Judith saves Judea                       


Judith[1] acts in chapters 8-13:10. She was a rich, highly respected, “shapely and beautiful”[2] widow who for the three years and four months[3] after her husband’s death wore sackcloth around her waist, dressed in widow’s clothing,[4] and fasted every day except for the Sabbath and holidays.[5] She heard that the Assyrians besieged her town, about Achior telling the invading General Holofernes that he could not defeat the Judeans if they do not violate divine laws because God protects them as long as they are faithful, and that the magistrate Uzziah told the people that if God does not intervene and save them within five days, they will surrender the town.

Judith summons Uzziah and the other magistrates to her house and rebukes them, acting as their superior, “the advice you gave the people today is not sound.”[6] She tells them that it is improper to test God.[7] She explains that the Bethulians cannot surrender their city because it would open the way for the invading Assyrians to march against Jerusalem to destroy the capital and the temple. Besides, we need to serve as an example for all Judeans.

Uzziah praises her for her past and present behavior for it shows intelligence, but explains that there is a problem. He had promised the people that they would surrender in five days, and once a promise or oath is made it cannot be rescinded.[8] Judith assures Uzziah that there is no problem. She will do something within the five days “which will go down among the children of our people for endless generations.”[9] Uzziah wishes her success.

Judith places ashes on her head and cries aloud to God begging God to aid her to do what her ancestor Simeon son of Jacob did to the city of Shechem to avenge the rape of his sister Dinah.[10] She asks for the strength to put the heads of the Assyrians “into my hand.”[11]

In her plea, she speaks about Simeon killing slaves, who were we would think innocents, and handing over wives for rape, and made the wealth of Shechem available to them as spoils of war.[12] None of these acts is mentioned in the Bible and the first two are reprehensible. However, (1) commentators such as Moore[13] explain that this was the general practice in ancient times[14] and (2) the phrase should be understood as, you, God, gave them victory and “made it possible for them” to do these deeds, although there is no indication that they did them.

It is significant that unlike the citizens of Bethulia and the priests in Jerusalem, she did not passively beg God to perform the deed while Judeans sat back and prayed.  She states she will act. She says, “Grant me a beguiling tongue for wounding and bruising those who have terrible designs against your covenant and your sacred house.”[15]

Judith removes her sackcloth, bathes, anoints herself with perfume, fixes her hair, put on her best clothes, a tiara, and other jewelry.[16] She takes her servant, food, and wine, leaves Bethulia, enters the enemy camp, fascinates Holofernes with her beauty, and tells him that she can reveal to him when the Judeans will eat forbidden food that will result in God no longer protecting the Judeans. Holofernes mentions her beauty twice and responds that “if you do as you have promised… your god shall be my god.”[17]

Holofernes offers Judith all kinds of foods and wines but she refused saying she would not eat anything that would offend God.[18] She tells Holofernes that her religion also requires her to go out of the camp nightly to pray – which is, as we will see, a ploy she will use effectively later.[19] Each night she bathes.[20] She prays that God “guide her in her plan and deliver the children of her people,”[21] again expressing her plan to act and not depend on divine action.

On the fourth day of Judith’s visit, Holofernes decides the time has arrived to seduce Judith. He arranges a small drinking party for his servants and invites Judith.[22] She comes and tells Holofernes that she will drink with him but only from her own wine. She explains with deception, “for today is the greatest day of my whole life.” Holofernes never realizes that virtually every comment she makes to him has a double meaning. In this case she is suggesting: today is the day in which I will save my people. But Holofernes hears: it is the time when I will enjoy sleeping with you. Over-excited, Holofernes drinks more than he ever drank before and falls asleep.

The servants leave and Judith is left alone with Holofernes. She prays for strength, approaches his bed, grabs his hair, lifts his head, snatches his sword, strikes him twice in the neck, and chops off his head. She places the head in her sack and, as usual, leaves the camp “to pray,” and climbs the slop to Bethulia.

Obeying the Torah

While the book of Judith clearly intends to portray Judith as an observant Jew, it is striking that the book fails to mention any Jewish practice other than praying; and the prayers are not really religious in nature but expressions of despair by the Bethulians and yearnings for strength by Judith. Besides, many Bible commentators such as Nachmanides recognize that prayer is not a biblical requirement, but an institution developed by the rabbis in the Common Era.[23] Additionally, Judith’s night-time “prayers” were not even required by the early rabbis.

Even the supposed subject of kosher food is misleading. True, Judith carried her own wine, oil, roasted grain, dried fig cakes, and bread when she descended to Holofernes’ camp; but the text does not say that she took these foods because she wanted to eat only kosher food. Even if one argues that the bulk of the foods she brought if made by pagans could be not kosher, one could not say so about the oil. It is possible that she took these items to reinforce her plan. She wanted to emphasize to Holofernes that the Judeans will soon eat improper foods, anger God who will abandon them, but she would not do so, and this is why she left the Judean village. It is also possible that she felt she could better seduce Holofernes by not seeing him that frequently and not eating with him, and she did not want to drink the strong wine that Holofernes served to preclude becoming intoxicated.

Additionally, when Judith tells Holofernes that the Judeans will be punished for eating forbidden foods, she doesn’t mention kosher foods. She contends they will eat foods “consecrated and reserved for the priests who officiate in the presence of our God at Jerusalem, even though it is not lawful for any laity so much as to touch these things with their hands.”[24]

Furthermore, when Achior converts in 14:10, the book does not mention that he agreed to observe Jewish laws.

In short, Judith is no different than Joshua and Judges where I showed in this “Unusual Bible Interpretation” series that the books fail to speak about the Torah commandment in the Five Books of Moses.

Council of the elders

The scholar of Bible history, Rabbi Dr. Sidney B. Hoenig,[25] notes in his “The Great Sanhedrin” that the term “gerousia” occurs a few times in Judith “in referring to an authoritative institution in Jerusalem at the head of which was the high priest.”[26] The Greek term means elders. The high priest would summon the elders when their counsel was needed. He writes: “Though the actual date of the translation of Judith is unknown, there is definite evidence that the book itself was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic before or during the Maccabean Revolt.” Since the institution of the “gerousia,” mentioned in Judith, existed for only a short period until the end of the Maccabean Revolt, this fact supports the view that Judith was composed around that time and may be a fiction based on the Maccabean revolt and the death of the Syrian general Nicanor.


[1] Judith is the only woman who has as many as sixteen ancestors mentioned, obviously to extoll her. Her name means “Jewess,” and can be interpreted to indicate that all Jews should be as active as our heroine.  However, as the names Mordecai and Esther, Judith was originally a pagan name. Esau’s Hittite wife had this name (Genesis 26:34). A non-Israelite man had the male version of the name, Jehudi, in Jeremiah 36:14. Thus, the name Jew, derived from the Hebrew Yehudi, Judah, is pagan in origin.

[2] Verse 8:7. This language was also used to describe Sara (Genesis 12:11), Rachel (Genesis 29:17), and Esther (Esther 2:7). Judith has the beauty of Esther but also the strength of character and physicality of Jael (Judges 4 and 5).

[3] This totals forty months. Bethulia was under siege for forty days.

[4] Both during her early widowhood and later after her deed with Holofernes, Judith never married and had no children. The author seems to be saying that the prototypical example of a woman, Judith, need not fit the stereotypical notion of the perfect woman, a female who marries, stays at home, and has children. The author is also emphasizing that Judith is a widow to inform readers that she knows about sex, a knowledge she will use to great effect later in the story.

[5] It is unclear why she wore sackcloth, always wore widow clothing, and fasted. None of these are requirements of traditional Judaism. In fact, most rabbis deplore taking upon oneself stringencies and this is why they criticized nazarites who abstained from alcohol. It is also unclear where she wore the sackcloth, under her widow garments or above them. The text does not indicate her age, but she may have been very young, for girls at that time married when they were thirteen or fourteen years old. If she followed this custom and was only married to her husband for a couple of years and this incident occurred three years after her husband’s death, she would have been around nineteen or twenty years old.

[6] Verse 8:11. That she could both summon magistrates to her house rather than going to see them and criticize them is remarkable and highlights the respect they had for her.

[7] What does she mean? The Bethulians were certainly not testing God; they were begging for divine aid. It is reasonable to understand her criticizing the magistrates for their passive reliance on God without acting themselves.

[8] That vows cannot be annulled was the view in biblical times. See my discussion showing examples in “Unusual Bible Interpretations: Judges,” chapter 12, “Why didn’t Jephthah annul his vow?”

[9] She does not reveal her plan, perhaps fearful that a Judean may disclose it to the Assyrians.

[10] Genesis 34. Judith does not mention Simeon’s brother Levy who joined him on the attack against Shechem probably because she was a descendant of Simeon and wanted to act as he did.

[11] This is an obvious metaphor. She does not intend to decapitate every Assyrian. It should be noted that while the word “hand” only appears once in the introductory seven chapters when Holofernes speaks about conquering Judea, it is found as many as nine times after Judith enters the tale. “Hand” signifies human action, which Judith will exemplify.

[12] Verse 9:4. While the Bible is critical of Simeon’s behavior, Judith approve his act.

[13] Page 191.

[14] A practice, I would add, that Exodus 21, the laws of the captured woman, implies is wrong.

[15] Verse 9:13.

[16] Seven acts. It is characteristic of the Bible to make a staccato list of acts to show the actor’s zeal.

[17] This is a remarkable statement since Holofernes had been insisting that all conquered nations serve Nebuchadnezzar as their god. It is possible that he was so carried away by her beauty that he misspoke or, just as she was deceiving him he deceived her, as a first tactic in his upcoming attempt to seduce her, or he spoke the truth – our author telling us how enchanted Holofernes was with Judith that even before he physically lost his head, even at his first encounter with her he figuratively did so. Compare Ruth 1:16 and my commentary where I explain that all these words meant in Ruth was that Ruth would join her mother-in-law in Judea.

[18] This act by Judith emphasized for Holofernes the severity of eating improper foods, and the idea that when the Judeans do so, God will abandon them and he will conquer them. It is also one of many indicators of how pious Judith was and contrasts her with Esther who it seems ate forbidden foods as Ahasuerus’ queen.

[19] The requirement for Jews to pray at night did not exist at this time. In fact, at the beginning the rabbis only told the people to pray in the morning and afternoon reminiscent of the two temple sacrifices. Later, they added an evening prayer service that they said was not mandatory. But Jews began to treat it as mandatory. Judith saying it is proper to pray outside the camp recalls Moses saying to Pharaoh that we need to pray to our God, let us go out and do it, for we cannot pray where idols are worshipped.

[20] Some think she bathes because there is a requirement to bathe after the menstrual period. But this is doubtful. One does not bathe at the end of the period for several nights, no mention is made in the story about her menstruating, and this is not relevant to the story. It is more reasonable to suppose that Judith felt that her presence in the Assyrian camp was defiling and she bathed each night to express these feelings to herself and to God. It should be noted that Judith does not mention bathing to Holofernes who might see it as her preparation to engage in sex with him or, if she explained that it was to cleanse herself of impurity, he would have been insulted.

[21] Verse 12:8.

[22] He did not invite his military officers only his servants presumably so that he would stand a better chance to seduce Judith who would be impressed by him and not by his officers.

[23] Nachmanides comment on Maimonides “Book of Commandments.”

[24] Verse 11:13.

[25] He was my mother’s brother, my uncle.

[26] Pages 148-151.