a woman to be heroic, she must act rather like a man.
Judith and Esther, though both women of extraordinary trust in God and personal courage, most emphatically do not act like men.
Both books survive mainly through the Greek, and we know that they differ markedly in some respects from the Hebrew versions which are mostly lost But what is lost is not so much the lessons and virtues they exemplify as varying historical settings and varying degrees of detail. If there is a Providential character to the preservation of Sacred Scripture (as surely there must be), this in itself is an argument against the attempt to read these books strictly as history.
In the Book of Judith as we know it today, King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria has sent his general Holofernes to utterly destroy the Jews in Judaea. Holofernes lays siege to the region, depriving the Jews of their food and water, bringing them to the point of surrender. But a highly-respected widow named Judith rebukes the elders for their faint-heartedness, insisting that they trust more fully in God. This is not mere piety, for Judith has a plan to liberate her people single-handedly: “Listen to me. I am about to do a thing which will go down through all generations of our descendants” (Jud 8:32). And so, taking only her maid, she sets out for the garrison of Holofernes.
Her plan evolves into a brilliantly-enacted strategy to kill the General, so as to throw the huge enemy army into a panic. Those who dislike a woman’s use of “feminine wiles” will be disappointed here, for Judith is very beautiful, and she does not hesitate to recognize it as a gift to be used for the glory of God. According to plan, she is captured and (as we might expect for a beautiful woman) brought before Holofernes, whom she need not work very hard to beguile. Her story is that she has had a falling out with the Jewish leaders and will teach Holofernes what he needs to know to defeat them.
In an interesting subplot, the Ammonite leader Alchior had already been exiled from Holofernes’ presence for explaining that the Jews were protected by their God and could not be defeated. Instead of executing Alchior for these discouraging words, the General had him sent into Judea to await death when that region was conquered. Judith was aware of this, and we can only marvel at the way she spins her argument to Holofernes:
If you follow out the words of your maidservant, God will accomplish something through you, and my lord will not fail to achieve his purposes…. Now as for the things Alchior said…, do not disregard what he said, but keep it in your mind, for it is true: our nation cannot be punished…unless they sin against their God. And now, in order that my lord may not be defeated…, death will fall upon them, for a sin has overtaken them by which they are about to provoke their God…. Since their food supply is exhausted and their water has almost given out, they have planned to kill their cattle and have determined to use all that God by his laws has forbidden them to eat. [Jud 11:5-15]
Judith promises to go in and out of the camp to check on things, returning to Holofernes to tell him when the Jews are vulnerable because they have committed these sins.
Holofernes dies, Alchior lives
Over the next few days, Holofernes “persuades” the lovely Judith to eat and drink with him. She manages to join him in his chamber when he is drunk and, when he falls into a stupor, she takes up his own sword, seizes him by the hair, and saws off his head. She then slips out of the camp again with her maid, and carries the head of Holofernes to the Jewish elders. She also advises them to “hang it on the parapet of your wall.” As we may well imagine, once Holofernes’ death is discovered and his head appears staring out at them from the camp of the Jews, the Assyrian army is thrown into flight:
And when the Israelites heard it, with one accord they fell upon the enemy, and cut them down as far as Choba…. The rest of the people of Bethulia fell upon the Assyrian camp and plundered it, and were greatly enriched. And the Israelites, when they returned from the slaughter, took possession of what remained, and the villages and towns in the hill country and in the plain got a great amount of booty, for there was a vast quantity of it. [Jud 15:1-7]
The subplot involving Alchior is very gratifying. After Judith had brought them the head of Holofernes, even before victory was won, “when Alchior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God, and was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this day” (Jud 14:10).
The elders and all the people praised Judith and celebrated her courage and virtue. Their song of praise, which is really a praise of the LORD, can be found in chapter 16. Judith herself had many suitors but remained a widow, preserving her husband’s estate but setting her maid free. She died at the age of 105. The last line of the Book is this: “And no one ever again spread terror among the people of Israel in the days of Judith or for a long time after her death” (Jud 16:25).
It is fascinating to see how the sacred author weaves this story of duplicity while keeping Judith so very close to the truth in her explanations to Holofernes. Interesting as well are several special Jewish emphases. Consider the willingness to heed a wise and courageous woman and to praise her unstintingly. Notice the perceived goodness of Judith’s decision to remain a widow on her husband’s estate. Reflect on the admission of converts into the Jewish community from a fairly early date. Finally, we have the great lesson: We must find our way to victory through unswerving trust in God, and fidelity to His holy will.
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Next: Two strong women of the Old Testament: Second, Esther
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