My Understanding of Judith

This is another disputed book of the Bible. The Book of Judith can be found in the Greek Septuagint and thus in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament parts of the Bible. However, Judith is not in the Jewish Hebrew texts and therefore is considered apocrypha by the English King James Bible.

This Book of Judith contains numerous historical anachronisms, like many of the biblical stories. Thus it has been considered a parable, a historical novel, or a folklore tale with an ironic twist. Judith is the feminine form of Judah. She was like an ancient Joan of Arc. This book certainly expresses the world view of the post-exilic Jews. However, it is not clear whether the Book of Judith was originally written in Hebrew or in Greek. The oldest extant version is the Septuagint. It was likely written by a Jew during the Second Temple period, perhaps in the second century BCE, but certainly before the finished Septuagint in the late second century BCE.

The Book of Judith has a seventh century BCE setting with King Nebuchadnezzar and his army led by General Holofernes. The first part of this book described the rising threat to Israel of King Nebuchadnezzar and his General Holofernes. The second part of the book revolves around Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, with whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him a plan to defeat Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent. One night as he lies in a drunken stupor, she then decapitates him and takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, now that they have lost their leader, dispersed and Israel was saved. Though she is courted by many, Judith remains unmarried for the rest of her life until her death. Judith, the heroine of the book, is the daughter of Merari, a Simeonite, and a widow. There are no indications of her as a historical figure. Thus, the great villain in this book is King Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians. However, the historical Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylonia, not Assyria. Judith’s village, Bethulia, which literally means “virginity,” is unknown and otherwise unattested to in any ancient writing. Thus it is an allegorical representation of personages and historical events. Much of this work has focused on linking King Nebuchadnezzar with various conquerors of Judea from different time periods. The only historical female leader was Queen Salome Alexandra, Judea’s only female monarch (76-67 BCE). She was the last ruler to die while Judea remained an independent kingdom. Some late 19th and early 20th century scholars have identified this King Nebuchadnezzar with King Artaxerxes III, (425–338 BC), because there was a “Holofernes” in his army.

Although the text itself does not mention Hanukkah, it has become customary for a Hebrew variant of the Judith story to be read on the Shabbat of Hanukkah. Her name, which means “Jewish woman,” suggests that she represents the heroic spirit of the Jewish people. This heroic spirit, as well as her chastity, has endeared her to Christianity. Because of her unwavering religious devotion, she was able to step outside of her widow’s role. She dressed and acted in a sexually provocative manner while clearly remaining true to her ideals. The character of Judith is larger than life so that she has won a place in Jewish and Christian folklore, art, poetry and drama. Judith has become a Christian allegorical figure, the holy woman, a pre-figuration of the Virgin Mary. Her seduction and beheading of the wicked General Holofernes has been made her very attractive. Thus this account of Judith’s beheading of Holofernes has been the subject of many painters, sculptors, and plays.

The story itself centers on King Nebuchadnezzar in Nineveh with his army. His messengers did not get the response that he wanted. He attacked Ecbatana in eastern Medes. Then he planned a western campaign with General Holofernes as the head of the army. Thus a large organized army went west with General Holofernes in charge. He was so successful that most people just asked for peace. He had conquered the seacoast, so that an alert went out in Judea. Somehow the Israelites who were fasting in sack cloths feared this invasion. The Lord heard their prayers. General Holofernes heard of the Israelite from Achior the Ammonite who explained the history of Israel from their time in Egypt. Achior explained that Israel could not lose when God was on their side. General Holofernes did not like to hear this. He chastised Achior and sent him away to the Israelites, who in turn told his story to the Israelites. The Israelites prayed for help.

The campaign against Israel started with the siege of Bethulia, an unknown Israelite town, with the seizing of the spring water supply. The lack of water was a great concern to the Israelites so that they prayed to God to consider surrendering. However, their leader, Uzziah, asked them to have courage.

Then Judith arrived on the scene and called for a meeting where she gave a speech. She reminded them that they had no false gods and they should not fall into slavery. They should thank God. Then Judith prayed about her ancestor Simeon, the future, and what to do against the Assyrians. She asked for God’s help.

Judith then dressed up to go to General Holofernes. She left Bethulia with her maid to go to the tent of General Holofernes. She stunned the whole Assyrian army on her way through the camp. General Holofernes and Judith met in his tent. Judith praised the general and told him about the situation of the Israelites. She said that they had defied their God so that they were about to lose the battle. She ate some food and went out to pray. After three days she accepted the invitation of General Holofernes to have a banquet together. They drank together until he fell asleep drunk. Then she prayed before beheading General Holofernes with his own sword. She carried his head to Bethulia, where the people of Bethulia greeted her. She showed them the head of General Holofernes as the people prayed.

Judith then revealed her plan, as Achior became an Israelite. The Israelites would pretend to attack. Then the Assyrians would discover the death of General Holofernes and then flee in disarray. It worked out as she planned. They praised Judith and plundered the tent of General Holofernes. Judith and the women of Israel then danced. Judith recited a thanksgiving canticle that praised God for the intervention of Judith in this Israelite victory. They sang a new song to the Lord in Jerusalem. Judith lived a long life widowed life before her death at age 105.

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