Off With His Head

Judith with the head of Holofernes by Italian master painter Titian.
Judith with the head of Holofernes by Italian master painter Titian.

Judith is a beautiful widow who has fascinated artists, writers, poets and composers through the centuries. The heroine of the Book of Judith, a text that was never accepted into the Jewish cannon, Judith serves the role of holy Jewish widow, of seductress and of soldier.

Here is a quick rundown:

Judith comes onto the scene in chapter 8 of her book, introduced by a lengthy genealogy, which connects her to several important biblical characters, including the Forefathers. She summons the town elders and rebukes them for questioning God’s plan and their willingness to surr-ender to the enemy. She presents a secret plan to save her community, prays to God for assistance, beautifies herself in preparation for her journey and leaves her hometown of Bethulia with her maid. Almost instantaneously, Judith is (likely by design) captured by the Assyrians. She presents a “vision” for how the Assyrian army can win the war without loss. She is taken to General Holofernes’ camp, attends an intimate banquet and cuts off Holofernes’ head while he is drunk. Then she returns to her hometown with the head, meets with the elders, is praised, they celebrate, and she goes back to her life as a widow.

Most scholars consider the story of Judith to be fiction. For example, it takes place in a city called Bethulia in Palestine, but no such place is known. In addition, explained Dr. Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, who referred the JT to a chapter she wrote in the 20th anniversary edition of “Women’s Bible Commentary,” “The book opens in ‘the 12th year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Ninveh’ (1:1). Yet, Ninveh was destroyed in 612 BCE, before Nebuchadnezzar became king in 605 BCE; he ruled the Neo-Babylonian Empire from his capital city of Babylon. It is not possible that the Jews had recently returned from exile and rebuilt their Temple (5:18-19) since Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple in 587 BCE and the Temple was rebuilt in 520 to 515 BCE under the Persians.”

But Judith’s story, said those interviewed, is not meant to be a history as much as it is meant to be a meta-phor, a discussion of the themes of Jewish survival and identity in a gentile world and of female survival in a man’s world.

“From a Jewish perspective,” said Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College, “Judith preserves Jewish tradition but is not sacred.”

The book is referenced at Chanukah because although there is debate as to exactly when the story is supposed to have taken place — and the beginning of the book makes it sound as if the events took place centuries earlier — most scholars believe that it was written during the Hellenistic period, the time of the persecutions and battles that eventually are commemorated by the celebration of Chanukah.

“In this sense, it is a companion piece to the book of the Maccabees, which likewise is not part of the Jewish Bible but was written by and for Jews,” explained Eskenazi.

Robin Gallaher Branch, professor of biblical studies at Victory University in Memphis, Tenn., said there are many ways that one could describe Judith,
including planful, verbose and powerful. She said that Judith is a similar character to others who are in the Jewish cannon, including the judge Deborah (in her leadership) and the almost-uncannily similar story of Yael in the Book of Judges. The Israelites are at war with King Jabin. When Jabin’s army goes to attack, led by Sisera, Yael welcomes Sisera into her tent with apparent hospitality. She gives him warm milk and other foods and when he lies down to sleep, Yael creeps up to him, holding a tent peg, and forces it through his temple and into the ground. As a result of the killing of Sisera, God gives the victory to the people of Israel.

But what do we make of a character who beheads a foreign general and hangs it on display?

“To interpret Judith today is not simply to determine whether or not Judith offers a positive or negative role model for women in her time or our own,” noted Hopkins. “Rather, it is to recognize how she challenges all stereotypes. As she moves across the gender spectrum from widow to seductress to soldier, Judith subverts the presuppositions about gender that we bring into the text.”

Hopkins said that on the one hand Judith seems to be an ideal woman for her time — beautiful, loyal, pious, intelligent and initially silent — who remains in her home when she is widowed, leaves it only in times of crisis and returns after her victory. On the other hand, she rebukes the town elders, manipulates people and vacillates between proclaiming her subservience to God and carrying out her initiative (though in the end, it is clear that God endorses what Judith has done).

Eskenazi defends Judith’s character.

“Judith is presented as a highly savvy, even brilliant, strategist who plans every move to bring about the downfall of her people’s chief enemy,” said Eskenazi, describing Judith’s power not just as physical (i.e. using her beauty), but also as linguistic. She said Judith acted out of self-protection.

“If anything, the killing of this one man saves many lives,” Eskenazi said.

Judith, in Hebrew Yehudit, literally means woman of Judah, and Eskenazi feels Judith represents the Jewish people under siege at the time of Greek subordination.

“The metaphor and message encourage people to trust that piety and action can combine to bring relief and a secure future,” she said.

Is Judith a feminist role model? Eskenazi said yes — “her independence is exceptional.”

Noted Branch: “Judith relates well to other women. … They identify with her. She inspires them.”

Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief

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