Judith: Unknown to Us, Known to the Early Church
When you think about faithful women of God, there are probably a number of names that immediately come to mind: Deborah, Ruth, Esther, and Mary. But for many early Christians, there was another name that would have quickly come to mind: Judith. Clement of Rome, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, and Jerome all discuss the book containing her story. And in fact, “with the exception of Jerome, most Western church fathers treat the book as canonical scripture” (deSilva p.109). So, who was Judith? Find out on today’s, ‘Exploring the Apocrypha.’
Is Judith History?
From verse 1, it’s obvious that this is not a work of history. It begins with these words, “It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Ninevah.” It might as well begin with the phrase, “Once upon a time.” Why? Nebuchadnezzar was never the ruler of Assyria. He was the ruler of Babylon. So, when approaching this book, it’s important to recognize right from the start that this is a story meant to teach spiritual lessons, not a history book.
Judith tells the tale of Nebuchadnezzar’s wicked general, Holofernes. Chapters 1-7 slowly unfold the dangers that this man and his army present to the people of Israel and,in particular, Judith’s hometown of Bethulia. Chapters 8-16 focus on Judith, her devotion to God, and her victory over the enemies of Israel.
A Quick Summary
When she gets the news that Holofernes and his army are camped not far from her home, Judith prayerfully weeps before God. But then, she transforms into an ancient, female ‘James Bond.’ She “took off her widow’s garments, bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment.” Then, she dresses to kill, literally. Judith goes down to Holofernes’ camp and claims to have information that will help him defeat the Israelites. Holofernes, unaware of Judith’s plans, brings her in, wines and dines her for several days and finally makes his move.
He tells one of his assistants, “Go and persuade the Hebrew woman who is in your care to join us and to eat and drink with us. For it would be a disgrace if we let such a woman go without having intercourse with her. If we do not seduce her, she will laugh at us.” Unfortuanately for Holofernes, things don’t exactly go as he planned. You see, Holofernes enjoys wine as much as he enjoys women. And that’s a problem.
Judith is left alone with him but he passes out drunk before he can make his move – so Judith makes hers. She takes his sword, cuts off his head, and goes back to town, with head in hand, to deliver the good news. Early the next morning, the Assyrians wake up to the sound of marching Israelites and when they go to rise their general, they find the headless horseman. Fear runs through the camp and the Assyrians are forced to flee. Victory has come – all because of the faithfulness of Judith.
But Is It Worth Reading?
As you read Judith, you’ll hear echoes of the Old Testament again and again. The account of Jael and Sisera in Judges shines through in places. Likewise, there are a number of places where allusions to Moses, Abraham, and other heroes of the faith are evident. This is a story steeped in the history of Israel and God’s work.
Judith’s strong heroine, its interesting plot, and its theme of faithfulness to God as a means of victory all combine to make this book well worth reading. Especially powerful is Judith’s rebuke of Bethulia’s cowardly leadership:
Listen to me, rulers of the people of Bethulia! What you have said to the people today is not right; you have even sworn and pronounced this oath between God and you, promising to surrender the town to our enemies unless the Lord turns and helps us within so many days. Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs? … God is not like a human being, to be threatened, or like a mere mortal, to be won over by pleading. Therefore, while we wait for his deliverance, let us call upon him to help us, and he will hear our voice, if it pleases him. – Judith 8:11-17
Judith is worth telling and retelling along with other tales of faith like Pilgrim’s Progress or Paradise Lost; not as historical fact, but as a work of fiction that encourages and teaches. As I said regarding Tobit, Judith is not scripture. But it is worth reading and considering – even if only once.
May we emulate the faith and boldness of Judith – always willing to speak the truth of God’s victory, especially when others would rather surrender.
Want to Read it for Yourself?
If you’d like to read Judith, you can find it online here.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of the entire Apocrypha, you can get it from Amazon, here.