Judith: A Remarkable Heroine, Part 2

The second half of Robin Gallaher Branch's two-part Bible History Daily presentation of Judith

This article continues Robin Gallaher Branch’s discussion of the character Judith, the remarkable heroine of the book bearing her name. Considered Apocrypha Literature by Protestants, the Book of Judith is regarded as canon by Roman Catholics and as non-canonical by Jews. The article was originally published in 2012. To read part one, click here.—Ed.

The Book of Judith’s truly remarkable heroine, Judith, introduced as a devout, shapely, beautiful and wealthy widow (Judith 8:4, 7), exhibits characteristics showing her the equal of Israel’s finest warriors. 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 savior in Israel on a par with David. To read part one, click here.

Judith: A Remarkable Heroine, Part 2

Cristofano Allori’s representation of Judith carrying the head of Holofernes. Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

1. 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 (Judith 8:25–26)! 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 (Judith 8:33).

2. Judith and her maid. A silent, anonymous maid 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 text hints at a deep bond between Judith and her maid and the deep faith they share. Both are members of the covenant community; the maid observes Judith’s lifestyle of prayer and fasting. Although the text does not indicate that the maid knew Judith’s complete plan or was asked to accompany her, I think that Judith’s character indicates she would not order someone to come with her on what could be a death mission. I believe she asked her maid, and the maid, meeting her eyes and with her head held high, nodded yes. I believe they prayed together. In modern terms, both were enemy agents bent on the destruction of Israel’s foe. Both are heroines.

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3. Judith’s heritage. 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.

Her covenant heritage combines prayer and action. She calls on God to break the world-renowned pride of the Assyrians “by the hand of a woman” (Judith 9:10), thus causing them ongoing, international shame. She calls on God, in his anger, to bring down the strength of the Assyrians (Judith 9:8). She demands that God demonstrate throughout the world that “there is no other who protects the people of Israel but you alone” (Judith 9:14). She beseeches God to grant her, a widow, the strength she needs and to hear her prayer (Judith 9:9, 12). She asks that “my deceitful words bring wound and bruise on those who have planned cruel things” against the covenant people (Judith 9:13). Then, with Holofernes’ neck exposed for the deadly blow, she prays for strength to accomplish her plan and speedily slashes through his neck with two blows (Judith 13:5, 7–8; 16:9).

4. Judith’s theology. Judith ranks along with Deborah (Judges 5), the wife of Manoa (Judges 13:23), Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10), Naomi (Ruth 1:20-21) and Abigail (1 Samuel 23–31) as theologians in the Old Testament, in the sense that they all comment on God’s character and actions. However, in terms of verbosity, she exceeds them all. She credits God for the victory over the Assyrians and the killing of Holofernes (Judith 16:5–6). Her theology includes possession and shows her leadership. In her closing prayer, she sings of my territory, my young men, my infants, my children, and my maidens (Judith 16:4) (italics added).

Her song, containing many distinctively feminine insights, details her preparation for war—how she anointed her face with perfume and fixed her hair. Judith’s song speaks of her sandals, her renowned beauty, that fetching tiara and the deliberate action of putting on a linen gown, knowing it would beguile her intended prey, Holofernes (Judith 16:7–8). These were her weapons, as important and deadly as Sisera’s 900 chariots in Deborah’s war (Judges 4:3). Judith triumphantly proclaims “the Persians shuddered at her audacity and the Medes were daunted by her daring” (Judith 16:10).

Her song lauds the kind of upset the Biblical text loves: that of the underdog winning against the mighty, proud foe; of the enemy cowering in fear and screaming and running; of mere boys slaying seasoned Assyrian warriors (Judith 16:11–12).

BAS Library Member Exclusive Content: For more on Judith, read Carey A Moore’s “Judith: The Case of the Pious Killer” as it appeared in Bible Review, February 1990.

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Judith receives—and accepts—accolades usually reserved for God. Joakim, the high priest, and the Israelite Council (yet again, men who come to Judith rather than her going to them) arrive from Jerusalem. With one voice they call Judith the glory of Jerusalem, the great pride of Israel, and the boast of the nation (Judith 15:9). The people concur with Amen (Judith 15:10).

5. Judith as prophetess. Although the text does not call her by the appositive prophetess, her words and actions raise the possibility that she indeed is a prophetess. The first indication is when she asserts to Uzziah and the Bethulian magistrates that “I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants.” (Judith 8:32). She does. Consider these other instances: At the start of her adventure, she (and her maid) are blessed by Uzziah. Uzziah asks God’s favor on the mission and charges Judith to fulfill her plans “so that the Israelites may glory and Jerusalem may be exulted!” (Judith 10:8). Judith responds that she “will go out and accomplish the things you have just said to me” (Judith 10:9). She does.

While a “guest” of the Assyrians, she accepts the invitation to attend a banquet in Holofernes’ tent with this double-meaning response and a pun on the word lord: “Who am I to refuse my lord? Whatever pleases him I will do at once” (Judith 12:14). She does—but for her lord. She proclaims that the banquet “will be a joy to me until the day of my death” (Judith 12:14). It is. While Holofernes ogles her and thinks of how he intends the night to progress, Judith encourages his fantasies by agreeing that “today is the greatest day of my whole life” (Judith 12:18). It is. Clearly, Judith’s adventure progresses according to the plan she devised and prayed about.

Back in Bethulia, she tells her townspeople that once the Assyrians find Holofernes’ headless corpse, “panic will come over them, and they will flee before you” at the advance of the Bethulians who will cut the enemy down “in their tracks” (Judith 14:3-4). As usual, Judith is right.

6. Judith and her countrywomen. Judith relates well to other women. They express no hint of jealousy toward her beauty, wealth, piety, and accomplishments; indeed, they arguably identify with her. She inspires them. They sing her praises and dance in her honor (Judith 15:12). Judith and the women crown themselves with garlands (Judith 15:13). Judith then leads the women first, with the men following, in a celebratory victory dance, just as Miriam the prophetess led the women after the victory at the Sea of Reeds (Exodus 15:20-21). In both stories, a mighty foe bent on the destruction of God’s covenant people, falls. A heroine knows no greater honor.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on August 1, 2012.

Click here to read part one of Judith: A Remarkable Heroine.

Robin BranchRobin Gallaher Branch is 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. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002–2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009).


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Tabitha in the Bible by Robin Gallaher Branch

Anna in the Bible by Robin Gallaher Branch

Lydia and Tabitha in the Bible: Women Leaders in the Early Christian Church

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6 Responses

  1. Janine says:

    I think it’s important to note that it is not simply Judith’s beauty that astounds the men. It is the combination of her beauty with great wisdom, something considered unusual in a woman. “No other woman from one end of the earth to the other looks so beautiful or speaks so wisely!” (Judith 11:20-23)

  2. Joe Conceicao says:

    I wrote a letter but it could not be “sent” It said I incidentally wrote short pieces on ‘heroines and heroes’ in the bible. Nothing expert, so, all the more I express admiration for something so professional, yet so readable.

  3. Dallas Kennedy says:

    Except for the Anglicans, the Protestants follow the Jewish canon defined by the Masoretic text, although the Christian order of the books is different. The Anglicans, Catholics, and Orthodox do have these “deuterocanonical” books, like Judith and Maccabees.

    The rabbis at Yavneh debated which books to keep as “mikra” (scripture) and which to drop. Thus they kept Eccelsiastes (Kohelet), but not Ben Sirah/Ecclesiasticus. They did keep Esther (another remarkable heroine), which the Dead Sea Scrolls collection does not have. (That may or may not be an accident.)

    There is a clear sign in the rabbinic “cut” of the final canonical books to de-emphasize Jewish nationalism — thus Judith and Maccabees are out, while Esther (the quintessential diaspora heroine) was kept.

    So, ironically, the great Hellenistic era of Jewish nationalism has no direct presence in the rabbinic canon, while that sort of material was preserved by Christians, oddly enough!

  4. Allan Richardson says:

    That is essentially correct. The Council of Jamnia excluded books they believed to be too late, or not known to exist in Hebrew manuscripts, from the canon of the Tanakh, along with the three books of the Maccabees (which tell the story of Hanukah), although they honored those books as being worth reading, just not Scripture. Basically, they got that right, since none of the events in Judith are mentioned, as they would have been, in Kings or Chronicles, in connection with the last minute salvation of Jerusalem from the Assyrians, nor is a general named Holofernes mentioned in Assyrian records, so this book is obviously an “encouragement parable”. Since its original (as far as we know) Greek text was in the Septuagint along with the others of that group, the Orthodox and later Roman Catholic churches accepted it; the Septuagint was the first text of the Hebrew Scripture available to Gentiles (although it was translated for Hellenized Egyptian Jews who could not read Hebrew), and so, by default, it became the Old Testament.

    Luther and other reformers re-examined the canon; learning that the Jewish community had given these books “second class” status, and wishing to get back to the “original” Bible without Catholic traditions, the Protestants made the same judgement. Martin Luther himself even had his doubts about the Epistle of Jude and the Revelation of John, almost leaving them out of the New Testament! Therefore, Protestant scholars and Bible translations label these books Apocrypha or, more kindly, Deuterocanonical (Deutero- meaning second). Some printings of the King James Authorised Version include them in a separate section with one of those labels; others omit them entirely.

    However, it is possible that some or all Apocrypha were included in Jesus’ references to the law, prophets and writings, since there WAS NO “official” Jewish canon yet, except the Torah itself, and acceptance was at that time a matter of opinion and reputation. Of course, among the Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jews, a Greek text would have been less accessible and less well known as books, although the Maccabee stories would have been familiar as oral traditions anyway.

  5. Beatrice says:

    @ Nina – I think part of the reason is because Judith is not included in the Jewish canon too. In the council of Jamnia as reported by Josephus, it was not named as one of the books Jews considered inspired. Thus, when Jesus spoke of the law, prophets, and writings, Judith was not included

  6. Nina Dunton says:

    Very interesting story. I wonder what reasoning was used to exclude Judith from the Protestant canon. Is it a late writing?

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