Women in the Bible: Judith

Judith with the head of Holofernes, Cristofano Allori

There are only three books in the Bible that bear the name of a woman — Ruth, Esther and Judith — and in these, Judith finds the most space.

It is half-way through the Book of Judith that our heroine is introduced, in spectacular fashion. Up until then, the anonymous author, most likely a Palestinian Jew, has spent the first seven chapters describing a desperate political and religious situation — the Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar is systematically destroying the kingdoms of the west who had failed to come to his aid in his war against King Arphaxad. The expedition, led by his commander, Holofernes has not only ravaged these nations, but has also resulted in the demolition of their shrines and sacred groves, to establish Nebuchadnezzar’s hegemony. This, of course, greatly troubles the Israelites, who know that they will be next, especially those in the little town of Bethulia, that led to all of Judea.

It is in the midst of this crisis that our heroine emerges. But before her adventures even begin, Judith is painted in the colours of a credible and suitable saviour. Here’s how –

A widow, Judith is introduced not as the wife of Manasseh, but as the daughter of Merari, whose own genealogy is traced to Sarasadai, son of Israel. This, effectively establishes Judith as “daughter of Israel” through direct lineage.

Apart from these obvious credentials, Judith has also proven to be a dutiful daughter and wife — she marries within the tribe and family, and when her husband succumbs to a heatstroke, she observes well the obligations of a widow, living in widowhood for the prescribed duration. Her respect for her husband, however, does not supersede her religious duties, and she fasts all the days of her widowhood, except for on the special days forbidden. Judith’s worthy character is summarised in her reputation in Bethulia — “No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion.” (Judith, 8:8)

Of her many virtues, however, there was one in particular that Judith was known for — her superpower, if you will, was wisdom. This is perhaps why, when she summons the elders of the town, they come to her with no hesitation.

With its water supply cleverly cut off at the source by the Assyrian army, Bethulia is in terrible and immediate need of saving. The people of Bethulia can see only one possible option: to surrender. “God has sold us into their hands…”, they cry to the town elders, including the magistrate, Uzzaiah, convinced that they are being punished for their sins.

Uzzaiah offers them another option: “Let us hold out for five days more”, he tells them, hoping that God would listen to their prayers. He adds, however, “But if these days pass by, and no help comes for us, I will do as you say.”

Judith approves of neither option and it is here that she summons the elders to present to them a third one of her own — surrender, not to the army, but to God. “While we wait for his deliverance”, she says, “let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voices, if it pleases him.” (emphasis added) (Judith 8:17) She succinctly explains that it is far more difficult to fathom the mind of God than it is to know the hearts and minds of men. “Who are you to put God to the test today?”, she asks, in relation to the five days they have allowed before the surrender, for God to deliver them in. She calls on them to remember wisely instead the similar testing that their ancestors had been through, not as punishment for sins, but as God’s way of showing them his mercy.

“The Lord will deliver Israel by my hand.”, declares Judith finally, and springs into action as humble saviour of her people. Like a similar saviour who would come many years after, she begins her mission with prayer and surrender, then sets out to single-handedly take on the salvation of her people by being deliberately captured, although with a degree of subterfuge that Jesus had no need to employ. Judith decks herself up in finery, making herself a beautiful, vulnerable Bethulian defector and allows herself to be captured by the Assyrians. She uses her beauty and charm to gain the confidence of Holofernes, then beheads him with his own sword, in his own tent in the middle of the Assyrian army camp! The Assyrians flee at the death of their commander and the Israelites are victorious.

LESSONS TO LEARN:

“I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants.” (Judith 8:32)

While the townspeople lament their impending annihilation, Judith sees a future with generations of descendants! It is this faith in God that gives her both the courage to take action, as well as the humility to know that she is simply an instrument of God. “The Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman”, she sings, so that His glory may be greater. Judith is emblematic of such wisdom combined with the readiness to act. We are also called to surrender to God’s will, ready to abdicate our earthly duties, like Judith cast aside her mourning garments, in favour of pursuing God’s call.

by Fionna Braganza