Back when we were dating, my husband said I should read Judith; I’d like it, he said, because it was about a strong, godly woman. Recently, I finally got around to doing that and found he was right. Judith is the second book in the Apocrypha and one of three books of the Bible named after women (along with Ruth and Esther).
Judith opens with a lot of scene-setting. Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, and Arphaxad, king of the Medes, are at war; Nebuchadnezzar defeats Arphaxad and, angry at all the nations who refused to join him in his war against the Medes, begins planning revenge. He sends his general Holofernes to sack the surrounding countries, which Holofernes does.
When the Israelites heard about this, they “were especially terrified of his coming and were anxious about the safety of Jerusalem and the temple of the Lord their God. They had just recently returned from captivity in exile. All the people of Judea had only just gathered together again, and the temple together with its altar and equipment had been newly dedicated to God” (4:2-3 CEB).
While the Israelites pray and fast, their resistance is reported to Holofernes. Angry at their preparations for war, he asks someone to tell him more about them. Achior, leader of the Ammonites, steps forward with a very interesting history of Israel, beginning with the way Abraham and his children “lived as strangers in Mesopotamia because they weren’t willing to follow the gods of their ancestors in the land of Chaldea” (5:7), through the history of Moses and the Egyptians, to their occupation of Canaan.
In summary, Achior says, “As long as they didn’t sin against their God, they prospered, because the God who hates wrongdoing was with them. But when they neglected the way God had laid out for them, they were greatly defeated in many battles and taken as prisoners to a foreign land. The temple of their God was burned to the ground, and their enemies took possession of their cities” (5:17-18). Achior thus says that unless the Isrealites have sinned against God, they won’t be defeated, but Holofernes and his generals don’t like this advice, and so they hand Achior over to the Israelites.
Holofernes lays siege to the Israelite town of Bethuliah. The Israelites pray and fast for 34 days, until their water runs out. Then the people, in despair, demand that their rulers surrender to the Assyrians. Finally, Judith enters the scene. Widowed three years ago, she is rich and beautiful and “no one had a bad word to say about her, for she revered God greatly” (8:8).
Hearing that the leaders plan to surrender because God hasn’t answered their prayers yet, she goes to them and says, “You can question the Lord Almighty, but you won’t ever learn anything. You can’t sound the depths of a person’s heart or comprehend the thoughts of that person’s mind. How then will you search out God, who made all these things? How will you understand God’s mind and comprehend God’s thoughts?” (8:13-14)
She urges the people to keep praying and asks for three days to “do something that will be remembered for generations to come” (8:32). She then offers a long, beautiful prayer to God, dresses herself in her most beautiful garments, and sneaks out of the city with her maidservant to walk into the Assyrian camp. Because of her beauty and her words, she’s taken straight to Holofernes. She tells him that the Israelites are starving and thirsty and desperate, about to commit a sin that will make them easy prey to the Assyrian army. Holofernes just has to wait until she tells him to attack, and then the victory will be his. He likes this advice and agrees to let her stay in his camp; he even gives her free passage to leave the camp every evening to pray.
Four days later, Holofernes throws a huge party and invites Judith to join him so he can seduce her. In his excitement, he drinks “more than he had ever drunk in any single day since the day he was born” (12:20). At the end of the night, he sends all his generals and servants away so that he’s alone with Judith. By that time, he’s so drunk he doesn’t notice that Judith kneels to pray before picking up his sword and chopping off his head. She puts his head in her bag, gets her servant, and walks out of the camp to pray just as she has for the past three nights—but this time she goes straight back to Betuliah, where she shows the leaders Holofernes’ head.
You can probably guess what happens next. The Israelites hang Holofernes head on their wall and prepare for war. Achior, seeing what Judith has done, converts to Judaism. The Assyrians are amazed that the Israelites are preparing for war and go to wake their leader, only to discover his headless body. Panic ensues and the Assyrians flee with the Israelites in fast pursuit. The Israelites grow rich from plundering the Assyrian army. Judith offers a hymn of praise and lives to 105, though she never remarries.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Judith; there are beautiful hymns and prayers throughout the book, along with a good dose of suspense (even if you know that God will rescue His people) and fervent expressions of faith. The story of Judith reminded me of the story of Jael in Judges.
Historically, the book seems to come after Tobit and Nehemiah. However, as the New Jerusalem Bible explains, the writer of Judith “shows a bland indifference to history and geography.” Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon, not Assyria; Bethuliah “defies identification” in real life; and the story includes both Persian names and Greek customs. This book isn’t meant to be read as a history; rather, the “author seems deliberately to have defied history to distract the reader’s attention from the historical context and focus it exclusively on the religious conflict and outcome. The narrative is neatly put together and has a close affinity with apocalyptic writings.”