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Judith by Denise Dombkowski Hopkins

The story of Judith would make a blockbuster movie, with its seduction, suspense, war, violence, and feisty, beautiful widow. Few biblical characters have generated as much controversy. One of only four women to lend her name to a biblical book (Esther and Ruth in the Hebrew Bible and Susanna in the Apocrypha are the others), Judith challenges stereotypes about women in both the ancient and the modern worlds. Taking the form of a Jewish novel, Judith’s story unfolds in the context of war. Holofernes, the general of King Nebuchadnezzar, has laid siege to the Israelite town of Bethulia, where Judith lives, in a campaign of terror against the western nations of the Fertile Crescent. Judith beautifies herself, leaves the protection of Bethulia’s walls, enters the enemy camp, seduces Holofernes, decapitates him with his own sword, and sneaks his head out of the enemy camp in her food bag to display on the walls of Bethulia. The Bethulians plunder the panicked enemy camp and, the foreign army vanquished, celebrate Judith’s victory. She returns home to continue to live as a widow, and “for the rest of her life she was honored throughout the whole country” (Jdt 16:21).

Lying murderer or saintly beauty?

Judith’s name means “Jewess” and may represent the nation Israel as it struggles to keep its Jewish identity in the Greco-Roman world. Childless and wealthy, she is not a typical widow. Judith prays and fasts regularly and keeps kosher, living an almost ascetic life after her husband’s death (Jdt 8:5-6). Her piety is well-known: “No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion” (Jdt 8:8). She is honored by the longest genealogy of any biblical woman (Jdt 8:1-2). Like the personified Woman Wisdom of Proverbs, she takes charge, rebuking the elders of the town for putting God to the test in the face of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege (Jdt 8:11-12).

But Judith also lies repeatedly (Jdt 10:12-13, Jdt 11:5-6, Jdt 11:11-15, Jdt 11:17-18, Jdt 12:18) and prays that God will approve her deceit (Jdt 9:10, Jdt 9:13). Her lies drip with irony and double entendre. She thus joins the ranks of other women who lie for the survival of Israel: Rebekah, Tamar, the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, and Esther.

Judith invites our censure for bathing herself with water when primping for Holofernes (Jdt 10:3-4), while the people of the town faint from thirst. Judith’s beauty plays a central role in her story (Jdt 8:7, Jdt 10:19, Jdt 11:21) and some condemn her vanity and seduction of Holofernes as negative stereotypes demeaning to women and frightening for men. Critics suggest that her return to widowhood after taking on a male warrior role and killing Holofernes marks her redomestication.

Artists, poets, composers, and scholars through the centuries have understood Judith in widely different ways, saying more about their own times and concerns than about Judith herself. Judith’s chastity has linked her with the Virgin Mary, her manly courage with queens and Zionism, her beauty with eroticism, and her smarts with strong contemporary females.

Was Judith too sexy for the canon?

Though it is absent from the Protestant and Jewish canons, the book of Judith appears in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian canons among the deuterocanonical literature; Protestants include it in the non-canonical Apocrypha. Jewish tradition connects Judith with the Maccabbean revolt and Chanukah. Intentional historical inaccuracies, typical of Jewish novels of the time, mark Judith’s story as fictional and make it difficult to date. Bethulia is an unknown town. The Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar did not rule over the Assyrians in Nineveh (Jdt 1:1), as the city was destroyed in 612 B.C.E., before he became king in 605 B.C.E. The temple to which the Jews had recently returned (Jdt 5:18-19) was rebuilt between 520 and 515 B.C.E., long after Nebuchadnezzar’s rule ended. Perhaps her story was produced during the Maccabean revolt against Greek rulers in the second century B.C.E. or later during the reign of the Hasmonean Queen Salome Alexandra (76–67 B.C.E.), with whom Judith shares many similarities. Both are beloved, pious widows who direct an army and defeat national enemies.

It may be that Judith’s story was produced too late to achieve canonical status. Other problematic aspects of the book include the conversion of the Ammonite Achior (Jdt 14:10), which challenges the prohibition against Ammonites becoming members of the Israelite people (Deut 23:3). Bethulia is placed in Samaritan territory (Jdt 4:6), perhaps tapping into long-simmering Jewish-Samaritan hostility. Judith’s possible connection to the Maccabean revolt may have made her story unpopular when the Hasmonean dynasty crumbled and Rome ended Jewish independence. Ultimately, Judith may have simply been too radical or sexy for her time.

Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, "Judith", n.p. [cited 24 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/main-articles/judith

Contributors

Denise Dombkowski Hopkins

Denise Dombkowski Hopkins
Professor, Wesley Theological Seminary

Denise Dombkowski Hopkins is the Woodrow and Mildred Miller Professor of Biblical Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. She is author of “Judith” in Women’s Bible Commentary (Westminster John Knox, 2012) and of the introduction and annotations for Judith and 1, 2, 3, and 4 Maccabees in The Discipleship Study Bible (Westminster John Knox, 2008).

The pious widow Judith uses her beauty and lies to seduce and decapitate the enemy general Holofernes, ensuring the safety of her besieged town, Bethulia.

Did you know…?

  • Judith, the feminine form of the masculine name Judah, means “Jewess.”
  • Judith is one of only four women for whom a biblical book is named (the others are Ruth, Esther, and Susanna).
  • Interpreters argue about whether Judith is a positive or negative role model for readers then and now.
  • Gender stereotypes are blurred and challenged by Judith’s actions. She moves from saintly widow to lying, seductive warrior and back to widow again.
  • Deliberate historical inaccuracies, common to Jewish novels of the time, signal that Judith’s story is fiction.
  • Critics censure Judith for her lies, for acting like a man, and for using her beauty as a weapon to seduce Holofernes.
  • Supporters see Judith as a brave liberator and independent woman.
  • Judith may have been too radical and sexy for her time to become part of the canon.

The crescent-shaped region stretching from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Its fertile land made agriculture easy, making it the location of many early human developments.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A general of Nebuchadnezzar who attacked Israel, according to the Book of Judith, but was ultimately beheaded by Judith.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Jdt 16:21

The Renown and Death of Judith
21After this they all returned home to their own inheritances. Judith went to Bethulia, and remained on her estate. For the rest ... View more

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

A person who abstains from wordly pleasures, usually for religious reasons.

Relating to the cultures of Greece or Rome.

Permitted within the Jewish system of dietary rules.

Devotion to a divinity and the expression of that devotion.

The personification of Wisdom as a woman in the book of Proverbs.

Jdt 8:5-6

5at home where she set up a tent for herself on the roof of her house. She put sackcloth around her waist and dressed in widow's clothing.6She fasted all the da ... View more

Jdt 8:8

8No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion.

Jdt 8:1-2

The Character of Judith
1Now in those days Judith heard about these things: she was the daughter of Merari son of Ox son of Joseph son of Oziel son of Elkiah so ... View more

Jdt 8:11-12

11They came to her, and she said to them,
“Listen to me, rulers of the people of Bethulia! What you have said to the people today is not right; you have even sw ... View more

Jdt 10:12-13

12and took her into custody. They asked her, “To what people do you belong, and where are you coming from, and where are you going?” She replied, “I am a daught ... View more

Jdt 11:5-6

Judith Explains Her Presence
5Judith answered him, “Accept the words of your slave, and let your servant speak in your presence. I will say nothing false to my ... View more

Jdt 11:11-15

11“But now, in order that my lord may not be defeated and his purpose frustrated, death will fall upon them, for a sin has overtaken them by which they are abou ... View more

Jdt 11:17-18

17Your servant is indeed God-fearing and serves the God of heaven night and day. So, my lord, I will remain with you; but every night your servant will go out i ... View more

Jdt 12:18

18Judith said, “I will gladly drink, my lord, because today is the greatest day in my whole life.”

Jdt 9:10

10By the deceit of my lips strike down the slave with the prince and the prince with his servant; crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman.

Jdt 9:13

13Make my deceitful words bring wound and bruise on those who have planned cruel things against your covenant, and against your sacred house, and against Mount ... View more

Jdt 10:3-4

3She removed the sackcloth she had been wearing, took off her widow's garments, bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment. She com ... View more

Jdt 8:7

7She was beautiful in appearance, and was very lovely to behold. Her husband Manasseh had left her gold and silver, men and women slaves, livestock, and fields; ... View more

Jdt 10:19

19They marveled at her beauty and admired the Israelites, judging them by her. They said to one another, “Who can despise these people, who have women like this ... View more

Jdt 11:21

21“No other woman from one end of the earth to the other looks so beautiful or speaks so wisely!”

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Belonging to the canon of a particular group; texts accepted as a source of authority.

The Jewish holiday of lights, generally celebrated in November or December, that celebrates the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt.

Changing one's beliefs and self-identity from one religion to another.

Literally, "second canon"; refers to texts accepted by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as sacred scripture, but not included in the Hebrew Bible. Not to be confused with Apocrypha, which include noncanonical works.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

Relating to the dynasty established by Simon Maccabeus that ruled Israel independently from 140-37 B.C.E.

An uprising led by the priest Mattathias against the Hellenizing agenda of Aniotchus IV Epiphanes. It turned into full-scale war with Judah Maccabee taking the reins and paving the way for the Hasmonean dynasty.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

A rule commanding someone not to do something.

The world's largest Christian church organization administered by hierarchy made up of a single pope and a network of cardinals, bishops, priests, and renunciates (such as nuns and monks).

A Hasmonean queen who ruled for nine years, ending with her death in 67 B.C.E.

Jdt 1:1

Arphaxad Fortifies Ecbatana
1It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh. In those days Ar ... View more

Jdt 5:18-19

18But when they departed from the way he had prescribed for them, they were utterly defeated in many battles and were led away captive to a foreign land. The te ... View more

Jdt 14:10

10When Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God. So he was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this da ... View more

Deut 23:3

3No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly ... View more

Jdt 4:6

6The high priest, Joakim, who was in Jerusalem at the time, wrote to the people of Bethulia and Betomesthaim, which faces Esdraelon opposite the plain near Doth ... View more

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

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