Judith, God Saves Through a Woman (another Legendary Woman on the Family Tree)Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Church History, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Ministry, Mission, Women
Judith is another semi-biblical lady that has suffered the same fate among modern conservative Christians as Susanna. Judith is found in the Apocrypha and like Susanna was quite popular among early Christians. The book itself was written in Hebrew between 200 and 100 B.C. with most scholars preferring mid-century. Modern scholarship has classified the story as historical fiction but that Judith was likely a real person. There are a number of glaring historical blunders that are thought to have been committed purposefully. At any rate the book is recognized as a classic of irony and story telling.
Judith is the story of the conflict between the dominant pagan culture and the God of Israel. This conflict is told through eyes of a widow named Judith. The story falls in two basic parts. The Assyrians have waged war on the Jews (ch’s 1-7), the second relates the deliverance wrought by God through Judith (8-16).
The arrogant king, Nebuchadnezzar (pictured as ruling the Assyrians), seeks satisfaction of a personal vendetta against Israel. He sends his best general, Holofernes, with 120,000 foot soldiers and an additional 12,000 cavalry.
Meanwhile in a sleepy town known as Bethulia, the citizens, fearful that the Assyrians would defile the Temple of God, decide not to surrender to Holofernes. They prepare for a long siege. The town seeks God’s favor through fasting and sackcloth (4.1-15). Forty days into the siege the city is out of food and begins to loose heart and the elders decide to surrender to Assyria.
At this point we are introduced to the “Unlikely Source” of God’s salvation: an aged but beautiful widow named Judith. When this widow heard the decision of the elders to surrender she stepped out of her “traditional” bounds. She summoned the elders and upbraids them for their lack of faith. She said the assembly,
“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 … You cannot plumb the depts. of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?” (8.12-14)
Judith volunteers for a dangerous mission: to be used by God to defeat the mighty Assyrian army. She prays. She emphasizes her weakness and vulnerability but also expresses amazing confidence in God who is “God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak” (9.11).
Judith uses the weakness of Holofernes, his arrogance and his desire for her beauty, to bring him down. She says in a wonderful double entendre “If you follow out the words of your maid-servant, God will accomplish something though you” (11.6). God did accomplish something through Holofernes but it was not what he dreamed off. In one of the most painted scenes in western art, Judith decapitates a drunken Holofernes. The mighty Assyrian army was brought low by a lowly woman. The book ends with Judith living faithfully in her husbands memory and with a magnificent hymn.
Changing Views of Judith
In her own day Judith was praised as “blessed are you … above other women” (13.18, cf. Lk 1.42). Her story was an inspiration to Jews living in the time of the Maccabean persecution and was spread throughout the Jewish (was for centuries associated with Hanukkah) and early Christian world.
When the first century Roman elder, Clement, wrote to Paul’s old church in Corinth around A.D. 95 he encouraged them to heed the example of selflessness, courage and prayer of Judith. Assuming they know who she is, Clement writes,
“Many women being strengthened through the grace of God have performed many manly deeds. The blessed Judith, when the city was beleaguered, asked of the elders that she might be allowed to go forth into the camp of the stramgers. So she exposed herself to peril and went forth for love of her country and of her people which were beleaguered; and the Lord delivered Holofernes into the hand of a woman” (1 Clement 55).
Fulgentius (A.D. 462-530ish), a North African Christian, praised Judith to his flock,
“Chastity went forth to do battle against lust, and holy humility forward to the destruction of pride. Holofernes fought with weapons, Judith with fasts; he in drunkenness, she in prayer. Accordingly, a holy widow accomplished by virtue of chastity what the whole people of Israel were powerless to do. One woman cut down the leader of such a great army, and restored unhoped-for freedom to the people of God.”
Many other early Christian writers (Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, etc) appeal to the testimony of this legendary woman of faith.
While Clement praises Judith, even her “manly” deeds of deliverance and risk taking, modern writers have been less kind to Judith (especially 19th century and early 20th century). These writers often have a deep vein of anti-semiticism and certain views of women too. Edwin C. Bissell, writing from 1886, demonstrates a radically different point of view on Judith … a view reflecting more his Victorianism than the reality of Judith and her times.
“The character [of Judith], moreover, is not simply objectionable from a literary point of view, but even more from a moral stand-point … In fact, it would seem to have been a matter of chance that Judith escaped an impure connection with Holofernes … when she went to his tent … Hers was a deliberately planned assassination. It was attempted at the imminent risk of sacrificing her own purity. It was carried out by a series of deceptions which would do credit, not to a woman, but a master of finesse …” (E. C. Bissell, The Book of Judith, p.163)
Clearly for Bissell Judith had crossed the line of what is acceptable for the “fairer” sex! But that did not seem to trouble anyone in the early Church nor for many other centuries. Martin Luther, whose views on the Apocrypha are not always correctly stated among Evangelical apologists concluded that the story of Judith was
“[A] fine, good, holy, useful book, well worth reading by us Christians. For the words spoken by the persons in it should be understood as though they were uttered in the Holy Spirit by a spiritual, holy poet or prophet, who in presenting such persons in his play, preaches to us through them” (Preface to the Book of Judith, Luther’s Works, 35, pp. 338-339).
Judith was immortalized as one of the greatest of the silent movies to grace the silver screen. You can see scenes, reviews and even order Judith of Bethulia filmed in 1914.
Judith is a magnificent story of a legendary woman of faith. Her strength and courage inspired faith in Christians for centuries and in many languages. May her story be renewed among those of faith today. Lord we thank you for these women on the family tree.
Art from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Resources on Judith include deSilva’s Introducing the Apocrypha (mentioned in previous post). The NRSV is the best English translation. David deSilva’s article “Judith the Heroine? Lies, Seduction, and Murder in Cultural Perspective” in Biblical Theology Bulletin 36 (Summer 2006), 55-61 is most helpful in keeping Judith with Second Temple Judaism. Carey A. Moore’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Judith is very helpful. A wonderful collection of essays has been edited by James C. VanderKam, No One Spoke Ill of Her: Essays on Judith originating from a SBL seminar.