Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Book of Judith


(1) A wife of Esau, daughter of Beeri the Hittite (Gen 26:34).
(2) The heroine of the Book of Judith in Apocrypha--a pious, wealthy, courageous, and patriotic widow who delivered Jerusalem and her countrymen from the assault of Holofernes. (source:

(source of pic:

Today's BBC's "Womans Hour" featured one of the most fascinating women from the Bible : Judith. I find her fascinating not just because of how she saved her town, but also, growing up, she was an enigma to me. At religion class in school ( I went to a Christian school) we weren't allowed to talk about her - she was considered a harlot, a Jezebel; but to my Catholic friends she was a heroine, a savior. So naturally, she piqued my curiosity - who is this woman, so reviled by some and yet adored by others? I set out to read the story of Judith, and this is what I found at

The Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar sent his chief general Holofernes to lead an army west to Judea. On the way, Holofernes plundered numerous towns, so that news of his approach reached across the land. Despite a warning from one soldier that the people of the western lands were defended by God, Holofernes planned to capture the small Jewish town of Bethulia. Hearing of Holofernes' plot, Judith, a widowed resident of Bethulia, put on beautiful clothes and jewelry and entered the Assyrian camp, purporting to be a spy against the Jewish people. She promised to tell Holofernes how to destroy the Jews; but when Holofernes became drunk at a celebration, she followed him into his tent and cut off his head. Thrown into chaos by the death of their leader, the Assyrian army was easily defeated by the Jews of Bethulia, who celebrated Judith's clever plot against Holofernes. Judith never remarried, but was celebrated for the rest of her life as the heroine of Bethulia.

OK, so from what I read here, she does seem like a brave and courageous woman, so why is she so vilified by some churches? According to Rabbi Marcia Plumb of Southgate Reform Synagogue interviewed by Womanshour, Judith may not have been included in the Old Testaments of all Bibles because she is too strong a woman; she definitely more powerful than Esther, Ruth or any other woman featured in the Bible and besides, she is a seductress who kills a general and perhaps it was too threatening for those who canonize the Bible, to include her. Also, there is not a shred of archaeological evidence to suggest that Judith was a real person...

Judith has been many an artists' muse. She has been painted by Caravaggio, Michaelangelo (in the Sistine Chapel), Artemesia, Christophano Allori, Rembrandt and Gustav Klimt, just to name a few. In some paintings she is fully clothed but in others she is scantily clad perhaps coming across as a seductress to an observer,thus, even in art she is complex!

Whether her story is historical fiction or not, I think it's an inspirational one for women all over. She was brave, courageous and not afraid to speak out clearly and plainly. She refused to be intimidated by the men who told her not to go to Holofernes' tent and she was definitely not afraid to use her feminine charms to do something good for her people. A role model? Definitely!


Dorothy W. said...

Wow -- what an interesting story! I don't remember learning about Judith at all, and I spent a lot of years in Sunday School! I think the history of canon-formation and the way churches "spin" certain stories is fascinating.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Dorothy!

I had vaguely heard about Judith as I was growing up, but lacked the courage to ask my religion teacher about her :) Nor was it easy to find information on her from outside sources (no access to the internet back then).

With the popularity of biblical/mythical fiction perhaps there will soon be a book about her, if there isn't one already.

Susan in Italy said...

Ooohhh! I love Judith! Gotta go but will write passionate things soon!

Susan in Italy said...

Ok, back now. I first learned about Judith in an Italian Baroque art history class where the prof. juxtaposed a few paintings of the biblical scene in which Judith and her maid escape after chopping Holophernes' head off. Artemisia Gentileschi's and Caravaggio's interpretations of the subject were much more graphic than the others with lots of blood. Artemisia's was unique in that she showed the beheading act in progress whereas others showed only the result. She showed a strong, determined and raging Judith in the act of beheading Holophernes while the maid holds him down and the blood spurts up. Evidently, Artemissia had been raped as a girl. The prof connected the documented rape trial of a colleague of Artemesia's father with this violently-charged depiction.

Lotus Reads said...

Susan! This is so interesting, thanks so much for the input! I am definitely going to have to look at the paintings by Artemisia again; I'm bound to see it in a different light now that I know the history/background. Wow, thanks so much!

Come to think of it, I have a book titled "The Passion of Artemisia" by Susan Vreeland. I must remember to take a look at it soon.