The book of Judith is a Jewish novel, likely written in about 100 bce, that celebrates the victory over a foreign power by the hand of a woman. Although never part of Jewish Scriptures, it did become part of the Christian Bible, now consigned to the apocrypha. The anonymous author probably wrote in Hebrew, although there is no copy of a Hebrew original still in existence, and no fragments or quotations of it were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It falls naturally into two parts. In the first part (chaps. 1–7), Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, is engaged in a major campaign against Arphaxad, king of the Medes. Many of the nations to the west refuse to ally with Nebuchadnezzar, but he proceeds against Arphaxad nevertheless and defeats him easily. He then turns against the nations who spurned him, which include Judea and Samaria, and commissions his general Holofernes to mobilize vast numbers of troops to invade these nations, moving inexorably toward Judea. His forces pause below the mountain village of Bethulia, which must be taken in order for him to move through its pass and proceed on to take Jersualem; and he commences a siege that cuts off the water to the village. The first part thus ends with a pause in the action, as the Israelites contemplate the disaster that is about to befall them.

In the second part (chaps. 8–16), Judith is introduced as a beautiful, wealthy, and pious Jewish widow who has lived a life of prayer and fasting in a special tent or booth on the roof of her estate. She emerges from this relative seclusion to put into motion a plan to thwart the enemy advance. She leaves Bethulia with her favorite maid and goes to the enemy camp. There she captivates Holofernes and his soldiers and lies to manipulate Holofernes to her ends. Hoping to seduce Judith, Holofernes drinks wine until he is quite drunk and passes out, whereupon Judith takes this opportunity to slice off his head with his own sword. Carrying the head with them, she and her maid return to their village, display the head on the wall, and instruct the villagers to attack the Assyrians the next day. When the Assyrians see that their general has been beheaded, they flee and are decisively beaten by the Israelites.

Popular among both Jews and Christians over the centuries, the story of Judith has nevertheless suffered from strongly ambivalent reactions in the modern period. The interest in biblical history and "higher criticism" that developed in the nineteenth century left Judith out of the picture. By genre, it seemed like a romance or fiction; as history, it was—and is—suspect; in its theology, it was unremarkable; in its depiction of moral character, it presented a heroine who was often considered either morally tainted or decidedly dangerous. As a result, the book of Judith has been viewed as offensive, ludicrous, or—worst of all—irrelevant for biblical theology. Only with the rise of feminist studies of the Bible and an interest in the female characters has a new appreciation for the book developed. This interest has remained strong and has produced a wealth of new studies and a much more positive appreciation for Judith.


Judith begins with a dating formula (using the year of the reign of a major king) that is like the accounts in the biblical history books (1 Kgs 15:1; 16:15, 29; 2 Kgs 12:1; 13:1); yet, the first personage encountered, Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, is clearly implausible. Nebuchadnezzar was king of the Babylonian Empire, not the Assyrian, and since both Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrian Empire were well known to Jews, an accidental error is inconceivable. This one historical impossibility is followed by a number of other difficulties. In the first two chapters alone, we meet the presumably important King Arphaxad of the Medes, who is unknown to history, and geographical problems of all sorts arise with the place-names: Some are unknown; some are in the wrong place. Perhaps most serious of all, however, is what we find at 5:18–19. Achior has faithfully recounted Israelite and Jewish history, but then proceeds to describe events that occurred after both Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrians had long since disappeared. The audience would clearly have been aware of the historical and geographical inaccuracies and would likely have understood the book accordingly as a work of fiction. Some scholars have sought to solve this problem by arguing that the two parts of the book (the military campaigns of chaps. 1–7 and the response of Judith in chaps. 8–16) are of unequal value historically and that there is still a historical kernel to the book, or that to avoid persecution the book makes use of fictitious personages to refer to contemporary leaders, much as the members of the Qumran sect referred to Romans as Kittim. This is not likely, however, because the entire work bespeaks a period of triumph and freedom from external oppression, not a secret text of hope in a time of adversity.

The earliest known references to the story of Judith come in the first century ce. The book probably influenced the description of Deborah in the Biblical Antiquities of the author known as Pseudo-Philo, and the first reference by name to the story of Judith is by Clement of Rome, a Christian author who wrote near the end of the first century. He incorporates the story positively, with no hint of a concern about the historical problem, and when Judith is quoted by the later Christian fathers, there is likewise no question as to the historicity of the text. Judith is not quoted as scripture by Jews, but is the subject of legendary treatment, and no one among Jewish authors objects or comments on the reliability of the text. Through the medieval period Judith is treated as a revered figure, but rarely does anyone raise any historical questions. When we come to Martin Luther, however, we encounter a very modern-sounding criticism. In his preface to the book of Judith, he writes, "It hardly squares with the historical accounts of the Holy Scriptures, especially Jeremiah and Ezra." His solution to this problem is also very modern and has in fact become the accepted scholarly consensus: "Some people think this is not an account of historical events but rather a beautiful religious fiction.… Such an interpretation strikes my fancy, and I think that the poet deliberately and painstakingly inserted the errors of time and name in order to remind the reader that the book should be taken and understood as that kind of a sacred, religious composition."

Although the stated historical setting in the era of the Assyrian Empire still pushed some scholars to argue for an early dating—that is, before the exile in 587 bce—most now focus on evidence that it was written at a much later period. There are terms and personages that correspond to the period of the Persian rule of Judea (539–332 bce) and other terms and ideas that correspond to the period of Greek rule (332–165 bce) or to the period of the independent Judea under the Maccabees (or Hasmoneans; 165–63 bce), when Greek customs were still influential in Jewish life. Moore has conveniently listed the terms and names in each category, the most important of which are given here. For dating in the Persian period, we note especially that in 350 and 343 bce there were invasions of the west by Artaxerxes III Ochus of Persia that were similar in scope to the fictitious invasion by Nebuchadnezzar and Holofernes. He came as far as Egypt (see Jdt 1:10). More important, he had a general named Holofernes and a counselor, probably a eunuch, named Bagoas (cf. Jdt 12:11). Thus the connections to Judith are very strong and suggest at least that the memory of this invasion fired the imagination of the author of Judith. In addition, there are a number of terms that are associated with the Persian era, even though they might also have lingered in the popular consciousness long afterward.

There are no precisely datable Greek terms or ideas, but several motifs—the wearing of garlands and olive wreaths, the worship of a king as a god, and people reclining instead of sitting at table—could have entered in any time after 332 bce. Some of the most convincing datable motifs arise in connection with the Hasmoneans (the dynastic name of the Maccabees), who achieved independence from the Greeks (Seleucids) in 165 bce. The high priest as a political and military leader, the ascendancy of the Jerusalem council, and the close similarity between the exhibiting of Holofernes’ head and the exhibiting of the head of Nicanor after he had been defeated by Judah the Maccabee (1 Macc 7:43–50; 2 Macc 15:30–32) all speak for a date after the Maccabean revolt.

Even more important for consideration, the ideals expressed in Judith correspond closely to the ideals of the later Hasmonean rulers, especially John Hyrcanus I (135–104 bce) and Alexander Janneus (103–78 bce). Hyrcanus in 107 bce annexed Samaria, the provincial designation of the northern half of the old kingdom of Israel. He thus realized a Hasmonean dream of reestablishing the approximate borders of David’s and Solomon’s united Israel. A dating of the book in this period would even provide a possible origin of "Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians." Assyria in biblical prophecies was often read as Syria in the literature of this period; thus "Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians" could have been read as a satirical reference to "Antiochus, king of the Syrians," from whom the Maccabees had gained their independence.5 In the process of annexing Samaria, John Hyrcanus also destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim, and so rid the land of cult practices not strictly based on the hegemony of Jerusalem. This illuminates Judith’s otherwise very odd statement in 8:18–20 that the Jews had successfully rooted out the worship of "gods made with hands." Further, the conversion of Achior, though it would find some precedents in ancient Jewish tradition, would be more comprehensible in the light of John Hyrcanus’s move to convert the Idumaeans to Judaism by force. One could argue that the forced annexation of Samaria and the forced conversion of Idumaeans would not lead to such warm relations as are depicted in Judith, but to the Hasmoneans the annexation and conversion would be seen as liberation, and this is precisely why Judith is at such pains to idealize them. The boldness of Judith’s affirmations make most sense in a situation where unity is imposed. The book of Judith thus idealizes Samaria and Judea together as "Israel" and does not have, as some scholars have suggested, a hidden Samaritan identity. To be sure, other scholars argue that the author of Judith is secretly opposed to the rule of the Hasmoneans, but the agreements with the Hasmonean rulers far outweigh the possible challenges within the text. Even if Judith were a subversive text within the Hasmonean kingdom, that would still at least date the text in the period that is here proposed.

It has also been suggested that the author was a Samaritan because of the importance of the regions of Samaria, a Sadducee because of the coordination of Judith’s practices with the temple administration, or a Pharisee because of the practices of fasting and prayer. Arguing against the first two possibilities are the idealized union of Judea and Samaria into "Israel" (noted above) and the Hasmonean idealization of the high priesthood as a governing office. Whether the author was a Pharisee is impossible to determine, but it should be noted that the practices of the protagonist provide a parallel to the development of fasting, penitence, and prayer of the Pharisees and others in the Judaism of this period. It is likely, then, that the anonymous author lived in Palestine and wrote in Hebrew near the end of the second century bce. A narrative tradition that may have arisen in the Persian period was possibly utilized, which would explain the Persian parallels; but the concerns of the author clearly point to a composition in the later historical context.


Although Judith was included as part of the canon of the Christian Bible as a historical text and was so understood by many, in the modern world a number of scholars have considered it a novel or a romance (the terms are essentially interchangeable) on the analogy of Greek novels. The classicist Ulrich von Wilamowitz judged it a novel, as did Ruth Stiehl, Franz Altheim, and Moses Hadas. Although the Jewish texts are shorter than their Greco-Roman counterparts, they are earlier and should perhaps be considered important parts of a broad international literary development that includes, in addition to the main Greek and Roman novels, smaller novels that arise from various indigenous ethnic groups of the Hellenistic world.10

Some scholars have emphasized the similarity of Judith to oral folk narratives and have pressed this category as a genre designation. While this similarity is very important (see below), the present shape of Judith is like the other written novels of the period. To be sure, Jewish novels sometimes developed out of pre-existing narratives, which may in turn have been derived from oral legends. The development from oral legend to novel can be seen in the combination of originally independent stories in Daniel 1–6 with the visions of Daniel 7–12 to form a larger whole, and then later in the addition of the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews and Susanna to form the apocryphal version of Daniel. The development toward the novel can also be discerned in certain other contemporary Jewish works, such as Testament of Joseph from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Testament of Job, and Testament of Abraham, which begin to take on a novelistic coloring as a keener interest in description and character development gives rise to an expansion of the narrative. Other contemporary texts seem to be like histories in that they do not appear to be intended as fictions, and yet they also tend toward an exciting narration of the protagonists’ personal situations: 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees, Artapanus, and the Tobiad Romance, and Royal Family of Adiabene from Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews 12.154–236, 20.17–96. The novelistic developments should be seen as experiments that push toward the creation of a new art form. In addition to the more obvious elements of the novel, such as rousing action, international sweep, wealth, danger, sex, violence, and use of dialogue, more subtle themes are woven into the text that include the use of everyday characters, domestic settings, and the exploration of the interior life of psychology and emotion. In addition, in both the Greek and the Jewish novels, there is a strong focus on the female protagonist. But while the Greek novels of antiquity portray a young couple in love, separated by challenging circumstances, in the Jewish novels a vulnerable woman is often more alone at the center. She is often directly involved with her extended family, but she faces the trials of life and death alone.

The character of Judith has similarities to two types of characters in Greek novels. In some ways, such as in respect to her beauty, wealth, and piety, she is like the young heroines; in terms of being a self-directed and commanding figure and a widow, she is also like some of the Greek widows. The widows, however, are not generally depicted positively, but are sexually driven, powerful, and sinister, controlling the protagonists’ lives. Jerome makes a comparison between Gentile widows and Christian widows that is illuminating: "Gentile widows are wont to paint their faces with rouge and white lead, to flaunt in silk dresses, to deck themselves in gleaming jewels, to wear gold necklaces, to hang from their pierced ears the costliest Red Sea pearls, and to reek of musk."14 Jerome’s stereotype is thus similar to that of the Greek novels; it is all the more striking, then, that Judith does all these things as well, albeit in the service of God, and is seen positively throughout. Another similarity to the Greek novels is the fact that the female protagonist is so much more engaging and active than the male protagonists. This aspect is also found as a genre trait in the Greek novels, but is emphasized even more in Judith. Still, there is one important way in which Judith differs from the Greek and the Jewish novels: the invulnerability of the heroine. The Greek and Jewish novels all feature a vulnerable heroine, and usually a vulnerable hero as well, but Judith is not buffeted by events. She is more like the male hero of epic.

The classical historian Moses Hadas was so convinced that Judith is related to the Greek novels that he objected to just those aspects of the text that are dissimilar to the other novels. A story of a Greek widow in Plutarch, Amatorius 2, for example, is very similar to Judith. She remains chaste and curries the favor of a powerful man who she secretly knows killed her husband. Finally she poisons both the suitor and herself and dies triumphantly. In the Greek novel An Ephesian Tale by Xenophon of Ephesus, the beautiful young Anthia must also kill a suitor who is trying to rape her. The tragic ending in Plutarch seems appropriate in Greek narrative, and the innocent and threatened heroine in Xenophon seems appropriate as well, but the author of Judith is judged by Hadas to have missed the point of the genre. "What makes the Judith story awkward is the mixed atmosphere of piety and license; the erotic has come in [as in the Greek novels], and shows its leering face despite the author’s efforts to smother it in piety. If the constraints of the religious motivation (in itself admirable) are removed, the story would spring back into the pattern of Greek romance." We will turn again below to the heroic Judith, and can perhaps explain the source of the problem as Hadas sees it.

A remaining issue concerning the Jewish novels is whether they were considered historically true or were treated in the ancient world as fictitious, as scholars now often consider them to be. Although many of the known novelistic works were eventually canonized as part of the Christian Bible, it is not clear that these writings were all considered historical at the time of their writing. Several of them contain an obvious historical error that would likely have been easily recognized as such by the audience: Esther becomes a Jewish queen of Persia; in Dan 5:31 Babylon falls to "Darius the Mede" (Darius was a famous Persian king); Tob 14:15 refers to Xerxes king of Media (Xerxes was also a famous Persian king); and in Joseph and Aseneth, Joseph rises to become pharaoh until a young prince reaches maturity. Judith’s Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, is simply another example of this phenomenon, even though it may be the most outrageous historical mistake of all. The audience would have understood why these two evil empires were combined in Judith, and would have applauded it, but they would never have been fooled into thinking this was a retelling of actual historical events. It is this aspect of these novels that helps to define their genre and distinguish them from other prose narratives, like the Gospels.


The literary qualities of Judith are significant, but it is often a challenge to describe the attractions of a work of "popular," as opposed to "classical," literature. Popular novels have a function to entertain, perhaps to instruct, but are often perceived as falling short of the higher criteria of excellence that have been arrived at in the study of "classical" literature. Still, it is unfair, and ultimately inaccurate, to apply the standards of classical literature rigidly to popular literature. The latter will come up short, and the essential nature of such literature, and its positive qualities and social function may be missed. Just as the moral ideals in Judith were questioned by commentators in the modern period, so also the literary qualities of the book have often been dismissed by those who misperceived its literary genre and function. These criticisms fall into two categories: the disproportionate length of the first part concerning the rise of the military threat to Bethulia and the rhetorical excesses of the whole.

Cowley, who appreciated other literary qualities about the book, took the author to task for creating a first half that takes too long to come to the introduction of the heroine. Dancy was less kind: "Dramatically [the first half] is spoiled by tedious descriptions and confusions, stylistically by exaggerations and empty rhetoric."19 Even Alonso-Schökel, who set the tone for the literary-critical approaches, denigrated the first part in favor of the second. It seems that most critics were unappreciative of the first part and failed to recognize its contribution to the narrative as a whole. The first part, which is not quite half of the book (even if the Song of Judith at the end is omitted), does seem to be longer; actually, the greater share of attention is devoted to the events in the second part. The reader’s impression is that the first part is taken up with military movements and engagements, but it is really mostly talk. The talk is, first of all, a way of revealing the characters of Nebuchadnezzar and Holofernes and how they will try to attain world domination, but it is also a means to introduce Achior into the story, his view of the role of Israel in history, the reactions of the Israelites to the crisis, and what is religiously at stake. But these are far from plodding; they develop all the issues of the context of Judith’s decisive act. And since Judith was probably read as entertainment, it simply would not do to have the climactic scene arrive too soon.

On the question of the rhetorical excesses, in general, these were perhaps noted most emphatically by Pfeiffer: "The turgid style, the patent exaggerations, the stately pomp and ceremony throughout, unrelieved by a sense of humor, give to the book a baroque rather than a classic appearance." It is quite revealing of his lack of sympathy for the genre that he says that the book of Judith does not have a sense of humor. Quite the opposite is the case.

In response to these criticisms, it is important to see popular literature in its proper context. It is precisely the goal of the author of Judith to impress the reader with an unrestrained exuberance and to have an immediate impact. The author of Judith makes an art of excess: the descriptions of the troops, the artificial geographical sweep, the pillage and destruction, the gory central scene—all of these serve to keep the reader riveted. This is the same approach that is found in other novelistic works, both Jewish and Greek. It should also be noted that the author of Judith did not work with established models of what the novel genre should look like; the novel was a bold experiment, only in the first stages of development. Nonetheless, the author had introduced innovative improvements over the other novels. Whereas some of the more primitive novels of this period were characterized by duplicated scenes (the Additions to Esther) or separate small narratives strung together (the Additions to Daniel), Judith attains a length that is larger than the other novels of the apocrypha, and yet maintains a smooth, taut narrative. To be sure, there are two different movements to the story, but there is a logical relationship between them, and the author exercises many literary gifts. In many ways, Judith is the best constructed of the Jewish novels.

Toni Craven made a major breakthrough in the literary appreciation of the whole of the book when she identified certain aspects of the function of the first part. There are many parallels and contrasts between the first part of the book and the second and, in addition, parallels and contrasts within each part. This results in a complex and intentional structuring of the two parts that greatly enriches the reading experience, once one is prepared for such a reading. Some of the most important correspondences can be represented thus:

First half

A Campaign against disobedient nations; the people surrender (1:1–3:10)

B Israel is "greatly terrified"; Joakim prepares for war (4:1–15)

C Holofernes talks with Achior; Achior is expelled (5:1–6:13)

C′ Achior is received in Bethulia; Achior talks with the people (6:14–21)

B′ Holofernes prepares for war; Israel is "greatly terrified" (7:1–5)

A′ Campaign against Bethulia; the people want to surrender (7:6–32)

Second half

A Introduction of Judith (8:1–8)

B Judith plans to save Israel (8:9–10:9a)

C Judith and her maid leave Bethulia (10:9b–10)

D Judith overcomes Holofernes (10:11–13:10a)

C′ Judith and her maid return to Bethulia (13:10b–11)

B′ Judith plans to destroy Israel’s enemy (13:12–16:20)

A′ Conclusion about Judith (16:21–25)

Craven’s discernment of the pattern of parallels and contrasts allows a much more sympathetic—and ultimately enjoyable—reading of the first half of the book. Each half is in the form of a chiasm—that is, a structure that resembles the Greek letter chi, or Χ, and in which motifs in the first half are repeated in the second, except reversed. This allows each part to have an effective center, yet move to a culmination. The first part ends with a calm that is not a resolution; it is the dread of Holofernes’ attack. The question hanging over the Jews is, "Who is lord, Nebuchadnezzar or God?" The second part removes the Israelites’ fear of Holofernes and answers that question resoundingly, "God is Lord and works even through the hand of a woman." The structuring of the narrative is simple and complex at the same time. There are numerous structural relationships, yet they point to a single overall arc: rising action, denouement, falling action. Although Craven’s findings have strongly influenced the present commentary on Judith, the outline followed in this commentary has been altered slightly from hers. The text has been broken up into more equal sizes that reflect content more than literary structure.

In addition to the pattern of balanced parallels and oppositions of motifs that Craven analyzed, we can detect several other important narrative operations as well. First, there is a typical hero pattern in the novel. This common cross-cultural narrative structure usually portrays a male hero, sometimes withdrawn from society, who comes forward when the community is threatened by a larger-than-life monster and slays it. At this point, there are essentially two resolutions of the story: either a comic one or a tragic one. In the comic resolution (usually associated with myths and fairy tales), the hero returns to a celebration with the community, and peace and fertility are restored to the land. In the tragic ending (usually associated with epic poetry and tragedy), the hero either dies in the process or returns to a community in which he cannot really participate. Judith can easily be seen as an adaptation of the hero pattern: In the beginning, she is outside of society in the tent on her roof. She comes out of seclusion to "arm" herself in beautiful garments, moves forward to engage the monster, slays the monster, and returns to a celebration of the community. The ending is closer to the comic resolution, although this question will be taken up again in regard to the ending of the work (see Commentary on 16:21–25). The similarity of Judith to heroic narratives has been noted by various scholars. Coote has suggested the cross-cultural tale pattern more typical of the heroine called "wife disguised as a man frees her husband," which depicts a faithful wife (here, Judith is a "wife" of Israel) who disguises herself as a man to rescue her husband. However, it seems more likely that what we see in Judith is not a female pattern such as this, but a more radical adaptation of a male warrior-hero pattern. The role reversal in Judith and the flouting of normal sexual taboos is much stronger than in most heroine tales of disguise.25

The hero pattern is a broad and varied phenomenon, occurring in all parts of the world, and it has attracted the attention of scholars who see the possibility of isolating a "monomyth," a single narrative structure that is the model of all hero tales worldwide. While this goal may never be attained in detail, it is clear that there are common patterns of the hero narrative and that comparing Judith with some of the reconstructions of cross-cultural patterns could be instructive. The best-known attempt to isolate a single pattern with variations is that of Joseph Campbell. His summary of the typical hero story pattern—and the vast majority of the narratives he cites concern male heroes—is as follows (slightly simplified): The mythological hero, setting forth from his hut or castle, proceeds to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark. Beyond the threshold the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar, yet strangely intimate, forces, some of which severely threaten him. When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological world, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s theft of the boon he came to gain. The final work is that of return; the hero reemerges from the kingdom of dread. The boon that he brings restores the world.

The elements of the narrative are very similar to the book of Judith: the departure of the hero, the crossing of the threshold into a dark region of danger (see below on the gates of Bethulia as a threshold), the trials of the hero and the slaying of a monster (in this case, Holofernes), the stealing of a great boon to humanity (the head of Holofernes), the return of the hero, the reentry into society by crossing the threshold again, and the restoration of peace. What we have in the case of Judith is a hero narrative cast in a more realistic setting that brings down to earth many of the elements of the story pattern. Further, Campbell’s analysis helps us to understand why some of the characters of Judith are so one-dimensional. The literary or theological value of the book of Judith is not contained in the development of Judith’s character or in an analysis of evil as embodied in Holofernes. The complexity that usually makes characters interesting is not present. Judith does not grow as a character and is not mixed of good and evil qualities. It is emphasized that she is wise, virtuous, and capable; but she does not discover anything about herself (cf. in this regard Esther 4). She is like the figures of myth, who are likewise often one-dimensional. The hero of myth is born fully formed in his heroic traits. The remarkable virtues of this person, according to Campbell, are more predestined than achieved in the course of life. Thus both the hero and the monster reach their end by destiny. There is very little need to create multidimensional characters.

The hero pattern is thus the overarching structure for the book of Judith, but contained within it are interesting smaller structures as well that serve to illuminate important segments of the departure and return of the hero. One of these is the preparation of Judith, or her transition out of her life of quietism in chap. 8 (see the Overview of chaps. 8–16). It is best described as what anthropologists would call a "rite of passage," a ritually marked transition that involves separation from society, a liminal period in which normal markers of social order, such as age, class, gender, or status, are obliterated and sacred information is imparted, and incorporation or aggregation back into the social order with a new status. At 8:11–27, Judith has scolded the rulers of Bethulia for being weak willed and has told them that she has a plan to deliver them. She then must prepare herself, and enters into a state of ritual cleansing and self-abnegation in which she uncovers her mourning garments, prays, bathes, and then reclothes herself in rich apparel and cosmetics. The scene is remarkably similar to the central prayer scenes of the female protagonists in the Additions to Esther and Joseph and Aseneth. At a turning point near the middle of the narrative, the female protagonist turns to prayer and begins a process of penitence and self-abasement. She condemns her beauty, puts on sackcloth as a garment of mourning, prays, and afterward reclothes herself in beautiful garments and emerges to perform her mission (see also the much less stylized scenes in Tob 3:10–15 and Sus 22–23).

This scene is related to Jewish penitential theology that developed in the post-exilic period, already found, for instance, in Nehemiah 9, Daniel 9, some of the psalms, and Baruch and the Prayer of Manasseh in the apocrypha, and emerging later in Jas 4:8–10. The themes emphasized in these texts differ, as do the content of their prayers. Still, in all the Jewish novels except Judith, the introspective female protagonist is buffeted and psychologically tested. The amount of space devoted to this issue and the depth of the psychological interest vary from Susanna (the least attention) to Joseph and Aseneth (the most), but it is interesting that Judith is not psychologically buffeted despite her situation. Moore compares the prayer in Judith with that of Add. Esth 14:1–19, but misses this crucial difference. Neither does Judith show any penitence. Esther, and even more so Aseneth, purifies herself by a penitence that involves an abject self-abasement. The rituals of mourning are incorporated, which would be typical in the Bible in a moment of crisis, but Esther goes beyond this; it has become a quasi-ascetic repudiation of those aspects of her body associated with her beauty: "Instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body; every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair" (Add. Esth 14:2). The heroines’ awareness of sin, associated with their bodies, is overwhelming in Esther and Joseph and Aseneth. Yet Judith knows nothing of this. Even her fasts do not appear to have an explicit penitential aspect. Judith undergoes an experience of transformation without being transformed. The author takes up the paradigm and the literary pattern of the buffeted Jewish heroine who is penitent and prayerful, but gives her no recognition of sin. She is simply perfect as she is.

In addition, another important segment of the hero’s quest, crossing the threshold into the sphere of darkness and danger and returning again, is marked very clearly in the narrative as an important passage as well. Craven notes in her structural arrangement of Judith a correspondence between the departure of Judith and her maid through the gates of Bethulia at 10:9b–10 and their return at 13:10b–11. These corresponding scenes contain a number of important, ritualized elements. When Judith, with the help of her maid, has prepared for her quest by means of the dressing scene, she commands the town elder Uzziah, "Order the gate of the town to be opened." Accompanying her departure is a series of gestures of Uzziah and the townspeople that are typical of the departure scenes in heroic poetry (see Commentary on 10:6–10). When the two return again she also says, "Open, open the gate!" which marks clearly the return of the hero and her incorporation back into the safety of the known village. Although there is still a battle to be fought when she returns, the immediate danger to her—and especially to her honor as a pious Jewish woman—is while she is in the liminal period between her going and coming. This is also the period in which she flaunts her sexuality, engages in deceit and manipulation, and murders Holofernes. It is also the dramatic center of the book.

Aside from these structural elements of the novel, there are also certain aspects of the literary style that deserve attention. Judith utilizes a number of techniques that enliven the narrative: anticipation of future events; retardation and acceleration of plot; vivid visual description; and irony and humor. Concerning the anticipation of events that appear later in the text, we must assume that the story of Judith was well known, whether from oral tradition or from written narratives, such as the present text. This would be quite likely if, as discussed above, an older narrative tradition from the Persian period was at the core of the present Hasmonean-era text. Anticipation is a way of building suspense about future events, but it also introduces a kind of irony—that is, a perception on the part of the audience about what they think will happen that is different from the perspective of the characters. The anticipation in Judith is sometimes suspenseful, sometimes ironic and humorous. It is suspenseful when Achior’s exile to the village of Bethulia anticipates his witness there to the events that are about to unfold. It is ironic and humorous when statements that are made take on a different meaning in the light of anticipated events, such as Holofernes’ blustery statement to Achior: "You shall not see my face again until I take revenge on this race!" (6:5). Anticipation can often be seen in the irony of many of the statements in Judith’s and Holofernes’ dialogue (e.g., 11:6; 12:4).

The retardation and acceleration of the plot are among the most effective techniques of the author, creating excellent pacing of the narrative. This is often accomplished by the alternation of narrative and dialogue, action and rest, and alternation of location, but most often by the use of vivid description. The audience fully anticipates the beheading of Holofernes—they know that is what the story is about—to such an extent that the amount of text that goes before it has surprised many critics. Just as the Gospel of Mark has been characterized as a passion story with a long introduction,33 so also Judith is a beheading with a long introduction. With this in mind, one can see chaps. 1–7 as a series of episodes that use retardation and acceleration, in addition to alternation of types of discourse, to set the stage for the climactic decapitation. Chapter 1 launches immediately into a military drama between two great world powers, followed by a rest (1:16). The narrative moves again into a brisk description of military events and another rest (3:10). Israel’s response to war follows, which is described almost like military preparations (4:1–15). There are several extended dialogues following (5:1–6:9), after which there are intrigues that involve a combination of vivid description with some retardation of the plot and dialogue, as Achior is expelled from Holofernes’ camp and welcomed into Bethulia (6:10–7:18). In 10:11–23 we find a similar combination of vivid description, plot retardation, and dialogue as Judith reverses the direction of Achior’s movement and goes from Bethulia to Holofernes’ camp. From 11:1 to 12:18 there is dialogue, and then at the climactic scene in Holofernes’ tent, we find slight retardation of the plot as Judith approaches Holofernes (12:19–13:7), and then acceleration of the plot as Judith beheads Holofernes, collects the head and the tent canopy, moves through the camp, climbs up the mountain and back to Bethulia, all in three verses (13:8–10)! The military campaign at the end of Judith (15:1–7) is also told in the same quick, bold strokes as the military campaigns at the beginning of Judith.

If there is one literary device that most characterizes the book of Judith, however, it would be irony. In this respect Judith is in good company; irony is at the center of the Gospel of John, the book of Jonah, and Plato’s portrait of Socrates. The irony is ubiquitous in Judith and plays on several levels.36 On the broadest level, it is found in the unexpected development that the great Assyrian general Holofernes is felled by the hand of a woman. This is the central irony that underlies the structure of the book as a whole, and it is referred to often, both in Judith’s prayer in chap. 9, and in the Song of Judith in chap. 16. The irony spills over into the dialogue, creating an extended train of ironic utterances, as characters time and again speak words that have one meaning for them and another for the audience. Judith, who is very clever, seems to be uttering double entendres intentionally, playing with Holofernes as a cat plays with a mouse. But Holofernes is also prone to making pronouncements that will come back to haunt him; he is too obtuse to realize what is going on around him. The two strands of ironic statements—Judith’s and Holofernes’—thus proceed simultaneously through much of the novel. Related to this is the discrepancy between Holofernes’ self-understanding and the pitiable end for which he is destined. His bloated self-image clouds his judgment, so that he not only sees in himself what he wants to see, but also he sees in Judith only what he chooses. If Holofernes had been clever enough to catch Judith’s irony, he would have been clever enough to avoid her trap, even get the best of her. But he was not. Surrounding these larger ironies are smaller examples that are still significant. Nebuchadnezzar claims to be "lord of the whole world" (2:5); yet the narrative confirms that God is lord, and this will be proved, not on the great battlefields or in the famous cities of the ancient Near East, but outside the tiny mountain village of Bethulia. Also Achior, though an Ammonite, is more stalwart in his defense of Israel than is Uzziah, one of the rulers of Bethulia. We may note one last example of irony that also relates to the moral evaluation of Judith: She is fastidious about the observance of kosher laws, and yet she violates Jewish views of the permissible actions of a pious widow. This irony lies at the center of Judith’s liminal actions.


The reader familiar with the Bible will immediately recognize in Judith parallels to many biblical stories. The text is indeed a rich tapestry of biblical allusions. The most important of these are listed and analyzed by Dubarle, and here the most important ones will be mentioned. In addition to the explicit references to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Jdt 8:25–27) and to Simeon (Jdt 9:2–4), there are evident influences of narrative motifs from many biblical texts.

The fact that the main character is a woman naturally attracts our attention to biblical stories that focus on female characters. The general theme of the ruse of a woman recurs in biblical literature, from Rebekah’s manipulation to secure the birthright for her son Jacob in Genesis 27, to Tamar’s ruse to have sex with her father-in-law in order to raise up a child in the name of her dead husband in Genesis 38. Rahab the prostitute’s aid to the two spies sent into Jericho (Joshua 2; 6:22–25) bears more than a passing resemblance to parts of Judith. It is not simply that Judith also "plays the harlot" with Holofernes; Rahab, like Achior, is also a non-Israelite who joins Israel, and her speech (Josh 2:9–14) is very similar to Achior’s speech in Judith 5. At several points in the HB there is an execution of a warrior by a woman, which was considered a shameful form of death. In Judg 9:50–55, Abimelech is killed by a woman who drops a millstone upon him. Emphasized here is that Abimelech does not want to die at the hand of a woman, a mark of shame that is found also in Jdt 16:5 (see also 2 Sam 4:5–12; 20:14–22).

The most important of the parallels to women in active roles, however, is the story of Deborah the prophet in Judges 4–5, and especially the role of Jael in murdering the general Sisera. In Judges 4, the prose version of the story, King Jabin of Canaan has sent his general Sisera to attack the Israelites. Deborah the prophet instructs Barak to lead the Israelites out to fight Sisera. She promises Barak that the Lord will defeat Sisera and adds, "The Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." Barak routs the forces of Sisera, but Sisera himself takes refuge in the tent of Jael. He lies down, and while he is sleeping, Jael takes a tent peg and drives it through his head. Judges 5 is then a victory song of Deborah in celebration. The most obvious similarities to Judith are the heroism of a woman who gives courage to her people in a time of oppression by a foreign power, her call to arms to the men to defend themselves, and also the murder scene in which a woman—now not Deborah but Jael—kills the general of the foreign king. More specifically we may note that both women are very strong, patriotic people and that the execution scenes both take place in a tent while the general is incapacitated and lying down. The victory song of Judith is partly modeled on the Song of Deborah and also on Moses’ Song of the Sea in Exodus 15. In a fascinating development, we also see that a first-century ce retelling of Bible history, Pseudo-Philo’s Biblical Antiquities 30–31, modifies the story of Deborah by adding elements evidently drawn from Judith. The influence of the stories has now moved in the opposite direction!

There are similarities as well to male warriors and leaders in the Bible. Judith is not only like Deborah, but she is also like the other judges and prophets who arise when God hears the prayers of the people (Jdt 4:13; cf. Judg 2:11–23), to give the land rest from oppression for a number of years afterward (Jdt 16:25; cf. Judg 3:11, 30; 5:31). We note, for example, Ehud’s killing of Eglon, king of Moab (Judg 3:12–30). Once Ehud has assassinated the king in his inner chamber, Ehud leaves the doors closed so that the servants are pacing without, wondering what is taking the king so long. This is played to comic effect, just as is the analogous scene in Jdt 14:14–18.

Other texts have left their mark on Judith, not just in the similarity of the motifs, but in the use of words as well: Abram’s (Abraham’s) pursuit of the captors of Lot in Genesis 14 (cf. Judith 15), the motif of the complaining of the people in Exodus 17 (cf. Judith 7), the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 (cf. Judith 13), the bluster of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2–4 and the insistence that the king be worshiped as a god in Daniel 6 (cf. Judith 2), and the repentance in sackcloth, even for the cattle, in Jonah 3:5–8 (cf. Jdt 4:10). Some of these parallels may result from the oral circulation of good story motifs, but others are either much too close to be independent or use similar words. Thus the essence of Judith is not a literary rendition of an originally oral story, as may be the case for Tobit, Esther, or Daniel 1–6. Judith uses broad folklore themes, to be sure, but the parallels reveal an author at work who is borrowing heavily from a number of biblical texts and weaving them together into a unified story. Dubarle likens this process to the "anthological style" of other post-exilic Jewish works and of such Christian texts as Luke 1–2. It would be wrong, however, to say that Judith is an imaginative interpretation that simply mines and develops a number of biblical passages. For one thing, non-Jewish traditions can also be postulated that are in many cases just as close as the biblical: the Ugaritic epic of Aqhat, for example, tells the story of the woman Paghat, who, enraged over the death of her brother Aqhat, avenges him by inebriating his murderer and slaying him while he is on his bed.43 The use of written texts in the composition of another written text does not preclude the use also of motifs and themes from oral tradition, but what is important here is that Judith is not just the sum total of the myriad motifs that it appears to borrow, now strung together. It uses these many building blocks, and yet still reflects the single vision of a talented author who communicates the exuberance of Judith’s freedom in a new genre, the novel.



Cowley, Arthur E. "The Book of Judith." In APOT 1:242–67. An older translation with introduction and notes, it is still valuable.

Dancy, J. C. The Shorter Books of the Apocrypha. CBC. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972. Includes an excellent, but somewhat dated, short commentary on Judith.

Enslin, Morton S., and Solomon Zeitlin. The Book of Judith. JAL VIII. Leiden: Brill, 1972. Greek text and English translation with notes. Formerly a standard treatment, it was written before the important contributions of literary and feminist studies. It is still quite valuable.

Moore, Carey A. Judith. AB 40. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. The major commentary in English. Clearly written, with a wealth of historical and geographical information, it incorporated the literary and feminist scholarship that was available at the time of its publication.

Studies on Judith:

Alonso-Schökel, Luis. Narrative Structures in the Book of Judith. Berkeley, Calif.: Center for Hermeneutical Studies in Hellenistic and Modern Culture, 1974. A pioneering literary study of Judith, important both for its focus on the literary structures of the text and for the responses included in it by Mary P. Coote and Alan Dundes that pressed folklore parallels to Judith.

Bal, Mieke. "Head Hunting: ‘Judith’ on the Cutting Edge of Knowledge." JSOT 63 (1994) 3–34. Reprinted in Brenner, A Feminist Companion. A provocative and insightful feminist interpretation of artistic depictions of Judith that illuminates the biblical text as well.

Brenner, Athalya, ed. A Feminist Companion to Esther, Judith and Susanna. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995. Part of a series of volumes of previously published feminist analyses of biblical texts.

Craven, Toni. Artistry and Faith in the Book of Judith. Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983. With Alonso-Schökel, Craven launched the recent wave of literary-critical studies.

Elder, Linda Bennett. "Judith." In Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, ed. Searching the Scriptures. Vol. 2. New York: Crossroad, 1993–94. Focuses on the many sides of Judith’s role as a woman in the story.

Garrard, Mary. "Judith." In Artemisia Gentileschi: The Image of the Female Hero in Italian Baroque Art. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989. This brilliant analysis connects the various Renaissance and Baroque paintings of Judith to the psychological and interpretive issues that are present in the ancient text as well.

Jacobus, Mary. "Judith, Holofernes, and the Phallic Woman." In Reading Women: Essays in Feminist Criticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. One of the best essays on the psychological and sexual issues in Judith. Like Garrard, Jacobus incorporates an analysis of visual images as a means of sensitizing the reader to the issues in the biblical text as well.

Lacocque, André. The Feminine Unconventional: Four Subversive Figures in Israel’s Tradition. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990. A theologically engaging consideration of the "subversive" side of seemingly domesticated biblical narratives about women.

Levine, Amy-Jill. "Sacrifice and Salvation: Otherness and Domestication in the Book of Judith." In "No One Spoke Ill of Her": Essays on Judith. Edited by James C. VanderKam. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992. One of the most provocative and thoughtful readings on the symbolism of Judith’s reversal of typical male/female gender codes.

McNeil, Brian. "Reflections on the Book of Judith." The Downside Review 96 (1978) 199–207. A Roman Catholic reflection on the place of Judith in the church’s teachings.

Milne, Pamela. "What Shall We Do with Judith? A Feminist Assessment of a Biblical ‘Heroine.’ " Semeia 62 (1993) 37–58. An excellent and balanced reflection on whether Judith should be considered a feminist work.

Pervo, Richard I. "Aseneth and Her Sisters: Women in Jewish Narrative and in the Greek Novels." In "Women Like This": New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World. Edited by Amy-Jill Levine. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991. Draws many parallels between the Jewish novels and the Greek and includes interesting insights on Judith.

Skehan, Patrick. "The Hand of Judith." CBQ 25 (1963) 94–110. Argues strongly that the Song of Judith was modeled on the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15 and that both were used in celebrations of Passover.

Stocker, Margarita. Judith, Sexual Warrior: Women and Power in Western Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Excellent on the appropriation of Judith in the Reformation-era debates and in art.

VanderKam, James C., ed. "No One Spoke Ill of Her": Essays on Judith. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992. Excellent essays by Amy-Jill Levine, Sidnie White Crawford, Nira Stone, Adolfo Roitman, Carey Moore, and Patrick Skehan.

Wills, Lawrence M. The Jewish Novel in the Ancient World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. The first book-length study to bring all the Jewish novels and related literature together into one genre analysis.

Outline of Judith

I. Judith 1:1–7:32, Nebuchadnezzar Threatens the West and Israel

A. 1:1–2:13, The Rising Threat of Nebuchadnezzar Against the West

1:1–16, Nebuchadnezzar’s Campaign Against Arphaxad

2:1–13, Nebuchadnezzar Commissions Holofernes to Destroy the Nations Who Did Not Ally with Him

B. 2:14–7:32, Holofernes’ Campaign Narrows to a Siege of Bethulia

2:14–28, Campaign Initiated Against Disobedient Nations

3:1–10, The People of the Seacoast Surrender

4:1–15, Israel Prays and Prepares for War

5:1–21, Achior Tells Holofernes of Israel’s History

5:22–6:21, Holofernes Responds by Expelling Achior, Who Is Received in Bethulia

7:1–18, Holofernes Prepares for War and Places Bethulia Under Siege

7:19–32, The People Despair and Want to Surrender

II. Judith 8:1–16:25, Judith Arises to Rescue Her People

A. 8:1–8, Introduction of Judith

B. 8:9–10:10, Judith Resolves to Save Israel

8:9–36, Judith Addresses the Citizens of Bethulia

9:1–14, Judith Purifies Herself and Prays

10:1–10, Judith Emerges from Prayer to Go Forth

C. 10:11–13:10a, Judith Overcomes Holofernes

10:11–23, Judith Enters the Enemy Camp and Is Taken to Holofernes

11:1–23, Judith’s Dialogue with Holofernes

12:1–20, For Three Days Judith Lives in Holofernes’ Camp

13:1–10a, Judith Beheads Holofernes

D. 13:10b–15:7, Judith Returns to Bethulia and Initiates Counterattack

13:10b–20, Judith and Her Maid Return to Bethulia

14:1–10, Judith Issues Orders and Achior Converts

14:11–15:7, The Assyrians Discover Holofernes’ Headless Body and Are Put to Flight

E. 15:8–16:25, Celebration and Conclusion

15:8–13, All of Israel Celebrates

15:14–16:17, Judith’s Victory Song

16:18–20, Thanksgiving Offerings

16:21–25, Memorial of Judith

JUDITH 1:1–7:32

Nebuchadnezzar Threatens the West and Israel


The book of Judith can be divided into two parts, the first of which (1:1–7:32) describes a threat to the Israelites that arises from Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Assyrians, and his general Holofernes. Nebuchadnezzar had demanded that all the nations of the west ally with him to defeat Arphaxad, king of the Medes. Although many of the nations refuse to join him, he defeats Arphaxad nevertheless. The first chapter thus begins with a description of battles on the eastern horizon between two great nations, the Assyrians and the Medes. Once the Medes have been conquered, Nebuchadnezzar turns to conquer the nations who spurned his request. This group of nations, those to the west of Assyria, includes Judea and Samaria. He commissions his general Holofernes to muster an army of huge proportions and to attack each nation in turn, accepting as allies those who choose to surrender and laying waste those who do not. Israel will not capitulate, and begs God for help as they await the assault of Holofernes from the north. Standing between Jerusalem and the path of the Assyrians is a series of mountain villages, which are quickly fortified as the first line of defense.

The first half of Judith thus presents a tremendous sweep of nations and battles, military threats, the intrigue of stratagems, abject demonstrations of humility on the part of Israel, and the delivery of Israel’s newfound ally, Achior, to Judith’s village. All of the issues of the first half come to bear on a single village in the mountains forty miles north of Jerusalem. It ends on a note of calm before the storm, with the Israelite people in despair.



Like modern action movies, Judith leaps immediately into a rousing action scene that is only preparatory to the longer military campaigns to follow. The presence of a "chapter 1," set chronologically well before the main action of the story, is not unusual in the literature of this period (see, e.g., Esther 1, Tobit 1, Matthew 1–2, and Luke 1–2). The function of this introduction is not simply to engage the reader with exciting action—although that is an important element of popular literature; the carefully orchestrated rising action serves to dramatize, first, that Nebuchadnezzar is apparently invincible, since even the great king Arphaxad is defeated by him, and second, that Nebuchadnezzar is bent on world domination and will not stop his expansion until the entire subcontinent is under his control.

Judith 1:1–16, Nebuchadnezzar’s Campaign Against Arphaxad


1:1–4. The book of Judith opens in a way that is typical of the history books of the Bible, by dating the events described to the year in the reign of the major king (see 1 Kgs 15:1; 16:15, 29; 2 Kgs 12:1; 13:1). However, although the reader is perhaps meant to think of the genre of history writing, it is mock history that is likely intended, for Nebuchadnezzar is identified as the king "who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh." The historical Nebuchadnezzar ruled, not the Assyrians, whose capital was indeed in Nineveh, but the Babylonians. Both empires were remembered as being oppressive to the Israelite and Jewish people: The Assyrians had destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and deported the leading citizens in 721 bce, and Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army had defeated Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah (later called Judea) in 586 bce, when he also destroyed the Temple and deported many citizens to Babylon (see esp. 2 Kings 24–25; Jer 39–40:6). Because Assyria and Babylon were considered the two "evil empires" of Israelite and Jewish history, there is no question that both the author and the audience would have been aware of the error of combining them; this was doubtless a signal within the writing that the novel that followed, though as rousing as military history, was meant ironically and even humorously. It would be all the more satisfying if the two evil empires could be merged into one figurehead that would march forward only to be defeated by the stratagems of an Israelite woman.

No sooner has an impossible combination of empires appeared on the stage of "history" than it is met by another fictitious king created for this role: "Arphaxad who ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana." There is no known king of the Medes by that name, but neither would the reader expect such a figure to exist based on the playful combination of Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrians just encountered. The irony of this fictitious king would have been surprising for another reason as well: The mighty Assyrians, who in this book will crush Arphaxad and the Medes in 1:13–15, were actually defeated by the Medes in 612 bce.

The might of Arphaxad’s kingdom is quickly communicated by means of a description of Ecbatana’s city walls; the dimensions of the walls and towers go far beyond any fortifications that were likely built for that city. The size of the gates is emphasized to provide an opportunity for the author to conjure for the audience the awesome image of Arphaxad’s troops passing through. This is just the first of many examples of how the author uses description to bring forth an exciting narrative that is almost "cinematic" in what it evokes. Ecbatana figures historically and accurately in Ezra 6:2 and appears in Tob 3:7 as the home of Sarah, the woman who will marry Tobit’s son. Thus the city is part of the eastern home of diaspora Jews and would have been a known entity to the audience. Perhaps more important for the literary technique here is the historian Polybius’s remark that exaggerated descriptions of the palace, as here in Judith, were common in sensationalist histories. The author has in just a few lines plunged us into a dramatic world of the clash of great nations. At this point we might compare a similar effect achieved in a very different way in the Additions to Esther. Whereas MT Esther began as a court narrative with a description of the pomp and splendor of the great Persian palace, the Additions begin by recounting a dream that came to Mordecai:

Noises and confusion, thunders and earthquake, tumult on the earth! Then two great dragons came forward, both ready to fight, and they roared terribly. At their roaring every nation prepared for war, to fight against the righteous nation. (Add. Esth A 5–7 NRSV)

We later learn that the two dragons are Mordecai and Haman and that the nations are those arrayed against Israel. Thus in this Addition the scope of the worldwide danger is communicated in a portentous dream that borrows from apocalyptic imagery.

The book of Judith, which reflects in general an excellent and exciting plot development, opens in a way that seems quite awkward. The long opening sentence (broken up by most translations into several sentences) sets the scene by drawing the reader immediately into the high drama of the narrative. A long run-on sentence is used to describe two great nations pitted against each other, but what do they have to do with Israel? We are not told until the next chapter. The book of Esther employs a similar technique of beginning with a long description and a run-on sentence, but there the drama is more court intrigue, here it is the threat of external military campaigns (see also the Commentary on Jdt 8:1–3).

1:5–6. The lists of peoples and lands serves to communicate the worldwide extent of the war that is threatened. They sometimes seem repetitive to the modern reader, or at least unknown and confusing, but this should not detract from our ability to appreciate the literary effects of the treatment of nations and places. Here the great plain on the border of Ragau is in Persia; Ragau (Rages), like Ecbatana, is an important city in Tobit. The famous regions of Persia, near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are a stirring setting for the action about to take place. The fortunes of the Jews are thus seen in an international context, and in the company of the major nations of the world. This "global" focus was also known to the prophets (e.g., Amos and Isaiah), but here the nations are not simply condemned from afar; rather, they become characters in a drama, much as Nineveh and Assyria do in Jonah. Throughout Judith, some of the geographical sites are unknown, some anachronistic (such as Persia, which only arose as a world power a century after the Assyrians had been defeated), some simply located incorrectly. The technique of piling up the list of nations is similar to the description of the court festivities in Esther 1; so also is the sweep of lands, seemingly from one end of the world to the other, which Esth 1:1 accomplishes in one short clause.

1:7–10. Nebuchadnezzar’s power and reach are awe inspiring; the progress of his messengers moves methodically from east to west, ultimately passing through the region of Judea to Egypt, as far as Ethiopia. Most of the geographical entities are well-known, well-established areas of the major nations. The author is clearly trying to convey the sense of doom as the shadow of Nebuchadnezzar’s might moves over the land (cf. the image of Assyria as a great world tree in Ezek 31:2–9 and the use of the tree or vine overshadowing the earth in Herodotus). Since in the reader’s mind Nebuchadnezzar would be associated with Babylon, it is also relevant to note a Babylonian inscription that may have influenced Daniel 4: "Under Babylon’s everlasting shadow, I have gathered all the peoples in peace." Judith does not use a tree metaphor here, but the sense of a shadow across the land, whether understood negatively or positively, is similar in the different passages, and the idea of eastern empires would have conjured such notions.

Samaria and Jerusalem are mentioned only in passing here, a small part of the blur of nations that are being encompassed. This is quite deliberate, as the "real" geographical focus of the narrative, Jerusalem, is intentionally submerged in the list of nations, creating the illusion that world history is at stake, which will, as the story proceeds, become more narrowly focused on the area of Syria-Palestine, then on Judea and Samaria, then on Bethulia as the gateway to Judea, then on one woman from the village of Bethulia. "Samaria" was the name given to Israel, the northern half of Israel/Judah, when it became a province under the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks. The names of the regions of Samaria and Judea reflect the political realities of the post-exilic period, when the former was the name of the province occupying the land that was once northern Israel, and the latter the area of the older southern kingdom of Judah, the temple-state governed from Jerusalem. It will be quite revealing to follow the disappearance of these two real-world terms and their replacement by the more idealized "Israel" for both of these areas, implying a united Israel (see Commentary on 4:1–15). The use of "Israel" as the ideal term for the region is not unusual, but it is carried through more systematically and creatively in Judith than is usually the case elsewhere.

1:11–12. The nations, like Arphaxad, have underestimated Nebuchadnezzar. He was, of course, considered by the author of Judith to be a mere mortal, but still no ordinary man—he is the arch adversary and should neither be underestimated nor overestimated. The nations shame him by snubbing his messengers. Nebuchadnezzar’s rage is based not only on a desire for world domination, but also on a desire for revenge. The dramatic tension is thus also increased, as negotiation or coexistence—short of complete capitulation—is becoming less likely.

Part of the important cultural background of the book of Judith is the ancient Mediterranean concept of honor and shame. In ancient cultures, honor and shame were important and very public aspects of a person’s or a nation’s standing, quite different from our modern, more internalized values of self-esteem (positive) and guilt (negative). Symbols of honor and shame and ritual ways of honoring or shaming another person are interwoven into the biblical texts, but modern readers are apt to disregard these elements as mere externals. Honor and shame are certainly at issue here and will be a constant in this book (2:14; 4:12; 5:21; 8:22–23; 9:2). Judith, for example, will not just kill Holofernes, but will reverse his threat of shame upon him and the Assyrians. Interestingly, the list of nations whose lot has been combined with Judea’s includes the Ammonites and the Moabites, nations with a very checkered history of involvement with Israel and Judah, raising the question for the next segment of the story: Will these peoples remain practical allies, or will some reveal their past nature and go over to the side of the enemy? They reappear in the narrative at 5:2.

1:13–16. The "seventeenth year" probably evokes the career of the historical Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who was known to have captured Jerusalem in the eighteenth year of his reign (Jer 32:1). The reader would thus imagine that this Nebuchadnezzar had cleared the way to move toward Jerusalem in the following year. Nebuchadnezzar runs Arphaxad through in the mountains of Rages, much as Alexander the Great had forced Darius of Persia to retreat from Ecbatana and flee into the mountains. The great city of Ecbatana is destroyed, but as noted above, it is also shamed. The greatness of Arphaxad and Ecbatana were described above, but Nebuchadnezzar has here easily defeated him without the help of those nations he invited to ally with him. The might of Nebuchadnezzar is thus even more dramatically demonstrated.

The feasting is an appropriate way to bring chap. 1 to a close. The action has moved very swiftly and with much slaughter; the feasting allows a temporary lull as the reader makes a transition to the next major movement of the story. There will be other such rests to allow for transitions to new movements in the story (see Commentary on 2:28).

Judith 2:1–13, Nebuchadnezzar Commissions Holofernes to Destroy the Nations Who Did Not Ally with Him


The menace that is threatening in chap. 1 is made explicit here: Nebuchadnezzar announces his designs on "the whole region," a phrase used eight times in the first two chapters. The summoning of all of Nebuchadnezzar’s ministers and nobles, and the decision that everyone who had not obeyed his command should be destroyed are similar to certain parts of Daniel 1–6 (cf. esp. Dan 2:2–5; 3:2–9; 6:6–8). In the case of Daniel 1–4, it is also Nebuchadnezzar who is the offending king. Daniel was evidently one of the influences on the book of Judith (see Introduction). Regarding Nebuchadnezzar’s second-in-command, Holofernes, there is also a likely historical origin for the name that is here used in a very unhistorical way. When Artaxerxes III Ochus of Persia invaded Asia Minor and Egypt, including Judea, in 350 and 343 bce, his general was named Holofernes, who in turn had an officer named Bagoas, which is the name of Holofernes’ officer in Jdt 12:11. These names, probably known from this campaign of Artaxerxes III, were used for the officers of this invading army.

Another indication that we are not in the realm of history but in that of imaginative literature is the repeated characterization of Nebuchadnezzar as "lord." This motif is introduced here for the first time, but will be built on later in the narrative until it takes on ironic and even comic dimensions in chaps. 11–13. The word "lord" in Greek, κύριος (kyrios), would have multiple uses, always denoting the clear superior in a hierarchical relation—for example, ruler as opposed to subject, master as opposed to slave, husband as opposed to wife, or in the case of gods, "lord of heaven," and so on. As such, it was adopted by Greek-speaking Jews as the standard word to translate the divine name YHWH. Thus in Judith we find the intentional double meaning of "lord" as God and "lord" as earthly superior. Only the arrogant and deluded Holofernes will mistake Judith’s references to the divine Lord for references to himself and Nebuchadnezzar as earthly lords. Whenever the word appears, there is usually an ironic wink to the audience concerning this double meaning. Other language associated with God is then also used to extend this characterization of Nebuchadnezzar’s divine self-concept. With this in mind, we can detect a string of Jewish divine terms applied by Nebuchadnezzar to himself: "Thus says the Great King, the lord of the whole earth.… For as I live, and by the power of my kingdom.… Take care not to transgress any of your lord’s commands." The divine pretensions of Nebuchadnezzar are here not stated explicitly—he does not require worship as a god, even though Holofernes will require this for him at 3:8. However, to the Jewish audience his words here will reverberate as sentences associated with God. Further, Nebuchadnezzar’s statement (v. 12) that he will accomplish this by his own hand sets up a contrast with Judith’s later statement that God will deliver the Jews through her hand (8:33; 12:4). Although, strictly speaking, it is Holofernes who takes on the traits of the blustery tyrant, demanding worship for Nebuchadnezzar as a god, the tradition of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel would probably have made this association automatic.

Dialogues such as this also point to one of the important patterns of the work: the structural opposition between the protagonists and the antagonists (see the Introduction). Just as Holofernes is a servant of Nebuchadnezzar, and will demand worship of him as a god, so also Judith is a servant of God, and demands proper worship of God by the Bethulians. This set of contrasting correspondences will be extended further when we see that Holofernes has a faithful attendant in Bagoas, and Judith in her unnamed maid.

A number of images of Nebuchadnezzar’s threatened campaign would have resonances for the audience. According to Herodotus, earth and water were Persian symbols of surrender and humility.51 The hyperbole of the rhetoric concerning the number of troops is typical of the Assyrians’ boasting in Judith; but interestingly, according to the author the reality is said to match their rhetoric, for the images of how many troops they marshal into the field is often enormous. In 2:19–20, it is said that even those who accompanied the troops were like a "swarm of locusts, like the dust of the earth—a multitude that could not be counted." The threatened deportation would remind the readers of both the Assyrian deportation when the north was defeated by Sargon II in 721 bce and the deportations by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 597 and 587 bce that gave rise to the exile. The divine language associated with Nebuchadnezzar and his harsh rhetoric here would also call to mind for the reader the language of God’s covenant in Deuteronomy. In chaps. 5, 8, and 9, Achior and Judith articulate the basic premises of deuteronomic theology, which holds that if Israel obeys God’s commands, it will prosper; if it disobeys God’s commands, it will suffer. Here Nebuchadnezzar presents a worldly version of that theology, in which he arrogates to himself the prerogatives of God. The message that Nebuchadnezzar had sent ahead was accepted by some, rejected by most. Now he has a new message for those who rejected an alliance with him; in vv. 10–11 those who yield will be held "until the day of their punishment"—an almost eschatological sense of his judgment on the nations. Those who resist will be slaughtered and plundered. Nebuchadnezzar’s final words to Holofernes that he should obey his lord’s commands also sound somewhat like God’s words to Moses in Deut 6:1–3.


The book of Judith challenges the modern reader’s notion of what constitutes "biblical literature." Concerning its genre, Morton S. Enslin said, "The story of Judith is an example of Jewish fiction at its best." But even those people who grant that not every part of the Bible is historically accurate may have difficulty allowing for deliberate fiction in the Bible. The book of Judith is written in the style of history—its opening mimics the introduction of historical epochs in the biblical history books—and yet it immediately turns history on its head by introducing the chief antagonist as "Nebuchadnezzar who ruled over the Assyrians."

Are there other fictions in the Bible? Is Tobit or Esther a fiction? Do even the Gospels and the book of Acts bear a distant relationship to the Jewish novels and the Greek and Roman novels? We are left to our own inferences about how the different texts might have been read, but whereas the Gospels and Acts were never seen as fictions, some of the texts that share similar literary techniques probably were: for example, Susanna, Esther, Judith, and Tobit. They were probably written and read as edifying entertainments and only later included as part of the canonical literature of Jews (in the case of Esther) and Christians (in regard to all four texts), and accepted as sacred history. The significance of the texts must be judged from a number of different perspectives, including that of the imaginative symbolism that underlies such writings as Job, Jonah, Esther, the parables of Jesus, and Judith.

There seems to have been in the ancient world a less clear, or at least a less explicit, distinction between history and fiction. In the Hebrew Bible the journalistic notion of objectivity was not the criterion for judging truthfulness, but rather, the overall claim of the text on one’s belief system. Plato has been credited with introducing the idea into Western thought that true statements are ones that correspond to the world. But with this notion in Jewish, Greek, and Latin literature came the idea that seemingly realistic narrative could be written—what looked like a history or a biography—that was yet intentionally an invented world, a story of "what if."

Connected with the category of fiction, both in the ancient world and in our own, is the category of entertainment, and here, too, Judith may challenge typical ideas of what is appropriate to a "biblical" text. The description of events in Judith, as noted in the Introduction, is often almost cinematic and is paced so as to create tension and excitement. The pleasure in reading is not unique to Judith; it is a part of the appreciation of most of the books of the Bible. Yet Judith seems to accentuate the entertaining aspects of storytelling and to deemphasize the larger theological themes.

The modern reader’s reactions to this emphasis on entertainment over theology might run along two lines. First, is this sort of literature appropriate for inclusion in the Bible? Second, even if it is appropriate, does it communicate a theological message that can speak to readers and worshipers in the twenty-first century? The answer to the first question might simply be that the wide variety of literary genres in the Bible, most of which are imaginative and not strictly historical, argues for a broad view of what is "appropriate." Paradox, irony, satire, sarcasm, parable, humor, myth—these types of discourse are also in the Bible, and they often create unreal worlds as a means of communicating unusual experiences. The answer to the second question is perhaps more difficult. Does Judith retain any theological significance for modern readers if it is understood as a fictitious work of literature? At the time of its composition, as well as today, the application of Judith does not lie in its journalistic account of a military campaign, but in the values it communicates to its readers. Truth for this text, as in Esther and Tobit, lies not in the facts of history, but in the creation of community and the inculcation of values. What is clearest in this invented world is ethnic and religious identity and—more explicitly than in Esther—reverence and trust in God and a model for the penitential theology and spirituality of the community.



Although the first chapter demonstrated the power of these two great nations, it is only in the chapters that follow that it becomes clear what the threat is for Judea and Israel. Holofernes’ campaign will take up the next six chapters. It is an account that includes military campaigns, theological discussions, and intrigues of shifting loyalties. Although often deprecated in relation to chaps. 8–16, many significant themes are raised and important plot developments introduced. The narrative moves methodically from the broadest possible perspective to a focus on the nations to the west (including Judea and Samaria). Then, as the vast armies move inexorably toward the Mediterranean, the focus narrows once again to the area north of Jerusalem, and then to the tiny mountain village of Bethulia, which overlooks a pass through the mountains that the Assyrians will have to take to reach Jerusalem and beyond. The first part of the book of Judith will conclude with the Bethulians’ being besieged and in despair, fainting from thirst.

As noted in the Introduction, there are structural parallels and oppositions in the first part of Judith that can be summarized thus:

A Campaign against disobedient nations; the people surrender (2:14–3:10)

B Israel is "greatly terrified"; Joakim prepares for war (4:1–15)

C Holofernes talks with Achior; Achior is expelled (5:1–6:13)

C′ Achior is received in Bethulia; Achior talks with the people (6:14–21)

B′ Holofernes prepares for war; Israel is "greatly terrified" (7:1–5)

A′ Campaign against Bethulia; the people want to surrender (7:6–32)

This chiastic pattern (i.e., like a Greek chi, or X, which crosses and reverses itself; the last items are like the first, but in the opposite order) gives a satisfying structure to the first part that ties together the worldwide military drama and the tribulation of the people of tiny Bethulia. (Since some of these passages are only a few verses, they are subsumed under larger sections in the commentary that follows.) At the center of this chiasm is the long dialogue between Holofernes and Achior, in which Achior reveals himself to be an eloquent spokesman for Judaism and the most heroic figure of this half of the book. Achior is literally and figuratively at the center of the first part of Judith. Craven also points out that at the center of this chiasm, in the dialogue between Holofernes and Achior, lies the central question of the narrative, "What god is there except Nebuchadnezzar?" It is not until the center of the chiasm in the second part, when Judith overcomes Holofernes (10:11–13:10a), that this question is given a resounding answer.

Judith 2:14–28, Campaign Initiated Against Disobedient Nations


2:14–20. Holofernes’ campaign is not told with a historian’s eye for strategy and detail, but with a storyteller’s ear for image and emotion. The lists of officers, soldiers, and livestock are intended to convey the enormousness of the armies, culminating in images that seem almost cinematic ("like a swarm of locusts, like the dust of the earth"). Alonso-Schökel notes this aspect of the author’s descriptive ability, and Hägg sees this same quality in the Greek novel. Further, when the author says that Holofernes’ army was organized "as a great army is marshaled for a campaign," he seems to signal a humorous and ironic tone, as if to say, "this fiction is just like the real thing." The suspicion that there is a humorous tone here is partially confirmed in the next verse, where we learn of the auxiliary animals and provisions. Whenever the troops are described, there is always a barely restrained excess or comic hyperbole of the auxiliary peoples, animals, or baggage (2:20; 7:2, 18). The Assyrian auxiliary crowds are also referred to as a "mixed crowd," a sarcastic epithet that may reflect the policy of the Hasmoneans to purify the religion, and therefore the peoples, of the land of Israel (see Introduction), which Judith herself seems to echo in 8:18. It is possible that the descriptions are also modeled on the stories of Israel’s deliverers in the book of Judges. In the cycle of stories about Gideon (Judges 6–8), the Midianites and the Amalekites are mighty nations oppressing Israel from the east: "For they and their livestock would come up, and they would even bring their tents, as thick as locusts; neither they nor their camels could be counted; so they wasted the land as they came in" (Judg 6:5 NRSV). However, this description of the livestock and tents has a definite role in Judges 6, and the devastation of the livestock is like that of locusts; in Judith the role of these images does not make as much sense on the realistic level but is exaggerated and repeated, probably for comic effect. Aside from this literary effect, one may wonder if the size of the Assyrian army is to be contrasted to what in the author’s time was the proud tradition of the Maccabees, who had fought a guerrilla campaign using small bands of troops against the vast armies of the Seleucid kings. The Maccabees, it is also to be noted, between sorties hid in the mountains like those near Judith’s village.

2:21–27. The hyperbolic description of troops, auxiliary personnel, and provisions just mentioned is also matched by the excessive detail of the geographical movements. The campaign that has been promised is now realized with destructive force. Many nations and peoples are defeated, and the cruelty of Holofernes is depicted as well. The description of the campaign builds in intensity from v. 14 to v. 27, as it moves from the gathering of officials and soldiers, animals and equipment, to the movements of the campaign and a first mention of plundering (v. 23), to wholesale slaughter and destruction (v. 27). Every conceivable kind of destruction is listed as a drumbeat to increase the sense of a plague of locusts upon the land, as v. 20 suggested. The slaughter and plundering carried out by Nebuchadnezzar is in itself not out of line with the policy of holy war in the ancient Near East, which was adapted in some traditions in Israel (especially in Deut 7:1–2; 20:1–20, although it is not clear that this command was ever carried out as such). It is not even clear that Judith is opposed to this principle (see Commentary on 5:14–16 for Achior’s account of the destruction caused by Israel’s conquest). Here, however, the specter of the ancient Near Eastern holy war is bearing down upon the land of Judea.

The author uses good storytelling technique in describing the campaigns, providing details and magnifying the size of the armies gathered. In terms of the author’s perspective, it is "from the bottom looking up"—that is, the proud but small kingdom of Judea looking up at the magnitude of the great worldwide empires. If one compares the fifth-century bce Greek historian Herodotus on the military movements of the Eastern empires, one finds a much more equal perspective, even though the Persian armies were much larger than the Greek. Herodotus communicates the perspective of one who fundamentally believes that the Greeks were a world-class empire; the book of Judith is written from the perspective that the Jews were in danger of being swept under a rug. Perhaps midway between the "bottom-up" perspective of Judith and the "equal perspective" of Herodotus is the adventurous tone of the Alexander Romance, a historical novel written in Egypt in about 200 bce that gives a similar list of known and unknown nations allied against Egypt and communicates a similar sense of foreboding: "It is not just one nation that is advancing upon us but millions of people. Advancing on us are Indians, Nokimaians, Oxydrakai, Iberians, Kauchones, Lelapes, Bosporoi, Bastranoi, Azanoi, Chalybes, and all the other great nations of the East, armies of innumerable warriors advancing against Egypt." In addition to the obvious similarity with Judith, this passage is interesting because it also depicts the same invasion of the west that likely influenced Judith’s account, that of the Persian king Artaxerxes III Ochus, whose general and eunuch were named Holofernes and Bagoas respectively (see Introduction and Commentary on 2:1–13).

2:28. While "fear and dread" fall on the people here, in 15:2 Judith will cause "dread and fear" to fall on the Assyrians. In the tradition of the exodus (Exod 15:15–16) and in Rahab’s recounting of it (Josh 2:9), the nations tremble in fear at God’s mighty acts. After the pounding crescendo of the previous verses, the author astutely inserts a pause, comparable to the pauses at 1:16; 3:10; 6:21; and 7:32. The effect of the description, whether intended or not, is to make the situation of these non-Israelite cities as sympathetic as those of Israel. We almost forget as the story progresses—or the author would like us to forget—that not only is Judith saving her village or Israel as a whole, but also she is saving that part of the world that has not already been destroyed by Holofernes. Holofernes’ campaign is truly a scourge upon the land, and it has the potential to create a sort of kinship of oppressed peoples. However, whatever kinship is created seems to evaporate when some of the peoples of the region quickly surrender and become allies of Holofernes.

The list of seven cities is intriguing. Moore notes that seven is a number signifying completeness in biblical literature, and perhaps the number is more significant than the names of the cities. Five of the cities were famous and known well to Judeans: Sidon and Tyre (Matt 15:31; Acts 21:3–4; 27:3), Jamnia (1 Macc 4:15; 5:58), Azotus or Ashdod (Josh 13:3; 1 Macc 4:15), and Ascalon or Ashkelon (1 Macc 10:86); Sur and Ocina are unknown. The known cities would have been important centers of competition with Judea. When John Hyrcanus I (134–104 bce) expanded his kingdom, Azotus and Jamnia came under Hasmonean control, while Sidon, Tyre, and Ascalon remained independent. Moore also raises, but wisely dismisses, the theory that since Gaza is missing from the list, Judith must have been written after Alexander Janneus destroyed the city in 96 bce. The evidence of the text simply cannot be pressed to such a specific conclusion. (See Reflections at 3:1–10.)

Judith 3:1–10, The People of the Seacoast Surrender


3:1–4. There is a stark contrast between the former haughtiness and smugness of the peoples of the seacoast toward Nebuchadnezzar’s messengers in 1:11 and their abject and total surrender here. There they underestimated him as "only one man"; here they overestimate him and prostrate themselves before his power, almost as if he were a god (v. 8). There is clearly a fearful and emotional response to the destruction they have witnessed; all of the categories of property that the peoples of the coast are willing to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar in v. 3 were mentioned in 2:24–27 as part of Nebuchadnezzar’s path of destruction. (It is a part of this storyteller’s technique to describe events by listing categories.) There is also a contrast between their immediate capitulation and the reaction of the Israelites in chaps. 4 and 7. Although the latter do not stand up to Judith’s tough standards (8:9–27), they are still a good deal more resilient than the peoples of the coast. It was the common practice in the ancient Near East to deport and relocate conquered peoples and in the Greco-Roman world to enslave them (although neither practice would rule out the other). Much of Greek language of resistance to foreign monarchs was based on the notion of freedom versus slavery; nations should fight to the death to avoid enslavement to foreign nations just as individual citizens should do as well. One of the accompanying elements of the war between Greece and Persia was the desire to liberate Greek colonies in Asia Minor from enslavement to Persian rule. Aesop presents a fable of the two roads presented to people: the rough, thorny, and dangerous path that leads to freedom and the smooth, level, pleasant path that leads to slavery.61 Thus the book of Judith dramatizes the Greco-Roman notion of freedom in addition to the biblical tradition of national independence through loyalty to God as found in Isa 10:24–27; 30:1–7.

3:5–8. Surprisingly, when Holofernes does arrive in the seacoast towns, his is a bloodless takeover. He garrisons troops in the cities, and the inhabitants welcome him enthusiastically with the same festivities—garlands and dances with tambourines—that will be used in the Bethulians’ victory celebration in 15:12–13. Some invading armies in the ancient world were greeted as liberators, as was Cyrus of Persia (see Isa 45:1–8); but after chap. 2, the mild actions of Holofernes and the positive reactions of the cities are most unexpected. Holofernes’ only destruction mentioned for these cities is in regard to religious institutions: He destroys the shrines and sacred groves. Ironically, according to Judith herself (8:18–20), this is precisely what the Israelites have done in their own nation, and this is what the later Hasmonean kings also do in converting people by force and destroying the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. For the coastal cities, however, it appears to be a sort of deal with the devil: the loss of their religious freedom in exchange for peace with Holofernes. These were the terms that the early Maccabees faced when they chose to fight. Presumably, we are to see a lack of moral fiber in these people of the coast, neighbors of Israel. They have taken the easy road to slavery rather than the challenging road to freedom.

Holofernes institutes a policy of destroying the shrines and sacred groves of the conquered peoples, presumably to show that the Jerusalem Temple will be destroyed as well. "Sacred groves" probably refers to the somewhat vague references in the HB to the wooden poles used in the worship of the goddess Asherah. They were destroyed in various reforms in an attempt to centralize worship in Jerusalem (1 Kgs 14:15; 2 Kgs 18:4). Greek sacred groves are probably not intended. Daniel 3 also presents an imaginative story in which Nebuchadnezzar requires worship of a golden statue, and in Daniel 6 an edict is passed that no one may pray to anyone, human or divine, except King Darius. Language used in the Daniel stories, especially Daniel 3, has evidently influenced the author here, for not only is there a requirement of exclusive veneration involving Nebuchadnezzar, but also in both texts the various peoples and languages of the land are emphasized (see Dan 4:1). However, whereas Daniel dramatizes the requirement—or at least the attraction—of worshiping foreign gods in foreign lands, it says nothing of the destruction by Nebuchadnezzar of other cult centers on principle.

3:9–10. When Holofernes finally reaches Judea—once again, the name of Judea is submerged in the list until the very end, and mentioned as if an afterthought—there is another pause in the action for rest and to collect bounty. This prepares the audience for the next transition in the narrative. Although many geographical names in Judith are unknown or appear to be mentioned incorrectly, many others, especially as we move closer to Jerusalem, are known and descriptive for the account. The plain of Esdraelon (the Greek form of "Jezreel") lies between the hills of Galilee to the north and those of Samaria and Judea to the south. It is thus a good resting place for the expeditionary forces. Gaba lay on the western end of the plain near the Mediterranean, and Scythopolis on the eastern, near the Jordan River. Dothan was near the plain to the south. Holofernes would thus have been poised about forty miles north of Jerusalem, awaiting the proper moment to take the mountain passes and proceed on his course. This would also place Holofernes very near the spot where Jael had slain Sisera, the closest biblical model for the actions of Judith.


Ernst Haag argued that Judith is a parabolic narrative, that it is not intended to be a real history, but a story that stands for another truth: the workings of God and Israel. In his view, Nebuchadnezzar becomes a transhistorical figure who stands for those who would oppose Israel. But there is more to this symbol as well. In Judith, and to a lesser extent in Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar represents worldly power run amok. Worldly power, whether in Judith’s day or our own, becomes reduced to the ego of the tyrant if it is unchecked by broader religious or ethical concerns. And at a time when the dominant nations were coming from the west and not the east, Nebuchadnezzar could also stand for the power and attraction of the Hellenistic culture that threatened to transform the texture of religious life. After all, the peoples of the seacoast had capitulated willingly and welcomed the Assyrians with dance. Although Nebuchadnezzar may appear one-dimensional, he is all-encompassing enough to allow us to see in him all the forces that oppose a faith in God, whether religious, worldly, or emanating from within the concerns and desires of our everyday life. Nebuchadnezzar is not Satan—for that one would have to look elsewhere in the Bible and not in Judith. But Nebuchadnezzar is the titanic force of the world that can overwhelm those who are unprepared.

Craven shows that in this text Nebuchadnezzar is also characterized through his relationship with Holofernes; they are in a lord/servant relationship that mirrors that of God and Judith. In Nebuchadnezzar and Holofernes, we find a pair of personalities who model worldly power for the reader. Nebuchadnezzar is, first of all, a powerful king who is victorious in great battles, but he is also a vengeful despot who tries to destroy every country that spurned his invitation to an alliance. This can be seen as the outward manifestation of a powerful world leader. But it is in Holofernes’ treatment of his king that we begin to see the psychological seductions of power as well. Holofernes not only vanquishes nations and secures their loyalty for his king, but he also violently removes all their forms of worship and requires them to worship his lord, Nebuchadnezzar (3:8).

The story suggests that such monstrous egos as that of Nebuchadnezzar seem to find their Holoferneses, people who will crush others to enlarge the stature of those whom they admire. Nebuchadnezzar only gave orders to defeat the rebellious nations (2:4–13), but Holofernes finds it necessary to demand that Nebuchadnezzar alone be worshiped as a god. He seems to need it more than Nebuchadnezzar does. Thus Nebuchadnezzar becomes a distant tyrant, but Holofernes is the willing mouthpiece of the king’s interests. In this we find a fascinating insight into the pyramid of power relationships and perceive that unhealthy, unbalanced, ungrounded leaders will readily find servants who have no identity without them. "What god is there except Nebuchadnezzar?" asks Holofernes (6:2). Nebuchadnezzar is "lord of the whole earth." As Craven notes, the book of Judith counters this claim with the argument that God is the lord of the whole earth, and God can prove it by the hand of a single woman.

Further, in contrast to the Assyrian pyramid of power relationships, the model of balanced, functional relationships—relationships that are grounded in the worship of God—is found among the Israelites. The community’s coming together in prayer at a time of crisis is what is portrayed in 4:6–15, and it is this demonstration that receives God’s response. This community will endure and not capitulate as the peoples of the seacoast did. The parable, then, that Haag sees in Judith is a parable for our day as well. It is a parable about power, about the contrasting models of worldly power and divine power, and about the psychological relationships that follow from each model: a dysfunctional model of the veneration of false gods and the functional model of a community turning to God in a period of crisis.

Judith 4:1–15, Israel Prays and Prepares for War


4:1–5. Now the "Israelites," or more specifically the "Israelites living in Judea," are mentioned for the first time. However, the word of Holofernes’ conquests also goes out to "every district of Samaria" (v. 4). The term "Israelites" in the narrow sense applied to inhabitants of the north who were conquered by the Assyrians in 721 bce, although the term also communicates the ideal self-image of both Jews and Samarians (see Matt 10:6; John 1:31, 47; 2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5). Samaria was the resettled capital and the province of the old northern kingdom; the mixed ethnic and religious makeup of that region was a source of friction with the Jews of Jerusalem, and this friction had boiled over into conflicts on a number of occasions (see Ezra 4; Nehemiah 4; and Commentary on 1:7–10). John Hyrcanus I, who ruled Jerusalem from 135 to 104 bce, finally subdued Samaria and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. This did not end hostilities between Jews and Samaritans, as the NT indicates (Luke 10:29–37; 17:11–19; John 4:9), but it did place control of Samaria in Jewish hands. Unlike the other cities of the region, the Samaritan cities and Judea do not seek terms of peace, but brace for war. It is, indeed, surprising that Samaria is portrayed so positively, essentially in alliance with Judea. It is possible, as Moore suggests, that the positive view of Samaria indicates that Judith was written after Samaria was annexed, rather than before when tensions might have been high. Other scholars have argued that the annexation would hardly improve relations, but only pacify the resistance; but the author probably romanticized the notion of a united "Israel," as David and Solomon had constituted it, and this common cause of Samaria and Judea reflects that. The book of Judith may represent a fictionalized and romanticized vision of what John Hyrcanus enforced by the sword. Despite the ambiguity of the geographical term "Israel," from this point on it will dominate as the common designation for the defenders of Bethulia and Jerusalem.

In the parenthesis of v. 3 it is explained that the people of Judea "had only recently returned from the exile" and rededicated their Temple with the returned vessels, an event that occurred two hundred years after the fall of the north to Assyria. We have seen such inaccuracies before, and once again it appears to be a deliberate merging of two separate historical epochs. One may wonder why v. 3 was added, since it calls attention to the historical problems and hardly adds information necessary for the reader’s understanding of the narrative. Regardless of how clumsy it seems, it has been taken as evidence for a Persian-era dating for Judith, since it states that the Israelites had only recently returned. However, it is probably not a direct reference to the return from the Babylonian exile, but reverberates with the experience of the audience, who, after the Maccabean revolt, had also only recently rededicated the Temple. (Note especially the reference to "the sacred vessels and the altar and the temple which had been consecrated after their profanation"; see also 1 Macc 4:36–61; 2 Macc 10:1–8.)

Judith, as the widow who is an unexpected heroine of faith, is often compared to the widow and her seven sons who are martyred in 2 Maccabees 7, but there is a further important parallel with 2 Maccabees that comes out at this point: the connection to "temple propaganda." In different ways, the novel Judith and the novelistic history 2 Maccabees keep the Temple and its sanctity in sight in the narrative at all times. Although the action for most of the remainder of the book will take place near Judith’s village of Bethulia, Jerusalem is constantly in mind; in fact, the author and the original audience may have been in that city. (This argues against the hidden Samaritan origin of Judith that some scholars have suggested, despite the references that might point in that direction.) Both Judith and 2 Maccabees dramatize a struggle over the Temple that God watches over, even though God intervenes directly only in 2 Maccabees. In the Introduction it was noted that there is irony concerning miracles in such texts: The novels generally lack the miraculous intervention of God or depict only minor miracles, as at Add. Esth 15:8, while the novelistic histories often contain quite dramatic miracles.

4:6. Once again, a historical name, "Joakim," is probably pressed into service inaccurately. A high priest named Joakim is mentioned in Neh 12:26, but he would not have had the broad powers over political and military affairs that this Joakim possesses. In the days of the Davidic monarchy, the king and the high priest had always coexisted. After the exile, Judah/Judea was officially a province of the Persian and then successively of two of the Greek empires, the Ptolemaic and the Seleucid. Once again, a governor and a high priest coexisted in the administration of the Temple and the province. When the Maccabees achieved a victory in dealing with the Seleucid rulers in 165 bce, they did not immediately establish a separate kingdom, but rather an independently governed province of the Seleucid Empire. One of the Maccabee brothers, Jonathan, took on the office of high priest in 152, and this became the basis of Hasmonean politics thereafter. Simon, his brother and successor, finally declared full independence from the Seleucids in 141 bce and took on two other titles, ethnarchēs (ἐθνάρχης, "leader of the people") and stratēgos (στρατήγος,"general of the army"). His impressive coronation as high priest is recounted in 1 Maccabees 14, along with a hymn praising his accomplishments. Like Judith, he is described as a deliverer of Israel on the model of the judges (see the Introduction on parallels between Judith and Deborah). Following Simon, John Hyrcanus I was also named high priest, leader of the people, and general. The broad powers of Joakim thus match those of the Hasmonean high priests from Jonathan to John Hyrcanus (152–104 bce).

Judith’s village, Bethulia, is named for the first time in this verse. The site is unknown and probably fictitious, but it is clearly in Samaritan territory. Lest it be inferred, however, that this text retains a hidden allegiance to Samaritans, the Jerusalem Temple and the high priest are strongly emphasized at vv. 3–8. It is more likely that the desire to re-create a romanticized vision of the united Israel of David and Solomon motivates the author.

4:7. As noted regarding 3:9–10, Holofernes’ army is resting in the plain of Esdraelon, facing the mountains of Samaria as the only obstacle to their southern advance. Joakim’s orders to fortify the passes are thus good strategy, although it may seem a hopeless gesture. The narrowness of the passes, only wide enough for two to pass at a time, does not imply that Holofernes’ invading armies can be held back, but that Holofernes has no choice but to take the passes first to ensure that his vast armies can be moved through the mountains.

4:8–11. Joakim wrote letters to all "Israelites" to pray and fast, much as Esther in time of danger gives a directive to all the Jews living in Susa to pray and fast as well (Esth 4:16). Interestingly, in Esther, Jerusalem and Judea are never mentioned. In Judith, Jerusalem is the center for the community, and diaspora Jews are never mentioned. Sackcloth and ashes were ritual signs of mourning in ancient Israel, but they were also signs of penitence or protest (Esth 4:1–2; 2 Macc 3:19). The penitential theology assumed in v. 9 reflects an important development in post-exilic Judaism that culminates in early Christian asceticism. The pattern of sin/punishment/repentance/salvation found in Deuteronomy 28–32 gives rise to the inclusion of penitential prayers in post-exilic texts (Nehemiah 9; Dan 9:4–19; Bar 1:1–3). Although the only fast required by Jewish law in the HB is the one-day fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29–30), fasting was evidently an integral part of the post-exilic penitential theology, where it is also sometimes associated with sackcloth and ashes (Neh 1:4; 9:1; Dan 9:3). It may have arisen originally as a response to the destruction and the exile (Zech 7:3–5).

The public scene of wailing and tribulation is very similar to other passages from this period, such as 2 Macc 3:14–21 and 3 Macc 1:16–21. These scenes are almost interchangeable, but Judith does emphasize the sackcloth and ashes more (cf. 2 Macc 3:19 and 3 Macc 1:18 in this regard), while 2 and 3 Maccabees emphasize more the public consternation. That they "humbled themselves" is also part of the religious experience of the penitential theology. Humility is not considered a positive virtue in Greek thought; it is understood as a negative idea of humiliation or shame in the continuum of honor and shame. In Hebrew thought, there is a positive tradition of God watching over the humble: "For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down" (Ps 18:27 NRSV); "Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he shows favor" (Prov 3:34 NRSV). There is also a tradition connecting humility with true wisdom: "The wisdom of the humble lifts their heads high, and seats them among the great" (Sir 11:1 NRSV). The NT also picks up the Hebrew tradition: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (Jas 4:10). This remains a virtue in the Christian as well as the Jewish religion, and Judith is in fact known later in Christian tradition as a symbol of humility who vanquishes arrogance.

The meaning of "senate [γερουσία gerousia] of the whole people [δῆμος dēmos] of Israel" has caused some problems for scholars. It is a common expression in the Greek world for the city council that represented the free citizens, or dēmos, of a city. For Jews, however, was it the same as the Sanhedrin, mentioned in the NT, in Josephus, and in rabbinic literature? These sources do not agree on the role of the Sanhedrin; the NT and Josephus see it as a council headed by the high priest or ruler that oversaw political and administrative matters of Jerusalem, while the rabbinic sources limit its oversight to religious questions. The former was probably the case in the period of Judith, and the gerousia here probably refers to such an administrative Sanhedrin. The Greek word συνέδριον (synedrion) that is the basis of the Hebrew term סנהדרין (Sanhedrîn), is used in its feminine form at 6:1 for Holofernes’ war council. Here it is significant that the gerousia of the high priest and the senate of the "whole people of Israel" is followed to the letter. The perspective of the author is that the high priest sits as head of the government of the Temple, of Jerusalem, and of the Israelite people—a likely perspective of someone who was a full supporter of the Hasmonean rulers (see1 Macc 12:6).

There is, perhaps, another message in this passage, however: The actions carried out by the high priest in the Jerusalem Temple and by the mass of Israelites in the outlying regions are not simply a coordinated response; they are essentially liturgical. That is, the timing and orchestration of the fasting, praying, and wearing of sackcloth appear to be a coordinated practice that may reflect religious observances at the time of the author. We will see that Judith times her prayer to coincide with the incense offering in the Temple in Jerusalem (9:1), and here as well we may detect signs that it is not simply a coordinated vigil, but more of a liturgical act: Every man in Israel, it is stated, prayed to God and humbled himself with fasting, and they all, including slaves and cattle, put sackcloth around their waists, and those living in Jerusalem knelt before the Temple, put ashes on their heads, and spread their sackcloth out before the Lord (cf. Judith’s practice in 9:1). Finally, they draped the altar with sackcloth and prayed. It is not clear that any of this represents an actual liturgical practice as much as it does a liturgical ideal, or sense of Israel’s engaging in penitential prayer together.

Two things are unusual about the penitential theology, however. First, Judith will later pray without so much as a hint of her own penitence (chap. 9). Unlike Esther in Additions to Esther or Aseneth in Joseph and Aseneth, Judith does not repent of her sins; nor does she repent on behalf of Israel. Second, it is not only the men and women who are draped in sackcloth, but also the children, resident aliens, slaves, and cattle! Is this a symbol of the completeness of Israel’s penitence, or is it intended to be as humorous to the ancient reader as it is to the modern? Craven, probably correctly, takes it to be the latter, as we find the same motif used at Jonah 3:8, most likely also in a humorous way. Still, is it meant to be satirical as well as humorous? Is the practice of the excessive use of sackcloth meant to be satirized? At Matt 6:16–18, Jesus condemns the outward show of the fasting of the "hypocrites," a term Matthew usually applies to the Pharisees. Zechariah 7:3–5 may have been critical of the show of fasting as well. In Judith, however, the prayers of the Israelites are answered, and it is because they have fasted (v. 13). Further, Judith will be described as a devout woman who regularly fasts and wears sackcloth. True, this is precisely the ritual asceticism that she stops performing to take up her task of defeating Holofernes, and it is not explicitly stated that she goes back to these practices at the end (16:21–25); but there is no indication that there is anything wrong with these practices or that she has somehow transcended them. It is more likely that in the high spirits of the book, the excesses are intended to be humorous, but there does not seem to be a clear satire of the acts themselves.

4:12–15. The inheritance in v. 12 is the land of Israel as a promise from God, which resulted from the conquest of Canaan (Deut 26:1; Josh 11:23; cf. Jdt 8:22; 9:12; 13:5; 16:21). This is, perhaps, more evidence that the author affirms a notion of an ideal Israel.

It is surprising that the readers are told in v. 13 that "the Lord heard their prayers," since this is precisely the question that the residents of Bethulia must grapple with in 7:23–31. The dramatic tension, therefore, would seem to be lessened by this intimation that all will be well. The tension about whether the Jews will be saved does not seem to be a strong factor in the reader’s interest, however; the tension appears to build around how Judith will risk her dignity and keep it at the same time in order to save her people. The book of Judges also states that God heard the cries of the Israelites and sent them deliverers (e.g., Judg 3:9, 15); in the Introduction it is noted that Judith is like one of the judges—sent by God to deliver the people in distress. It should be noted, however, that the text does not explicitly say that God sent Judith or raised her up as a deliverer. God hears the prayers of the Israelites, but Judith appears to act more independently than the judges. It is also interesting that other novels of this period anticipate a happy ending in the narrative by informing the reader that God has heard the prayers of the pious and has foreordained a happy ending (see Tob 3:16–17 and the Greek novel by Xenophon of Ephesus, Ephesian Tale 1.6, where an oracle predicts that the young protagonists will be separated but reunited). (See Reflections at 5:1–21.)

Judith 5:1–21, Achior Tells Holofernes of Israel’s History


5:1–4. The Moabites and the Ammonites are now on Holofernes’ side, although at 1:12 they were listed as nations under the threat of the Assyrian advance. Presumably, just as other nations succumbed to the fear of the Assyrians (3:1–8), so also did the Moabites and the Ammonites. They had a very mixed history of relations with Israel (Gen 19:30–38) and fought on the side of the historical Nebuchadnezzar against Jerusalem (2 Kgs 24:2); more recently, the Maccabees had fought against the Ammonites (1 Macc 5:6). One tradition (Deut 23:3–6) had emphasized the distinction between Israel and these neighbors and excludes them and their descendants from entry into the assembly of the Lord. Holofernes in v. 3 addresses them with the ethnic term "Canaanites," which was ordinarily used at a much earlier period. However, it still occurs in the post-exilic period as a designation for the neighboring peoples, probably (though not necessarily) in a pejorative way (Zech 14:21). The negative attitude had worked its way into the vocabulary of Judaism; one title for Satan, Beelzebul, "Lord of the Flies," was derived from the Canaanite deity Baalzebul, or "Baal the Prince." At any rate, the negative tradition regarding the Moabites and the Ammonites seems to be reflected here, subsumed under the umbrella category "Canaanites." If the book of Judith idealizes the golden age of united Israel, it also taps into the ancient notion of the surrounding peoples as Canaanites, whom the Israelites are to conquer to acquire a new inheritance. The same anachronism is taken up by Matt 15:21–28 when Jesus heals a Canaanite woman, but there it may be utilized to undercut an ancient antagonism rather than accentuate it. Still, note that Achior, an Ammonite, will arise as a friend of Israel and a convert to Judaism.

As the expedition has come closer and closer to Jerusalem, the list of nations involved has shrunk; only names such as Assyrians, Moabites, Ammonites, and Canaanites are mentioned now in the list of nations, and the list of allies—or at any rate, fellow victims—has disappeared. Even Samaria as a separate entity (see Commentary on 4:1–15) is no longer mentioned. The world has been reduced to Israel and the ancient mortal enemies. The "governors of the coastland" would also include the cities mentioned in 2:28 who surrendered in 3:1–8. The ethnic origins of some of these cities would be directly or indirectly related to the Canaanites, but the generalization that Holofernes makes in v. 3 is more a catchall for the author’s perspective than an attempt to designate the cities correctly.

The variety of nations has subtly changed over the course of the novel. Samaria and Judea, the usual names for their regions at the time of the composition of the book, have gradually disappeared as designations of geographical areas and have been replaced by Israel. Samaria is not used after chap. 2, and Judea is rarely used after chap. 4 (once in 8:21 and once in 11:19 in conversation with Holofernes). Israel is the ancient and traditional name of David’s kingdom, and it was still used as a proud affirmation by Jews; but its use in Judith appears to be an invocation of the golden age, a designation that has intentionally swallowed up both halves of the old kingdom and negated the historical tensions. Another older term, "Hebrew," is used at 10:12 and 14:15, and the older term "Judah," rather than "Judea," is used at 14:7. When Holofernes looks for a term with which to insult Achior by associating him with the Israelites, he calls him an Ephraimite, using another ancient term for Israel. At the same time, the enemies of Israel are becoming somewhat more clearly drawn, with designations that also come from the golden age of Israelite history. The Moabites and the Ammonites begin as victim-nations along with Judea, on the direct path of Holofernes’ campaign; later they will ally with Holofernes and will be called Canaanites. Thus old terms for Israel’s neighbors, Moabites and Ammonites, are replaced by an even more archaic term from the early history of Israel that is more negative (Deut 7:1). Joining this group later are the sons of Esau, or Edomites (7:8, 18), yet another ancient enemy of the Israelites. Out of a plethora of national names, the essence of the conflict has now been distilled into its ancient opponents: Israel on one side and the Canaanites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites on the other. The process is not unlike that at Esth 3:1, where the audience learns that Haman is an Agagite, an Amalekite and an ancient enemy of the Israelites (1 Samuel 15); however, this tension is only alluded to in Esther, while it is played upon constantly in Judith.

The series of questions Holofernes asks does not convey a realistic picture of what a military strategist might ask, and the Jewish audience would already know the answers. However, they serve a dramatic function in pointing to the larger themes that will dominate the book. The questions move in a progression from those that are immediate, concrete, and realistic (e.g., "How large is their army?") to broader issues that are also capable of double meanings (e.g., "In what does their power and strength consist?"). The final questions point to a reflection on the ultimate theological and ethical affirmations of Israel: "Who rules over them as king?" "Why have they alone refused to come out and meet me?" The reader would naturally see these as theological questions, with an answer that sets Israel apart from the other nations: God is king, and this allegiance precludes the reverence of any other king (cf. 3:8). Holofernes asks about worldly kings and powers, while the audience understands that the true king and commander is God. Here we find another example of the irony mentioned above at 2:1–4, which comes to dominate much of the dialogue here and later in the book. The opponents understand terms on a mundane level, while the audience perceives that they refer to God. (See the Introduction for a discussion and comparison of this kind of irony; see also chaps. 11–13.)

Does the irony in Holofernes’ question—that is, the implication for the reader that no one was king of Israel except God—imply that Judith was written at a time when the leader did not claim this title? Before the foundation of David’s dynasty, the Israelite league of tribes held that God’s kingship should suffice for Israel; there should be no permanent king or dynasty (1 Samuel 8; 12). This view was supplanted by, or coexisted with, a belief in the Davidic monarchy. It is clear that the Maccabees did not begin by designating themselves king, but perhaps revivified the old league belief in the ideal—if not the reality—of the charismatic prophet (1 Macc 14:41–42) and the Maccabees as successors to the judges as deliverers. At some point, however, they took on the title of king as well, in addition to the titles of high priest, ethnarch (leader of the people), and strategos (general of the army; see Commentary on 4:6). It is certain that Judas Aristobulus I (104–103) and the leaders after him called themselves king, but it is unlikely that John Hyrcanus I (135–104 bce) did. Although it would be a weak argument to assert that the irony in Holofernes’ question implies that Judith was written at a time in which there was no king, it is true that Judith affirms the religious and political power of the high priest and may undercut the role of an earthly king, a theory of government compatible with that of the Hasmoneans between 152 bce (the assumption of the title of high priest) and 104 bce (the assumption of the title of king).

5:5–21. Although various derivations and meanings for Achior’s name have been suggested, such as the Hebrew "light is my brother," it is almost certainly the case that it is a slightly altered form of "Ahikar." In the ancient Near Eastern Story of Ahikar, Ahikar is an Assyrian court adviser who is falsely accused, imprisoned, and marked for execution, but who is later vindicated to save the kingdom through his wise counsel. A version of the story dating from about 400 bce was found among the texts of a Jewish military colony at Elephantine in Egypt, and we find that Ahikar was easily adapted to new ethnic roles: He is a Jewish courtier in Tob 1:21–22; 2:10; 14:10, and his story is assimilated to Aesop in Greek tradition. Although in Judith he has become an Ammonite general and is not described as the wise man of tradition, it would be wrong to conclude that he cannot be modeled on "Ahikar the wise." Just as Judith is a woman of action, so also Achior, to be treated heroically, must be depicted as a man of action. Achior’s conversion is also prompted by the needs of the story. As a wise and brave man, he must naturally in this novel come to see the truth about God that is revealed in Israelite history. He embodies the type of the "righteous Gentile," such as Balaam (Numbers 22–24), Rahab (Joshua 2–6), and Naaman (2 Kings 5), and like the first of these, places himself in danger by uttering true words—one might almost say prophecies (cf. 6:2)—about the Israelites.

Achior, a non-Jew, thus becomes a very important character in this overwhelmingly Jewish book. As an "objective" observer, he can recite Israelite history and the mighty acts of God in a way that sounds even more impressive. He also puts it in terms of "deuteronomic theology," the view of God associated with Deuteronomy and the deuteronomistic history, which holds that if Israel abides in God’s laws, God will bless them, and if Israel disobeys God’s laws, God will punish them. Achior’s explanation of Israelite history makes it much easier for Judith to explain to Holofernes at 11:9–15 that she has betrayed her people because they have abandoned God and as a result are doomed. In addition, Achior, who has met Holofernes, will later be in a position to identify the severed head in Judith’s possession as that of Holofernes. The form of Achior’s speech is the recitation of the mighty acts of God in bringing the Israelites to the promised land (Deuteronomy 1–3; 26:5–10); yet, while it is positive in regard to Israelite history, it still retains the appearance of objectivity. It is ironic, for instance, that he mentions the abandonment of the Chaldean gods, which might have been seen by the Jewish audience as part of the same ancient Near Eastern polytheism as the Ammonite gods. Thus the "creedal" aspect of Abraham’s separation from Chaldean polytheism would have been recognized by Judith’s audience. Likewise, the violent conquest of Canaan (Josh 11:16–23) is not described from the Ammonite point of view (although in the tradition the Hebrews did not displace the Ammonites and the Moabites; Deut 2:9–19).

Despite the fact that the Jewish audience would have heard the creedal aspects of Achior’s speech, there is still an attempt to represent his speech at times from an outsider’s perspective. Abraham was supposedly expelled from his homeland, instead of separating himself by choice. The story of Exodus is told in vv. 10–12, but rather than having Moses lead the Hebrews out of slavery, the Egyptians expel them. This is in agreement with the view often expressed in the contemporary Greek historians on Jewish history. The technique of putting into the mouths of Gentiles some of the anti-Jewish prejudices of the time is also utilized in the Additions to Esther 13, where the content of Haman’s anti-Jewish decree, lacking in MT Esther, is given in a very plausible way. There is a further dramatic function of Achior’s speech here, found in his introduction. He tells Holofernes, "I will tell you the truth about this people.… No falsehood shall come from your servant’s mouth." Since Achior and Judith will become partnered in the narrative as the only two people brave enough to stand up to Holofernes, Achior’s words here evoke a comparison with Judith’s words at 11:5. There she will offer the same assurances, but she will be lying.

The list of five nations in v. 16 is an abbreviation of the usual list of six nations (Exod 3:8; Josh 9:1; Judg 3:5) or seven nations that are to be conquered, even wiped out, in the conquest of Canaan (Deut 7:1–2; Josh 3:10). "Shechemites" does not appear in the older lists; Shechem was a Samaritan city captured by John Hyrcanus I. Shechemites may be included here to show that they were a people conquered as part of the conquest, or because Judith (in 9:2) will invoke the revenge of Simeon and Levi on Shechem for the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34).

The deuteronomic theology is stated clearly in vv. 17–19; with the perspective of hindsight, the fall of Israel and Judah is directly laid to the sins of the people (although the entire focus is on the fall of Judah only). Jeremiah reflects this theology as well (Jeremiah 26–35), but he lived at the center of the crisis and counseled an adjustment on the part of the defeated people to the effects of their sins. Texts such as Daniel 1–6 likewise indicate an attempt to understand life in exile. But v. 19 indicates a different period in Jewish religious life, a realized goal of life in God’s temple-city. It likely represents the heady, aggressive policy of the Hasmonean rulers some years after the Maccabean revolt and the rededication of the Temple. The historical impossibility of Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians is made glaringly obvious here: The events described, deportation and destruction of the Temple, were accomplished by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.

Achior concludes in vv. 20–21 by giving the counsel that in his mind is inescapable: If the people of Judea can be found to be sinning, then attack; they will surely fall. If they have not sinned, they will be invincible; the Assyrians will be routed and shamed. At this point Achior can be seen to be the mouthpiece of unconscious prophecy, similar to the role of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 or of the high priest Caiaphas in John 11:47–53. Holofernes will also sarcastically refer to this speech (6:2) as prophecy, although the audience knows that is precisely what it is. Phrases in the conclusion of Achior’s speech ("let my lord pass by them," "their lord and god") set up the comparison between Nebuchadnezzar as lord and God as Lord that will later be used by Judith to create a series of ironic statements that are understood in one way by Holofernes and in another way by the audience. In both cases Achior plays this part unknowingly, addressing Holofernes with a clear meaning, while Judith will later be deliberately deceptive.


1. Achior here provides a marvelous opportunity for the reader to hear the essence of Israelite history as told from an outsider’s perspective. His account is positive and affirming of Israelite tradition, and it inevitably makes the modern reader wonder how his or her religious community would be described by an outsider. The book of Judith in general is about the military defense of the community; this scene is about the theological defense of the community as well.

Here the perspective of the author is that the values of Israel, which are grounded in the actions of Israel’s God, shine out beyond its borders and are recognized by anyone who has eyes to see this. In other words, the grounding in God is what sets Israel on a firmer basis, and it is not up to Israelites to trumpet its cause; it is self-evident. This, according to the author, is in sharp contrast to the other peoples round about, who have embraced Nebuchadnezzar as a god. The author seems to suggest, across the centuries, that if you want your own religious community to be thought of well, it is not a matter of public relations or bragging; it is a matter of grounding your faith in God in such a way that its integrity is self-evident. A religious faith that affects the lives of its adherents is bound to be noticed.

2. The essence of Israelite theology was wrapped up in history, and Achior’s recounting of Israelite history also focuses on the important principle of deuteronomic theology. The peace and prosperity of Israel before the exile, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians during the exile, and the restoration of Israel after the exile could all be explained by this theory of history. Further, the author of Judith could also explain the peace and independence of Judea after the Maccabean revolt by recourse to this theology. The victories of the Hasmonean rulers confirmed the author’s view that Israel’s successes were a reward from God.

In our time, however, this kind of thinking comes under closer scrutiny. Does God choose one nation over another? Will God always reward the righteous nation with peace and prosperity? Does deuteronomic theology have a danger of becoming the self-fulfilling prophecy of the "winners"? With a more complex view of history, most religious people today would see peace and prosperity as both blessing from God and awesome responsibility. Most would recognize that the moral standing of modern nations is shot through with contradictions, blind spots, unrealized dreams of freedom, dignity, and equality. The deuteronomic theology of more than two millennia ago seems far too simplistic. And yet it still challenges us, as Achior’s speech implies, to ground the community of faith in a relationship with God regardless of the consequences and to hope for God’s blessings as a result.

Judith 5:22–6:21, Holofernes Responds by Expelling Achior, Who Is Received in Bethulia


5:22–6:1. Although Achior’s words will seem eminently sensible to the audience, the hubris of Holofernes and his allies blinds them from turning away. The question of Holofernes in 5:4, "In what does their power and strength consist?" was ironic, because the audience knew that the answer was "in God." The peoples of the seacoast and the Moabites are oblivious to this truth, and as a result they have accepted the worship of Nebuchadnezzar as god. Nebuchadnezzar’s power consists in his armies, in which they have placed their hopes.

Holofernes’ tent is mentioned for the first time, but it will be the dramatic setting for many of the dialogues to come, and especially for the meeting of Holofernes and Judith. The meeting here is called a "council" (συνέδριον synedrion), a term used elsewhere for Holofernes’ meetings, unlike the γερουσία (gerousia), used for the city council meeting of the high priest in Jerusalem (4:8). The term synedrion is the Greek word from which the Hebrew סנהדרין (Sanhedrîn) is derived, but in Greek usage it usually means "meeting," and especially "war council," as it does here (cf. 2 Macc 14:5).

6:2–4. "Mercenaries of Ephraim" is an odd expression. Ephraim appears in some of the lists of the northern tribes of Israel, but the term also came to be used to represent the northern tribes as a whole. In Holofernes’ mouth, it is likely a sarcastic attempt to associate Achior the Ammonite with the people he appears to be championing. As noted above, it is another use of an archaic term to re-create the golden age of heroes and villains of Israelite history. The term "mercenaries" (μισθωτοί misthōtoi) might also be better translated more contemptuously as "hirelings" or "hired workers," representing the class hierarchy of honor and shame that would have prevailed at this time.

"Who is god but Nebuchadnezzar?" makes explicit the contrast that underlies the entire book. Further, Holofernes’ identification of himself as one of "Nebuchadnezzar’s servants" should be compared with Judith’s reference to herself as Holofernes’ servant a number of times (11:5, 10, 16–17; 12:4), although her words often allow for the possibility that she is referring to herself as a servant of God. Holofernes—perhaps appropriately from his point of view—talks about this "god" Nebuchadnezzar in a strangely detached way when he says, "He will send his forces." Holofernes is actually the bearer of the full might of Nebuchadnezzar’s army; it is he who is sending his forces. Holofernes seems to understand his role as an agent of his god’s will, much as Judith understands her own role. Holofernes also makes his pronouncement using biblical idioms for prophecy: "he has spoken" and "none of his words shall be in vain." Holofernes is precisely a false prophet; he believes truly in his god and the words of his god, and he delivers his prophetic oracle as a biblical prophet would. He is not a false mouthpiece for a true god (cf. 1 Kgs 22:13–28; Jeremiah 28), but a true mouthpiece for a false god (cf. Isa 44:9–20; Wis 13:1–15:17; Letter of Jeremiah; Bel and the Dragon). It is again troubling for the modern reader, however, to find that the closest parallels to Nebuchadnezzar’s policy of destruction should be found in the "holy war" passages of the HB.

6:5–13. Holofernes’ sarcasm is evident here as he speaks of "this race that came out of Egypt." As noted in the Commentary on 5:5, this was what pagan historians knew of Israelite history, and so the author’s depiction of Holofernes’ words would have the ring of verisimilitude. Holofernes quite humorously tells Achior, "You shall not see my face" until he exacts his revenge on Bethulia, but the audience knows that the next time Achior sees Holofernes’ head it will be severed from the rest of his body. Although Achior speaks in a truthful manner without any ironic double meanings, Holofernes will often accidentally make statements that are susceptible to two layers of meaning, and Judith will intentionally use language in this way. Holofernes’ words have a way of coming true that he does not intend, precisely because he is speaking unwisely. In Esther 6, Haman unwisely and unintentionally suggests to the king a reward that will fall to his nemesis, Mordecai. The wisdom tradition counseled against rash proclamations: "The wise of heart will heed commandments, but a babbling fool will come to ruin" (Prov 10:8 NRSV) and "The talk of fools is a rod for their backs, but the lips of the wise preserve them" (Prov 14:3 NRSV). This is a tradition from which Holofernes and Haman could have profited.

Holofernes emphasizes that his servants will kill Achior and that his slaves will exile him to one of the villages. Since Achior was the leader of the Ammonites, this is intentionally an attempt to shame him. With his parting words, Holofernes cannot help giving another unconscious prophecy: "If you really hope they will not be taken, do not look downcast!" Things look bleak for Achior, but the audience knows that he will be deposited in safe hands and that Holofernes is giving Achior good advice: Achior does hope they will not be taken, and he has reason to be happy. Holofernes closes with another formula of prophecy, "I have spoken, and none of my words shall fail to come true."

6:14–21. The description of the servants depositing Achior at the foot of the hill on which Bethulia sat and the Bethulians admitting him to their town takes up a considerable number of verses, more verses, in fact, than some of the military campaigns of the first two chapters. This section is very important in the structure of the work; as noted in the Overview at 2:14, this passage is at the center of the chiasm of the first part of Judith, and it corresponds to and is a reversal of the dialogue between Holofernes and Achior and the rejection of the latter’s advice. It is also a narrative break from the talk of the last two chapters and shows the shift of focus from the campaigns of nations to the experiences of a few individuals, who are now seen to be very important. Achior’s movement—unintentional as it is—is very significant, and in addition to being coordinated with previous passages (5:1–6:13), it is balanced and contrasted with passages to come concerning Judith: He moves from Holofernes’ camp to Bethulia, she from Bethulia to Holofernes’ camp. He presented the deuteronomic theology in truth; she will present it as part of a lie. He will convert from paganism to follow the God of Israel; she will feign an abandonment of God to join Holofernes’ god. Furthermore, Achior’s movement allows the reader an effective transition from Holofernes’ camp to the interior of Bethulia. Uzziah’s banquet (a festive occasion?) may seem out of place, but it is a sign of hospitality that Achior has now been ritually welcomed, and it balances the banquet that Judith will receive when she changes places with Achior and is accepted into Holofernes’ tent (12:10–20). Further, it provides another rest in the story before the next narrative movement (see Commentary on 2:28).


That pagan kings demanded worship as gods is today a stereotype of ancient polytheism, but this practice was not common in the ancient world. It was the practice in Egypt, but not in Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. Greek kings and Roman emperors often received divine honors in Egypt or in the east, but seldom in Greece and Rome. Even where reverence of the king was practiced, political and military domination in the ancient world almost never entailed the outlawing of the conquered people’s religion; religious persecution was not considered an expedient of military strategy. Polytheism allowed for a pluralism of religious observances, and so requiring the religious reverence of the king, or of any other cult (such as Isis and Serapis in Egypt), did not entail the elimination of the conquered people’s own religious traditions. Only in the Maccabean revolt and its aftermath do we find religious persecution and the outlawing of a local religious tradition as a means of political control. In this text we have another case of a later historical development read back into the earlier period. (Esth 8:17 likewise reflects a form of forcible conversion that was not known in earlier centuries.)

This introduces us to the irony that we have lived with in the West for so many centuries, and still do: The idea of a monotheistic God often gives rise to the notion that only one concept of God can be permitted. If there is one God, there can be only one religion. Conflict and persecution then follow in the interest of realizing the vision of one community under one God. Polytheistic cultures, on the other hand, have generally felt free to recognize gods of other cultures, even to embrace them or harmonize them—"My god X must be the same as your god Y." To blame monotheism for religious persecution would be simplistic, however. Polytheistic cultures engage in conflict and persecution as well; they simply do not use "one community under one God" as their rallying cry and are not as likely to oppose local religious institutions as a means of political domination.

In the heat of this novel the reader almost forgets that the violent suppression of local religious worship had its closest parallel not only in what the Jews had actually experienced a few decades earlier under the Greek Seleucids, a religious persecution that had provoked the Maccabean revolt, but also in what the successors of the Maccabees had done to the various ethnic groups that lived within the borders of a renewed Israel. The description here is unsettlingly close to the program of the Jewish ruler John Hyrcanus, almost as if it were based upon it. Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim, rid the land of other competing cults, and forcibly converted many people to Judaism. The parallel to the administration of Judea may have been intended; the religious persecution by Holofernes culminates in the declaration, "What god is there except Nebuchadnezzar?" (6:2). That of Hyrcanus would have been similar, except that it culminated in "What God is there except the Lord?"

For us, the lessons of history must be faced, and we need look no further each day than the headlines concerning conflicts on different continents. The persecuted often become the persecutors, seething with the need to reverse the memory of persecution, inflicting a just destruction on the former perpetrators. And this, of course, is the theme of Judith. The way out is not easy, but it is clear that the chain of memory and reversal is a powerful motive for violence, and it is the responsibility of communities of faith to examine closely the power of justification, the religious rallying cries that will be given for the next reversal.

Judith 7:1–18, Holofernes Prepares for War and Places Bethulia Under Siege


7:1–5. It is not until chap. 7 that the climactic battle is ready to be joined. The enormousness of Holofernes’ army is impressed upon the reader, with a description that is very visual. It is what the citizens of Bethulia see that strikes fear in their hearts. The author again notes the auxiliary soldiers and supplies as a way of indicating not only the size of the army, but also its unwieldiness. Although it is a fearsome sight to the Israelites, to the audience it is also a bloated giant, waiting to be slaughtered. Once again, despite the fact that the Bethulians will lack the resolve that Judith demands, they are still far braver than the nations of the coastlands mentioned in 2:18–3:8, who not only surrender at the sight of the Assyrians, but abandon their religious traditions as well.

7:6–18. Holofernes has arrayed his troops for the most visual effect to terrify the Israelites, and he is preparing for battle. Joining the neighboring groups with whom Israel had had dicey relations in the past are the chieftains of the Edomites. This was another group who would have had ancient bad associations for the Israelites. The progenitor of the Edomites was Esau (Genesis 25–33), whose animosity toward Jacob was considered to be indicative of the relations between their progeny. There was a more recent association, however, in that in the author’s day the Edomites were known as Idumeans, and John Hyrcanus had forcibly converted many of this group to Judaism. One of those converted was the grandfather of Herod the Great, so their status was not marginal; still, at the end of the second century bce, when the conversion was probably a recent event, this reference would have appeared divisive.

It is significant that the neighboring nations are not just allied with Holofernes; they lead the attack. Their suggestion is a clever stratagem, and it is they who take the initiative in securing the mountaintops around Bethulia, ensuring that their stratagem will work (7:13, 17–18). Unlike Achior’s advice, the advice from these neighboring peoples is malicious in intent and, though clever in the short term, from the audience’s point of view lacks the insight that Achior possessed about the bigger picture of Israel’s fortunes. An artful and novelistic use of description is in evidence here as the Assyrians move to engage and outsmart the Israelites.

Judith 7:19–32, The People Despair and Want to Surrender


7:19–22. Cutting off the water supply has had its effect: The Israelites cry out to God, but now their courage has failed, and they begin to despair. Although it was stated in the Introduction that the depiction of emotion was common in both Jewish and Greek novelistic literature, this description of the sufferings of the Jews in Bethulia is actually very restrained when compared to other texts (e.g., 2 Macc 3:14–21 and the even more extreme account in 3 Maccabees 4).

7:23–28. The Bethulians complain to Uzziah much as the Israelites complained to Moses during the exodus. In Exodus 15–17 there are three episodes in which the Israelites seem to have quickly forgotten God’s former miracles and complain about their new trials (see also Deut 6:16). One of these episodes, Exod 17:1–7, contains several parallels to the book of Judith, if we also look ahead to Judith’s reaction to this scene. The texts tell a similar story: There is a lack of water; the Israelites complain to their leader and say that it would have been better to be a slave; there is a critique of their testing of God; the leader calls on God; the leader delivers the people; and there is an issue over the acclamation, "the Lord is with us." A crucial difference is that the function of the leader in Judith is divided between Uzziah and Judith; she steps up here to take the role of leader from the recognized male authority in the community.

7:29–31. Uzziah, whose name means "the Lord is my power," is much more resolute than the townspeople, but he fashions a compromise that Judith will later find unacceptable: If God has not sent rain within five days, they will surrender.

7:32. A calm pervades the town of Bethulia, but it is the calm of despair. Nevertheless, it is an effective narrative transition much like the pauses that have come before at junctures in the story (see Commentary on 2:28).

JUDITH 8:1–16:25

Judith Arises to Rescue Her People


Abit less than halfway through the novel, Judith is finally introduced. She will now dominate the second half of the book, not just in the sense that she is the principal character, center stage most of the time—although indeed she is—but also in the sense that she is the deliverer of Israel when none of the men will step forward. We will meet her in her estate, where she spends most of her days in seclusion, but she will come forward to address the elders of Bethulia. She will pray and prepare herself to do battle with Holofernes with the best weapons at her disposal: her beauty, her courage, and her ability to manipulate through deceit.

The structural outline of the whole of Judith given in the Introduction attempts to divide the content of the narrative at important transition points, but within that overall outline there are other structural patterns at work that will be pointed out in the Commentary. These include the overall pattern of the heroic quest, within which we find two specially noted rites of passage, one involving the special preparation of the heroine in prayer, fasting, and clothing, and one involving the departure across the threshold of the city from known and safe space to unknown and unsafe space, the slaying of Holofernes, and the return across the threshold back to the city. Toni Craven’s discovery of clearly marked structural patterns of parallels and contrasts in the first part and in the second part allows us to discern these and other important dynamics of the narrative as part of a chiastic structure. For the second part, her outline can be summarized thus:

A Introduction of Judith (8:1–8)

B Judith plans to save Israel (8:9–10:8)

C Judith and her maid leave Bethulia (10:9–10)

D Judith overcomes Holofernes (10:11–13:10a)

C′ Judith and her maid return to Bethulia (13:10b–11)

B′ Judith plans to destroy Israel’s enemy (13:12–16:20)

A′ Conclusion about Judith (16:21–25)

In the second part there is a center that is more discretely set off from the rest of the chiastic structure than was the case in the first part: the heroine’s slaying of the "monster" who threatens Israel.



The second part of Judith begins stylistically in a way very similar to the first. In both halves a principal character is named, after which there is a long and seemingly awkward digression to describe a second, weaker character, before the main narrative resumes, recounting the deeds of the principal character. In chap. 1 Nebuchadnezzar is introduced by a long sentence that is largely taken up with a parenthesis on Arphaxad, before Nebuchadnezzar’s exploits are resumed in 1:5. In chap. 8, Judith is introduced by a long sentence that is given over to a parenthesis on her genealogy, and only after a description of her husband’s death is her background taken up again.

Judith hears about the events and comes to the fore in response to a crisis, like a hero or heroine of folklore or like one of the deliverers of Israel in the book of Judges. The name "Judith" is the feminine equivalent of "Judah" or "Judas," from which the province name "Judea" is derived ("Judah" [יהודה yĕhûdâ] in Hebrew became "Judea" [Ἰουδαία Ioudaia] in Greek). It is from the word "Judean" that the English word "Jew" ultimately derives; her name thus means "Jewess." Assuming that the name was invented for the character, it could have been chosen to be emblematic of the ideal herione—that is, it communicates the fact that the Jews would be saved by a heroic "Jewess." It is also possible that it evokes the name of one of the heroes of the Maccabean revolt, Judah the Maccabee. This seems even more likely when we consider the close parallels between Judah the Maccabee’s defeat of Nicanor (1 Macc 7:47; 2 Macc 15:35; see Commentary on 14:1–4). The name of Judith certainly argues against the possibility of a Samaritan origin for the book, unless the protagonist’s name has been changed.

Judith’s genealogy is given in some detail—the only extended genealogy for a woman in the Bible (though Matthew 1 includes women in the genealogy of Jesus). Genealogies are common in the Bible, both in early texts and in late ones (Jub 4:1–33; Tob 1:1–2; Matt 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38), and they may serve a different function in the two cases. In early texts they are used to tie together a larger patriarchal history, or what has been called the "primal history." Israelite history is, in effect, the history of one long genealogy; Abraham’s family and their genealogies anchor the parts of that history to one idealized lineage. The late genealogies function to tie individuals back in to the primal history as a means of authenticating their identity. The hero or heroine must have proper credentials, but may be a "loner" all the same. This is found in hero legends cross-culturally. The names in Judith’s genealogy are unremarkable in general, but two things are significant. First, the genealogy is traced back to Israel. This is another indication that the author intends to idealize the reconstitution of a united Israel and not just Judea as a Hellenistic temple-state, even if the actual achievement of the Hasmoneans was closer to the latter. Second, there are connections in the genealogy to Simeon (Salamiel and Sarasadai are his grandson and son, Num 1:6), which would be relevant for Judith’s later affirmation of the role of Simeon in avenging the rape of Dinah (Jdt 9:2).

It is also significant that while Judith is identified by her genealogy, her husband, Manasseh, is not; in fact, he is identified in relation to Judith. This is very unusual and points to an important aspect of the second half of the book: the reversal of expected gender roles. Manasseh, through his loss of genealogy, is already depicted in a passive way, but there may be more. Are we to infer from the description of his death that he died most unheroically—that is, in bed, brought low by a sunstroke? Holofernes will also die in his bed in a most undignified way. Judith is characterized in opposition to the men around her, first her husband, and later, the town leaders of Bethulia and Achior. She is aggressive and active, like a male warrior, while they are weak willed, passive, "feminine" by most cultures’ standards. As noted in the Introduction, the male protagonists of the Greek novels are also generally passive compared to the female, but this is carried much further in the book of Judith.

Judith’s character is demonstrated by the heroic vigilance she brings to everyday piety. After the death of her husband, Judith observes the ritual mourning of the widow for three years and four months, much longer than was required by Jewish law. In addition, she fasts each day except for the holidays on which fasting is not allowed, and sets up a tent on her roof for her prayer and fasts. In Jewish practice it was forbidden to visit graves on sabbaths and festivals, and her mourning practices are likewise not performed on these days; she comes down from her tent into her quarters (10:2). Her piety is thus prodigious and will sound similar to later Christian asceticism.

She was also a beautiful woman, very wealthy and secure in her social position. These two traits, great beauty and wealth, are always the characteristics of the heroine in the Greek novels, and for the Jewish novels as well: Judith, Susanna, Esther, and Aseneth are all described in this way. The author of Judith makes good use of detail, and we note here that the wealth of Manasseh, and now of Judith, is spelled out in categories. They are the same that were used to emphasize the size and extent of Holofernes’ army: gold and silver (2:18), slaves (2:20), livestock (2:17), and fields (3:3). Is the author trying to suggest that just as Holofernes controls a vast army and its auxiliaries, so also, in an analogous way, Judith administers her own empire? It certainly does help to characterize our protagonist as a woman with a commanding presence and a will to succeed, and the analogy to Holofernes’ vast power is probably intended. Further, Judith maintains the estate after Manasseh’s death, like the "capable wife" of Prov 31:10–31, who excels not only in domestic crafts and running a household, but in buying fields and planting vineyards as well. Although one may wonder how Judith can administer a large estate while praying and fasting in her tent, the person responsible on a daily basis may be her servant, "who was in charge of all she possessed" (v. 10). Still, we need hardly look for a realistic answer; the capable wife of Proverbs 31 also does seemingly impossible things. But although Judith is described so positively, it is interesting that she does not seek a new husband or enter into a levirate marriage to raise up a son for her dead husband, as Jewish law would require (Deut 25:5–10). Judith is simply not a typical model of Jewish womanhood. To be sure, there are other traces in this period of a Jewish piety that allows for celibacy and voluntary childlessness. The Qumran sectarians and the Therapeutae (fem., Therapeutrides) described by Philo in On the Contemplative Life encouraged celibacy, and Wis 3:13–4:6 seems to encourage a celibate spirituality. In early Christianity as well, celibacy for some is presumed in 1 Corinthians 7; 1 Tim 5:14; and perhaps Matt 19:12.

Moore also raises another question: Why is the character Judith a widow and not a virgin or a married woman? Here we probably have to concede that even Judith could not rise above all social conventions of ancient Judaism. The risk to her dignity in approaching Holofernes was great, and perhaps titillating to the audience; but for a virgin or a married woman to place herself in that kind of jeopardy would be quite another matter. A young unmarried woman was under the strict control and protection of her father and his family until she married, and then that control was passed over to her husband. An attack on a young woman in ancient society was an affront to the man who had charge of her and was a shame to him as much as it was to her. A widow, on the other hand, was no longer under the control and protection of a man. Widows and orphans were among the most vulnerable social categories in ancient Israel because they were not under the protection of any male relative; as a result, the prophets often felt compelled to take up the cause of the unattached widows and orphans. Judith herself retained a wealthy estate, but if a widow was not wealthy, she might find herself without protection. Even the levirate law, which might have the effect of allowing a widow at least temporary support from her dead husband’s brother, is not intended for her welfare, but to raise a son for the deceased husband. As a result of these structural aspects of Jewish culture, the fact that Judith is a widow becomes almost a necessity. A young virgin or a married woman could never be depicted in such an unprotected position without causing severe discomfort in the audience; only a widow could be depicted in so flagrant a violation of decorum. The unprotected nature of even a wealthy widow’s situation may still be in evidence, however, in the fact that the author must emphasize that even though she was unattached, "no one spoke ill of her." The quotation in the introduction from Jerome on Gentile widows indicates the social reproach that might attach to an unprotected widow. Judith, because "she feared God with great devotion," maintained an impeccable reputation even though she will later flout many commandments and conventions associated with Jewish piety.

Judith spends most of her days fasting in seclusion in a tent or booth on the roof of her house. Is her tent intended to call to mind Sukkot (the Jewish Festival of Booths), the tabernacle in the wilderness wanderings (also a σκηνη skēnē in Greek), a synagogue, or none of these? There are important parallels with each. The restoration of observances during Sukkot in Ezra 3:4–5 includes the same offerings mentioned at Jdt 4:14: daily burnt offerings, regular burnt offerings, new moon and festival offerings, freewill offerings (see also Lev 23:33–38), and the booths of the Festival of Sukkot could be constructed on roofs (Neh 8:13–18). The tabernacle, or tent of meeting (Exodus 25–26), in addition to being the locus for the worship of the Israelites during their wanderings, was also a paradigm for the Temple. Since Judith’s prayer is timed to correspond to the temple sacrifices (9:1), this parallel is suggestive. Her prayer in the tent is also similar to the prayers in synagogues, but the synagogue as a place for prayer and study, rather than for a public meeting, may not have come into being until after the writing of Judith. Although there are similarities to each of these forms of sacred space and worship, none of them appears to be clearly in mind to the exclusion of the others.

There is one other possibility that should be considered. Lying behind Judith’s practice of fasting and praying at the same time that the priests in the Jerusalem Temple were offering sacrifices is likely a development of ancient Jewish worship that occurred away from the Temple. The huge provisions for the temple sacrifices in Jerusalem were presented each month by one of the twelve tribes on a rotating basis. In addition, a form of local worship was instituted in the land of each tribe during the period of their responsibility. A pillar was erected by each tribe, and for four days during that month people from the tribe came together at the pillar to fast and pray. The prayers and readings of the temple service were also read in the local communities. The similarity to Judith’s practice is obvious: A local worship experience that involves fasting and mourning rites takes place at a time that coincides with the priestly rituals in Jerusalem. To be sure, Judith’s practice is not limited to the period of her tribe’s provision of animals and crops. However, pious Jews evidently began to pray and fast in the public square on a regular basis year-round, a practice that may have been the actual forerunner of the synagogue. This evolved further into a twice-weekly prayer and fast among the Pharisees, although it is not clear whether they alone performed it in this way. The Mishnah, a collection of Jewish laws compiled in about 200 ce, limits the practice to prayer only, but that implies that other aspects had also been involved. Tertullian, a Christian theologian writing at the end of the second century ce, describes—albeit critically—the practice of public prayer, fasting, and wearing of sackcloth: "A Jewish fast is universally celebrated; while neglecting the temples [meaning synagogues?], in every open place they continue to send prayer up to heaven. And though by dress and ornamentation of mourning they disgrace the duty, still they do affect a faith in abstinence." Judith’s prayer and fasting, not tied to an annual rotation, represent a continuous practice that is more like this latter development. It is still timed to coincide with a Jerusalem temple observance, but like the personal piety of the Pharisees, it is carried out continuously. Her activities are by no means identical to these practices, but this fictitious representation of her extreme piety is probably influenced by actual local practices.


Judith 8:9–36, Judith Addresses the Citizens of Bethulia


8:9–20. The news of the town meeting comes to Judith while she is in seclusion. Judith does not simply appear or emerge from her tent ready to do battle. Presumably, out of modesty she does not come out of her home to meet the magistrates, even though it is a time of crisis. Soon her actions will be quite different, but at this point she sends her favorite slave. This woman will figure prominently in the unfolding narrative (see 10:2). Judith immediately proceeds to upbraid the magistrates. Just as Holofernes had addressed his war councils in the first part of the story, so also she addresses the elders of Bethulia. This underscores the fact that a significant amount of the second part will be taken up with dialogue as well. She makes several points in addressing them. Her first charge is that it was wrong to test God by imposing a time limit within which to act. If the human realm is impossible to comprehend, she reasons, how can people fathom God’s actions? God is free to come to their aid at any point—if God so chooses. There is a close Greek parallel to this motif, the Lindus chronicle, in which the Greek city of Lindus, besieged by Darius of Persia, prays to Athena to bring rain within five days. Rain does come, and Darius realizes that Lindus enjoys divine protection and passes it by. This is clearly intended to be a positive assessment of the city’s prayer. The author of Judith has taken this tradition and challenged it: Fervent prayer is not sufficient before God, but a strict humility before God’s decrees is called for. It is often thought that this is one of the key theological ideas in Judith, but it is not clear whether the author is really concerned about this theologically or whether it is more of a narrative device. It characterizes Judith as a more valiant soldier of virtue than the other citizens of Bethulia. The testing of God here is not as serious a case as the creation of a golden calf while Moses was on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 32) or the complaints of the people in the wilderness during the exodus (Exodus 15–17; Numbers 11; see Commentary on 7:23–28). It could also be said to have been caused by more extreme conditions. Still, Judith does not entertain any pleas of mitigating circumstances (v. 30).

Her next point is sometimes missed in a quick reading of her speech. Having noted that God is free to choose, Judith asserts that the residents of Bethulia can yet be confident that God will come to their aid because there is no longer anyone among them who worships idols. For Judith this is the criterion of the deuteronomic theology by which God grants either favor or punishment. How is she so sure that the worship of idols has been removed from the land? At the time of the composition of Judith the Hasmonean kings had succeeded in pacifying the land and, more important, had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim, expanded the borders to approximately the size of the united Israel under David and Solomon, and converted by force peoples such as the Idumeans. The author must have seen the Hasmonean settlement of the country as the successful expulsion of idol worship.

8:21–23. If God chooses not to help, the stakes are very high: Bethulia is the only fortified town standing between the Assyrians and their entry into Judea. If idol worship has been eradicated from the land, Judith reasons, it is difficult to imagine God allowing the devastation of Judea—and the devastation and servitude will this time be permanent, not as before in Egypt or in the exile. Presumably, two related views are being emphasized simultaneously: Although God operates with a free will that cannot be tested or limited, God shows favor to those who remain faithful. The devastation that would result from an Assyrian invasion is not described in terms of human suffering as it is elsewhere, but in terms of the resulting shame: The Temple will be desecrated, and the Israelites will become an offense and a disgrace serving as slaves among the Gentiles. This time the slavery will have no salvific resolution as it did in Egypt, followed by the exodus, or in the exile, followed by the restoration. This time it will be permanent and will result in utter dishonor and shame (see Commentary on 1:11–12).

8:24–27. Judith turns from indicative to imperative. God’s rescue of the people Israel does not come about on its own; the citizens of Bethulia must act. Judith provides a compelling theological understanding of the Bethulians’ situation: They should not put God to the test; rather, God is "testing" them (the same Greek word [πειράζω peirazō] is used in both cases), just as God tested Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three patriarchs. There are many tests that could be associated with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the greatest of which would be God’s demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22), but the reference may be to the collective endurance of the three major patriarchs (cf. Heb 11:8–21). In this text, a specific example is given regarding only Jacob—that is, his sojourn to Paddan-aram ("Syrian Mesopotamia") to find a wife from among the daughters of Laban (Genesis 28–31). Whereas the people had decided that God was punishing them for their sins (7:28), or simply abandoning them (7:30), Judith insists that God is testing their mettle. These views are found in other texts that the Bethulians might have drawn on. That God punishes the Jews for their sins was the basis of the deuteronomic theology, even if, as Second Isaiah and Jeremiah insisted, the punishment was only temporary. A similar view was expressed in Judith’s day in 2 Macc 5:17–20. However, God’s teaching and discipline are also found in early biblical traditions (Deut 8:5; Ps 94:12; Prov 3:11–12), but became much more strongly emphasized after the exile, and especially in the period contemporary with Judith (Sir 6:18–22; 1 Cor 11:32; 2 Cor 6:9; Heb 12:5–11; Jas 1:2–4; 1 Clement 56). God’s testing is often compared to teaching and discipline: "God is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him.… When his power is tested, it exposes the foolish" (Wis 1:2–3). And "Having been disciplined a little, the righteous will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself" (3:5; see also Sir 2:1–6). Thus the patriarchs are like the righteous: tested and found worthy of God.

8:28–29. The wisdom of Judith and the approval of her character by everyone are emphasized. Still, there are questions about the precise nature of her wisdom. On the one hand, while she is on her estate she is like the capable wife of Proverbs 31, but on the other hand, when she proceeds out to engage Holofernes, she is not. One must, therefore, distinguish clearly between "wisdom" and "cleverness." Jacob, for example, was clever, even a "trickster," in his dealings with others, but never is he described as wise. Joseph, on the other hand, is described as "discreet and wise" (Gen 41:39); he can interpret dreams and knows enough to retreat from the advances of Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39–41). Other figures in the HB tend to fall into one paradigm or the other—that is, wisdom as piety or wisdom as cleverness. There are wise women in the HB who are clever, such as the wise woman of Tekoa (2 Sam 14:1–7) and the wise woman of Abel (2 Sam 20:14–22). On the other hand, Daniel is wise and pious (Dan 1:20; 4:15; 5:11–16). Judith seems to combine the two paradigms; she is wise and righteous, like Joseph, but she is very clever in dealing with evil and uses deceit as one of her best weapons, like Jacob. She is a trickster, but not for her own ends; unlike Jacob, she is a trickster in the service of others.

8:30–36. Uzziah wants Judith to pray for the people because she is a redeemer for them, a mediator between the people and God. Moses was earlier considered a mediator figure, as were the prophets at times; this was probably the original meaning of Deut 18:15–18. Even a woman could be so depicted: Deborah and Jael team up to deliver Israel in a narrative that has greatly influenced the author of Judith (see Introduction). Uzziah wants Judith to pray for rain to relieve their thirst and allow them to hold out longer; it does not occur to him at this point that Judith is capable of removing the threat of Holofernes altogether (but note v. 35). Judith, however, has bigger plans than bringing rain. She instructs Uzziah to stand by, but informs him that she means to deliver Israel by her hand. Judith will not divulge her plan, but she does prepare the reader for the heroic importance of her deed "for endless generations" and that it will be a memorial to her, as the conclusion implies (16:21–25). She speaks with a conviction and authority that does not allow for second-guessing. Uzziah responds accordingly by endorsing her command, but he is taking his strength from her, more so than was the case of Barak and Deborah (Judges 4–5). Uzziah is pliant with Judith as he was with the people of Bethulia. He admits that the people forced him to make an oath that will test God. His excuse is similar to that of Aaron after the making of the golden calf (Exod 32:22). The oath is presumably inviolable because it was a solemn vow to God (7:28), but in folktales and traditional literature the inviolability of an oath is often also an important narrative device that forces the actions of the protagonists (see Josh 9:19–20; Judges 11; Esth 1:19; 8:8; Dan 6:8, 12). Here, rather than demanding that the magistrates rescind the oath, Judith presumes its inviolability and must work quickly to save the Bethulians before the five days are up. The tension of the story is thus maintained, as she must operate with a ticking clock in the background.


The Bethulians, including their leader Uzziah, are prepared to capitulate if God does not intervene within a set time. The urgent petitions of the Israelites in Jerusalem were earlier said to be heard by God (4:13), but the Bethulians remain in doubt. Although Judith rebukes them for testing God, is she being too demanding? Are we to experience the outrage that Judith feels toward the weakness of the Bethulians, or should we be sympathetic toward these decent and ordinarily pious people who have been placed in an extreme situation? The catastrophe that apparently awaited them would probably give pause to most people and likewise force them to consider surrendering as the other nations had done. Judith is not gentle in response to their actions, however, since to her mind they tested God much as the Israelites had murmured against Moses in the wilderness wanderings.

Perhaps both here and in the exodus narrative the modern reader experiences some of the doubt that is in the hearts of the Israelites. The reader knows how the two stories will end, but can also imagine not having the courage of Moses or Judith. Real human beings rarely exhibit perfect courage or certainty. These writings seem to recognize that, for at the same time that such scenes exhort the readers to greater courage, they also allow us to experience doubt in a situation where we know all will end well. Although some of Judith’s cocksureness may seem less than humble to modern readers, the book of Judith explores the issue of courage and trust from three different perspectives. First, Judith expresses absolute trust. In upbraiding the Bethulians, she argues that they should leave their fate in God’s hands: "Let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him" (8:17). The Israelites in Jerusalem also turn to the Lord in prayer and fasting, and their plea is so urgent that they even put sackcloth on their cattle—a comic touch, but surely one that reflects their sincerity. Where there are heartfelt pleas among the Israelites, God responds (4:13). Even the Ammonite Achior seems to get it when it comes to Israelite history: "As long as they did not sin against their god they prospered.… Their Lord and God will defend them" (5:17, 21).

Trust in God is the operative mode for Judith, for the Israelites in Jerusalem, and even for Achior, but not for the Bethulians, whose perspective exhibits the second kind of trust, which is imperfect. Their resilience had a limit, and they transfer their anxieties onto God by setting a time limit within which to act.

And if the Bethulians are to be the "sympathetic sinners" in the text—those whom we cannot really condemn just for being human—there is another group whose capitulation is not sympathetic and who display a third level of trust. The "people who lived along the seacoast" (2:28) not only succumb to their fears, with none of the tension or soul-searching that the Bethulians exhibit, but also demonstrate that they have readily abandoned their gods and dance before Holofernes with garlands and tambourines (3:1–8). Surely this is the opposite of trust in their gods; their allegiance was so ephemeral that they could watch their gods be destroyed, accept Nebuchadnezzar as their new "deity," and celebrate the transformation.

It is not necessary, then, to say that we should be like Judith. We are probably more like the Bethulians, and will remain so. But the text invites us to see three levels of trust and to embrace a life that is oriented toward a sincere trust in God. While Judith’s position in regard to the Bethulians may seem overly strict, it is the larger theme of trust in God to which the book ultimately points.

Modern North American readers will probably never be trapped under siege in a mountain village as a general and his mighty army choke off all hope, but the text serves to affirm the need of trust in God in seemingly impossible situations. And those will occur. Whether someone tests God or offers a prayer that imposes a time limit on God is not important; that is probably not as serious as Judith makes it out to be. But in the text her strong reaction serves to put the theme of trust—sincere trust—into sharper relief.

Judith 9:1–14, Judith Purifies Herself and Prays


The Jewish novels of this period each have scenes that focus on the prayers and interior thoughts of a significant female character. Susanna has a moment of decision in which she must choose whether to capitulate to the demands of the wicked elders to lie with them or to preserve her virtue, even at the risk of being wrongly convicted and put to death for adultery. The young Sarah in the book of Tobit laments her continuing ill fortune that seven of her fiancés have died on their wedding night, and prays for death. Esther in the Additions confesses to God her repugnance at the situation she finds herself in, and Aseneth in Joseph and Aseneth enters into a state of penitence and prayer that lasts for seven days. Similarly Judith has her scene of ritual preparation and prayer. All of these novels have in common the focus on the woman’s experience of reflection and decision, but three of them, Additions to Esther, Joseph and Aseneth, and Judith, have developed a type scene that is much more dramatic and formulaic. It is presented as a marked transition that is similar to what anthropologists call a "rite of passage" (see Introduction). Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner divide rituals that mark important human transitions into three distinct stages: separation, liminal period, and incorporation or aggregation. The separation is the marked movement from normal or mundane time and space to the liminal period, a special status that is more in touch with the divine. It is sacred time and space, not marked by the usual everyday indications of time, space, social order, gender, and so on. Last comes incorporation, in which the person moves back into mundane time and space, often with a new status or changed disposition. In Judith each part is marked by clear outward indicators of role or status: The woman begins in the clothing of wealth and position; takes off these clothes (separation); clothes herself in the garments of mourning, which eliminate the indicators of social or gender roles; and begins to pray; then she bathes and reclothes herself in new garments similar to the old, but even more splendid (incorporation). When Judith emerges from her ritualized prayer and reclothes herself, her actions are also very similar to those of Esther and Aseneth. At Add. Esth 15:1 we read, "On the third day, when she had ended her prayer, she took off the garments in which she had worshiped, and arrayed herself in splendid attire." This same scene is found in other Jewish novels and is sometimes greatly expanded, as in Joseph and Aseneth, where the heroine repents of her idolatry by covering herself in ashes mixed with her tears for seven days. Men are sometimes also depicted engaging in the rituals of mourning or protest, as Mordecai does in Esther 4, but the woman’s scene of grief and self-abasement is more heartrending and penitential. This rite works perfectly to demarcate in narrative form the process of penitence, and it was likely well established in the literary tradition of Judaism (Neh 9:1). Even if the other known Jewish novels were composed later than Judith, there was still a developing penitential novelistic tradition of which Judith was one part, evidenced also by the insertion of the Prayer of Azariah and Susanna into the book of Daniel.

9:1. Judith begins here by prostrating herself, putting ashes on her head, and uncovering the sackcloth that she is presumably wearing under her widow’s garments (see 8:5). This seems strange as a mourning custom, but she is presumably exposing her true state of pious self-abnegation—that is, the customs of mourning have become a form of ascetic spirituality. Sackcloth was a coarse, dark cloth woven from the hair of goats and camels. Turner notes that in the liminal state the person undergoing a rite of passage is often colored dark in some way, which is identified with the earth, and is allowed to become filthy. We are reminded that the mourning ritual, which was a marked rite of passage in Israel, included, in addition to the wearing of sackcloth, the covering of the head in ashes, and in Add. Esth 14:2 with dung. Thus the usual ritual of mourning in Israel seemed to include that aspect of liminal symbolism that Turner suggests represents a dissolution of normal distinctions and an identification with undifferentiated earth.

Sackcloth and ashes are symbols of the grief of mourning, which Judith is exhibiting here to enter into a state of purification and prayer. Compare the parallel moment in Additions to Esther:

Then Queen Esther, seized with deadly anxiety, fled to the Lord. She took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body; every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair. (Add. Esth 14:1–2 NRSV)

Esther then proceeds to a deeply felt prayer and is penitent over her sin and the sin of her people. Judith, however, is not penitent. She never mentions her own sin, nor in her prayer does she mention the sin of her fellow Israelites—that comes up only in her upbraiding of the elders and in her lie to Holofernes. Judith does not have a rending self-examination as Esther and Aseneth do, but like them she has crossed the threshold into the liminal state of a profound ritual, where she can meet God more directly. Her ritual has prepared her for a relationship with God that is more direct than is the case for the other Bethulians. As a result, what we seem to have in Judith is a merging of two quite different narrative paradigms: the male hero pattern and the pattern of the penitential Jewish woman. The latter is drained of its original content and pressed into the service of a new theme where it works quite well: The beautiful woman of Israel, like a warrior, readies herself for the quest by stripping away her old garments, praying, bathing, and reclothing herself in the special armor that she is called upon to wear: beguiling clothes, jewelry, and cosmetics.

The timing of her prayer is quite significant, coinciding as it does with the evening incense offering in the Temple in Jerusalem (Exod 30:7–8). We may note by comparison that in John 19:14 it is stated that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred at the same moment that the Passover lambs were slaughtered in the Temple. This aligns Judith’s practices with those in the Temple, although her actions, even those up to this point, have not been strictly orthodox (her lack of a levirate marriage, her mourning beyond the period required by law). This seems to point to a contradiction in her observance of Jewish law, but this was probably not a difficulty for the ancient reader of the book of Judith. It is not presumed by the audience that this is a normal practice for Jews; rather, in the narrative world of this book the protagonist follows the dictates of her heartfelt piety and is not bound by the ordinary codes of conduct. It is actually in the nature of the Jewish and Christian novels for the protagonists to engage the spirit of the law without always conforming to the letter. Thecla, for instance, in the early Christian Acts of Paul and Thecla (34), actually baptizes herself because she thinks she is about to die.

9:2–10. Although Judith’s genealogy at 8:1 did not explicitly mention Simeon (except in some ancient mss), here she makes explicit what was implied there (see Commentary on 8:1): She is descended from Simeon, one of the twelve sons of Jacob and ancestor of the tribe of Simeon. She takes up the most important story associated with Simeon, his revenge on Shechem for the rape of his sister Dinah (Genesis 34). Just as Mattathias, the father of the Maccabee brothers, is likened to Phineas because of the latter’s zeal for executing idolaters (Num 25:6–15), so also Judith takes up the cause of a patriarchal avenger. Simeon and his brothers, outraged after Shechem raped their sister Dinah, deceitfully agreed that he could marry her on condition that all the males of Shechem’s clan be circumcised. They consented, but while they were still sore, Simeon and Levi came upon them unawares, killed all the males, and took Dinah back with them. The other sons of Jacob then plundered the city, took women and children and livestock, and returned to Jacob. In Gen 34:30 and 49:5–7 Jacob condemns the violent spirit of Simeon and Levi because it will create trouble with the peoples of the land. Judith, however, adopts Simeon as a positive model. She takes up the same cause as Simeon’s (v. 4) and sets out a plan of revenge that will be modeled on his. In Judith’s view, God orchestrated Simeon’s revenge out of a shared sense of outrage. The description of the revenge is gruesome: the slaughter of the males, the taking of the women and enslavement of the daughters, the plundering of the spoils—all this in Judith’s view is a justified response for the rape of Dinah.

The violence is not really different from the Genesis account of the slaughter by the sons of Jacob, but here it is all God’s doing (v. 5). To be sure, Judith was not the only ancient source to take a positive view of the revenge on Shechem. Jubilees 30 and Testament of Levi affirm the role of Simeon and Levi, and Joseph and Aseneth 23 notes Simeon’s violent spirit without condemning it. God’s action against the Shechemites thus is not considered by the author of Judith to be a brazen and reckless act on the part of Simeon as it is in Genesis, but part of God’s judgment on Shechem for the rape of Dinah. God was acting as "redeemer" (גאל gōʾēl) through Simeon; God struck down "slaves along with princes," which, along with v. 10, seems to be an echo of God’s judgment in Isa 24:2. Judith’s belief that it is God’s doing appears to be based on the assumption that God wills all actions and events. The very fact that it happened indicates that God orchestrated it; wisdom texts sometimes express a similar opinion concerning natural phenomena (Job 38:35; Bar 3:34) and, in a general way, historical events (Wisdom 10–19).

Judith emphasizes that unlike the warriors Simeon and Levi, revenge in this case is left in the hands of a widow (v. 4). She returns to this theme in v. 9, and in v. 10 entreats God to destroy Holofernes and his army by the hand of a female. Judith here picks up another motif from the book of Judges, for at Judg 9:53 Abimelech is shamed because he is mortally wounded by a woman and is later known for this (2 Sam 11:21). In a world conscious of honor and shame, for a warrior to be killed by a woman was a great shame.

According to Judith, the rape of Dinah was a pollution of "their blood" (vv. 2, 4), and the point of this emphasis is well taken: The Assyrians intend to defile and pollute the sanctuary in Jerusalem. There is a clear parallelism and contrast, with the implication that Assyria is "raping" Jerusalem. This is perhaps not an unusual metaphor for conquest, but the book of Judith draws it out in specific ways. Looking back, the Assyrian rape of Jerusalem is like Shechem’s rape of Dinah; and looking forward, the Assyrians will knock the horns off the altar with their swords (v. 8), just as Judith will decapitate Holofernes. By the parallel Judith draws, she is developing the notion that she will be the goʾel of Jerusalem, the raped woman. In ancient Israel, the gōʾel was the male family member whose responsibility it was to avenge an attack on any other family member. In the patriarchal period of clans, tribes, and extended families, it was accepted that the "avenger of blood" (גאל הדם gōʾēl haddām) would achieve justice for wronged parties; but this function was also regulated and contained by the safeguard of "cities of refuge," into which the avenger of blood could not go to attack the perpetrator of the offense (Num 35:19; Deut 19:6). The concept of gōʾēl stands behind the revenge on Shechem, and it stands behind Judith as well as does a concept of extended-family solidarity: "Not only members of a clan, but also their possessions, form an organic unity, and every disruption of this unity is regarded as intolerable and as something which must be restored or repaired." The king can be a gōʾēl of the poor who are oppressed (Ps 72:14), and God can act as a gōʾēl as well (Jer 50:34). Judith here presents herself to God as the only available gōʾēl (although this word or its equivalent is not used), all the men having fallen away.

Judith, in vv. 6b–8a, quotes a line that is evidently from the Greek translation of Exod 15:3, part of Moses’ Song of the Sea, which he sang after the death of Pharaoh and his armies. She takes up this line again in her victory song at 16:2. Several terms in v. 11 ("helper," "protector," "savior") are also influenced by the Song of the Sea (Exod 15:2), where they occur in the same order.

Judith intimates to God—and to the audience—what her weapon of choice will be: "the deceit of my lips." Deceit is not an expedient that she falls back on as a last resort when she is in Holofernes’ presence, but the very basis of her plan from the beginning. It is a weapon of power that will allow God, through her, to strike down "slaves along with princes, and princes on their thrones" (v. 3). The power of deceit was recognized in wisdom teachings roughly contemporary with Judith (see Jas 3:5–12; cf. Wis 1:8; Matt 12:36–37), but it is usually viewed by the pious as unequivocally negative. Judith clearly intends to use the weapon for good, but in the liminal state of this novel, she is clearly reversing the accepted standards of Jewish ethics.

9:11–14. Judith here takes up the language of humility. The positive valuation of the humble is unusual, though not unknown, in Greek and Roman culture. The Life of Aesop, a Greek novel roughly contemporary with Judith, champions Aesop as a humble satirist of the wealthy, a role for him that was generally recognized in Greek culture. Aesop was one of the seven sages, but he had to sit on a footstool. Diogenes Laertius notes that when Chilo asked Aesop what Zeus was doing, Aesop answered, "He is lowering what is high, and exalting what is low." Still, humility in Greek and Roman culture remained more of a novelty than a central theological value. In Jewish culture, it is a common theme in the psalms: "For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down" (Ps 18:27 NRSV; see also Pss 10:18; 138:6; 146:7–9). It is also present in the Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1:46–55 and its model, the Song of Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1–10. It is from v. 11, and from her remark on her low status as a woman and a widow, that some have found a theology of humility in the book of Judith. There are, however, problems with this judgment. This prayer shows proper piety on Judith’s part, but if the book was written during the expansion of the Hasmonean rulers, the humility may ring somewhat hollow. Granted, this may be confusing the author’s situation and that of the fictional character Judith, who lived, after all, in a situation of persecution; but the piety of humility does not seem as genuine in one so triumphalistic. The talented author of Judith is probably not attempting to create a humble heroine or articulate a theology of humility. Judith is merely being characterized as the perfect heroine; the humble Jewish widow is capable of decapitating the mighty Assyrian general. As Moore says in regard to this question, "If most, or at least many, of the important ideas of Judaism exist in Judith, that is all they really do, that is, they do not seem alive and vibrant."95


The book of Judith has remained popular over the centuries, perhaps more popular in the pre-modern period than in the modern. For Jews, Judith was a military heroine associated with Hanukkah, but for Christians she often represented virtues, especially penitence. Chartres Cathedral depicts her as she was often known, as putting ashes on her head. Although Judith’s penitential actions are dramatically displayed, she seems unaware of any sins she might have commited. She could be characterized as what Stendahl has called a "robust conscience."

The tendency in Judaism of this period and in early Christianity was to "raise the stakes" of sin. Sin was a more pressing part of religious life; it could keep one from approaching God with a pure heart, and it could separate one group or "sect" of Jews or Christians from another. The washings that Judith practices are not unrelated to the baptism Christians have instituted "for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). But is Judith being hypocritical in taking up the practices of penitence without the self-examination? People sometimes conceive of their sin as the individual transgressions of daily life, or in terms of the larger picture of a doctrine of sin that defines the individual in relation to God. It is often difficult to reconcile the consciousness of everyday sins with theological beliefs about the origin and nature of sin. The book of Judith at first seems not to be much help here, because it shows Judith as far removed from her fellow citizens, who display human weakness and sin before God. But the book of Judith portrays a kind of spirituality, arising just before the beginnings of Christianity, that emphasized the cleansing from sin as a prelude to turning to God in prayer. This "penitential theology" has been a form of spirituality for those who might themselves be considered far from sin, the penitence of the righteous. The practices Judith undertakes are thus not intended simply to cleanse her from sinful acts; they are a form of worship in which one can approach God. Perhaps she is not being hypocritical, but is simply "at home" in this form of prayer. Sin, and the response to sin, becomes a way of defining the relationship of the human to God.

A central pastoral concern today, however, is to address the problem of sin in such a way as to recognize the different reactions of parishioners. Some feel comfortable with a doctrine of sin that defines the person as sinful before God or with a penitential spirituality that is conducive to this worship experience, while a fascination or obsession with sin can for others mask psychological problems of guilt, shame, and even unresolved conflicts from the past. The book of Judith presents the "comfortable" model of penitential spirituality of her period, but it does not address this second problem, which is for the modern reader often the harder question.

Judith 10:1–10, Judith Emerges from Prayer to Go Forth


10:1–5. Once Judith’s prayer is finished, she rises to move forward with her plan. She is moving from the liminal period into the third phase of this rite of passage, incorporation. Judith’s bathing can be compared to the similar scenes in the other Jewish novels, where the heroines emerge from the liminal state, bathe, and redress themselves for their new mission in life. In other cultures, traditions of the hero often include special scenes in which the hero dresses for battle or dons special armor before proceeding to the greatest test of valor. The hero usually has at his side a faithful servant who is instrumental in outfitting him. Here also Judith, with the help of her maid, puts on the special armor that will be necessary for her great conflict. Her new identity is as a rich and beautiful seductress—one might even say a courtesan. She takes off her sackcloth and mourning garments, bathes, anoints herself with perfume, beautifies her hair, and puts on a full assortment of jewelry. Her beautification here includes the very items that Esther in the Additions condemned in herself. In fact, the listing of the items of beautification is very complete—ointment, combing, tiara, festive attire, sandals, anklets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and "all her other jewelry." Judith uses every means at her disposal to entice men, and Esther is not the only person to speak negatively of such cosmetics. At Isa 3:16–24, the wealthy daughters of Zion are condemned for wearing just such makeup, and the listing of items is very similar to Judith’s. Judith clearly is threatening to violate the normal standards of clothing for pious Jewish women. She emerges from this a changed woman—or to be more exact, her true nature is now revealed. Now her beauty is so great that each man she meets is awestruck. This is very similar to the way Esther and Aseneth are described after they emerge from their prayer scenes.

Judith’s vegetarian diet ensures a strict conformity with kosher food laws, just as Daniel and his three friends remained kosher by eating only vegetables in the court of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 1:8). Like the beautiful clothes, the food also signifies that Judith has ritually left the confines of her tent and given up her fasts. The food may also have another role. If the book of Judith really is like the hero’s quest, then her kosher food becomes almost like a magical charm or protective substance that, along with her bathing, keeps her from becoming polluted by contact with Holofernes.

The maid may seem at first to be an incidental character in the book, but she is actually quite integral. She functions as Judith’s lieutenant in much the same way that Bagoas will for Holofernes. But there is something more subtle at play here as well. She is a loyal servant who does Judith’s every bidding, and she will be freed by Judith at the end; yet she is never named and never speaks. She takes her identity entirely from Judith and joins in Judith’s great service for others, but in a very subordinate way. She never establishes a personality of her own. The maid represents, from the point of view of the slave owner, the ideal slave, a motif also encountered in the Greek novels and in Esth 15:2–3. Yet, on the other hand, as the counterpart to Holofernes’ servant Bagoas, she is seen to be characterized quite positively in contrast to him; whereas Bagoas is talkative, gullible, and subservient, the maid is calm, deliberate, and loyal. One is the contrasting image of the other. In addition, since the maid is an effective assistant at just the moment Judith needs her (13:9–10), she becomes forever identified with her mistress’s brave act and is often depicted in paintings alongside Judith. As Bal points out, Judith and the maid are both focused in the paintings; they know what Holofernes, Bagoas, and the Assyrian soldiers do not know. In some paintings, such as those by Michelangelo and Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her maid are depicted as partners, while in others, there is an unmistakable suggestion that the maid represents the darker side of Judith: The maid is ugly and forbidding, sometimes more closely identified with the deed, while Judith can stand tall, beautiful, and pure (see the paintings by Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo Caravaggio, and Antiveduto Grammatica). Stocker also notes that the maid is sometimes depicted as the older version of Judith herself, a memento mori, or reminder of mortality and death, which also serves to underscore the fleeting nature of the power Judith derives from her beauty.

10:6–10. The development of novelistic description in Judith is remarkable, especially as it is sometimes done with considerable subtlety. In this passage, we find, first of all, retardation of plot—that is, a simple act, Judith and her maid leaving Bethulia, is drawn out by the addition of a number of small details to add texture and to increase the narrative tension the audience is feeling. The interchanges between Judith and her maid, on the one hand, and the elders and the young men at the gate, on the other hand, are played out in a series of verbal and physical exchanges. The scene becomes almost ceremonial as Judith and her maid find the elders, receive Uzziah’s blessing, bow down, ask the elders to open the gate, wait for them to have the order executed, and exit as the men watch her trail off into the valley. Alonso-Schökel has rightly called this last effect "cinematographic"; the ritualism and detail make the entire scene come to life before the eyes much like an American western film.

According to Bowra, a standard feature of heroic quest traditions is that upon departure a blessing of the gods is invoked for the hero’s safe travel, often by an elderly figure. Such an episode is probably what we see here in Uzziah’s blessing of Judith at the gates. This is part of the large structural pattern of the quest of the hero, but at this point there is also introduced a second rite of passage. It follows the preceding one and encompasses the period between the time when Judith moves out of Bethulia toward Holofernes’ camp and when she returns. Campbell talks of the hero’s passing over the threshold between the known world and the unknown into the region where the monster resides.104 It is significant that Judith walks out at night, which connotes here the unknown place of danger. We should also recall that the word "liminal" comes from the Latin word limen, or "threshold," which is both literally and figuratively what is here being marked. In Craven’s structural division of Judith, she also notes the importance of these two gate scenes. They hold corresponding places in the chiasm, both before and after the longer section of Judith’s vanquishing of Holofernes. After praying and preparing herself through the rite of passage above, she has one last dialogue with Uzziah and, as she is ready to proceed to the next passage, gives a command to "order the gate of the town to be opened." Upon her return in 13:11 she again says, "Open, open the gate!" The gates are a marked portal through which she enters into a new zone. It is not simply the zone of the warrior, since she will continue to act as a warrior, a general, and a strategist on the model of Deborah when she returns in chaps. 14–15. The zone she is in while she is between the gates—a liminal period between the thresholds—is one of being sexually provocative, treacherous, deceitful, and murderous. She meets her nemesis and greatest challenge, Holofernes, while in this zone, and Judith’s violations of Jewish taboos for female behavior occur during this period; her challenge to gender roles is located in this zone. It is important to note that although Judith is beautiful both inside and outside this zone, she lies only while she is inside it. Within this zone, nearly every word out of her mouth is deceptive, provocative, flattering, and deceitful.

That people are struck by Judith’s beauty is constantly emphasized (10:7, 14, 19, 23), which is also a standard, even required motif of the Greek novels. In the Greek novels this usually places the heroine in jeopardy as one man after another tries to press his attentions upon her, but in Judith it is the means she will use to gain the upper hand.

The text in v. 8 says, "She bowed down to God," even though it is not clear why she does so at this point. It could be taken as another pious gesture, but Moore accepts an emendation of the text that would read, "She bowed down to them"—i.e., the men—as she took her departure. This is less abrupt, and she makes a similar bow upon being admitted to the presence of Holofernes (10:23). The two bows are somewhat at odds with her commanding personality, but that might be just the point. They are balanced actions that show her social graces as she moves to take control of the situation. (See Reflections at 11:1–23.)


Judith 10:11–23, Judith Enters the Enemy Camp and Is Taken to Holofernes


10:11–16. Interestingly, the retardation of plot in the preceding scene is followed by the sudden jolt of the present one. There is finally a meeting of Israelites and Assyrians, which has been threatened for most of the book, and the Assyrians appear to be in the commanding position. Judith’s plan, which up to now has only been hinted at, is beginning to be realized. The reader sees Judith at work on the enemy, and in her first words she is already lying. The Assyrian soldiers, also struck by her beauty, usher her along with a comical show of respect. The Assyrians begin to speak in an extended irony in which almost every line can be understood in two ways, depending upon whether the "lord" referred to is Holofernes or God: "You have saved your life by hurrying down to see our lord … some of us … will hand you over to him [lit., deliver you into his hands]." The audience at this point would have been aware of each reference and would not have missed the ironic distance between the show of the troops and their apparent obtuseness about the meaning of their own words. The obtuseness of the characters is an important part of the comic irony in the Gospel of John as well (see John 3:4; 4:11; 9:25).

10:17–23. Here also a vivid description enlivens the narrative. One can almost see the hubbub and excitement spread through the camp as men not only are struck by her beauty, but also marvel at what it indicates about Israelites in general. The soldiers draw the conclusion that the audience would want them to draw: that Israelite women—and therefore men as well—are superior to any on earth. This means of affirming ethnic superiority is typical of much of the writing of this period, both in the dominant Greek and Roman culture, and of the various indigenous peoples. It is found in a very similar way in Joseph and Aseneth 1:4–5, where it is said that Aseneth was "tall and comely, and more beautiful than any young woman on earth. Indeed, she bore little resemblance at all to Egyptian women, but was in every way more like the women of the Hebrews: as tall as Sarah, as comely as Rebecca, as beautiful as Rachel." The Genesis Apocryphon (20:2–6) from Qumran is equally complimentary in regard to Sarah.

We first encounter Holofernes in a tent that is parallel to Judith’s tent, but rather than a retreat for righteous fasting and praying, it is a palace in miniature, sumptuously decorated with precious stones. It is probably not meant to be effeminate, as its appearance may strike the modern reader, although this is not implausible considering the way Holofernes will later be "unmanned." Enslin suggests that there may be evident here contempt for the luxury of the Eastern despot and his finery. One similarity to Judith’s tent that does remain is that Holofernes is generally secluded in it. He meets with his officers in the tent, and while alive always appears in it. This tent has two chambers, and his bedchamber, covered with a canopy, is where he hopes to take Judith to bed and where he will later die. The canopy that covers the bed and separates the chambers will also be of great importance later.

One might wonder whether the structure of the tent is significant. It has at least two chambers, the inner sleeping chamber, separated from the outer chamber by the specially decorated canopy. Is this structure intended to call to mind the Temple in Jerusalem, albeit as a sort of mirror image? The Second Temple consisted of a series of concentric courts, with the Temple itself standing at the center and the altar just outside facing it. Within the Temple was the holy of holies, or inner sanctum, and like the bedchamber of Holofernes’ tent, it was separated by a curtain from the rest of the Temple. The curtain was richly decorated, with some of the same colors as those of Holofernes’ curtain (Exod 26:31). The curtained area of the Temple was entered only once a year on the Day of Atonement, and then only by the high priest. Judith will enter Holofernes’ inner sanctum to kill him, just as the high priest enters the holy of holies, and one might say that she will "sacrifice" him. At this last point the parallel breaks down, however, because the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement is carried out on the alter in front of the Temple, and only some of the blood is carried into the holy of holies. Still, the parallel is suggestive, for the curtain of the Temple was quite symbolic of its integrity and sanctity; in early Christianity, it became a powerful symbol of the access Christ had created to the realm of God (Matt 27:51; Hebrews 9:1–10). (See Reflections at 11:1–23.)

Judith 11:1–23, Judith’s Dialogue with Holofernes


11:1–8. Holofernes is as gracious to Judith as she is to him. He does not treat her as a member of a conquered people, but immediately presses her to find out why she has abandoned her village. Judith begins her speech by asking him to "accept the words of your slave," as if it were a humble petition addressed to God. In a way, it is, as the next sentence continues the double-layered reference to "my lord": "I will say nothing false to my lord this night." Judith is equivocating with the truth; she will lie to one lord while being truthful with the other. She must use her two cultivated weapons, her beauty and her deceptive tongue (9:10), to distract and manipulate her oppressor: "If you follow out the words of your servant, God will accomplish something through you, and my lord will not fail to achieve his purposes." One might argue that here the double entendre gets Judith into a moral gray area when she says, "I will say nothing false to my lord this night." However, we must understand her intention: Her lies to Holofernes are a form of "truth" to God, since they serve God. This skates very close to lying to God, but that is precisely the point. For the audience, the exhilaration in reading Judith consists in skating close to the edge of moral violations. It is a release of moral tensions. Moore points out that to gain Holofernes’ trust, Judith swears by what is holy to him—that is, the name of Nebuchadnezzar—and broadly praises Nebuchadnezzar. Her flattery of Holofernes is shameless and almost as much a violation of the truth as is her lying: "Not only do human beings serve Nebuchadnezzar because of you, but also the animals of the field and the cattle and the birds of the air will live." In the book of Daniel, the king’s protection of the animal kingdom is associated with Nebuchadnezzar both in the words of Daniel himself (Dan 2:37–38) and in Nebuchadnezzar’s own grandiose self-image (Dan 4:12). The power of Nebuchadnezzar is elsewhere understood to be a gift of God, and strictly temporary (Jer 27:4–7).

11:9–15. Other than her maid, Judith has only one ally in her stratagem, and that is Achior. Without realizing it—although one might suspect the workings of God—Achior has helped to set up the situation that will lead to the Assyrians’ downfall. In chap. 5 he presented the deuteronomic principle that could establish the vulnerability of the Israelites: If they have sinned, then their God will not protect them. Judith reiterates this principle and draws a firm conclusion: Now they have sinned and are about to fall to Holofernes. Judith spins a complicated scenario of the practices of the Bethulians that will violate God’s laws. The content of her words is clearly directed to the reading audience; it refers to practices that can only really be understood within the context of Jewish laws concerning temple practices. That God could not countenance a violation in the light of the desperation of the Bethulians’ situation is part of Judith’s deception. The accommodation of God’s law to times of crisis was certainly an accepted view in the Hasmonean state (1 Macc 2:32–41). Also, the violation at hand is carefully chosen to show a deference to the priesthood in Jerusalem. This is the real focus of the religious world of the author and audience of Judith. On the assumption that the author is not trying to present a list of violations of Jewish law that Holofernes would understand, but rather a list that the audience would understand, it appears that killing their livestock might have meant slaughtering the animals without draining the blood thoroughly as Lev 17:10–14 required (see also Acts 15:20). This, at any rate, is what the Latin versions understood by it. Since this is a part of the priestly office in Jerusalem, it matches the other violations. In their desperation, the Bethulians are eating the firstfruits and tithes of wine and oil that should have been reserved for the priests. These are precisely the same offerings that are mentioned at 1 Macc 3:49 when the Maccabee rebels hold an alternative temple service at Mizpeh before the capture and rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. The strictness of observance is emphasized by saying that the people could not so much as touch the offerings once they had been consecrated. Tobit 1:6–8 also presents an idealized view of a pious diaspora Jew bringing his offerings to Jerusalem.

The Bethulians are not acting alone, however. Judith’s lie incriminates Jerusalem as well, because even there the council has allowed the citizens to do these things; more to the point, the Jerusalem council is prepared to give its permission to Bethulia as well. Bethulia is waiting for messengers to return from Jerusalem, which provides a specific point in time for their transgression to be complete in God’s eyes. The precise time line imposed on the action is parallel to the time line that the Bethulians had imposed upon themselves by making a vow to surrender if God had not brought rain within five days. Although Judith says she must pray to learn when the Israelites have violated God’s laws, the audience would recognize that the time line for this made-up offense is the same as that for the Bethulians’ actual offense.

11:16–18. Judith states her conclusion about these violations of law with a sentence that is a marvelous double entendre: "God has sent me to accomplish with you things that will astonish the world." The polytheistic religion of the ancient Near East would have held that a people’s strength in war was related to the strength of their gods; but monotheism in Israel, and especially the deuteronomic theology, held that Israel’s setbacks were not because God was weak, but because God was stronger than all nations and had willed for Israel to be overrun. Thus Judith says that God will inform her when the violation has occurred and will collude with the foreign nations to punish Israel. This theology would be laughable to a real adherent of the Assyrian gods, and in fact Holofernes had rejected it when it was spoken by Achior (5:20–6:4). However, Holofernes readily accepts it from Judith. Sensing an easy victory over her sexually and over her people as well, he need not quibble over theology.

11:19–23. Judith’s language in v. 19 is laden with images from the prophets. Just as Achior spoke like a prophet, and as Nebuchadnezzar had as well, so also does Judith speak. In form her words are like an "oracle of salvation" from Second Isaiah (the section of Isaiah written during the exile, Isaiah 40–55. Isaiah 40:3–4, for example, familiar to Christians from its use in the Gospels (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:2; Luke 3:4–6; John 1:23), prophesies that a way will be made for the Lord through the desert to Jerusalem (see also Isa 35:8–10; 42:16; 51:11). Likewise, Judith, in an audacious affirmation of her own role, says, "There I will set your throne," which is similar to what God promises to David in 2 Sam 7:13 and Ps 89:4. "You will lead them like sheep without a shepherd" picks up a common motif in the HB that is found also in the NT (Ezek 34:8; Zech 10:2; 13:7; Matt 9:36; 26:31). Shepherds are also likened to watchdogs that do not bark in Isa 56:10–11, an image that Judith uses here as well. When Achior had said these same things by "prophecy" (5:21; 6:2), Holofernes condemned him. Here, however, Holofernes and his retinue marvel at Judith’s wisdom (vv. 20–21). This, too, is ironic, because her wisdom consists in cleverness, the cleverness required to lie to them successfully and convince them that she is giving them wise advice.

Holofernes once again unknowingly speaks words that condemn his own cause, "God has done well to send you … to bring destruction on those who have despised my lord." His statement that "your god shall be my god" has caused trouble for scholars. It is the same statement that Ruth makes to Naomi in Ruth 1:16 when Ruth becomes an Israelite. But does Holofernes mean this? In the narratives of this period pagan kings, even oppressive ones, sometimes come to confess the God of Israel (Dan 2:47; 3:28–29; 4:34–37; 2 Maccabees 3; see also 2 Kgs 5:17). Still, Holofernes is being effusive and overly solicitous, but he is hardly converting to a worship of Israel’s God. Perhaps he means that Judith will adopt his god, especially if, as he assumes, she will become a wife or courtesan of Nebuchadnezzar. Alternatively, perhaps Holofernes is again unknowingly accurate in his statement. If Judith does as she has promised, her God will be his God—in judgment. At any rate, the passage is probably intentionally ambiguous to show that Holofernes is swept up in the commonality of their purpose. It is, after all, only the audience who understands the meaning of Holofernes’ words, and not he himself. Holofernes sums up his list of unintentional prophecies by affirming that Judith will be "renowned throughout the whole world," which the audience knows to be most decidedly true.


From the time Judith leaves the gates of Bethulia until the time she returns, there are two constant motifs: (1) the Assyrians, struck by her beauty, will stumble over themselves in trying to cater to her requests, and (2) Judith all the while will be speaking in comic and ironic utterances. Although there have been comic elements before, they dominate the text for nearly three chapters. All good comedy works with tensions within the audience and effects a release of tensions, and Judith is no exception. It is effective partly because it creates and sustains a comic situation of the pious heroine taking a sojourn outside of her seclusion and respectability to flout social conventions, entice the lustful Holofernes, walk through the menacing enemy troops, and return to the safety of her village. What is interesting about Judith is that it represents the most extended use of comedy in the Bible and combines both the "low" and "high" comedy of burlesque and satire.

This is one of the aspects of Judith that make it very "modern." We can also sense the tensions in our society over sexual taboos that give rise to a comedy of release, and we are aware in our own time of the political implications of comedy in constructing a world (or a new world) with certain values "tested" and then reinstated. By discerning the relation of Judith’s comedy to its political affirmation, we are reminded of this process in our day. Comedy draws us in and entertains us, testing our community values and rebuilding community at the same time. In Judith we can see this in the portrayal of a woman who flouts the prevailing codes of conduct and is ultimately returned to her modest and pious life.

When we talk of examining public values, groping for direction in the new day of the twenty-first century, making intelligent choices in the face of daunting new ethical dilemmas, we rarely think of that kind of discourse that is all around us and that comments on our perplexity the most directly—comedy. The positive and negative effects of comedy are felt by all members of our community alike, and in forms that are constant influences on our lives—television, film, literature, theater. The bold example of Judith reminds us that just as comedy represented a commentary on the political and religious situation of its day, so also the comedy of our own day is the most ubiquitous means of commenting on our disjointed world. And it is not just a "secular" commentary; included in its subject matter are the values of our society and the religious beliefs as well. Just as it is incumbent upon us to ask who the prophets are of our day, we must also address the question of who the Judiths are, for that is where we will find a mirror of the tensions and changes within our society.

Judith 12:1–20, For Three Days Judith Lives in Holofernes’ Camp


12:1–9. Although Holofernes has intentions to wine and dine Judith, she resists and, in complete control of the situation, imposes on him her own requirements. She will eat the food she has brought with her so as not to break any kosher laws. Holofernes has no objection; he is even solicitous of her needs throughout. The supplies she and her maid have brought are sufficient for the period up until the time "the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined." The careful adherence to kosher dietary laws, so careful that in some cases it becomes a strict vegetarianism, is found in the novelistic literature of this period (Dan 1:8–16; Add. Esth 14:17; Tob 1:10–11; 2 Macc 5:27).

Judith is remarkably free to move about as she pleases, which once again demonstrates her control of those who have been struck by her beauty. She arranges for an opportunity to go outside the camp to pray, which also establishes a pattern of her leaving very early each morning so that she will ultimately be able to escape. Judith’s departure each day also allows her to bathe. This is probably not principally meant for erotic effect, although Susanna’s bathing or Bathsheba’s bathing (2 Sam 11:2) might suggest that. Verse 9, however, emphasizes that Judith returned purified, so ritual observance must be the purpose of her bath. In the ritual of the Day of Atonement, the high priest bathes before he puts on the special linen garments in which he will perform the sacrifice and the scapegoat ritual. Judith also puts on special garments after bathing, but they are hardly the special linen garments of the high priest. Other forms of bathing in Judaism are perhaps more relevant. Baptism was practiced in a number of contexts at the turn of the first century bce For John the Baptist, baptism was described as being for repentance, and for Christians in general it was a ceremony for converts. In both of these cases, baptism was evidently a single ceremony and was not repeated. Jews may have practiced baptism for converts at this time, but the evidence for this practice does not go back any earlier than the first century ce. The Qumran sect provides a much closer parallel to Judith’s bathing. The Manual of Discipline connects bathing with repentance, but unlike the baptism of John the Baptist, the number of cisterns at Qumran indicate that bathing was a more common, if not a constant, practice. Ritual bathing had evidently become a part of the increased notion of purity at Qumran, and was also part of the Pharisaic ideas of keeping food pure when coming in contact with Gentiles. At the end of the menstrual period a Jewish woman would bathe, but presumably only once (Lev 15:19–24), and that does not appear to be the point of this motif. It is more likely that it is an idealized notion of purification derived from the requirement that a woman and a man must bathe after having sexual intercourse (Lev 15:18). Although Judith has not had sexual intercourse with Holofernes, her presence in his sleeping quarters and in his thoughts renders her symbolically unclean (cf. Matt 5:27–28). In this fictional world, she bathes in order to cleanse herself from even the insinuation of sexual intercourse. Perhaps her bathing is now simply a regular part of her personal devotion, paralleling the bathing that she performed at the end of her prayer in 10:3.

12:10–20. Holofernes’ banquet includes servants only and not soldiers, a fortunate or providential detail if Judith is to be able to accomplish her plan. That Judith remains in control of Holofernes and the other persons around her is seen in the odd combination of phrases used by Holofernes: "Go and persuade her," "it would be a disgrace," "if we do not seduce her, she will laugh at us." On one hand, Holofernes displays the bravado of one who thinks he will soon have sex with Judith, whether she is agreeable or not; on the other hand, he awaits her word and has yet to say no to a single one of her unusual requests. Judith’s personal power over Holofernes is only magnified by her insinuations that he will have his way with her. His excitement is growing at the same time that he treats her with more deferential respect, making the scene even more humorous and ironic, and ultimately making Holofernes appear weaker. Bagoas is also little more than a comic character. Despite the fact that the name "Bagoas" was associated with a powerful counselor in the invasion army of Antiochus III Ochus (see Commentary on 2:1–13), he functions only as an attendant to Holofernes, lacking even the quiet resolve of Judith’s maid.

The ambiguity of the word "eunuch" (εὐνοῦχος eunouchos) may also be played upon here. The primary meaning, a castrated official who oversees the king’s harem, was broadened to include any counselor in the royal court (for both meanings, cf. Esth 2:3; Isa 56:3–4; and Matt 19:12 with 2 Chr 18:8). Bagoas is called a eunuch in Judith, and this name was a common one for eunuchs in the Persian courts. As Holofernes’ attendant and go-between with Judith, which aspect of Bagoas are we seeing, a powerful counselor or a keeper of the harem, a harem that will now include Judith? Perhaps both are intended in a humorous way: Bagoas sees himself as a powerful counselor, but he is really a keeper of the harem who fetches women for the general’s pleasure. As a eunuch, he seems to have desires for Judith, but only because he identifies so completely with Holofernes.

His words to Judith are suggestive without being crude, reflecting his and Holofernes’ view of Judith’s status—that is, as an ornament in Holofernes’ harem, and soon to be an ornament in Nebuchadnezzar’s, but one who deserves the respect befitting her beauty and status. Bagoas invites her to become like the Assyrian courtesans, a compliment in his eyes compared with her provincial origins as a "Hebrew woman." But for Judith to become an Assyrian courtesan is for the readers another threat to her purity. In the later Greek novels the hero and heroine are forced by circumstances to become "other" to their aristocratic Greek status. They are abducted and dragged across the eastern Mediterranean, lose their identity and status, are almost forced into prostitution, are forced to become slaves or enter marriages with wealthy men or women who lust after them, and so on. The descent into becoming "other" has been noted as a principal threat by which the protagonists are buffeted, and this is a theme of the other Jewish novels, Susanna, Additions to Esther, Tobit, and Joseph and Aseneth as well. But even though Judith is faced with the prospect of descending into the "other," she is never buffeted. Here the threat is stated as clearly as anywhere: A pious Jewish widow may be forced into having sexual relations with an Assyrian general and taken to a palace of Nebuchadnezzar to become like one of the Assyrian courtesans. Yet Judith is in absolute control of the situation. The tension is humorous and not really felt; as a result, Judith can even stoke the fires of Holofernes’ desire by answering in an extremely suggestive way herself: "Whatever pleases Nebuchadnezzar I will do at once, and it will be a joy to me until the day of my death." Her words here are yet another example of double entendre, which by now seems to be her only mode of discourse in the Assyrian camp. This gives credence to the view that a rite of passage is initiated in her passing out of the gates of Bethulia, and ending when she reenters the gates at 13:11 (see Introduction and Commentary on 10:6–10). Between these points Judith is almost always lying or equivocating with the truth, and she is almost always speaking in her own special form of discourse, which consists of references on two levels at once. This is the gift of the "deceitful tongue" that she prayed for in 9:10.

Since all of Judith’s violations of taboos of female behavior occur at the center of this novel, in a zone where the most important action occurs, one might assume that the novel encourages this illicit behavior, or at least decreases the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a pious Jewish woman. If it is true, however, that Judith enters into a sort of liminal state, then Turner’s theories about the liminal period suggest just the opposite. He notes the monstrous and animalistic features of masks worn by various peoples during the liminal state in their initiation ceremonies. Another anthropologist has concluded that "primitive" people made little distinction between human and animal, and therefore in the liminal state the human could slide over into the animal. Turner disagrees, and holds the opposite view: The animal forms humans take on in the liminal state serve precisely to impose clear distinctions between the different orders of reality as encountered in everyday life. In the same way, by allowing the pious behavior of a woman to pass over into the liminal state to impious behavior, the book of Judith effectively teaches a rigid distinction between the two, a distinction that would be maintained in the non-liminal state.

The puzzling detail of the lambskins (v. 15) may be simply an element added for atmosphere, an indication of Holofernes’ generous hospitality, or it may suggest a special precaution to avoid ritual contamination. Menstrual impurity can be communicated by a woman to beds and mats (Lev 15:20–23); perhaps these special lambskins are held to protect Judith from impure contact, moving, as it were, in the opposite direction—that is, from her environment onto her.

Now Judith is reclining with Holofernes at dinner, and on this night he expects to ravish her. Judith seems to be cooperative, even excited herself, but for an entirely different reason. Her apparent cooperation could only excite Holofernes all the more, for although Judith eats and drinks what her maid has prepared, Holofernes now commences drinking wine in a celebratory mood—in fact, more than he has ever drunk in a day. He is indeed out of his mind with desire, which has clearly clouded his thinking. He believes himself to be in control and intends to seduce her with wine, but it is he who is under her control and who is becoming drunk instead. The description of the mythical opponent as given by Campbell could be used to describe Holofernes or Nebuchadnezzar: "The tyrant is proud, and therein lies his doom. He is proud because he thinks of his strength as his own; thus he is in the clown role, as a mistaker of shadow for substance; it is his destiny to be tricked."114

Judith 13:1–10a, Judith Beheads Holofernes


The climactic scene is prepared for in some detail: Bagoas dismisses the servants and closes the tent from the outside. Judith’s maid will stand outside the bedchamber—that is, the inner chamber of the tent, which was covered with the rich canopy (10:21). Judith alone remains in the inner chamber with Holofernes, who is now passed out drunk on his bed. The beheading scene, however, is told quickly, having been anticipated for twelve chapters. Her prayer invokes the power of God to come to the aid of Jerusalem, another indication that this book does not have a hidden Samaritan orientation.

Judith’s actions are charged with sexual imagery, as many scholars have noted. First, the vertical bedpost is a phallic symbol upon which Holofernes has hung his sword, another phallic symbol. Holofernes’ head is now beside the post, but because he is drunk, he has lost his virility and potency, just at the time when he expected to demonstrate them. Judith grasps him by the hair of his head, and praying again for strength, with two strokes severs his head from his body, an act that many commentators have viewed as a symbolic castration; at first impotent, he is now unmanned. She dethrones him by rolling him off the bed, and she takes the canopy from the posts. If the name "Bethulia" means virgin and Holofernes intended to rape the virgin, then the process has now been reversed and Judith has "raped" Holofernes by penetrating his inner chamber, "deflowering" him, and breaking his canopy. A confirmation of the importance of the canopy, if not its sexual meaning as Holofernes’ "hymen," is the fact that Judith will present it as a votive offering in the Temple in Jerusalem (16:19). If this reading of sexual symbolism seems more than what was intended by the author, it should be noted that sexual symbolism such as this is not unusual in popular tales, although it may have been more unconscious than deliberate. Some scholars, to be sure, do not find sexual images present in the narrative,117 but this text, perhaps more than any other in the OT, is capable of being interpreted in these terms.

Among the biblical passages that have likely influenced the author of Judith is the struggle between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). In preparation for his encounters with Goliath, David takes off the armor of Saul, which is a symbol of strength, and chooses the weapons of the weak: five smooth stones taken from a riverbed. Thus he affirms the power of the weak just as Judith does. He places the stones in his pouch as he marches out, just as Judith has placed in her pouch her kosher food, a necessary "weapon" for her stay in Holofernes’ camp. Finally, David’s utterance to Goliath is similar to Judith’s language, although David has no need for double entendre: "This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head" (1 Sam 17:46 NRSV). David first strikes Goliath in the head with a stone to subdue him, then, lacking a sword of his own, David, like Judith, stands over his adversary, takes his sword, and cuts off his head. When the enemy forces saw that their leader had been beheaded, they fled.

The food pouch, which had before represented Judith’s special care in remaining kosher, now becomes the trophy pouch containing Holofernes’ head and canopy. The grisly irony of this fact has attracted much attention, because in many of the paintings of Judith decapitating Holofernes, she appears with her maid, and it is their secret pact to carry home his head in a pouch that seems to connect them in the reader’s memory, even though the maid is not present in the story when Judith actually beheads Holofernes. The meticulous practices of the two women have bound them together until today. The act is quickly concluded in the text in just a few verses, and their escape from the Assyrian camp and their retracing of the steps back up the mountainside to Bethulia is almost instantaneous. Everything in the book has prepared for this moment, and so it was not necessary to dwell on it. The quick release of tension flows as a result of Judith’s act, and it is a credit to the pacing of the narrative that the author seems to speed up or slow down the action in just the right places.


The book of Judith has provoked very different moral valuations in artists, theologians, and commentators over the centuries. Many Victorian-era writers and some later writers have strongly questioned the morality of Judith’s position. What is more surprising are the authors who are far from being Victorian prudes who nonetheless find Judith threatening. Sigmund Freud was quite interested in Judith, but he participated in the typical evaluation of his day and demoted her from a brilliant and strong-willed heroine to a petulant woman who, like a moth to light, was brought within Holofernes’ bedchamber and was actually raped by Holofernes as a result. She takes up his own sword and beheads him only in revenge for his violation of her.

Yet, interestingly, commentators in the ancient world reveal no defensiveness about Judith whatsoever. First Clement, the earliest known Jewish or Christian work to mention Judith, saw her unequivocally as a heroine of the faith. It is perhaps by finding in Judith a symbol of something else that Christians and Jews could accommodate her with so little reservation. Other Christian authors have championed her cause, praising her virtues of celibacy and fasting. She has consistently appeared in Christian reflection as a military heroine, as a symbol of virtue (usually chastity or humility), or as a symbol of the virgin Mary victorious over Satan. Reading of part of the Song of Judith (chap. 16) occurs in the lectionary passages associated with Mary and with Joan of Arc. Jews likewise elevate her as a heroine associated with the values of the Maccabean revolt. She has continually been depicted with Hanukkah menorahs, a holiday associated with a miracle at the time of the Maccabean revolt. In art as well, Judith was early on consistently depicted as positive, whether as a military heroine or as a saintly, pious heroine of virtue.120

How do we account for this difference between the positive early attitudes toward Judith’s actions and the often unsettled or even negative views in the modern period? The key seems to be in locating precisely when the change occurred, and it illuminates the ambivalent modern reactions to her character. The Christian artistic representations of Judith began to change unmistakably around 1600. The Renaissance artists around 1500 still portrayed Judith positively, but by 1600, a certain ambivalence entered into the depictions, as can be seen in Cristofaro Allori’s painting of 1607: a calm and beautiful Judith with a face as smooth as an egg holds Holofernes’ head by the hair at her side, her fingers clenched into a tight fist. It is like a trophy that she has effortlessly yanked out by the roots. By this time, a number of other Renaissance painters began to portray Judith sadistically or Holofernes sympathetically, as if to suggest now that their identification with Holofernes as a man was stronger than their hatred of him as an enemy of God. Particularly to be noted in this category are Michelangelo Caravaggio and Bernardo Cavallino. Not surprisingly, Christian theologians also by this time, but evidently not before, began to condemn the book more forthrightly. Capellus (Louis Cappel), a French Huguenot Protestant, writing in 1689, called it "a most silly fable invented by a most inept, injudicious, impudent and clownish Hellenist."

Two factors probably entered in at this period to change drastically the common perception of Judith. First is the introduction of a kind of realism. While Judith was a sort of Joan of Arc figure, no matter how outrageous, she was heroic and a defender of the faith. But Luther’s historical observations (see Introduction), still quite positive, signal the beginnings of a realistic concern to bring Judith into the known world, where she simply became too dangerous and unsettling for many people’s sensibilities. When the unreal, liminal state of Judith’s actions were seen as occurring in the real world in real time, the crucial distinction was lost and a threat to good order was perceived in her actions. Second, as Stocker shows, Judith became a common biblical figure in arguments on both sides of the Reformation debates. The many ruling queens in the monarchies of Europe at this time gave rise to a so-called gynecocratic (rule by women) controversy, and in that context Judith could easily be taken up as a heroine or a villain, depending on one’s loyalties for or against a queen.

Because Judith is such a strong female character, the question of the moral evaluation of her actions is intimately bound up with the question of whether the work should be considered feminist. Recent commentators have disagreed on this, and feminist scholars have disagreed as well. The answer to this question may depend on what century one is referring to. From the time of its composition to the sixteenth century, Judith’s act was portrayed warmly and positively by male religious leaders. She was a heroine of the church and the synagogue. It does not seem appropriate to call this Judith a feminist creation. When society changed, however, and Judith came to be viewed as a more flesh-and-blood figure, she was perceived as threatening to good order and her achievement was called into question by male commentators. By the simple criterion of the challenge to male order, this Judith can be considered feminist.


Judith 13:10b–20, Judith and Her Maid Return to Bethulia


13:10b–17. Judith’s call to open the gates corresponds to her request to open the gates at 10:9 and marks an important point in Judith’s heroic quest: She has moved out of her tent of isolation, traveled forth to meet the dragon, slayed it, and now returns. Her words also serve multiple functions; in addition to marking her return across the threshold of the gates, they also take up the language of an enthronement psalm or a victory ode (see Commentary on 16:1–17). Compare Ps 24:7: "Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in" (NRSV). Her call as she returns, "God our God is with us," is similar to the psalm, and the continuation of her words in v. 14, "Praise God, who has not withdrawn his mercy from the house of Israel" also resounds like a victory ode. The literal gates of Bethulia, then, become like the figurative gates of the psalms (which are themselves based on the actual gates of the Temple). A longer victory song is to come in chap. 16.

In the meantime, she must demonstrate to her fellow citizens her first victory over the Assyrians. Producing the head of Holofernes is certainly dramatic, and the canopy represents another important trophy of her conquest. She further emphasizes the reversal and shame for Holofernes by stating, "The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman." This statement is also made in Judith’s prayer at 9:10, and it echoes the tradition of another woman deliverer, the unnamed wise woman of Abel (2 Sam 20:14–22). It is also difficult not to connect her words "my face that seduced him to his destruction" with the fact that his face is in her hand. One is left with the image of her face and his, with the beauty of Judith’s face vanquishing the power of Holofernes. Like Hamlet holding up the skull of Yorick, Judith in a more macabre situation can sum up this relationship between Holofernes and herself; the image of Judith’s face juxtaposed with Holofernes’ is certainly the one that many artists have chosen to depict. Judith is also quick to assure the Bethulians that Holofernes had not defiled her. It would have been hard for them to believe that she could have gotten close enough to Holofernes to chop off his head and still escape his advances. Although they have not seen what the audience has seen, they still believe her word.

13:18–20. Uzziah’s blessing on Judith is very similar to the blessing of Jael for having killed Sisera in the Song of Deborah (Judg 5:24), and also the blessing of Mary at Luke 1:42. In each case the woman blessed is the "most blessed of women." The blessings of Judith and Jael come after a great victory, and in this they are also like Melchizedek’s blessing of Abram (Abraham) at Gen 14:19–20. The latter contains several parallels to Uzziah’s blessing: "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" As in Judith, we find here a double blessing—of the individual and of God—and they both bring in the themes of creation and deliverance from enemies. Uzziah continues with an assurance that the memory of Judith’s deed will live on forever, a theme that will close the book as a whole (see Commentary on 16:21–25). Judith’s act is acclaimed by Uzziah and the people of Bethulia, and like Judith herself, they balance the credit for the deed between Judith and God. Still, her heroism is being praised, and memory of it will last forever. This last point is crucial for the heroic paradigm, as every culture must sing the praises of its heroes long after they are gone; the end of the book of Judith will be taken up with this theme. The people then authenticate Uzziah’s words with "Amen! Amen!" (See Reflections at 14:1–10.)

Judith 14:1–10, Judith Issues Orders and Achior Converts


14:1–4. Judith’s cleverness does not end with the decapitation of Holofernes, or with her quick escape, but extends to the stratagem by which she will use Holofernes’ head to defeat his entire army. Judith orchestrates some clever stagecraft to manipulate the Assyrian soldiers into discovering the headless corpse of Holofernes at the most effective moment possible. She again demonstrates complete authority over the Bethulians, and also complete control over the enemy. Hanging the head of the leader of the enemy is encountered elsewhere in the Bible (1 Sam 17:54; 31:9–10; 2 Kgs 10:7–8; Matt 14:8). It perhaps originated in the procession of trophies; a famous bas-relief in the Arch of Titus in Rome depicts the procession through Rome of the trophies taken from Jerusalem after the destruction of the city and the Temple. Prominent among them is a menorah, the symbol of the Jewish religion. Aside from the close parallels to David’s decapitation and exhibition of Goliath’s head, there are even closer and more contemporary parallels in Judas Maccabeus’s defeat of the Seleucid general Nicanor in 1 Macc 7:47 and 2 Macc 15:35: "Judas hung Nicanor’s head from the citadel, a clear and conspicuous sign to everyone of the help of the Lord." This example is especially significant since the name of Judith may be inspired by the name of Judas Maccabeus (see Introduction), and also because this treatment of Nicanor’s head was part of the introduction of an annual festival celebrating his defeat, called Nicanor’s Day. In other words, the memory of this deed is celebrated continually just as the memory of Judith’s is said to be (13:19–20; 16:23).

14:5–10. Judith’s language in summoning Achior indicates that she is not simply interested in authenticating the identity of Holofernes’ head. As already noted, the issues of honor and shame are prominent in Judith, as they are in Esther and other texts in the Bible. Holofernes had shamed Israel because he "despised" it and also because he sent Achior to Bethulia "as if to his death." By bringing Achior in to identify the head of Holofernes, Judith begins the process of reversing the balance of honor and shame, which must be done publicly. Achior’s reaction is dramatic, even more dramatic than that of the Bethulians in 13:17. However, he escaped from close contact with Holofernes and had known the man face-to-face. Further, his stronger reaction—he actually collapses—convincingly confirms beyond doubt that the head is indeed that of Holofernes. In addition, it dramatizes the fulfillment of Holofernes’ foolhardy prediction that "you shall not see my face again from this day until I take revenge on this race" (6:5). It is very ironic that Achior immediately faints at the sight of Holofernes’ head, since Judith had been so bold and nerveless both in taking it and in handling it. Thus their expected gender roles have been reversed; and this is unusual in Jewish novels (cf., e.g., Esther fainting as she comes before the king, Add. Esth 15:7).

Achior blesses Judith, as did Uzziah and the people in chap. 13. One is reminded of the many blessings that occur in the final chapters of Tobit, but there the number of blessings is perhaps exaggerated for comic effect. In Judith the blessings match the drama and heroism of the moment. Achior’s blessing is interesting in that it is not what we would expect from an Ammonite: "Blessed are you in every tent of Judah." This signals Achior’s perception of the power and benevolence of Israel’s God, which he had interpreted for Holofernes in chap. 5. Achior also characterizes Judith as a heroic warrior: "those who hear your name will be alarmed." It is not simply that Judith has found an opportunity at this juncture in history to save her people; she is a heroine for the ages, capable of striking fear in the hearts of other enemies as well. But it is significant that Achior as well recognizes that the deliverance comes from both Judith and God: "When Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God." Although Judith credits God alone, neither Judith nor God is forgotten in any of the blessings by the others. It is sufficient evidence of God’s power and protection that Achior believes in God and is circumcised and joins Israel. Since Achior (or Ahikar) is a Jewish courtier in Tobit, it may be that these two novels share a tradition of the appropriation of the famous Assyrian courtier Ahikar (see Commentary on 5:5–21).

That Achior, an Ammonite, was circumcised appears to violate Jewish law, which forbids the admission of an Ammonite or a Moabite to the tenth generation (Deut 23:3). Was Achior past the tenth generation? Like Ruth, a Moabite, was Achior granted a special dispensation? It is probably simply the case that this Jewish novel allows for a romanticized, but fictionalized, entry of the famous Achior into the Israelite fold, as in Tobit. The same novel that could demonize "Nebuchadnezzar the king of the Assyrians" could idealize "Achior the Ammonite."


Achior’s conversion is one of the warmer moments in a book marked by satire and humor. It is briefly but provocatively told. The reason for his conversion is stated simply: "Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done." We are prepared for this conversion, however, by the relatively long speech of Achior in chap. 5.

Any scene of conversion brings to the fore issues of the meaning of religion for the audience, whether ancient or modern. It may be helpful to pause and consider other biblical accounts of conversion, for they reflect some significant differences from each other, and yet all contribute to a picture of conversion that is very modern. First of all, there is the moving depiction of Ruth’s conversion, which is addressed to her mother-in-law, Naomi, as Ruth’s representative of the Israelite faith: "Where you go, I will go.… Your people shall be my people, and your God my God" (Ruth 1:16 NRSV). Ruth, like Achior, is from an excluded ethnic group that had been an enemy of Israel. Both of their descriptions are short but somehow profound. And neither convert chooses at this time to state abstract articles of faith—they are entering a community that comes under the protection of a different understanding of God from the one they have known. Other conversion scenes include Abraham, who is the first to become a worshiper of God (Genesis 12); this becomes the coming-to-faith paradigm for Jews and Christians. The personal encounter with God marks it as different from Achior’s and Ruth’s, but it is in this respect similar to the description of Paul’s experience of the risen Lord in Acts 9. One other example may be helpful. The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26–40 is reading Isaiah, but is instructed by Philip concerning "the good news about Jesus." This is the only one of these scenes in which someone is catechized or instructed as preparation to conversion.

The various scenes focus on different aspects of conversion: direct encounter with God, joining a new community, catechesis. Which of these is the most important? Like all good literature, the various examples are more suggestive than descriptive in a journalistic way. By combining them, one would begin to get a fuller notion of the nature of what the new faith meant to those in the story, and what a new faith may mean for us today.

Before we turn from this scene of conversion, however, we should remember that different aspects of conversion are not just relevant for those who have converted; they also express the core beliefs of a religion and provide the psychological and reflective experience of coming to a new understanding of faith, even for those who have lived within a particular religion all their lives. In this core one usually sees the whole represented: The God of history is also the God of mercy, of life, of community, of creation. Coming to a new faith and renewing an old faith may be similar processes, and most people’s religious lives involve a number of "conversions" in the form of changes and renewals.

Achior’s own conversion scene, though quite simple, also implies more than meets the eye. He has already shown that he knows Israel’s history, and he is finally convinced to convert by the dramatic rescue of Israel through the hand of Judith. The brevity of the scene challenges the modern reader to ask, What is the core that would define my faith? What would make me convert? What would be the cinching evidence before our eyes that what God did in the past God is also doing today? Being manifest in nature? Transforming the world? Creating community? Bringing about justice? Entering into people’s lives? The story of the conversion of Achior can raise questions that address the very definition of the core of the religious life of people in the present world, both those who have converted and those who have not.

Judith 14:11–15:7, The Assyrians Discover Holofernes’ Headless Body and Are Put to Flight


14:11–18. The Bethulians follow Judith’s orders to the letter, and the Assyrians respond exactly as she predicted. The Assyrians at first are rousing their troops with the full expectation that they will destroy "these slaves." The story is told with some retardation of the plot, as the reader is treated to a full description of the Assyrian camp in preparation, knowing that they are about to discover what has happened. The message that the Israelites have appeared to challenge the mighty Assyrians is sent up the chain of command to a character we have come to know very well, Bagoas. He is hesitant to disturb Holofernes from what he assumes will be his satisfied repose with Judith. Bagoas’s reaction to seeing Holofernes’ headless body is not very different from Achior’s reaction to seeing Holofernes’ head, although it has the opposite import for their lives. The author of Judith does not dwell on Bagoas’s reaction, but shows its consequences. The reversal of honor and shame is spelled out: "The slaves have tricked us! One Hebrew woman has brought disgrace on the house of King Nebuchadnezzar." But the reversal is more dramatically—and humorously—brought home by Bagoas’s concluding remarks, the last we shall hear from him: "Holofernes is lying on the ground, and his head is missing!"

14:19–15:7. The Assyrians somewhat surprisingly believe Bagoas when he tells them that their leader has lost his head, and they immediately fly into a panic. The description of panic and consternation is similar to others in contemporary literature, such as 2 Macc 3:14–21 and 3 Macc 1:16–29, but the present text is less wordy, depicting in just a few verses the scattering of the Assyrian troops. The key to the routing of the Assyrians is seen in one sentence, "Overcome with fear and trembling, they did not wait for one another"—that is, because of their stark fear there was no unit of soldiers left to turn against the vastly outnumbered Bethulians; rather, all fled separately. The panic and routing of the Assyrians is not based on the appearance of an angel or any other kind of apparition, as it is, for example, in 2 Maccabees 3–4. The Vulgate does mention the appearance of an angel, as does Judas Maccabeus concerning the routing of Nicanor’s troops (1 Macc 7:40–42). Word was quickly sent to the nearby Israelite villages, who attacked the flanks of the retreating Assyrians. The villages mentioned are unknown, perhaps fictitious, introduced to give the local color of the area around the fictitious town of Bethulia. Well-known regions are then brought into the picture, Gilead and Galilee, as they join in inflicting heavy casualties until the Assyrians had gotten beyond the borders of Israel. The author has probably been influenced by the story of Abram (Abraham) pursuing the captors of Lot in Genesis 14, for in the LXX version Choba and Damascus appear, and the clause "they fell upon" them is rendered in the same way. This is another indication that the present author is working with the biblical text and not just oral-traditional models.

The revenge of the Israelites on the retreating Assyrians is noted, although figures are not given as they are in Esth 9:16. The plundering of the Assyrian camp is also emphasized, in contrast to Esth 9:10, 15–16, where it is stated that the Jews did not touch the plunder. Judith turns over to the Temple all the items that she has received from the spoils (16:19; cf. Josh 6:19, 24), but the other Israelites keep their plunder for themselves. First Maccabees 7:44–47 may have provided a model for this description, as it describes the enemy troops fleeing while being attacked on both flanks by Jews from the surrounding villages, followed by the plundering of the soldiers. The triumph and reversal in Esther are also very similar, in that in both texts, there is first the removal of the immediate danger (execution of Holofernes, execution of Haman), then a broader revenge on the multitude of followers.


It is generally a problem for the modern reader that a large part of the idea of deliverance in the Hebrew Bible involves taking vengeance on the enemies. One need only compare the beautiful first words of Ps 137:1, 4–5:

"By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither! (NRSV)

with the same psalm’s conclusion:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back

what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones

and dash them against the rock! (Ps 137:8–9 NRSV)

The expression of this kind of revenge seems horrifying. We have difficulty endorsing this kind of revenge, even though it has been in the twentieth century that the worst forms of violence have been unleashed by the nations that have laid claim to being the most "advanced." We rightly have reservations about the expression of vengeance, and must reflect on the use of power in order to balance it wisely against past wrongs.

The total destruction of a city, including the killing of all its inhabitants and the taking of all its property, was condoned in the ancient Near East and also in the Hebrew Bible. The "holy war" idea, or total ban, was part of the conquest theme; when the Israelites took possession of the promised land they were to destroy the cities totally, killing all the inhabitants and destroying the property and livestock (Deut 7:1–2; 20:16–18; Josh 6:19, 24). A partial ban was in effect against cities outside the promised land. According to this less stringent policy, all males in the city would be killed, but the women and children would be taken as slaves and the spoils collected and kept (Deut 20:10–15). Although these brutal policies were considered acceptable in the ancient Near East, it is disturbing to encounter them in our own Holy Scriptures. However, it is not clear that they were ever enforced as such. Some of the nations that God instructed the Israelites to annihilate in the programmatic statements about the conquest (e.g., Deut 7:1–2) were archaic names at the time of writing and not real nations that the Israelites would have known; others were still in existence, and so therefore had clearly not been destroyed. One of the messages of the text may be that because they were not annihilated, the peoples remained in the land to cause problems for the centralization of Israelite worship thereafter. As destructive as the Israelite wars were, the language of holy war is a language of hyperbole, often told looking back at an idealized time. It is also sometimes suggested that the conquest of Canaan took place at a "primitive" time in Israel’s history and was a necessary part of God’s ordained plan to provide a land of inheritance for the descendants of Abraham. As a result, the violence of the settlement is partially mitigated.

What may be more important, however, for interpreting this aspect of Judith is its genre. The book of Judith is an entertaining, high-spirited, and perhaps fictitious novel. The level of violence is not really the difference between the early and late texts, but the "seriousness" of the early texts and the belief that the violence was divinely authorized. The modern reader often feels unsure whether the comic nature of Judith (and also of Esther) excuses the violence as an extended happy ending or merely makes such violent notions of revenge more palatable. The effect of a text like Judith is to create one-dimensional characters representing good and evil, which then permits a one-dimensional solution to the problem of revenge: It is justified in an absolute way because the enemy is so deserving of such a punishment. It is this aspect that should give us pause as we consider the effects of perceiving our enemies to be one-dimensional figures. It is only a short step from perceiving a one-dimensional enemy to justifying a one-dimensional—that is, total—notion of revenge. As the technological means of exercising a total ban on a city or a nation have been brought into existence, the imperative falls upon us all the more urgently to discern the multidimensionality of those who might oppose us.


Judith 15:8–13, All of Israel Celebrates


That Bethulia has been tied by strong bonds to Jerusalem and the temple officials there has been emphasized often in Judith, and here the bonds are especially tight. The high priest Joakim and "the elders of the Israelites who lived in Jerusalem" come to Bethulia to witness and acclaim the actions of the local citizens. They give Judith her second blessing, which is also confirmed with the "Amen!" of the people. Verse 9 has been used in the Roman Catholic liturgy regarding the virgin Mary and Joan of Arc. The Israelites celebrate by plundering the enemy camp for thirty days. This will resonate in the reader’s mind with the thirty-day rest that Holofernes enjoyed while he collected supplies before turning toward the Israelites (3:10). Holofernes’ last rest before setting his face against the Israelites is thus balanced by the celebration of the plundering of his camp, in which his supplies are dispossessed. All of the riches of Holofernes’ own tent are given to Judith, which she loads onto her carts and mules to take, as we learn in 16:19, to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The women of Israel bless Judith and dance a special dance in her honor. There is a strong tradition in Israel of women dancing and singing victory songs and dances. The Song of Miriam at Exod 15:21 is sung after the pharaoh and his troops are drowned in the Red Sea. It follows immediately upon the Song of the Sea, which is quoted in Judith’s song in chap. 16. More typical of the victory songs is probably the song sung by the women after David slew Goliath (1 Sam 18:6): "The women came out of all the towns of Israel, singing and dancing … with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments" (NRSV). The tambourine is also known from ancient depictions found in archaeological excavations; it was a small hand drum without the metal rattles found on modern tambourines. The dance of Jephthah’s daughter and her companions is an interesting parallel because it also comes after a victory; yet, in this case it is also a lament because Jephthah has vowed to sacrifice as a thank offering the first person who comes out to meet him, who, unfortunately, is his daughter (Judg 11:29–40). Since the daughter’s virginity is emphasized, and since the dance is said to become an annual dance for the daughters of Israel, the sacrifice of the daughter seems to have become a special part of women’s spirituality. These passages provide some of the cultural background of victory songs and dances. In most cases, they are sung by women; and Cross and Freedman argue that Moses’ Song of the Sea was originally attributed to Miriam as well (as it is now at Exod 15:21). What is unusual is the use of wands and olive wreaths, which was originally a Greek practice. However, 2 Macc 10:7 and 3 Macc 7:16 indicate that during the Hasmonean period they had been adapted to Jewish practice as well.

Judith 15:14–16:17, Judith’s Victory Song


The book of Judith concludes with a hymn of thanksgiving, just as does Tobit. The interrelation of prose narrative and hymnic praise is common in the HB and the apocryphal books, but it is practically unknown in Greek literature.130 Important examples include Moses’ Song of the Sea in Exodus 15, the juxtaposition of Judges 4 and 5, Deuteronomy 32–33, 2 Samuel 22, Jonah 2, and the insertion of the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews in the Additions to Daniel. The structure of the hymn has been debated, as has its authorship. Is the song made of disparate parts? If so, were they composed by different authors and inserted at this point in the narrative? Was the story of Judith told in song before the prose narrative was written, as was likely the case with the Song of Deborah in Judges 5? We shall consider these questions as we analyze each of the parts in turn.

Two theories have been suggested for the structure of the Song of Judith. Jansen proposed that the song is composed of three separate hymnic fragments: (1) vv. 1–4, introduction to a thanksgiving psalm; (2) vv. 5–12, account of the story of Judith; and (3) vv. 13–17, enthronement hymn. Jansen asserts that parts of the Song of Judith may pre-date the book of Judith, but it is now a purely literary composition—that is, it may have arisen from hymnic traditions, but it is now a written piece that functions within the book of Judith. Particularly suggestive about this theory is the observation that not only are there differences between the three sections in terms of theme, but also vv. 5–12 contain unmistakable references to the story of Judith. Craven argues instead that this arrangement imposes artificial breaks in the text and that there are motifs that join these sections together. A better analysis, in her mind, would be the following: (1) vv. 1–2, hymnic introduction; (2) vv. 3–12, narration of the epic event; (3) vv. 13–17, hymnic response. This structure has similarities to Moses’ Song of the Sea in Exodus 15. Here it will be argued that Craven’s structure is ultimately more helpful, although the structure of the song is still somewhat irregular, and some of Jansen’s observations should not be overlooked. Skehan also argues that there is a general patterning of the Song of Judith on Moses’ Song of the Sea in Exodus 15. There is, first of all, an important parallel between Jdt 16:2 and Exod 15:3 in the LXX version: "For the Lord is a God who crushes wars." In Judith’s prayer at 9:2, she quoted a bit more of this passage, so the allusion to Exodus 15 is virtually certain. Further, in Exodus the hand of God finds expression in the hand of Moses, and this is similar to the emphasis on the hand of Judith in this book. The association of the Song of the Sea with Miriam also introduces a women’s festival.

However, it is possible that Skehan (and Craven following him) have overemphasized the relationship with the Song of the Sea. Even if Exodus 15 was alluded to in the Song of Judith, many other parallels in HB psalms can be detected, especially in vv. 13–17. Further, concerning the parallel between Miriam and Judith, as we have seen it was typical for women to be involved in the victory song. To be sure, there is one clear allusion to Exod 15:3 in the Song of Judith, but the author of Judith constantly includes words and phrases from biblical passages without the parallel necessarily carrying over to the entire chapter. There is really very little verbal or thematic agreement between the Song of Judith and the Song of the Sea that is not also present in the so-called enthronement psalms. These hymns sing the worship of God, who is victorious in a cosmic battle, and, as a result, rules or is enthroned in heaven. God is praised by those who have been saved and metes out punishment upon those who opposed God. The parallel to Moses’ Song of the Sea will thus be noted without an assumption that Judith’s song is modeled on it.

15:14. Judith is at the center of the book and of the song, and her position here as deliverer of "all Israel" is emphasized. Here we may compare the gathering and confession of the people in Ezra 10 and Nehemiah 8–9. In both cases it is a ceremonial gathering that is understood to represent all the people.

16:1–9. The song begins in a way typical of the victory songs in the HB, with a reference to tambourines and cymbals (see Commentary on 15:12). There is typical parallelism of lines—that is, in each of the pairs of lines, the second line repeats or parallels some of the motifs of the first:

Begin a song to my God with tambourines,

sing to my Lord with cymbals.

Raise to him a new psalm;

exalt him, and call upon his name.

"Song" and "tambourines" in the first line correspond to "sing" and "cymbals" in the second, while "raise" and "psalm" in the third line correspond in idea to "exalt" and "call" in the fourth line. This can be schematized as an AABB pattern, in which the first two lines have parallel terms or motifs, and the last two lines have different parallel terms or motifs. Consider also the AABB pattern in v. 3, with the following parallel motifs: the Assyrian came down/came down with myriads; their numbers blocked/their cavalry covered. As is often the case with Hebrew poetry, however, such neat parallelism is not maintained throughout the poetic composition. We find three roughly parallel lines in v. 2 and five in v. 4. Contrast this with the Song of the Sea, in which parallelism is used in a fairly consistent way. One rhetorical effect in the Song of Judith that does come through strongly, however, is the parallel use of a motif over a number of lines that is resolved with a strong exclamation. Note the AAAAA pattern in v. 4, which culminates in "But the Lord Almighty has foiled them by the hand of a woman" in v. 5; the AAA pattern in v. 6, which is followed by "but Judith … with the beauty of her countenance undid him"; and an even stronger crescendo, the AAAAAA pattern in vv. 7–9a, which climaxes in v. 9b: "and the sword severed his neck!" The loosely constructed stanzas utilize a series of parallel motifs, leading to a climactic affirmation of Judith’s heroic act.

We also detect in this section a number of motifs that were found in Judith’s prayer in chap. 9: the God who crushes wars, v. 2 and the myriad warriors and cavalry in v. 3 occur also at 9:7; the threat to the women and children in v. 4 occurs in 9:2 (but also, ironically, in Judith’s boast of what Simeon had done to the Shechemites in 9:4); and the reprise that God delivered the Israelites by the hand of a woman in v. 5 occurs at 9:10. One subtle difference, however, is that the theme of chap. 9 is that Judith will act by deceit, while in chap. 16 she has overcome Holofernes through her beauty.

16:10. There is no ready explanation for the reference to the Persians and the Medes. The Medes were destroyed in chap. 1 by Nebuchadnezzar, and so would presumably be viewed more sympathetically; and the Persians were mentioned earlier as one of the nations addressed by Nebuchadnezzar. The Persians and the Medes are often referred to together in texts of this period (e.g., Ezra 6:2; Esth 1:19; 10:2; Dan 5:28; 6:7), and so a conventional combining of their names would not be too surprising. But it is also quite likely that, since the core of the book of Judith may have arisen in the Persian period and referred to a Persian invasion (see Introduction), that background of the book has remained here in the song. That the Persians "trembled" and the Medes "were daunted" are motifs from the divine warrior hymns (see Commentary on 16:13–17).

16:11–12. In these two verses the author emphasizes the victory of the oppressed or the humble (ταπεινός [tapeinos] can be translated either way) over the haughty. This was a theme of Judith’s prayer in chap. 9 (esp. 9:11; see Commentary there). In the psalms and elsewhere there is often a reversal of the oppressed and haughty in the eyes of God, but in Judith it is a military victory as well. Judith has reversed the shame that Holofernes intended to inflict upon Israel and has inflicted it upon him: "Sons of slave-girls pierced them through." This hyperbole emphasizes that a woman has killed Holofernes and that tiny Bethulia has routed the mighty Assyrian army, but the image that it was accomplished by the sons of slave girls is intended to be one of shame.

16:13–17. This last section of the Song of Judith has a fairly consistent structure. After the introductory call to worship, each verse is a stanza composed of two central parallel lines. The parallel motifs are as follows: v. 13, "great"/"wonderful"; v. 14, "spoke and made"/"sent forth spirit and formed"; v. 15, "mountains shaken"/"rocks melt"; v. 16, "sacrifice is a small thing"/"fat of offerings is a little thing"; v. 17, "Lord will take vengeance"/"he will send fire and worms." In each verse there is a summary line after the two parallel lines (taking the first line of v. 14 as the summary line of v. 13). The only exception to this pattern is the transitional line at the beginning of v. 17, "Woe to the nations.…" Each stanza has parallels in hymnic traditions, many found together in one psalm or another.

Reference to the "new song" in v. 13 is a common call to worship in the book of Psalms (e.g., Pss 13:3; 40:4; 96:1; 149:1; cf. Isa 42:10). In regard to the connection between prose narrative and song in the biblical tradition, Weitzman notes a connection between the songs embedded in narrative, such as the Song of Judith, and the psalms: "Just as the Psalms were thought of as the prayers and songs of biblical heroes uttered at significant moments in their lives, so too the songs in biblical narrative were reread and rewritten in light of biblical psalmody." Thus, although the influence of Exodus 15 and Judges 5 on Judith 16 can be assumed, these are by no means the only influences, or even the main influences.

The creation by God’s Word (v. 14) is a common motif, found in Genesis 1 ("And God said, let there be …"), and in the enthronement psalms as well. Psalm 33:6 states: "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth" (NRSV).

The shaking of the mountains and the melting of the rocks (v. 15), or expressions like these, are often present in enthronement psalms as well (see Psalm 99:1: "The Lord is king; let the people tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!" [NRSV]). These motifs are sometimes part of that adaptation of the enthronement psalm called the divine warrior hymn, in which God must defeat enemies in heaven in order to be enthroned.136 Psalm 18:7 is particularly dramatic in this regard: "Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry" (NRSV). We find the motif of the earth quaking even when a human king is enthroned (1 Kgs 1:38–40).

The apparent critique of sacrifice in v. 16 has raised questions for some scholars, who wonder how such a devoted observer of Jewish cultic practices as Judith could question the value of sacrifice. One need only look down two verses to v. 18, the prolific sacrifices of the people, to find a striking contradiction to this verse. However, although sharp language about an overreliance on sacrifice is present in the HB (e.g., Ps 50:8–15; Hos 6:6, quoted in Matt 9:13; 12:7), the closest parallel to this passage is in Ps 40:6: "Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required" (NRSV). It is, perhaps, the remnants of an older psalm, or at least the effect of the psalm genre, that provokes this sentiment here, not a sudden and quite isolated desire by the author of the book of Judith to caution the readers about insincere sacrifice.

Ideas similar to this summary line ("whoever fears the Lord is great forever") are also found in one of the psalms mentioned above, Ps 33:18–19:

Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,

on those who hope in his steadfast love,

to deliver their soul from death,

and to keep them alive in famine. (NRSV)

This particular example is interesting because it includes not only the motif of the protection of those who fear God, but also the protection from death that could give rise to the hyperbole in Judith of being "great forever."

The motif of judgment (v. 17) also finds a parallel in enthronement psalms. The positive praise of God in some of the psalms turns to announcement of God’s terrible presence for those in heaven or on earth who oppose God (cf. Ps 96:13: "He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness" [NRSV]). The day of judgment in Judith might seem too eschatological for the hymns of praise, but the harsh judgment of the wicked can sometimes be found where God’s victory is seen eschatologically as the victory over the enemies in heaven and on earth, as in Isa 24:21, 23:

On that day the Lord will punish

the host of heaven in heaven,

and on earth the kings of the earth.

The Lord of hosts will reign

on Mt. Zion and in Jerusalem. (NRSV)

Isaiah 66:24 contains this as well as other important parallels to v. 17 in Judith:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh. (NRSV)

These examples push us to consider whether the book of Judith at this point is also expressing an eschatological, even apocalyptic, notion of the day of judgment. This idea has been argued by some scholars, but opposed by Enslin, who suggests that the author is simply reusing common traditions. This is probably the case, if only because there is nothing in the Song of Judith, or in the book as a whole, to match this notion; only 9:4–5 even approaches it. Verse 17 may use the same terms as in Isaiah 66, and may even capture the sense of apocalyptic judgment, but it stands alone in the book of Judith in this regard. It is likely used in its present position as a final warning of extreme judgment to come upon those, like Nebuchadnezzar, who rise up "against my people." Worms as a punishment is found elsewhere in this period (Isa 14:11; Sir 7:17; Acts 12:23; Testament of Job 20), but there may be a particular allusion here to the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the tyrant opposed in the Maccabean revolt, as recounted in 2 Macc 9:9.

Several aspects of vv. 13–17 indicate that this section may have been an independent enthronement psalm that was appropriated by the author of Judith to be used at this point in the novel: It contains many parallels to other enthronement psalms, the structure is different from vv. 1–12, and there is no reference to the narrative about Judith. Craven argues that two references to the fear of God in vv. 15–16 represent the culmination of the song and of the book as a whole. Although Nebuchadnezzar had laid claim in 2:5 to being the "lord of all the earth," the author affirms here that the lordship of God is the true religion. To be sure, within the present structure of the song, these lines function in this way; but the fear of God is also a common motif in the enthronement psalms, and so it is quite possible that we have here a fragment of a pre-existing psalm. (See Reflections at 16:21–25.)

Judith 16:18–20, Thanksgiving Offerings


The entourage of people from Bethulia makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bring offerings; it appears that both the women and the men in 15:12–13 have made the journey. They purify themselves to make the offerings—but is it because they have touched dead bodies (Num 19:11–22), or is it another example of the special piety reflected in Judith’s earlier asceticism? The answer is not clear. The offerings they bring are nearly identical to those offered by the high priest Joakim in 4:14 at the height of the crisis. A requirement of the ban, or חרם (ḥērem; mentioned in the Reflections at 14:19–15:7), is that the property of a defeated city is to be offered to God (see Josh 6:19, 24). Judith presents the inner canopy that she took from Holofernes’ tent as a special votive offering. The offering of significant items of defeated warriors is known from elsewhere (for example, David’s offering of the sword of Goliath, 1 Sam 21:9), but Judith offers, not Holofernes’ sword of power, but the canopy of his inner sanctum, which she penetrated to slay him. Even in death Holofernes is unmanned and shamed. The three-month celebration is exaggerated, but should be seen as a literary motif, and not intended as realistic. One should note, however, that it is still festive—that is, sacred time—and it is emphasized that Judith remains with them during this period. (See Reflections at 16:21–25.)

Judith 16:21–25, Memorial of Judith


Judith returns to her wealthy estate, but it is not clear that she returns to the same conditions of her ascetic discipline as described in 8:2–4. Levine points out the differences in the description here: Judith returns to her estate, but not necessarily to her tent; she no longer communes directly with God, but rather returns to contact with the society of Bethulia, even though she does not accept any of the many marriage proposals. She has evidently given up her special life of spirituality, but does not totally integrate into society. As can be seen in other cultures, it is common for the hero not to be able to integrate into society. The lack of integration, therefore, should not surprise us; but the lack of isolation, the lack of a special spiritual life does. Perhaps the author intentionally is choosing to be ambiguous about Judith’s precise relations to society, as she becomes memorialized. A similar technique can be detected at two important memorializing scenes in the NT. At Mark 16:8, the resurrection of Jesus is prepared for but never confirmed; the original text of Mark ends on a searching but ambiguous note: "They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid" (NRSV). Similarly, but less often noted, the memorializing of Paul at the end of Acts is ambiguous. Paul expounds to the Jewish leaders of Rome his message about Jesus, and some are convinced, while others are not. Paul condemned "this people’s" unbelief, but we are not told what became of those who believed, or whether there was any change of heart; rather, it is simply said that he continued preaching for two years "with all boldness and without hindrance." Thus the open-ended conclusion about the person being memorialized is more a norm than an exception in these texts.

What is emphasized is that she was greatly honored as a heroine both in life (v. 21) and in death (vv. 23–25). Her beauty is still irresistible, and her fame only increases. She gives away her wealth and frees her maid as benevolent gestures that, like the ancient code of honor, would establish her role as patroness. Thus she dies with an enormous store of honor and patronage, befitting the death and memorializing of the heroine. Her strength and independence as a woman—to the extent that in her genealogy she even takes precedence over her husband, Manasseh (8:1)—is now subtly brought back under control by the placing of her body in her husband’s burial cave. The Pandora’s box that was opened is now safely closed.

The last line, "No one ever again spread terror among the Israelites," is probably modeled on Judg 5:31: "The land had rest forty years" (see also Judg 3:11, 30). Within the book of Judith, however, it concludes the structural outline of the second half of the book by mirroring a line from the introduction of Judith: "No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion" (8:8).


The ending of the book of Judith is so positive concerning the memory of her that it raises the question of the position of Judith among the heroes of Judaism. Was she an intermediator figure, like Moses? Was she like one of the prophets or judges? Was she described in a way parallel to the Maccabean warriors and martyrs? In the Greek and Roman world, the heroes of the culture were honored in death and were thought to have lasting positive effects long afterward. Temples and monuments can still be found that attest to the strength of this tradition, and it likely influenced the later Christian devotion to saints’ tombs and the Jewish reverence for the graves of the rabbis. Reverence for the dead and the cult of dead ancestors may have also existed in ancient Israel, although evidence for this in some cases arises from the fact that it was vigorously condemned. Some special reverence for the revered dead must have remained, however, for even in the New Testament we see at issue the reverence for the tombs of the prophets (Matt 23:27).

Today as well it is partly through such memorializing experiences that a community—whether a local community or a whole nation—comes together and its values are reaffirmed. A memorial ceremony is a liturgy that enacts the community’s response to the death of a hero and the community’s creation of a memory of that person. The collective memory becomes more "real" in some cases than the actual person’s life, and it is reaffirmed in further memorials over the years. The somber reverence that today attaches to national cemeteries, monuments, and statues is vivid proof that we are addressing here a powerful part of a society’s consciousness of its past.

What, then, is the nature of the remembrance of Judith? Judith is honored during her lifetime, and she is buried in the cave of her husband, Manasseh, which may evoke for the readers Abraham’s purchase of the cave of Machpelah for Sarah’s burial. Throughout we have noted how Judith is depicted like one of the judges, who were raised up by God when the people cried out for help. In the book of Judith, God also hears the prayers of the Israelites (4:13), and, like the judges, Judith brings peace to the land for many years (16:25). Judith is clearly described as having an elevated place in the memory of Israel, stated as positively, for example, as that of Mordecai in Esth 10:3. But whereas Mordecai is described as a benefactor of Jews, he is not memorialized as directly, expecially not in terms of his death and burial. There was no cult described at the tomb of Judith as there was for Greek and Roman heroes, but her memory is kept and her tomb marked, as with the judges.

What kinds of values are memorialized in Judith? She is a more complex hero than is usually the case. She explicitly says that she uses deceit and beauty, but she is also a military heroine who coolly decapitates an enemy general and directs a major military attack. Her piety and her relation to God are the first priority in her life, and yet are the first things she risks losing—in appearance at any rate—in the interest of saving her people. In Judith, however, it is not just the individual heroine who is being memorialized, but the collective heroism of Israel and the collective religious values as well. Heroes are seen as partially responsible for our present well-being, and yet we do not just receive them as they are; we often ignore their inconsistencies and project onto them a loftier vision of what we think people are capable of. Abraham Lincoln, for example, possessed many fine qualities as a leader, but his memory in popular culture also became shaped by the values society projected onto him. And like the judges or Judith, Lincoln’s memory in popular culture takes on quasi-religious overtones, as his tomb is venerated as an American icon. In the collective memory, then, Judith becomes larger than life, even if she is a fictional character, and reminds us of the ways that our own heroes have been idealized as well.


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