For modern readers, if the details of a story do not fit within a particular time-line or the content seems so unbelievable as to be impossible, it is believed that this story is fiction. Fiction generally lends itself to the belief that the story is not true, so the content should be understood as simply a story. This was not necessarily true for those who were alive at the time that the Bible stories were written.
The Book of Judith tells the story of a woman who trusted in God so completely that she was able to overcome her enemies and save her town from the wrath of the Assyrian army. The historical facts are actually more of a compilation than an actual time-line. Some of the events may have been taken out of order and others would not have occurred at this point in history; however, that is not important to the story.
Also, Judith is not contained in the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures, which is an interesting point given her role in helping to overcome the Assyrians. The reason for this is that there is no original Hebrew manuscript of this story, since it was written in Greek. The unknown author was writing to the Jews in the diaspora (those who had been brought to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC).
The story begins with King Arphaxad having built a wall fifty cubits high, fifty cubits wide, three cubits thick, and six cubits long built around the Median city of Ecbatana. Then the king waged war against King Nebuchadnezzar of Assyria. Nebuchadnezzar sent an order to all the areas around Ecbatana asking for assistance, but the whole region disregarded the order. They sent back his messengers empty-handed and in disgrace.
Without any outside assistance the Assyrians fought against Arphaxad and defeated him in battle. He took control of Ecbatana, captured its towers, and plundered its markets. He captured Arphaxad in the mountains of Ragau and struck him down with a spear. Then Nebuchadnezzar returned to Nineveh, capital city of Babylon, and there he and his troops rested and feasted for one hundred and twenty days.
After the feast was over, Nebuchadnezzar decided that he would teach the nations of the west a lesson for not supporting him in battle. He told his general, Holofernes, to take one hundred twenty thousand soldiers and twelve thousand cavalrymen and march against all the nations of the west which refused to help the Assyrians. If the nation yields itself to Holofernes, he is to hold them captive until the king arrives, otherwise he is to destroy and plunder the city.
Holofernes takes one hundred twenty thousand soldiers, twelve thousand archers on horseback, an enormous quantity of camels, donkeys, and mules for transport, and countless numbers of sheep, oxen, and goat for food as well as ample rations for everyone and a large amount of silver and gold. Holofernes and his army attacked one city after another as they headed west from Nineveh. Tyre and Sidon were so afraid that they offered their entire city and all its people and contents to Holofernes rather than face his wrath.
The city of Judea received word that Holofernes and his army were on their way and the people were extremely scared. They immediately went out and secured all the hilltops as a defense against the Assyrians. The high priest, Joakim, told them to seize the mountain passes since that would cut off access to the city. They were deeply concerned that not only the city, but the Temple in Jerusalem, would be lost if Holofernes succeeded. Everyone in the city put on sackcloth and prayed to God that the city might be spared. They even draped the altar in sackcloth and prayed to God that the city would not be plundered and the people taken away as slaves.
Holofernes received word that the Israelites were preparing for war. They had closed down the mountain passes and secured the hilltops. The general called together all the princes of Moab, the commanders of Ammon, and the governors of the coastland and asked, “What people is this that live in the hill country? What towns do they inhabit? How large is their army and in what does their power and strength consist? Why have they alone, of all the people living in the region, refused to come out and meet me?” (Judith 5:3-4)
Then Achior, leader of the Ammonites, explained to Holofernes the history of how these people had left the area of Chaldea and went to Mesopotamia. How they left there and went to Egypt and how their God heard their cry while they were being exploited in Egypt and they were finally released and that after crossing the Jordan they took control of all of the hill country.
He told the general that as long as these people remained faithful to their God He would support them and if the Assyrians go up against them while they have their God’s support the Assyrians would be the laughingstock of the world.
Needless to say, Holofernes was not happy hearing this. He was angry that Achior had suggested that he not make war against the Israelites because their God would defend them. For Holofernes, there was no other god but King Nebuchadnezzar. He ordered that Achior be taken from his sight, bound, and turned over to the Israelites.
The Israelites came down from their city, found Achior, and took him back with them. Achior sat down in the midst of all the people and told them what had taken place in Holofernes’ war council. When the people heard this, they cried out to God for deliverance from their enemies. They reassured Achior, and praised him highly. King Uzziah took him from the assembly to his own house and gave a banquet for the elders, and all that night they called on the God of Israel for help.
The next day Holofernes ordered all of his men to move against Bethulia, the city of King Uzziah. The people went out, stripped the land clear, seized their weapons, kindled fires in the towers, and remained on guard all night.
On the second day, the leader of the Moabites came to Holofernes and offered him a plan so that none of the Assyrians would be lost and the city of Bethulia would fall quickly. He suggested that they send some of their men north into the hill country to make sure that the Israelites could not escape and that they cut off their water supply. This would force the Israelites to surrender once their people began dying of thirst and hunger in the streets. Holofernes liked this suggestion and he did as the Moabites had recommended.
The Israelites once again called out to God, because their courage had failed. Their cisterns were dry, water was being rationed, their children were becoming listless and the young men and woman were fainting in the streets from a lack of water. The people began to turn against Uzziah saying, “You have done us a great injury by not making peace with the Assyrians.” Even though the people were losing hope, King Uzziah said, “Courage, my brothers and sisters! Let us hold out for five more days; by that time the Lord our God will turn his mercy to us again, for He will not forsake us utterly. However, if these days pass by and no help comes for us, I will do as you say.”
In the town of Bethulia there was a young widow named Judith whose husband, Manasseh, had died earlier during the barley harvest of heat stroke. Manasseh had left her well provided for. She was not only financially well off, but beautiful in appearance. No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion.
When Judith heard what had been said by the elders of Bethulia she asked to meet with them. She said, “Men of Bethulia, what you have said is not right! You have sworn an oath and promised to surrender the town if God does not help us within so many days. If you cannot understand the workings of the human mind, how can you possibly understand the mind of God? You cannot put God to the test.”
Judith then suggested that she and the leaders should serve as an example to the people. She suggested that in spite of everything which they had said they should thank God and keep in mind what God had done to their ancestors, like Abraham and Jacob. How He had put them to the test and then delivered them.
King Uzziah said that everything Judith said was true and that she had shown her wisdom many times before. He explained why he made the oath and said, “Since you are a God fearing woman, pray for us, so that the Lord may send us rain to fill our cisterns.”
Judith said, “Stand at the city gates tonight so that I may go out with my maid; and in the days after which you have promised to surrender the town to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand. Only, do not try to find out what I am doing; for I will not tell you until I have finished what I am about to do.” She then returned home and prayed to God that He might give the Assyrians into her hands.
After praying to God, Judith bathed herself, anointed herself with precious oils, put on the festive garments she wore for her husband, put sandals on her feet, and made herself look very beautiful. When King Uzziah and the elders saw her at the town gate dressed as she was they were astonished by her appearance and said, “May the God of our ancestors grant you favor and fulfill your plans, so that the people of Israel may glory and Jerusalem be exalted.”
They opened the town gates and kept watch over Judith and her maid until they could no longer see them. As the women were going along through the valley, an Assyrian patrol met up with them and took them into custody. They asked her to what people did she belong? Where was she coming from and where was she going? Judith told them that she was a Hebrew from Bethulia, but that she was fleeing because they were planning to hand the town over to the Assyrians.
When the men heard what she had said and saw how beautiful she was they said that she had done the right thing by coming down to see their lord. They took her to the tent of Holofernes. They told her not to go in fear because he would not hurt her once she told him what she had said to them.
They sent one hundred men to escort Judith and her maid to Holofernes. The men came out from their tents to see her. They admired her beauty and judged the people of Bethulia based upon her appearance. They wondered how anyone could despise such a place which has women such as these.
The men brought Judith to the tent of Holofernes. When she came into his presence, he marveled at her appearance. She prostrated herself before him, but his slaves raised her up. He said, “Take courage, woman, for I have never hurt anyone who chose to serve Nebuchadnezzar, king of all the earth.” He told her that no one would hurt her. Judith praised him for his wisdom and skill and his leadership as a warrior.
She then recounted what Achior had told the city elders. She confirmed what Achior had said to him regarding the fact that her people could not be defeated if they have not turned away from God. She then said that since their food supply had run out they were prepared to kill their livestock and eat what was not permitted in the sight of the Lord so they are planning on sinning before Him. Holofernes was pleased to hear this and marveled at her wisdom. He told her that God was right for bringing her to him and that she would now live in the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar and be renowned throughout the world.
Holofernes ordered that silverware be brought to his tent and a table be set for them so they could share his finest delicacies. She said that she could not eat what was set before her because it would be an offense against God; however, she had brought enough food to supply both herself and her maid.
On the fourth day, Holofernes held a banquet for his personal assistants, but none of his officers were invited. He ordered his eunuch to ask Judith to attend the banquet. The eunuch invited her and she said, “Who am I to refuse my lord? Whatever pleases him I will do at once, and it will be a joy to me until the day of my death.” (Judith 12:14) So she got dressed for the banquet. Her maid set out the lambskin which was given to Judith for reclining and Judith entered Holofernes’ tent. Holofernes was greatly pleased that she had come to the banquet and he drank so much wine that he got drunk.
When evening came his slaves withdrew from the tent. The slaves went to bed since they were tired after taking care of the banquet which had lasted a long time. Judith was left alone with Holofernes in his tent; however, he was completely drunk.
She told her maid to stand outside the bedchamber and wait for her to come out, for she was going to pray. Then Judith, standing by his bed, said in her heart, “O Lord God of all might, look in this hour on the work of my hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem. Now indeed is the time to help your heritage and to carry out my design to destroy the enemies who have risen up against us.”
She went up to the bedpost near his head, and took down his sword that hung there. She came close to the bed, took hold of his hair, and said, “Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel.” Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head. Next she rolled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts. Soon afterward she went out and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, who placed it in her food bag.
The two of them left the camp, circled around the valley and returned to Bethulia. The entire town came out to meet them. They lit a fire and offered praise to God for destroying their enemies. Then she pulled Holofernes’ head out of the food bag and showed it to them. She said, “Here is the head of Holofernes, the commander of the Assyrian army, and here is the canopy beneath which he lay in his drunken stupor. The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman. As the Lord lives, who has protected me in the way I went, I swear that it was my face that seduced him to his destruction, and that he committed no sin with me to defile or shame me.”
The people were both amazed and delighted. Uzziah told her that because of what she had done she was blessed among all women on earth and that she would always be remembered by the people of Bethulia.
Judith then told them to get their weapons ready because once morning comes the Assyrian army will be in a panic after finding their general’s body. At that point the Israelites can attack the Assyrians and defeat their enemy. She then asked that they bring Achior before her so that he could see Holofernes’ head and know that he had been killed.
Achior fell at Judith’s feet. She then told him all that she had done from the moment she left the town gates until her return with the general’s head. When Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God. He was circumcised and became a member of the house of Israel.
The Israelites then moved against the Assyrians after dawn. The men said to the eunuch, “Wake up our lord, for the slaves are so bold as to come down to make war with us.” The eunuch went in and knocked at the tent entrance. When no one answered he entered the bedchamber and found Holofernes lying on the floor dead. Then they went to Judith’s tent and when they did not find her they said, “The slaves have tricked us! One Hebrew woman has brought disgrace on the house of Nebuchadnezzar. Look, Holofernes is lying on the ground, and his head is missing!”
When the Assyrian army heard what had happened, the men fled in fear. The Israelite army rushed toward them and defeated the fleeing Assyrians. The rest of the people entered the camp and plundered it.
After their victory, the high priest, Joakim, came from Jerusalem to honor Judith for all that she had done. He said, “You are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the great boast of Israel, you are the great pride of one nation. You have done all this with your own hand, you have done great good in Israel and God is well pleased with it. May the Almighty Lord bless you forever!” All the people responded, “Amen!”
All the women came to see Judith. She took ivy wands in her hands and distributed them among the women as they danced for her. There was much rejoicing, for God had defeated a great army and given them into the hands of this woman.
Judith is not a warrior, but she overcomes one of the great warriors of the ancient world. She does so by using the gifts she has: beauty, intelligence, and ruthless cunning.
She is a symbol of the Jewish people, surrounded throughout its history by huge and fearsome kingdoms. Like the Jewish people, Judith's safety is threatened. Besieged by powerful enemies and apparently helpless, she nevertheless overcomes her enemy by relying on God's help and using her own wits and natural assets. 1
The fact that Judith is financially well off makes her a rather unique character in terms of the women of the Bible. In Ancient Near Eastern culture a widow would have been taken care of by the entire community, if she did not remarry; however, here is a woman who not only did not remarry but was able to provide for herself and her maid. The fact that she was rather wealthy also gave her a certain amount of prominence in the community which also gave her access to King Uzziah and the town elders.
While Judith may have used her feminine charm in order to beguile Holofernes and eventually end his life, the fact remains that she was a very devout woman who did nothing at all without praying about it first and relying upon God for a positive outcome. Therefore, she is a role model for all of us regarding the importance of relying upon God for all that we need.