Celebrating Judith’s success


After beheading Holofernes, Judith and her servant return to Bethulia carrying Holofernes’ head in a bag. Achior is summoned to identify the dead general to assure the Bethulians that Holofernes is dead, but when he sees Holofernes’ head, he is overcome and unlike fearless Judith, he faints.[1] He revives, identifies the head, and Judith tells the assembled crowd: “The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a female! Yet I swear by the Lord (that) Holofernes committed no sin with me to defile me or to disgrace me.” The people, true to form, ignore Judith’s act and bless God “who this day has mortified the enemies of your people.”[2] However Uzziah the magistrate blesses both Judith and God, mentioning Judith first.[3]

Judith advises the Bethulians to hang Holofernes’ head from the battlement of our wall,[4] and at daybreak take weapons and stand outside the wall threatening to attack the Assyrian forces. She explains that when the Assyrians see the Bethulian army, they will rush to Holofernes’ tent to rouse him to lead them against us. But they will find that he is beheaded, and leaderless will panic and retreat as you advance. You should pursue them and cut them down.

“When Achior (the Ammonite) saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed in God completely. So he was circumcised and was admitted to the community of Israel, as are his descendants to the present day.”[5]

The Assyrians react just as Judith predicts, they run in fear. And not only Bethulians, but Judeans from all over Judea pursue them, “causing heavy losses until they were past Damascus and its borders.”

The Bethulians who stayed in Bethulia “fell upon the Assyrian camp and looted it, making themselves very rich. When the Israelites who chased the Assyrians returned from the slaughter, they seized what was left.” Everyone “got a lot of booty, for there was a tremendous amount of it.”[6] The goods left by the fleeing Assyrians are so vast that it takes a month for the people to loot the camp.[7]

Joakim the high priest and the Israelite council come from Jerusalem to Bethulia and, characteristically, “came to see for themselves the wonderful things the Lord had done for Israel, and to see Judith and to wish her well.”[8]

Like Moses in Exodus 15, Joshua in Joshua 10, and Deborah in Judges 5, Judith sings a song of victory. In it she thanks God but mentions her hand in the affair:


“For the Lord is a God who crushes wars:

Bringing me into his camp and people,

He delivered me from the power of my pursuers…

The Omnipotent Lord has foiled them

By the hand of a female.”


She makes an interesting eschatological statement at the end of her song:

“Woe to the nations which rise against my people!

The Omnipotent Lord will take vengeance on them on the day of judgment;

He will consign their flesh to fire and worms,

And they will wail with pain forever.”[9]


During the celebration, “She took branches in her hands and distributed them to the women who accompanied her.”[10]

Judith returns home after the celebration to her estate in Bethulia. She is famous throughout the entire country. Many men want her, but she has no relations with men since the death of her husband. She frees her trusted servant[11] who accompanied her to Holofernes’ camp and distributes her vast property to her and her husband’s closest relatives. She dies when she is a hundred and five years old.[12] All Israel mourns her for seven days. “Not again did anyone threaten the Israelites during Judith’s lifetime, or for a long time after her death.”[13]




Unlike the books of Ruth and Esther and their heroines, the book of Judith and its heroine are filled with religious fervor, but in a restrictive manner. The Judeans en masse, faced with a siege by an overwhelming Assyrian force, turn to God in sorrow and pain, sackcloth and tears, and express their reliance on divine aid six times in the introductory seven chapters, but they do not act on their own. The notion that as long as the Judeans behave as God desires, God will protect them and no harm will befall them is mentioned several times in the book. Their worldview is that God is involved in world activities and manipulates men and events. In contrast, Judith acts. She devises a plan to allow her to approach the threatening general while he is alone and intoxicated, when she can kill him and save her people.

Yet although she speaks of divine strengthening and prays, acts absent in Ruth and Esther, the book of Judith, like Ruth and Esther, is strikingly deficient in Jewish practices and no mention is made of the Torah or its commands.[14] The laws of kosher are not explicit. Additionally, Judith sometimes behaves contrary to traditional Judaism. She fasts an entire week except for the Sabbath and holidays, abstinence frowned upon by rabbis.[15] She spends her life in overlong mourning the death of her husband wearing sackcloth. She doesn’t fulfill the Torah command to have children.[16]

Scholars have found many indicators in the story that suggest that the book was composed shortly after the Hasmonean (also called Maccabean) Revolt and that Judith reflects the worldview of the Hasmonean forces. For example: The death of the Assyrian General Holofernes reminds readers of the death of the Syrian General Nicanor in 161 BCE, both of whom were beheaded with their heads hung outside the city walls. No invader of Judea required the Judeans to abandon Judaism and worship idols other than the Syrian Greeks prior to the Maccabean Revolt. The story focuses on a city in northern Samaria, a territory that was captured after 107 BCE by the Hasmoneans. I think that this conclusion that Judith was composed after the Hasmonean revolt was concluded and reflects that revolt in a fictional form is correct.

We do not know when the rabbis decided which ancient books should be included in the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. Some scholars say that a final decision was made at the city of Jamnia (Yavneh in Hebrew) around 90-100 CE. Others point to the Babylonian Talmud Megillah 7a where we read that in the late second century CE rabbis debated whether Esther, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and Song of Songs are holy books. Virtually all agree that Judith was composed prior to the canonization. Why then was Judith not included in the Tanakh? Why is it not mentioned in Philo (20 BCE-50 CE) or Josephus (37-100 CE) or the Mishnah or Talmuds or found in the Qumran ruins (destroyed around 70 CE)? We do not know. Any idea that is offered is pure supposition. The following are some of the ideas that are mentioned. I offer the final one, which I think is the real reason.

  1. The rabbis disliked the Samaritans who lived in Samaria and since the heroic act of Judith occurred there they rejected the book.[17]
  2. Similarly, the rabbis disapproved of the universalism in Judith, exemplified in its acceptance of Samaria.[18]
  3. The idea that a woman saved Judaism was too radical an idea for the rabbis. True Deborah led her people to a military victory, but a male Barak led the army.[19]
  4. The book allowed an Ammonite to enter the Jewish assembly/convert, and this is contrary to the Torah law.[20]
  5. The conversion ceremony in Judith did not conform to the rabbinical dictates: Achior did not offer a sacrifice, bathe in a mikvah, or agree to observe Torah commands.[21]
  6. The rabbis set a date for the acceptance of books into the Tanakh, books composed after that date were not admitted, and Judith was composed after that date.[22]
  7. Judith is portrayed as being pious, yet she had her own non-traditional practices, such as her over-long mourning period, the ways she observed them, her decision not to marry and have children.[23]
  8. She attained her end by deception.[24]
  9. Judith, a woman, chastised elders, and this was unendurable for it could lead to an upending of Judaism.[25]
  10. Judith, not a man, controlled her own money and gave it to people she wanted to give it to.[26]
  11. There are obvious errors or intentional misleading and ironical statements in the book that might mislead readers.
  12. The rabbis may have thought that the book was originally composed in Greek, a language some, but not all rabbis disliked for it was not the holy language.[27]

13. The rabbis disliked the holiday of Hanukkah because it was a victory accomplished by human acts without      reliance on divine intervention and help. They also disliked the Hasmonean rulers who ruled Judea after the successful revolt because they felt that Jews should only be ruled by a leader from the family of King David. Additionally, besides assuming the political leadership, the Hasmoneans also made their leader the high priest despite not being of the family of Tzadok, while the rabbis felt that only a descendant of Tzadok could be high priest. During the talmudic period, they wrote that the Hasmonean victory was the result of divine intervention and the holiday celebrates a divine miracle that despite having oil for only one day, the candelabrum in the temple burned for eight days.[28] The book of Judith, as we saw, contains the rabbinical worldview in its first seven chapters, a view that Judith rejects. I think that the rabbis realized that Judith reflected the Hanukkah story and its theology and rejected it because of this failure to rely on God and, as a practical matter during the period of canonization the Jews were ruled by the Romans and many of the rabbis felt it would be a terrible mistake to actively oppose them.


[1] Verse 14:6.

[2] Verses 13:15-17.

[3] The term eulogeo, “bless,” appears seven times in Judith.

[4] It is significant, if we believe that Judith reflects the Maccabean Revolt, that the Syrian general Nicanor’s head was also hung just outside Jerusalem (II Maccabees 15:35). This also occurred with Goliath’s head in I Samuel 17:54, King Saul in I Samuel 31:9-10, King Ahab’s relatives in II Kings 10:7-8, and John the Baptist in Matthew 14:8.

[5] Achior, like the masses of Judeans, ascribes the victory to God and not Judith. It should be recalled that he was the one who said that God will abandon the Judeans if they act improperly. His worldview, like that of the majority of Judeans, was that God is involved in human affairs and manipulates world affairs to accomplish the divine will. It should be noted that he was circumcised to enter “the community of Israel.” The passage does not say “the Jewish religion.” Instead, he became a Judean citizen. Some scholars who feel that Achior converted claim that the rabbis were bothered that the text does not say that he immersed /bathed in a mikvah, a religious bath which converts to Judaism must enter. They say that this is the reason why Judith was not included in the Jewish Bible. This is not persuasive. The Bible frequently does not mention everything one expects it to mention. More significantly is the absence of the third and fourth rabbinic requirement for conversion: a sacrifice in the temple and the acceptance of the biblical commands. It is possible that Achior did convert for the concept of conversion began around this time but there is no indication that when non-Jews first began to convert, they had to immerse themselves in a mikvah or offer a sacrifice or promise to observe biblical commands. Another problem with Achior’s conversion or acceptance into the Israelite community is that Deuteronomy 23:3 commands that “no Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord even to the tenth generation; none belonging to them shall enter the assembly of the Lord forever.” It is possible that we should understand that exceptions are made for laws and since Achior had so significantly aided the Judeans this exception was made for him. However, Orlinsky supposes in his Essays in Biblical Culture that this violation of biblical law was the reason why Judith was not included in the Hebrew Bible.

[6] This contrast sharply with Esther 9:5-10 and 13-16 where the victors took no booty for in Esther the Judeans wanted to demonstrate that they fought only in self-defense. Here, as Moore writes on page 241, the despoiling of one’s enemy “is unquestionably the natural, normal response of victorious nations, both ancient and modern: ‘To the victor belong the spoils.’”

[7] Verse 15:11.

[8] Verse 15:8. They gave the credit to God not to Judith’s thoughtfulness and brave behavior.

[9] This notion, apparently of Hell, did not exist among the masses of Jews until the Greek period that began around 320 BCE, which adds some support to the conclusion that the book was composed around the time of the Maccabean Revolt.

[10] Verse 15:12. It is possible that the men also celebrated with branches, lulavs, which are used as part of the Sukkot holiday celebration (Leviticus 23:40). II Maccabees 10 states that the Judeans celebrated the rededication of the temple for eight days because they were unable to observe the eight-day holiday of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, and they did so now. The Judean’s use of the branches may be suggesting the celebration of the Maccabees, showing again that this fable alludes to the Maccabean Revolt.

[11] It is not surprising that this trusted servant is not named. The patriarch Abraham’s trusted servant who he sent to acquire a wife for his son Isaac is also not named (Genesis 24).

[12] Moses died at age 120, Joseph and Joshua at age 110. Should we read any significance in Judith, a female, living 105 years? Interestingly, the Maccabean period lasted 105 years (168-63), but it is doubtful that 105 refers to this fact since the book was most likely composed during the early Maccabean period. However, this may be a later gloss. It is possible that the counting of “years” in the Bible during the pre-flood years was by months, a month equaled a year. Methuselah who died at age 930 actually died around age 78 by our count, a very old age in ancient times. In the post-flood period, “years” were counted by equinoxes, two “years” in each of our years. Moses therefore lived around 60 years and Judith 55 years.

[13] Verse 16:25. Similar claims were made regarding some judges in the book of Judges (Judges 4:30, 5:31, etc.).

[14] Although there is a passing reference that Judith did not fast on the Sabbath and holidays.

[15] Who considered the overly-pious behavior of nazarites, such as their abstinence from wine, acts that must be atoned with a sacrifice.

[16] “Be fruitful and multiply,” Genesis 1: 28.

[17] This is unlikely because even if the rabbis disliked the Samaritans, they are not mentioned in the story and the people in the story were pious Jews.

[18] This is also unlikely for the Torah states at its outset that all humans are created in the divine image.

[19] Unfortunately, as with people in other religions there were rabbis who held this despicable view. However, they did not reject the book of Esther.

[20] This may also not be the basis for exclusion. Ruth was admitted despite being a Moabite, and exceptions were made for many laws.

[21] It is likely that these requirements were post-Judith.

[22] There is no source indicating the existence of such a date. Also, the book of Daniel, parts of which also reflects the Hasmonean Revolt and was composed around this time, was included in the Tanakh.

[23] The Bible is filled with actions that are contrary to rabbinical interpretations, such as the manner that Judah and Ruth performed the Levirate practice.

[24] So did the patriarch Jacob and others.

[25] Another prejudicial view.

[26] Still another improper view.

[27] Parts of Ezra are in Aramaic and there are Greek and Persian words in the Bible.

[28] This story is not in the contemporaneous book of Maccabees or the near contemporaneous history of Josephus.