The Book of Judith is a war story. It may be difficult for us to appreciate it fully, since most of us have never experienced the danger and horrors attending the invasion of one’s country—especially the dangers and horrors for women during such invasion. My own nation Canada has never really been invaded. The last time America was invaded, if memory serves, was early in the 19th century, and it was us Canadians who invaded and burned down your Washington capital. Oops. Sorry about that. But the net result of all this national security and peace is that we can have little emotional understanding of what it is like to have one’s nation repeatedly invaded and subject to occupation and all the horrors of war. Ancient Israel did have this experience—many times. It was the cost, I suppose, of occupying the land bridge between Africa and Asia: armies were forever tramping through your backyard and invading.
The Book of Judith’s place among the so-called “Apocrypha” and its absence from modern Protestant Bibles means that many people are unfamiliar with its story. That is too bad, for it is a riveting read.
It is an historical romance, rather than actual history, as its first chapters reveal. Its first verses describe Nebuchadnezzar as ruling over the Assyrians, when in fact he ruled over the Babylonians. He was the one who presided over the destruction of the southern kingdom and its Jerusalem capital in 586 B.C. and sent the people into exile. Eventually Babylon succumbed to the Persians, and under the Persians Israel was allowed to return to their land and rebuild their Temple (2 Chronicles 36:22f).
Nonetheless, the author of the Book of Judith portrays Nebuchadnezzar as somehow still ruling after the exile ended, and as sending his general Holofernes to Palestine to invade and enforce their submission to him and to join his war against the Medes (who were, after the exile, part of the Persian empire). Holofernes had already forced all the nations of the world into submission (2:21f), and he rode at the head of an overwhelmingly large force of invading Assyrians. The surrounding peoples of Sidon, Tyre, Jamnia, and the Philistine cities of Ashdod and Ascalon had already surrendered and lay prostrate before the Assyrian juggernaut. Now it bore down upon Israel, recently returned from the exile (4:3).
These details make it clear that we are reading romance, not history, but that is not the point. The story’s purpose was to provide an example of heroism, and of courage in the face of hopeless odds. The author therefore ransacked history to find examples of brutal invaders, throwing the Assyrians and Nebuchadnezzar into the mix to come up with the most fearsome invasion force he could think of. It would be as if a modern author combined Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Khan into a single super-villain.
In this story the author describes at length how Israel cried to God, prayed, fasted, and asked the Samaritans up north to help seize the passes to slow down the invaders (4:4f). Despite this, everyone knew that their situation was hopeless, and that all these preparations would prove useless. They therefore decided to surrender in five days if God did not work a miracle for them in that time.
The account of their desperate preparations and the failing courage of the men were recounted by the author to provide a contrast with the sterner courage of the woman Judith. She is described as outwardly weak and powerless—a widow with no children—and therefore serves as an image for weak and powerless post-exilic Israel. Yet despite her outward weakness, she is pious, fasting with sackcloth all the days of her widowhood. “No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion” (8:8). Like all heroines, of course she was beautiful and rich. She was in fact the embodiment of the little post-exilic community, for she shows that what matters is not outward power, but piety, and the courage to face down the foe. Significantly, her name “Judith” means “Jewess”.
When Judith learns of the decision to surrender within five days she goes to the rulers of the people and reams them out for their lack of courage and trust in God. She tells them to wait by the city gate and she and her maidservant will save Israel by themselves.
Judith’s plan was to deck herself out in all her finery and then go to the Assyrian general to seduce and assassinate him. She got dressed up, gave her maidservant a bottle of wine, a flask of oil, and a bag of other dainties, and then left the city to make her way to the besieging forces and the tent of Holofernes. Her cover story was that she knew that resistance was futile and so she was defecting to the enemy to save her life.
Through her charm, beauty, and flattery, she succeeds in winning over Holofernes. She offers to take him through the midst of Judea and set his throne in the midst of Jerusalem (11:19) so that he can conquer the people without any Assyrian blood being spilled. She stayed in the camp three days, leaving every night with their permission to return to the valley—ostensibly to pray and find out from God how the Israelites had made themselves vulnerable through sinning, but actually to bathe and wash away the ritual impurity of the Gentile camp. On the fourth day, after a great feast of wine, Holofernes got very drunk and then passed out.
Judith saw her opportunity. She beheaded him, stuffed his head into her food bag, and then left the camp as she had the previous nights. But this time she did not return to the camp from the valley, but returned to her city and roused them against the invader. By morning the Assyrians had discovered that their general was dead, and they all fled in panic. The Israelites pursued them, slaughtered them, and took a great quantity of spoil from them. The story ends with a great celebration in Jerusalem and Judith being honoured by all. She remained a widow despite many marriage offers and died at a ripe old age. The narrative ends with the words, “And no one ever again spread terror among the people of Israel in the days of Judith, or for a long time after her death”.
It would be an anachronistic mistake to judge the actions of Judith by our twenty-first century ethical standards, or to read the story through our modern lenses. All pre-modern readers of the story felt that deception on the battlefield was morally acceptable, and would not have had a problem with Judith’s lies (nor, come to that, with those of Jael in Judges 4, nor with those sheltering Anne Frank from the Nazis). The focus was upon her courage and daring in the face of insurmountable odds. The lessons of the story are twofold.
First, the tale of Judith tells us that a single person can make a difference. It is tempting to imagine that when things are terrible and we are faced with a hostile culture or a hostile enemy that there is nothing anyone can do. We are all of us but little people, and surely our voice would be drowned out by the multitude of other voices, our efforts proving ineffectual and going unnoticed! Judith tells us otherwise. She had everything against her: she was a woman in a man’s world, a Jewess in a Gentile world, without husband or family, far from the levers of power. But her efforts proved decisive and she won the war singlehandedly, because God was with His people and with her.
Second, the tale of Judith tells us that we should never give up and never despair, but offer our little deeds to God for Him to use (or not use) as He wills. Since God is for us, the final victory is assured (Romans 8:31f), and it could be that He will use us to accomplish great things. That is not for us to know, and anyway it is not our business. Our business to do what we can, trusting in God. The world is full of darkness, and the Enemy seems to win every battle, just as Holofernes brought the world to its knees before Nebuchadnezzar, the king of all the earth (Judith 11:1). So what? Now is the time for courage, for daring deeds, for defiance and a refusal to despair. In a little while the battle will be over and the time for the bestowing of rewards will come, and for feasting in Jerusalem. The Enemy is even now at the gates, and hearts are failing. Judith tells us to fight on.