Watch for symbolic colors in the paintings: red means sexual passion; white is purity of behaviour or intent; gold is nobility; black is the color of death.
The first paintings of Judith, produced in the Middle Ages, showed virtue overcoming vice.
During the Renaissance a different theme emerged: Judith was an example of man’s misfortunes at the hands of scheming woman. The decapitation of Holofernes has sexual overtones: a man is robbed of his virility by a beautiful woman. Paintings of Judith and Holofernes are often confused with Samson and Delilah.
In fact, Judith was a Jewish patriotic heroine and a symbol of the Jews’ struggle against their ancient, much more powerful, oppressors.
The story describes the Assyrian army laying siege to the Jewish city of Bethulia. When the inhabitants were on the point of capitulating, Judith, a rich and beautiful widow, devised a scheme to save them. She adorned herself ‘so as to catch the eye of any man who might see her’ (10:5), and set off with her maid into the Assyrian lines.
By the pretence of having deserted her people she gained access to the enemy commander, Holofernes, and proposed to him a fictitious scheme for overcoming the Jews. After she had been several days in the camp Holofernes became enamoured of her and planned a banquet to which she was invited. When it was over and they were alone together he had meant to seduce her, but he was by then overcome with liquor.
This was Judith’s opportunity. She quickly seized his sword and with two swift blows severed his head. Her maid was ready with a sack into which they put the head. They then made their way through the camp and back to Bethulia before the deed was discovered. The news threw the Assyrians into disarray and they fled, pursued by the Israelites.
‘Judith and Holofernes’, Gustav Klimt, 1901-2
Judith is dressed in the rich clothing and lavish jewellery she wore when she went to meet Holofernes. Some commentators have suggested that the oversize golden choker at her neck suggests decapitation. Her clothing is disarrayed, but her look is triumphant as she holds the head of her enemy by her side.
There are similarities between this Art Nouveau painting and Byzantine icons: both make lavish use of gold leaf, both depict female heroines in elongated form. The gold-leaf landscape behind her, with laden palm trees, is reminiscent of ancient Assyrian wall drawings of the Tree of Life. And is that a Star of David above her left shoulder?
Judith has steeled herself to cut into Holofernes’ neck, using his own sword.
The maid Abra stands ready to catch the severed head when it falls away (Abra is one of the most over-looked figures in the Old Testament; she is with Judith every step of the way, and clearly gives her not only a servant’s support, but a large measure of courage as well).
Caravaggio has painted a magnificent Holofernes, muscled, strong, powerful. His horrified face is the attention-grabbing focus of this picture.
Judith, on the other hand, slices his neck with a look of mild distaste, as if she is carving the Sunday roast.
The colors, harmonious composition and shading of the painting are superb, as we would expect from Caravaggio. But magnificent as the painting is, it does not convey the ghastly horror of the event.
‘Judith and her Maidservant’, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1613-14
Judith’s maid Abra has gathered up the head of Holofernes in a basket, and they are preparing to leave his tent when they hear something which makes them stop and listen. The danger of their situation is implied by the position of the sword in Judith’s hand: a few more inches and it will cut into her own white throat.
Close-ups of the painting show that the brooch in her hair is a picture of a warrior, perhaps the biblical David who is the male equivalent of Judith.
Judith stands, her fingers clenched in the hair of Holofernes’ head. Her gorgeous robe has fallen away from her body and her hair is disarranged, but she seems calm, oblivious of her surroundings, almost in shock.
This painting has often been labeled ‘Salome’, because it depicts a half-naked woman carrying a man’s severed head. In fact, it is Judith.
Though it is an archetypal Art Nouveau painting, there are many similarities with Old Master images of Judith: a remorseless, half-clothed woman, disguised tension in the rigid hands, the sumptuous dress.
‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’, Carlo Saraceni, 1615-20
The maid’s anxious face looks up for reassurance to Judith, who despite the horror of the situation appears calm, almost serene. She holds the head of Holofernes in her left hand, ready to drop it in the bag held by her maid.
The darkness of the painting suggests the secretive nature of what they are doing, the need for stealth. In reality it is unlikely that Judith was as calm as she appears in this picture, but there is an unexpected touch of realism in the way the maid holds the bag. She grips one point between her teeth and makes an opening by holding two other points with her hands – just the way you would to make an opening for a large round object, be it a cabbage or a human head.
There are only subtle indications of the violent murder that has just occurred: the reddened fingers that hold Holofernes’ head, and the spatter of blood on Judith’s right temple. Subtle, but terrifying.
‘Judith and her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes’ Orazio Gentileschi, (father of Artemisia), 1610-12
The deed is done – Judith still holds the sword in her hand. Now the fearful women stop to listen, to see if an alarm has been raised.
Orazio Gentileschi seems to have been more interested in the woman themselves than in the violent crime they had committed. These two women are not idealized beauties but real people, both with their own personalities and agendas. This makes the painting sharply different from many of the others completed at that time, and may have something to do with the rape of his daughter Artemisia Gentileschi – a real person to her father, not just an unnamed victim of crime.
‘Judith in the Tent of Holofernes’, Johann Liss, 1622
Judith has cut off the head of Holofernes and looks back over her shoulder, out towards the viewer. Her expression is strange – dazed, almost detached. She and her servant Alba are placing the severed head in a basket.
Caravaggio’s influence is clearly evident in Liss’s painting – the sumptuous flesh tones, lavish fabrics and dramatic lighting. The twisted gold fabric draws the eye upward towards Judith’s naked back and the ambiguous glance she casts over her shoulder. Holofernes’ hapless body pushes out into the foreground of the painting. An unusual feature of the painting is the black servant who stands behind Judith, looking up at her.
This is a rare depiction of something other paintings ignore: the fight that Holofernes may or may not have put up when he was being murdered. Here, in the moment of dying, he presses his right hand up against his assailant, attempting to fight her off. Judith’s body seems to flinch away – from Holofernes? or from what she is doing?
This painting was made at about the time that Artemisia Gentileschi was raped by her tutor, the Tuscan painter Agostino Tassi. There is obviously a certain amount of personal relish in the painting, with underlying themes of castration and impotency. The story of Judith doubtless appealed to Gentileschi, depicting as it did the triumph of female guile over male force.
‘Judith and the head of Holofernes’, Giovanni Baglione, 1608
The body of Holofernes, now separated from his head, seems to writhe in its death throes. A rather winsome Judith has grasped the head by its hair and is moving away from the couch. Her maid looks back in horror at the body.
Contrast this image with Caravaggio’s (above). Judith seems remarkably tranquil in the circumstances, while her maid registers shock and horror. But note in particular the different treatment of Holofernes’ body. Here in Baglione’s painting the body itself is almost hidden. What we can see of it is distorted and writhing, the head quite separate from the body – altogether, a figure of horror.
‘Judith and her Maidservant With the Head of Holofernes’ Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1625
Judith has killed Holofernes, and now her maid Abra crams the bloody head into a sack, to carry it back to Bethuliah. But they seem to have heard something, and pause, waiting to see if they have been discovered. If they have, they know they will die too.
The tension of the scene is almost palpable. Danger is close as Judith and her maid Abra gather up the severed head of Holofernes, preparing to flee from the enemy camp, back to safety in Bethulia. The light and shadow emphasise the imminent danger as Judith and Abra prepare to flee Holofernes’s tent with his severed head. We can almost smell and feel their fear.
‘Judith with the head of Holofernes’, Cristofano Allori, 1613
Judith has hacked off the head of Holofernes and now puts away the sword she used to do the deed. Her maid leans anxiously towards her, protectively, urging the dazed Judith to move with more speed.
The head of Holofernes is said to be a portrait of the artist, and the woman in the picture was modeled on his mistress, a famous beauty called Mazzafirra. Perhaps it is a comment on the balance of power within their own relationship – she having conquered him and now holding him helpless in her grip. His face is already drained of color, a dramatic contrast to the rich material of her robe.
‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’, Lucas Cranach, 1530
Judith’s right hand holds the sword, instrument of death. The fingers of her left hand as entwined in Holofernes’ hair, as she toys in an absent-minded way with the lifeless head.
If you are looking for subtlety, walk on by. Cranach the Elder is not your man. But if you value a strong, no-nonsense message about God, faith and salvation, you may want to look more carefully at his work.
Cranach was a close friend of Martin Luther (the famous portrait of Luther is by Cranach), and helped promote his ideas – he was a staunch supporter of the Protestant Reformation.
The story of Judith struck a chord with the Protestant reformers, since it described the courage of a small nation resisting a tyrant from outside who sought to impose his own beliefs about God on them. The Protestant states cast themselves as Judith, and Catholicism and the Pope as Holofernes. There was also an attempt at this time to balance the preponderance of male heroes in Christian tradition with biblical heroines who could be role models of particular virtues.
Cranach’s paintings are always beautiful, but it is a beauty with evil lurking just beneath the surface.
Judith with the head of Holofernes, stained glass window Diane-Blair Goodpasture, 2010
Judith holds the recently severed head of Holofernes by its hair. His sword, which she used to kill him, is smeared with his own blood. Her dress, too, is spattered by the fearsome thing she has done.
An ignoble end for a famous warrior, killed by his own sword. Judith is lavishly dressed, with a jewelled head-dress enclosing her thick hair. Compare the two faces: hers blank – with shock? His ghastly in death.
Behind Judith are two things: the all-seeing eye of God, and the Hebrew letter ‘yod’ which is symbolic of the name of God – Marc Chagall uses this same device in his paintings.
‘Judith with the head of Holofernes’, Titian, circa 1515
Judith has cut off the head of the enemy general Holofernes, and now prepares to carry it back to the townspeople of Bethuliah.
There has been some argument about the identity of the woman in this painting. The confusion arose because the decapitated head is carried on a silver platter, traditionally the way that John the Baptist is depicted. This would then make the woman Salome. But the adoring expression on the face of the second woman suggests that she is Abla, Judith’s servant, and this seems more likely. It is generally accepted now that this is, in fact, a painting of Judith, done at the beginning of Titian’s career.
This painting of Judith is quite different to most others on the subject. She is dressed in white, the color of chastity, and the sword stands firmly between her body and Holofernes’ head. The picture contains a message about her chastity, which the Bible says she retained despite every effort on Holofernes’ part to seduce her. This is no seductress, but a determined heroine.
‘Judith with the head of Holofernes’, Titian, 1570
Judith has cut off the head of Holofernes and now picks it up by its hair, to lower into the bag held by her maid Abra.
This is a painting made by Titian towards the end of his life. His Judith is a luminous, serene beauty assisted by a black servant woman. The head of Holofernes is truly terrifying, a dark and gruesome trophy for the Judean inhabitants of Bethuliah.
‘Judith carries away the head of Holofernes’, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1508-1512
Below: Detail of Judith and Abra with the head of Holofernes
Holofernes’ lifeless body lies in the background as Judith and Abra hurry away from the scene of the murder. Abra carries the grisly head on a tray/basket, and Judith tries to cover it from sight.
This is part of the fresco in the Sistine Chapel. When he came to choose images for the Chapel, Michelangelo seems to have focused on heroic deeds, or on seminal moments in the story of God’s unfolding plan. He saw Judith as one such hero, leaving the obscurity of her life as a widow in a small city to undertake terrifying actions that would ultimately save her people.
Unlike the other paintings of Judith, this one does not show a particular moment in the story. Holofernes has been killed, but Judith is not in the process of returning to Bethuliah as she subsequently did. The head is not wrapped up, or being displayed on the city walls, but is simply a trophy taken in battle. The battle of the sexes? The painting is more like a portrait of Judith as a goddess of sexual love – see Giorgione’s ‘Sleeping Venus’ for a similar image of idealized beauty.
See also Bible Heroines: Judith
Georgione’s image of Judith contrasts dramatically with other paintings of this subject. She is remote, untroubled, serene – a goddess, not a human woman who has just committed violent murder.
In the background is a landscape, reminiscent of the country round Castelfranco, which the artist knew as a boy, and loved all his life. Giorgione died young, probably of the plague in Venice, but his works have remarkable maturity and a certain enigmatic quality, Could not this ‘Judith’ be likened to a profane Mona Lisa?
‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’, Elisabetta Sirani (1638-1665) circa 1660
Judith has returned to Bethuliah, and now draws the head of Holofernes out of the sack her maid has carried. Two attendants run to light her way with torches. Now all the townspeople and all the enemy soldiers can see that the much-feared Holofernes is really dead.
Elizabeth Sirani came from a prominent family of artists – her father was Giovanni Adrea Sirano, principal assistant of Guido Reni. She died at the early age of 27. She has placed Judith in a medieval setting – note the castle ramparts in the background.
‘Judith’s Return to Bethulia’, Alessandro Botticelli, 1470
Judith has completed her mission and returns to Bethulia, sword in hand. Her maid Abra follows with Holofernes’ head, wrapped up and carried on the woman’s head.
Judith has the air and demeanor of a goddess, rather than a mortal woman. She strides across an idealized landscape sword in one hand, olive branch in the other. She will live in peace if she can, but is prepared for war if it is forced upon her.
It is interesting to compare Botticelli’s Judith and Abra with the figures in his more famous ‘Spring’. There is the same sense of detached majesty at the center of the painting. Judith dominates all around her – and reinforces her power by carrying a rather nasty-looking sword. Yet, as the ‘Spring’, the overall impression is of fluid beauty and movement.
Judith was a wealthy and beautiful young widow living in a hilltop town called Bethuliah. During a siege of her town, she undertook a daring and sexually ambiguous mission to save her people from annihilation.
At great personal risk, and with only her maid by her side, she went into the camp of Holofernes, the Assyrian commander-in-chief of the enemy forces. He had a fearsome reputation, but she charmed him, even managing to hold his sexual advances at bay.
Once she had lulled him into a sense of security she tempted him into getting drunk, then she took his own sword down from where it hung on his bedpost, and hacked off his head as he lay in a stupor.
With his head wrapped in the bed curtain, she returned triumphantly to her own people in Bethuliah.
The head of Holofernes, hung on the town ramparts, caused panic among the Assyrians who fled in great disorder.
Her story is a variant on the David and Goliath story, where a seemingly weak person overcomes a person of superior strength by calling on God’s help and using cunning and intelligence.
The Bible text
Book of Judith, Chapters 8-16
What Judith was like: Chapter 8
Now in those days Judith heard about these things: she was the daughter of Merari son of Ox son of Joseph son of Oziel son of Elkiah son of Ananias son of Gideon son of Raphain son of Ahitub son of Elijah son of Hilkiah son of Eliab son of Nathanael son of Salamiel son of Sarasadai son of Israel. Her husband Manasseh, who belonged to her tribe and family, had died during the barley harvest. For as he stood overseeing those who were binding sheaves in the field, he was overcome by the burning heat, and took to his bed and died in his town Bethulia. So they buried him with his ancestors in the field between Dothan and Balamon. 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 God
When Judith heard the harsh words spoken by the people against the ruler, because they were faint for lack of water, and when she heard all that Uzziah said to them, and how he promised them under oath to surrender the town to the Assyrians after five days, she sent her maid, who was in charge of all she possessed, 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.
‘For never in our generation, nor in these present days, has there been any tribe or family or people or town of ours that worships gods made with hands, as was done in days gone by. That was why our ancestors were handed over to the sword and to pillage, and so they suffered a great catastrophe before our enemies. But we know no other god but him, and so we hope that he will not disdain us or any of our nation. For if we are captured, all Judea will be captured and our sanctuary will be plundered; and he will make us pay for its desecration with our blood. The slaughter of our kindred and the captivity of the land and the desolation of our inheritance—all this he will bring on our heads among the Gentiles, wherever we serve as slaves; and we shall be an offence and a disgrace in the eyes of those who acquire us. For our slavery will not bring us into favour, but the Lord our God will turn it to dishonor.
‘Therefore, my brothers, 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.
In spite of everything let us give thanks to the Lord our God, who is putting us to the test as he did our ancestors. Remember what he did with Abraham, and how he tested Isaac, and what happened to Jacob in Syrian Mesopotamia, while he was tending the sheep of Laban, his mother’s brother. For he has not tried us with fire, as he did them, to search their hearts, nor has he taken vengeance on us; but the Lord scourges those who are close to him in order to admonish them.’
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. I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants. 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.’ So they returned from the tent and went to their posts.
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; so you gave up their rulers to be killed, and their bed, which was ashamed of the deceit they had practised, was stained with blood, and you struck down slaves along with princes, and princes on their thrones. You gave up their wives for booty and their daughters to captivity, and all their booty to be divided among your beloved children who burned with zeal for you and abhorred the pollution of their blood and called on you for help. O God, my God, hear me also, a widow.
‘For you have done these things and those that went before and those that followed. You have designed the things that are now, and those that are to come. What you had in mind has happened; the things you decided on presented themselves and said, “Here we are!” For all your ways are prepared in advance, and your judgement is with foreknowledge.
‘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.
‘For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, savior of those without hope.
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. Let your whole nation and every tribe know and understand that you are God, the God of all power and might, and that there is no other who protects the people of Israel but you alone!’
Judith Prepares to Face Holofernes: Ch. 10
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. The men of the town watched her until she had gone down the mountain and passed through the valley, where they lost sight of her.
Judith is 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. When you stand before him, have no fear in your heart, but tell him what you have just said, and he will treat you well.’
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? It is not wise to leave one of their men alive, for if we let them go they will be able to beguile the whole world!’
Judith Meets Holofernes Face to Face
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. Even now, if your people who live in the hill country had not slighted me, I would never have lifted my spear against them. They have brought this on themselves. 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. No one will hurt you. Rather, all will treat you well, as they do the servants of my lord King Nebuchadnezzar.’
Judith explains her presence
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.
If you follow out the words of your servant, God will accomplish something through you, and my lord will not fail to achieve his purposes. By the life of Nebuchadnezzar, king of the whole earth, and by the power of him who has sent you to direct every living being! Not only do human beings serve him because of you, but also the animals of the field and the cattle and the birds of the air will live, because of your power, under Nebuchadnezzar and all his house. 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. Indeed our nation cannot be punished, nor can the sword prevail against them, unless they sin against their God.
‘But now, in order that my lord may not be defeated and his purpose frustrated, death will fall upon them, for a sin has overtaken them by which they are about to provoke their God to anger when they do what is wrong. 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. Since even the people in Jerusalem have been doing this, they have sent messengers there in order to bring back permission from the council of the elders. When the response reaches them and they act upon it, on that very day they will be handed over to you to be destroyed.
‘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. For this was told me to give me foreknowledge; it was announced to me, and I was sent to tell 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 Holofernes said to her, ‘God has done well to send you ahead of the people, to strengthen our hands and bring destruction on those who have despised my lord. You are not only beautiful in appearance, but wise in speech. If you do as you have said, your God shall be my God, and you shall live in the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar and be renowned throughout the whole world.’
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.
Judith Attends Holofernes’ Banquet
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.’ 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. 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 Holofernes’ head, and took down his sword that hung there.
7 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!’
8 Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head.
9 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,
10 who placed it in her food bag.
Judith Returns to Bethulia
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.’
Then Uzziah said to her, ‘O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies. Your praise will never depart from the hearts of those who remember the power of God. May God grant this to be a perpetual honor to you, and may he reward you with blessings, because you risked your own life when our nation was brought low, and you averted our ruin, walking in the straight path before our God.’ And all the people said, ‘Amen. Amen.’
Judith Tells Them What to Do: 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. But before you do all this, bring Achior the Ammonite to me so that he may see and recognize the man who despised the house of Israel and sent him to us as if to his death.’
So they summoned Achior from the house of Uzziah. When he came and saw the head of Holofernes in the hand of one of the men in the assembly of the people, he fell down on his face in a faint.
7 When they raised him up he threw himself at Judith’s feet, and did obeisance to her, and said, ‘Blessed are you in every tent of Judah! In every nation those who hear your name will be alarmed.
8 Now tell me what you have done during these days.’
So Judith told him in the presence of the people all that she had done, from the day she left until the moment she began speaking to them.
When she had finished, the people raised a great shout and made a joyful noise in their town. When Achior saw all that the God of Israel had done, he believed firmly in God. So he was circumcised, and joined the house of Israel, remaining so to this day.
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 Assyrian Army Flees in Panic: 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.
Uzziah sent men to Betomasthaim and Choba and Kola, and to all the frontiers of Israel, to tell what had taken place and to urge all to rush out upon the enemy to destroy them. When the Israelites heard it, with one accord they fell upon the enemy, and cut them down as far as Choba. Those in Jerusalem and all the hill country also came, for they were told what had happened in the camp of the enemy. The men in Gilead and in Galilee outflanked them with great slaughter, even beyond Damascus and its borders. 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. Even the villages and towns in the hill country and in the plain got a great amount of booty, since there was a vast quantity of it.
Victory for the Israelites
Then the high priest Joakim and the elders of the Israelites who lived in Jerusalem came to witness the good things that the Lord had done for Israel, and to see Judith and to wish her well. When they met her, they all blessed her with one accord and said to her, ‘You are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the great boast of Israel, you are the great pride of our nation! You have done all this with your own hand; you have done great good to Israel, and God is well pleased with it. May the Almighty Lord bless you for ever!’ And all the people said, ‘Amen.’
All the people plundered the camp for thirty days. 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 Triumph: 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.
6 For their mighty one did not fall by the hands of the young men,
nor did the sons of the Titans strike him down,
nor did tall giants set upon him;
but Judith daughter of Merari
with the beauty of her countenance undid him.
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.
11 Then my oppressed people shouted;
my weak people cried out, and the enemy trembled;
they lifted up their voices, and the enemy were turned back.
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.
But to those who fear you
you show mercy.
For every sacrifice as a fragrant offering is a small thing,
and the fat of all whole burnt-offerings to you is a very little thing;
but whoever fears the Lord is great for ever.
Woe to the nations that rise up against my people!
The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgement;
he will send fire and worms into their flesh;
they shall weep in pain for ever.
When they arrived at Jerusalem, they worshipped God. As soon as the people were purified, they offered their burnt-offerings, their freewill-offerings, and their gifts. Judith also dedicated to God all the possessions of Holofernes, which the people had given her; and the canopy that she had taken for herself from his bedchamber she gave as a votive offering. For three months the people continued feasting in Jerusalem before the sanctuary, and Judith remained with them.
Beloved 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.
When Judith came into the tent and lay down on the sheepskins, Holofernes was besotted. He offered her something to drink, but she drank only the wine given to her by her maid – was it watered down so she could stay sober? Holofernes, on the other hand, got down to some serious drinking.’
Sex, lies, murder…
Nebuchadnezzar was the King of Babylon, and ‘Babylon’ became code for depravity, cruelty and paganism.
Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned in the Bible because he met and terrified King Jehoiakim of Judah, who paid tribute to him and acknowledged him as Judah’s master. Of course, Jehoiakim had little choice in the matter – Nebuchadnezzar’s resources were immense, and little Judah stood no chance at all against him.
The Israelites were at a disadvantage because the Philistine overlords did not allow them to have metal-working facilities. This meant they could never have weapons that matched their enemy’s. If they had swords, they were always inferior to the ones wielded by their adversaries, and could only be used as backup weapons.
When at the climax of any siege the defenders on the battlements were unable to hit the enemy at the foot of the walls without exposing themselves dangerously to the attackers’ missiles, the men posted on the towers could shoot along the walls from relatively secure positions.
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. Read more…