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Judith the saviour

Judith was a heroine, a warrior: her profile reflects the myth and the archetype of the hero but in the feminine gender. This is far from being something new in the Bible, or indeed elsewhere in the world today where the number of heroines in comic strips, in the cinema, in television series and in novels is increasing. The biblical Judith gives her name to the Book which tells her story, as was the case with several men, prophets (Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jonah) or figures of the world of wisdom (Job), as well as other women (Ruth and Esther).

Francisco Goya “Judith and Holofernes” (1819-1823)

Judith is presented as the daughter of Merari and the widow of Manasseh. The narrator adds a genealogy of 16 generations, one of the longest in the Hebrew Bible. The genealogy or list of ancestors serves to emphasize a person’s importance. The great biblical heroes, such as Abraham, the kings and numerous leaders all have a genealogy, but it is somewhat rare that a genealogy should be allocated to a woman. Judith’s genealogy makes her a figure who can measure up to the great biblical heroes.

The name “Judith” derives from the feminine Hebrew word yehûdit, which means “Jewish woman”. It is not a common biblical name, but neither is it unusual. Esau’s wife, daughter of a Hittite called Beeri, is also called Judith. The possibility that Judith might be a symbolic name or a popular metaphor is confirmed by other names in the book, such as that of the town Bethulia, unknown to scholars although the text sets it to the north of Jerusalem. Bethulia might be a pseudonym of Bethel or a metaphorical representation of the Jewish people. It is likely that this same name Bethulia derives from bethulah, a Jewish term meaning “virgin” or “damsel”.

Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar’s army, sought to conquer Israel. He had invaded other countries with notable success, but in his military offensive he came up against the resistance of a small Jewish town called Bethulia. Preparing to destroy it, he subjected it to a harsh siege. Bethulia was in serious difficulty and was beginning to despair. When its inhabitants, in agreement with their chiefs, were on the point of surrendering, Judith, a young widow, appeared who challenged all of them in the Lord’s name and hatched a plot to defeat the enemy. Making use of her beauty and her shrewedness, Judith infiltrated Holofernes’ camp and, once she had won his trust, killed him by cutting off his head. Thus Judith provoked the flight of the enemy army and obtained the victory of Bethulia which acclaimed her as a great heroine and gave thanks to God.

Giovanni Francesco Romanelli “Judith and Holofernes”

The Book of Judith, like its subject and like Judith herself, is not historical according to the concept of history that we have today. Rather, it can be defined as a story, a short folktale which tells of the exemplary action of a devout widow who, sustained by her religious faith, takes the courageous decision to defeat the enemy. There are some people who believe this is a kind of folkloristic and epic tale, combining the story of the faithful wife with that of the woman warrior. However the Book of Judith is meant as historical, given that it includes some well known facts, as well as others which are entirely unknown, if not improbable, concerning race, people, places and names. Moreover its subject is perfectly credible and plausible. Any miraculous intervention by God is missing in this tale. Similarly absent from it are rites, frequent prayers and fasting as factors which have a major influence on the victory; rather, it is the heroine’s courage and that of her people which defeat the enemy. Thus it should be remembered that the narration may contain a historical core, an account of a seige and victory over the enemy by the hand of a woman which occured in the Persian epoch, in the reign of Artaxerxes iii, a period in which the facts are temporally placed. However the Book of Judith contains a large number of “errors”, probably deliberate, but many of them full of irony. In fact irony pervades the entire work, its subject, its discourses and its characters. Holofernes, for example, is a character presented ironically, since having conquered the whole of the west he did not succeed in subduing a small town like Bethulia or in dominating a woman who killed him with his own sword.

Judith is conceived of and treated as a paradoxical character: a childless widow, it was she who gave her people physical life – by overcoming the enemy – and spiritual life – by restoring to them faith and hope in God. Beautiful and desirable, she lived as if she was still marriageable. A rich woman, she spent most of her life fasting. With a frail and very feminine appearance, she was capable of brutally killing with her own hands the leader of an exceedingly powerful army. Judith’s relationship with the rest of mankind was also profoundly ironic, with an irony that reaches its apex in her relationship with Holofernes, above all when the author uses erotic terms to describe his brutal assassination.

Lesser characters too are presented in an ironic light: Achior, a warrior by profession, fainted at the sight of the Holofernes’ decapitated head; a man of action he proved to be a sage; a pagan Ammonite, he showed greater faith in the God of Israel than the Iraelites themselves and than the Jewish teachers in Bethulia. Uzziah, in conformity with the feminine stereotype, hid behind the walls of the town while Judith, in conformity with the male stereotype, went out to face the enemy openly. The whole Book thus appears to be pervaded by an ironical sense of reversal, its hermeneutical axis.

The history of how the Book and the character of Judith have been received is complex. The Jews have had difficulty in accepting it as an inspired book, nor was it easy to insert it into the Christian canon. Some difficulties are linked to the character of Judith, considered morally questionable because she practised violence, and dangerous because she was a free and autonomous woman. The moral doubt about her violence is rooted in her condition as a woman, given that many violent male biblical characters have not been called into question from the moral standpoint.

The Book of Judith presents a rich biblical intertextuality, a sort of condensation of allusions, evocations, themes, models, characters and situations. We mention here only the female intertextuality which makes us think of Judith as of a sort of anthology of biblical texts concerned with women. Thus in the background of the character and her actions we find Miriam, Deborah, Jael, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Tamar, Naomi, Ruth, Abigail, Bathsheba and others. For example, Judith recalls the shrewdness of Sarah, Rebecca, Tamar and Delilah in achieving their purposes with intelligent deception. And, like them, she ends by having an enormous influence on her people’s history, as well as on the future of Bethulia and of Israel.

Judith was a childless widow, as were Naomi, Ruth, Abigail and Bathsheba. Like them she showed special skill in creating a path for herself and for all the people. It is motherhood which distinguishes these women from her since, whereas Bathsheba and Ruth – and through her, Naomi – sooner or later give birth to biological children, Judith, closer to the figure of Deborah (cf. Judges 5-7) is mother of the people.

Analogies also exist between Judith and Ruth, the other childless widow, in passages which seem to echo the Book of Ruth. Holofernes said to Judith “Your God shall be my God”, the same words which Ruth addressed to Naomi; and we read “Then all the women of Israel gathered to see her, and blessed her, and some of them performed a dance for her”, recalling what happened at the end of the Book of Ruth. Then if we remember that Judith’s name calls to mind that of Esau’s Hittite wife, the analogy with Ruth seems even more obvious, given that the latter was a Moabite. Judith was Jewish, but ironically remembered and mentioned two foreign women who contributed to building or edifying the house of Israel. Furthermore, Judith, as did Ruth with Boaz, lay down at Holofernes’ feet; nor should we forget that at the end of the canticle which the women dedicate to Judith, there is a reference to her sandal which calls to mind the ratification of Boaz’ rite as go’el.

The analogies with the story of Deborah and Barak and of Jael and Sisera are also worth mentioning. Judith ended by eclipsing Achior just as Deborah eclipsed Barak. However, the most interesting parallel lies in the prophetic role of both these women with regard to the people’s chiefs. Judith reprimanded the chiefs of the people for their scant faith, just as Deborah reprimanded Barak. And, in reading of Judith’s undertakings it is impossible not to remember Jael (and also Delilah). Jael, like Judith, having won the trust of an enemy general, seduces him and deceives him so as to defeat him more easily. Like Judith, Jael too was acclaimed by the women and if Judith brought lasting peace to Israel it was said of Jael that she offered the people rest for 40 years.

We conclude by mentioning another aspect of Judith concerning gender roles. Achior, an atypical man, evolved in character towards a gradual feminization whereas Judith, an atypical woman, at specific moments adapted to the female prototype, using it as a means of action. They both showed a certain degree of transgression. Both may be placed on the boundary of the gender culturally assigned to them and both went beyond the socially established limits.

Mercedes Navarro Puerto

The author

Mercedes Navarro Puerto taught Old Testament Theology and the Psychology of Religion at the Pontifical University of Salamanca. She is an Honorary Professor of the Department for Hebrew and Aramaic studies at the Complutense University of Madrid. She is also currently Director for the Spanish-language edition of the international and multilingual collection La Biblia y las mujeres [The Bible and Women: an Encyclopedia of Exegesis and Cultural History ]. Her most recent publication is Violencia, sexismo, silencio. In-conclusiones en el libro de los Jueces (Evd, 2013). 




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 19, 2020