The Book of Judith tells the story of a beautiful Jewish widow who saves her people by murdering the Assyrian general, Holofernes. She tricks him into trusting her, then when he is drunk she cuts off his head. Despite this, she is a model of Jewish courage and piety. She prays, she trusts completely in God, she follows the dietary laws of Judaism – but then she uses the skills and advantages she has to overcome an enemy who, on the face of it, seems stronger than she is in every way. Again, there is the message: God will give his people victory if they stay true to Him.
Paintings of the story of Judith
Judith with the head of Holofernes, Allori. According to Allori’s biographer, the model for ‘Judith’ was Allori’s mistress, the maid was her mother, and the head of Holofernes was a portrait of the artist himself.
‘Judith’ by Gustav Klimt. Klimt’s Judith looks alarmingly like a 19th century European ‘grande horizontale’
Perhaps the most famous painting of this event, Caravaggio’s horrific ‘Judith and Holofernes’
More paintings below
Judith’s beauty and virtue: Chapter 8
Judith… was the daughter of Merari son of Ox….Her husband Manasseh, who belonged to her tribe and family, had died during the barley harvest.
Judith remained as a widow for three years and four months at home where she set up a tent for herself on the roof of her house. She put sackcloth around her waist and dressed in widow’s clothing. She fasted all the days of her widowhood, except the day before the sabbath and the sabbath itself, the day before the new moon and the day of the new moon, and the festivals and days of rejoicing of the house of Israel.
She was beautiful in appearance, and was very lovely to behold. Her husband Manasseh had left her gold and silver, men and women slaves, livestock, and fields; and she maintained this estate.
No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion.
Judith talks about what God is, and is not
When Judith heard the people were faint for lack of water…she sent her maid, who was in charge of all she owned, to summon Uzziah and Chabris and Charmis, the elders of her town.
They came to her, and she said to them: ‘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?
You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test, but you will never learn anything!
You cannot plumb the depths 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? No, my brothers, do not anger the Lord our God.
For if he does not choose to help us within these five days, he has power to protect us within any time he pleases, or even to destroy us in the presence of our enemies.
Do not try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God; for 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… Let us set an example to our kindred, for their lives depend upon us, and the sanctuary—both the temple and the altar—rests upon us.’
Then Uzziah said to her, ‘All that you have said was spoken out of a true heart, and there is no one who can deny your words.
Today is not the first time your wisdom has been shown, but from the beginning of your life all the people have recognized your understanding, for your heart’s disposition is right.
But the people were so thirsty that they compelled us to do for them what we have promised, and made us take an oath that we cannot break.
Now since you are a God-fearing woman, pray for us, so that the Lord may send us rain to fill our cisterns. Then we will no longer feel faint from thirst.’
Then Judith said to them, ‘Listen to me. Stand at the town gate tonight so that I may go out with my maid; and within 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.’
Uzziah and the rulers said to her, ‘Go in peace, and may the Lord God go before you, to take vengeance on our enemies.’
The Prayer of Judith – Chapter 9
Then Judith prostrated herself, put ashes on her head, and uncovered the sackcloth she was wearing. At the very time when the evening incense was being offered in the house of God in Jerusalem, Judith cried out to the Lord with a loud voice, and said:
‘O Lord God of my ancestor Simeon, to whom you gave a sword to take revenge on those strangers who had torn off a virgin’s clothing to defile her, and exposed her thighs to put her to shame, and polluted her womb to disgrace her; for you said, “It shall not be done”—yet they did it.
Here now are the Assyrians, a greatly increased force, priding themselves on their horses and riders, boasting in the strength of their foot-soldiers, and trusting in shield and spear, in bow and sling. They do not know that you are the Lord who crushes wars; the Lord is your name.
Break their strength by your might, and bring down their power in your anger; for they intend to defile your sanctuary, and to pollute the tabernacle where your glorious name resides, and to break off the horns of your altar with the sword.
Look at their pride, and send your wrath upon their heads. Give to me, a widow, the strong hand to do what I plan.
By the deceit of my lips strike down the slave with the prince and the prince with his servant; crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman.
Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of all your creation, hear my prayer!
Make my deceitful words bring wound and bruise on those who have planned cruel things against your covenant, and against your sacred house, and against Mount Zion, and against the house your children possess.’
Judith prepares a trap: Chapter 10
Judith and her maid-servant
When Judith had stopped crying out to the God of Israel, and had ended all these words,
she rose from where she lay prostrate. She called her maid and went down into the house where she lived on sabbaths and on her festal days.
She removed the sackcloth she had been wearing, took off her widow’s garments, bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment. She combed her hair, put on a tiara, and dressed herself in the festive attire that she used to wear while her husband Manasseh was living.
She put sandals on her feet, and put on her anklets, bracelets, rings, ear-rings, and all her other jewellery. Thus she made herself very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all the men who might see her.
She gave her maid a skin of wine and a flask of oil, and filled a bag with roasted grain, dried fig cakes, and fine bread; then she wrapped up all her dishes and gave them to her to carry.
Then they went out to the town gate of Bethulia and found Uzziah standing there with the elders of the town, Chabris and Charmis.
When they saw her transformed in appearance and dressed differently, they were very greatly astounded at her beauty and said to her,
‘May the God of our ancestors grant you favour and fulfil your plans, so that the people of Israel may glory and Jerusalem may be exalted.’ She bowed down to God.
Then she said to them, ‘Order the gate of the town to be opened for me so that I may go out and accomplish the things you have just said to me.’ So they ordered the young men to open the gate for her, as she requested.
When they had done this, Judith went out, accompanied by her maid.
Judith lets herself be taken prisoner
As the women were going straight on through the valley, an Assyrian patrol met her
and took her into custody. They asked her, ‘To what people do you belong, and where are you coming from, and where are you going?’ She replied, ‘I am a daughter of the Hebrews, but I am fleeing from them, for they are about to be handed over to you to be devoured.
I am on my way to see Holofernes the commander of your army, to give him a true report; I will show him a way by which he can go and capture all the hill country without losing one of his men, captured or slain.’
When the men heard her words, and observed her face—she was in their eyes marvellously beautiful—they said to her,
‘You have saved your life by hurrying down to see our lord. Go at once to his tent; some of us will escort you and hand you over to him.’
They chose from their number a hundred men to accompany her and her maid, and they brought them to the tent of Holofernes.
There was great excitement in the whole camp, for her arrival was reported from tent to tent. They came and gathered around her as she stood outside the tent of Holofernes, waiting until they told him about her.
They marveled at her beauty and admired the Israelites, judging them by her. They said to one another, ‘Who can despise these people, who have women like this among them?’
Judith meets Holofernes, the enemy
Then the guards of Holofernes and all his servants came out and led her into the tent.
Holofernes was resting on his bed under a canopy that was woven with purple and gold, emeralds and other precious stones.
When they told him of her, he came to the front of the tent, with silver lamps carried before him. When Judith came into the presence of Holofernes and his servants, they all marveled at the beauty of her face. She prostrated herself and did obeisance to him, but his slaves raised her up.
1 Then Holofernes said to her, ‘Take courage, woman, and do not be afraid in your heart, for I have never hurt anyone who chose to serve Nebuchadnezzar, king of all the earth.
But now tell me why you have fled from them and have come over to us. In any event, you have come to safety. Take courage! You will live tonight and ever after. ’
Judith charms Holofernes
Judith answered him, ‘Accept the words of your slave, and let your servant speak in your presence. I will say nothing false to my lord this night.
For we have heard of your wisdom and skill, and it is reported throughout the whole world that you alone are the best in the whole kingdom, the most informed and the most astounding in military strategy.
‘Now as for Achior’s speech in your council, we have heard his words, for the people of Bethulia spared him and he told them all he had said to you.
Therefore, lord and master, do not disregard what he said, but keep it in your mind, for it is true.
‘But now, in order that my lord may not be defeated and his purpose frustrated, death will fall upon them. Since their food supply is exhausted and their water has almost given out, they have planned to kill their livestock and have determined to use all that God by his laws has forbidden them to eat.
They have decided to consume the first fruits of the grain and the tithes of the wine and oil, which they had consecrated and set aside for the priests who minister in the presence of our God in Jerusalem—things it is not lawful for any of the people even to touch with their hands.
‘So when I, your slave, learned all this, I fled from them. God has sent me to accomplish with you things that will astonish the whole world wherever people shall hear about them.
Your servant is indeed God-fearing and serves the God of heaven night and day. So, my lord, I will remain with you; but every night your servant will go out into the valley and pray to God. He will tell me when they have committed their sins.
Then I will come and tell you, so that you may go out with your whole army, and not one of them will be able to withstand you.
Then I will lead you through Judea, until you come to Jerusalem; there I will set your throne. You will drive them like sheep that have no shepherd, and no dog will so much as growl at you.’
Her words pleased Holofernes and all his servants. They marveled at her wisdom and said,
‘No other woman from one end of the earth to the other looks so beautiful or speaks so wisely!’
Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink.
But Judith said, ‘I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offence; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.’ Holofernes said to her, ‘If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.’
Judith replied, ‘As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.’
Then the servants of Holofernes brought her into the tent, and she slept until midnight. Towards the morning watch she got up and sent this message to Holofernes: ‘Let my lord now give orders to allow your servant to go out and pray.’
So Holofernes commanded his guards not to hinder her. She remained in the camp for three days. She went out each night to the valley of Bethulia, and bathed at the spring in the camp.
After bathing, she prayed the Lord God of Israel to direct her way for the triumph of his people. Then she returned purified and stayed in the tent until she ate her food towards evening.
Holofernes prepares to seduce Judith
On the fourth day Holofernes held a banquet for his personal attendants only, and did not invite any of his officers.
He said to Bagoas, the eunuch who had charge of his personal affairs, ‘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.’
So Bagoas left the presence of Holofernes, and approached her and said, ‘Let this pretty girl not hesitate to come to my lord to be honoured in his presence, and to enjoy drinking wine with us, and to become today like one of the Assyrian women who serve in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar.’
Judith replied, ‘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.’
So she proceeded to dress herself in all her woman’s finery. Her maid went ahead and spread for her on the ground before Holofernes the lambskins she had received from Bagoas for her daily use in reclining.
Then Judith came in and lay down. Holofernes’ heart was ravished with her and his passion was aroused, for he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her from the day he first saw her. So Holofernes said to her, ‘Have a drink and be merry with us!’
Judith said, ‘I will gladly drink, my lord, because today is the greatest day in my whole life.’
Judith’s maid, detail from ‘Judith’ by Caravaggio
Then she took what her maid had prepared and ate and drank before him.
Holofernes was greatly pleased with her, and drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born.
When evening came, his slaves quickly withdrew. Bagoas closed the tent from outside and shut out the attendants from his master’s presence. They went to bed, for they all were weary because the banquet had lasted so long. But Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofernes stretched out on his bed, for he was dead drunk.
Now Judith had told her maid to stand outside the bedchamber and to wait for her to come out, as she did on the other days; for she said she would be going out for her prayers. She had said the same thing to Bagoas.
So everyone went out, and no one, either small or great, was left in the bedchamber. Then Judith, standing beside 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.’
Judith hacks off the head of Holofernes
She went up to the bedpost near Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that hung there.
She came close to his bed, took hold of the hair of his head, 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 afterwards she went out and gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, who placed it in her food bag.
Judith makes her escape
Holofernes beheaded, Caravaggio
Then the two of them went out together, as they were accustomed to do for prayer. They passed through the camp, circled around the valley, and went up the mountain to Bethulia, and came to its gates. From a distance Judith called out to the sentries at the gates, ‘Open, open the gate! God, our God, is with us, still showing his power in Israel and his strength against our enemies, as he has done today!’
When the people of her town heard her voice, they hurried down to the town gate and summoned the elders of the town. They all ran together, both small and great, for it seemed unbelievable that she had returned. They opened the gate and welcomed them. Then they lit a fire to give light, and gathered around them.
Then she said to them with a loud voice, ‘Praise God, O praise him! Praise God, who has not withdrawn his mercy from the house of Israel, but has destroyed our enemies by my hand this very night!’
Then she pulled the head out of the bag and showed it to them, and said, ‘See here, 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 on 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 and shame me.’
All the people were greatly astonished. They bowed down and worshipped God, and said with one accord, ‘Blessed are you our God, who have this day humiliated the enemies of your people.’
Judith plans the next step: Ch. 14
Then Judith said to them, ‘Listen to me, my friends. Take this head and hang it upon the parapet of your wall.
As soon as day breaks and the sun rises on the earth, each of you take up your weapons, and let every able-bodied man go out of the town; set a captain over them, as if you were going down to the plain against the Assyrian outpost; only do not go down.
Then they will seize their arms and go into the camp and rouse the officers of the Assyrian army. They will rush into the tent of Holofernes and will not find him. Then panic will come over them, and they will flee before you.
Then you and all who live within the borders of Israel will pursue them and cut them down in their tracks.
When she had finished, the people raised a great shout and made a joyful noise in their town.
Holofernes’ death is discovered
As soon as it was dawn they hung the head of Holofernes on the wall. Then they all took their weapons, and they went out in companies to the mountain passes.
When the Assyrians saw them they sent word to their commanders, who then went to the generals and the captains and to all their other officers.
They came to Holofernes’ tent and said to the steward in charge of all his personal affairs, ‘Wake up our lord, for the slaves have been so bold as to come down against us to give battle, to their utter destruction.’
So Bagoas went in and knocked at the entry of the tent, for he supposed that he was sleeping with Judith.
But when no one answered, he opened it and went into the bedchamber and found him sprawled on the floor dead, with his head missing.
He cried out with a loud voice and wept and groaned and shouted, and tore his clothes.
Then he went to the tent where Judith had stayed, and when he did not find her, he rushed out to the people and shouted,
‘The slaves have tricked us! One Hebrew woman has brought disgrace on the house of King Nebuchadnezzar. Look, Holofernes is lying on the ground, and his head is missing!’
When the leaders of the Assyrian army heard this, they tore their tunics and were greatly dismayed, and their loud cries and shouts rose up throughout the camp.
The Assyrians flee: Ch. 15
When the men in the tents heard it, they were amazed at what had happened.
Overcome with fear and trembling, they did not wait for one another, but with one impulse all rushed out and fled by every path across the plain and through the hill country.
Those who had camped in the hills around Bethulia also took to flight. Then the Israelites, everyone that was a soldier, rushed out upon them.
The rest of the people of Bethulia fell upon the Assyrian camp and plundered it, acquiring great riches.
And the Israelites, when they returned from the slaughter, took possession of what remained.
They gave Judith the tent of Holofernes and all his silver dinnerware, his beds, his bowls, and all his furniture. She took them and loaded her mules and hitched up her carts and piled the things on them.
All the women of Israel gathered to see her, and blessed her, and some of them performed a dance in her honour. She took ivy-wreathed wands in her hands and distributed them to the women who were with her; and she and those who were with her crowned themselves with olive wreaths. She went before all the people in the dance, leading all the women, while all the men of Israel followed, bearing their arms and wearing garlands and singing hymns.
Judith’s Song of Victory: Ch. 16
1 And Judith said,
Begin a song to my God with tambourines,
sing to my Lord with cymbals.
Raise to him a new psalm;
exalt him, and call upon his name.
2 For the Lord is a God who crushes wars;
he sets up his camp among his people;
he delivered me from the hands of my pursuers.
3 The Assyrian came down from the mountains of the north;
he came with myriads of his warriors;
their numbers blocked up the wadis,
and their cavalry covered the hills.
4 He boasted that he would burn up my territory,
and kill my young men with the sword,
and dash my infants to the ground,
and seize my children as booty,
and take my virgins as spoil.
5 But the Lord Almighty has foiled them
by the hand of a woman.
7 For she put away her widow’s clothing
to exalt the oppressed in Israel.
She anointed her face with perfume;
8 she fastened her hair with a tiara
and put on a linen gown to beguile him.
9 Her sandal ravished his eyes,
her beauty captivated his mind,
and the sword severed his neck!
10 The Persians trembled at her boldness,
the Medes were daunted at her daring.
12 Sons of slave-girls pierced them through
and wounded them like the children of fugitives;
they perished before the army of my Lord.
I will sing to my God a new song:
O Lord, you are great and glorious,
wonderful in strength, invincible.
Let all your creatures serve you,
for you spoke, and they were made.
You sent forth your spirit, and it formed them;
there is none that can resist your voice.
For the mountains shall be shaken to their foundations with the waters;
before your glance the rocks shall melt like wax.
For three months the people continued feasting in Jerusalem before the sanctuary, and Judith remained with them.
Judith grows old and dies
After this they all returned home to their own inheritances. Judith went to Bethulia, and remained on her estate. For the rest of her life she was honored throughout the whole country.
Many desired to marry her, but she gave herself to no man all the days of her life after her husband Manasseh died and was gathered to his people.
She became more and more famous, and grew old in her husband’s house, reaching the age of one hundred and five. She set her maid free. She died in Bethulia, and they buried her in the cave of her husband Manasseh;
and the house of Israel mourned her for seven days. Before she died she distributed her property to all those who were next of kin to her husband Manasseh, and to her own nearest kindred.
No one ever again spread terror among the Israelites during the lifetime of Judith, or for a long time after her death.
Judy Chicago, The Dinner Party: the place setting for ‘Judith’. Note the vulva-shaped plate and the sword that forms part of Judith’s name.
Bible Study Resource: The Books of the Bible: Judith kills Holofernes and saves her people