February 1, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Judith defeats Holofernes

John F. Fink(Twenty-fifth in a series of columns)

The Book of Judith is another religious novel in the Old Testament. The events described were not part of the Israelites’ history. It was written as a pious reflection on God’s abiding presence among the Jews. The name “Judith” means “Jewess.”

Holofernes, the commander of the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar, has led an overwhelming force against the vassal states that refused to help in the Assyrian war against the Medes.

The Jews stubbornly resist Holofernes at Bethulia. Holofernes lays siege to the town, cuts off the water supply and begins to starve the people. After 34 days, the Jews are ready to surrender (Jdt 8:1–15:3).

Judith is the widow of a man named Manasseh, and she is described as “beautifully formed and lovely to behold.” But for three years and four months, she had worn sackcloth and widow’s clothing. She was known to be a God-fearing woman.

When she learned that the elders of Bethulia were ready to surrender, she called them to her house and gave them a lengthy speech about how God was with the Jews as long as they didn’t offend him. She asked them to let her out of the city and not to surrender for five days. She said the Lord would rescue Israel by her hand.

The elders agreed. Judith took off her widow’s clothing and anointed her body with rich ointment. She put on the festive attire she had worn while she was married. She arranged her hair attractively and put on her finest jewelry. As the story says, “She made herself very beautiful, to captivate the eyes of all the men who should see her” (Jdt 10:3–4).

Thus, she left Bethulia with her maid and made her way to the enemy camp. When she was captured, she asked to be taken to Holofernes, who was taken by her beauty. She praised the great King Nebuchadnezzar and said that she would help Holofernes defeat the Jews.

Holofernes gave her a room next to his and asked her to join him at table, but she insisted on eating only the provisions that her maid had brought in a food pouch. She asked only to be permitted to go out each night to wash and say her prayers. Holofernes ordered his men not to hinder her coming and going.

On the fourth day, Holofernes gave a banquet and asked Judith to join him. She did, after putting on all her best clothing and jewelry. During the banquet, Holofernes drank more wine than he had ever drunk before. Then the servants withdrew, leaving Holofernes and Judith alone.

Holofernes had passed out. Judith took his sword and, after saying a prayer, struck him twice in the neck, cutting off his head. She quickly took his head and passed it to her maid, who put it in her food pouch. Then the two women went out as they were accustomed to do for prayer. Unhindered by Holofernes’s men, they made their way back to Bethulia.

With Holofernes dead, his army went into confusion and the Jews overwhelmed them. †

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