We sing of the bravery of Judah Maccabee at Chanukah, but in tradition we have a heroine too – Judith – whose genealogy is given to 15 generations, presumably to dissociate her from the Canaanite wife of Esau who bears the same name. She is a heroine par excellence. She is independent of mind and action, a woman who believes in God but who also knows that God acts through human hands. She is prepared to be those hands, blood stained as they will be. She is a woman whose story deserves to be told, her actions save her people and she is unafraid of anyone: – the male elders in her city are challenged by her for their pusillanimous response to their situation; the enemy general’s plan is thwarted by her bold moves. She is brave, beautiful, intelligent, modest and practical. She is her own woman. Artists love her story and her powerful exploit can be seen through their eyes in painting and in sculpture. Only her own people – in particular the early rabbinic tradition – choose to downplay her, whether because of her modesty or her murdering or her independent spirit, only they know.
There are many variations of her story but she does not appear in rabbinic literature nor is her book in the biblical canon, but is relegated to the apocrypha. She disappears from the Jewish worldview for a thousand years, resurfacing in the eleventh century when the custom of reading a Hebrew text of her book on Shabbat Chanukah took hold, possibly because there are resonances of the Hasmonean revolt. The enemy Assyrian king is named Nebuchadnezzar and his general Holofernes – surely they are related to Antiochus Epiphanes and to his general Nicanor who is also beheaded and his head hung on the walls of Jerusalem by Judah Maccabee. The theme of an emperor who was determined to impose his worship on the subjected peoples is repeated here, along with the fear in Jerusalem that the Temple would be altered and the worship of God made to cease.
But the courage and ingenuity of Judith is at a different level to that of the protagonists of the Maccabean revolt. She is everything we might expect of a modern heroine. Judith has her own book; the earliest extant text is written in Greek and found in the Septuagint, the earliest Hebrew versions are medieval, although it was probably written in the late second Temple period.
Judith only appears in the book in the eighth chapter. Widowed suddenly three and a half years before the story starts, she lives the cloistered life of a virtuous woman, shut up with her maids in the upper part of her house, fasting except for Shabbat and new moons and festivals, a woman known to fear God. She is both wealthy and beautiful, a woman whose reputation for her godliness meant that no one had a bad word to say of her.
Holofernes is besieging the town of Betulia, and the townspeople, believing that God has abandoned them, petition their leaders to surrender to him, “For it is better, that being captives we should live and bless the Eternal, than that we should die, and be a reproach to all flesh, after we have seen our wives and our infants die before our eyes. We call to witness this day heaven and earth, and the God of our ancestors…to deliver now the city into the hand of the army of Holofernes that our end may be short by the edge of the sword, which is made longer by the drought of thirst.”
Uzziah, one of the rulers of the town, responds by playing for time: “Be of good courage, my brethren, and let us wait these five days for mercy from the Eternal” But Judith is having none of this setting a target for God to respond and instead suggests humility and prayer. She cites the greats of Jewish history – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, who suffered their trials and remained faithful to God. The city leadership agree with her words, and ask her, “a holy woman who fears God” to pray for them.
Judith tells them she will leave the city that night, they are not to know what she intends to do, but they must pray for her that her plan will succeed, and they must pray to God for their safety too. Uzziah agrees, telling her “Go in peace, and the Eternal be with you to take revenge of our enemies.”
It is an extraordinary exchange. Judith, beautiful wealthy and deeply religious, not only contradicts both the will of the people to surrender and the response of the elders to wait five days, but takes on the responsibility for ending the siege, and this intention is both acknowledged and agreed by the leadership. This is no little princess to be protected, but a woman of valour with her own agency and her own approach and strategy.
Wearing mourning clothing Judith prays in her home, and her prayer is unexpected – she asks God for the strength to be like her ancestor Shimon who had taken vengeance against the people of Shechem on behalf of his sister Dina. She asks God to hear her prayer, the prayer o a widow, and she understands God to know everything, past present and future. She asks God to strenghtn her in her fight against the enemy, in particular she asks God to help her to lie in order to destroy the enemy, and she hopes that “This will be a glorious monument for your name, when he shall fall by the hand of a woman.” She ends with a reference to the covenant, “Remember, O Eternal, your covenant, and put words in my mouth, and strengthen the resolution in my heart, that your house may continue in holiness, And all nations may acknowledge that you are God, and there is no other besides you”.
Then she washes and anoints herself, makes herself utterly beautiful and bedecks herself with jewellery – we are reminded of Esther in the harem – and then God even adds to her beauty so that no man could resist her. Taking wine and oil, figs and corn, she and her maid leave the city that night, watched by Uzziah and the elders.
Encountering the watchman of the Assyrians Judith says that she is surrendering to him and that she can show him how to take the city without loss of a single one of his men. Everyone notices her beauty, no one can resist her and soon she is inside the tent of Holofernes and he is intent on seducing her.
For four days she eats her own food rather than that of Holofernes, and keeps herself as a pure Jewish woman. On the fifth day, he was maddened with his desire and she agrees to drink wine with him – he drinks more than he ever has before and passes out. In one of the Hebrew versions of the story she has brought salty cheese with her in order to increase his thirst. Once he is insensible on his bed she prays silently in tears, only her lips moving, asking God for the strength to do what she must do to save her people. She took Holofernes own sword and beheaded him with two blows, wrapping the headless body in the material from the canopy over the bed and giving the head to her maidservant to carry with her. The two women left the camp as if to go pray, something they had evidently done each night, but this time they returned to their own city and demanded to be let in, saying God was with them, that God’s power had been exercised. They showed the men of the city the head of Holofernes, and she went on to say she had been protected by an angel the whole time, that she had been protected from the lewd intentions of Holofernes.
Judith was praised and lauded by the city leaders, blessed and extolled as a servant of God whose name would never be forgotten. Her plan that the death of the general would send his army into fear and disarray came to pass and they ran away, hotly pursued by the townspeople. A great victory was claimed over the Assyrians, their camp was despoiled “And Joachim the high priest came from Jerusalem to Betulia with all the elders to see Judith. And when she came out to him, they all blessed her with one voice, saying: You are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the joy of Israel, you are the honour of our people”
The book ends with the song of Judith, and with an endnote telling us that in her lifetime and for years afterwards Israel dwelt in security, that her name and acts were known throughout the land, that she gave her maid her freedom, and that she died aged 105 years old and was buried next to her husband. Her chastity is emphasised repeatedly, her humility and her love of God. Intriguingly the last verse tells us “the day of the festivity of this victory is received by the Hebrews in the number of holy days, and is religiously observed by the Jews from that time until this day.”
The story of Judith echoes so many other stories of women who change the course of history in biblical and extra biblical texts. From Sarah onwards we see the resonances – the use of beauty so dangerous their men might be damaged because of it. We hear the power of Deborah and Miriam in her songs, the deception of Rebecca in her deception of Holofernes, the silent prayer of Hannah resonates through the second prayer of Judith and of course Esther, the beautiful woman whose closeness to the king saved the Jewish people, and whose actions are to be celebrated for all time. Judith takes her place in the roll call of honour of women whose actions pivot the history of the Israelite people, a roll call that grows longer as we look more closely at our texts. The stories and the voices of these women call to us to be remembered and to shape us and our understanding of our history. This Chanukah, find a version of the story of Judith to read, and give voice to her once again.