Judith, Bible Heroine

    Courage of a Lioness

Judith, a beautiful, clever, cool-witted widow in the besieged town of Bethuliah
Holofernes, the enemy general who has been sent by Nebuchadnezzar
Abra, the faithful maidservant of Judith
Uzziah, the chief magistrate and councillor of Bethuliah
Achior of the Ammonites, prince of a neighboring city

Price of Defying Nebuchadnezzar

Once when he was at war,  the great King Nebuchadnezzar ordered the city states in surrounding kingdoms to send him a levy of soldiers. Most of them ignored him and stayed at home. Despite this he won the war, and when it was over he decided to take revenge on the cities who had failed to help him. He summoned the fearsome leader of his army, Holofernes, and ordered him to punish those states who had ignored him.  So Holofernes set out, burning, murdering and plundering as he went. All those who would not submit to Nebuchadnezzar were destroyed completely. 

The hills of Judea

The Israelites who lived in Judea know their turn was coming. They were terrified, especially since they had only recently returned from exile in Babylon and knew that Nebuchadnezzar would not only obliterate them but  the Temple they had just rebuilt. 

So they devised a plan: they would retreat to the hill-tops, fortify and provision them, and wait out the storm. 

Holofernes Approaches Bethuliah

One of the Israelite towns was Bethulia. It sat astride the route to Jerusalem, and so it was in a strategic position: Holofernes had to capture it to keep his supply lines open.

Holofernes sent out scouting parties, who told him that the mountain passes had been closed and the hilltop villages fortified. He was outraged at their failure to submit, and called a meeting of all the princes of the Moabite and Ammonite city states. 

Assyrian weapons and clothing

One of the princes,  Achior of the Ammonites, took the opportunity to tell him about the Israelites. He praised them as a people, and begged Holofernes to not to harm them.

Holofernes did not respond to this plea. He reasoned  that sheer strength of numbers would guarantee him success and that the Israelite settlements would be easy prey. He was not pleased with Achior either. He had him seized, tied up, and left outside the walls of the town.

The townspeople retrieved Achior and took him inside the walls of Bethulia. Once there, Uzziah, the chief magistrate of the town, pumped him for information. Achior told him about Holofernes' plans; he also told them of the admiring description of them that had landed him in so much trouble. The grateful townspeople made him welcome.

Holofernes Lays Siege to Bethuliah

Holofernes then mustered his entire army.  The little mountain town was vastly outnumbered but the walls of Bethulia were strong, and they decided to tough it out. Holofernes laid siege to the town, and settled down to wait.

The people of Bethulia held out until every water container in the town was dry. Then when things got desperate they began to blame Uzziah for not submitting to Holofernes in the first place. They urged him to surrender the town to Holofernes. 


Judith Steps Forward

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Klimt

At this stage in the story we are introduced to Judith of Bethulia. She was a woman of impeccable character and a great beauty. She was also a widow - her husband had left her financially  independent, and she lived a simple life, fasting and praying. She was evidently influential, because she sent for the elders, including Uzziah, and when they came to her she remonstrated with them. 

Uzziah brushed off her advice, telling her that the best thing she could do was leave decision-making to the men. Judith in turn brushed off his advice.  She  told Uzziah she and her maid would leave the town that night, and to have the city gate opened for them.

Judith Prays

When the men were gone, she prostrated herself on the ground and prayed to God. She described the predicament of the townspeople,  then urged God to break the enemy's power by putting strength instead into the hands of a widow, herself. She also asked God to make her a good liar.

She Perfumes and Dresses Herself

 When she had finished her prayer she perfumed herself, dressed her hair with a tiara, and put on one of the extravagant robes she wore when her husband was alive.

Judith, by ElisabettaSirani

Then she decked herself with jewelry - anklets, bracelets, rings, earrings and other assorted pieces. After that, she and her maid gathered an assortment of ritually pure food and put it all in a large bag. The town gates were opened, and she and her maid slipped out.

Almost immediately she and her maid ran into an Assyrian patrol, who challenges them.  She told the soldiers she had secret information that would help Holofernes capture the town without losing a single soldier. 

The soldiers were bowled over by her beauty, and escorted her to Holofernes. The general was resting on his luxurious bed, but he came to the front of the tent and greeted her.

Holofernes is Smitten

Beguiled, he told her that he had never met a woman who was as beautiful in appearance and wise in speech as she was. He provided a tent for her, and told the soldiers to leave her unharmed. She stayed three days in the camp, remaining in the tent during daylight hours and eating her own food each evening. 

On the fourth day, Holofernes invites her to an informal banquet in his tent. As he observes to his servant, it would be a disgrace to let her go without seducing her. She dressed in all her finery and presented herself at his tent, where her maid has laid Judith's sheepskin bedding on the ground. 

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio

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.

Eventually Judith was left alone in the tent with Holofernes, now dead drunk, stretched out on his bed. The moment had come to act.  She lifted down Holofernes' gleaming sword hanging in its sheath from the bedpost, and raised it high above her head.

Judith Hacks Off Holofernes' Head 

  She struck once, then again. On the second stroke his head fell away from his body. She then rolled the headless body off the bed and pulled down the luxurious bed curtains. Pausing for a moment to gather her strength, she picked up the twitching head and passed it out to her maid, who placed it in the food bag.

Without arousing suspicion, the two women left the tent and passed through the camp, then circled up towards Bethulia. Once there, they call to the guards to open the gates and let them in. Once inside Judith pulled out the grisly contents of the bag and showed it to the people.

The Enemy Flees

But the battle was not over yet. Judith instructed the people to hang Holofernes' head in full view on the battlements, and gave instructions for the next morning. At dawn when the Assyrian soldiers went to wake Holofernes they found his headless body. Without their leader they panicked and fled in great disorder. They were easy prey for the Israelites, who were familiar with the terrain and were experts at guerilla warfare. 

Judith became a national heroine, lauded by everyone. She lived on, heaped with honors, until she was very old - one hundred and five. The faithful maid who had accompanied her was set free. Judith never remarried.

Judith, Bible Heroine

                     Beautiful, Rich, Wise

Extracts from the Book of Judith

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes,
                                detail of the maid

Judith and Holofernes Caravaggio
detail of the maid

Nebuchadnezzar's War of Revenge

Judith 1:1, 7-9, 11-12

1 In the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh, in the days of Arphaxad, who ruled over the Medes in Ecbatana --

7 Then Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians sent to all who lived in Persia and to all who lived in the west, those who lived in Cilicia and Damascus and Lebanon and Antilebanon and all who lived along the seacoast,8 and those among the nations of Carmel and Gilead, and Upper Galilee and the great Plain of Esdraelon,9 and all who were in Samaria and its surrounding towns, and beyond the Jordan as far as Jerusalem and Bethany and Chelous and Kadesh and the river of Egypt, and Tahpanhes and Raamses and the whole land of Goshen,

11 But all who lived in the whole region disregarded the orders of Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians, and refused to join him in the war; for they were not afraid of him, but looked upon him as only one man, and they sent back his messengers empty-handed and shamefaced.12 Then Nebuchadnezzar was very angry with this whole region, and swore by his throne and kingdom that he would surely take revenge on the whole territory of Cilicia and Damascus and Syria, that he would kill them by the sword, and also all the inhabitants of the land of Moab, and the people of Ammon, and all Judea, and every one in Egypt, as far as the coasts of the two seas.

The Fearsome Holofernes

Judith 2:4-9, 14-16

4 When he had finished setting forth his plan, Nebuchadnezzar king of the Assyrians called Holofernes, the chief general of his army, second only to himself, and said to him,5 "Thus says the Great King, the lord of the whole earth: When you leave my presence, take with you men confident in their strength, to the number of one hundred and twenty thousand foot soldiers and twelve thousand cavalry.6 Go and attack the whole west country, because they disobeyed my orders.7 Tell them to prepare earth and water, for I am coming against them in my anger, and will cover the whole face of the earth with the feet of my armies, and will hand them over to be plundered by my troops,8 till their wounded shall fill their valleys, and every brook and river shall be filled with their dead, and overflow;9 and I will lead them away captive to the ends of the whole earth.

14 So Holofernes left the presence of his master, and called together all the commanders, generals, and officers of the Assyrian army,15 and mustered the picked troops by divisions as his lord had ordered him to do, one hundred and twenty thousand of them, together with twelve thousand archers on horseback,16 and he organized them as a great army is marshaled for a campaign.

Judea on the Alert

Judith 4:1-2

Impaled captives from a wall
                                relief: what you could expect if you
                                lost the battle

Impaled captives from an Assyrian wall relief: what to expect if you lost in battle

1 By this time the people of Israel living in Judea heard of everything that Holofernes, the general of Nebuchadnezzar the king of the Assyrians, had done to the nations, and how he had plundered and destroyed all their temples;2 they were therefore very greatly terrified at his approach, and were alarmed both for Jerusalem and for the temple of the Lord their God.


The People Starve

Judith 7:19-22

19 The people of Israel cried out to the Lord their God, for their courage failed, because all their enemies had surrounded them and there was no way of escape from them.



20 The whole Assyrian army, their infantry, chariots, and cavalry, surrounded them for thirty-four days, until all the vessels of water belonging to every inhabitant of Bethulia were empty;21 their cisterns were going dry, and they did not have enough water to drink their fill for a single day, because it was measured out to them to drink.22 Their children lost heart, and the women and young men fainted from thirst and fell down in the streets of the city and in the passages through the gates; there was no strength left in them any longer.


Judith Enters: Beautiful, Rich, Wise

Judith 8:1-2, 7-8, 9-17, 32-35

1 At that time Judith heard about these things: she was the daughter of Merari the son of Ox, son of Joseph, son of Oziel, son of Elkiah, son of Ananias, son of Gideon, son of Raphaim, son of Ahitub, son of Elijah, son of Hilkiah, son of Eliab, son of Nathanael, son of Salamiel, son of Sarasadai, son of Israel.2 Her husband Manasseh, who belonged to her tribe and family, had died during the barley harvest.

7 She was beautiful in appearance, and had a very lovely face; and her husband Manasseh had left her gold and silver, and men and women slaves, and cattle, and fields; and she maintained this estate.8 No one spoke ill of her, for she feared God with great devotion.

9 When Judith heard the wicked 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 city to the Assyrians after five days,10 she sent her maid, who was in charge of all she possessed, to summon Chabris and Charmis, the elders of her city.11 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 city to our enemies unless the Lord turns and helps us within so many days.12 Who are you, that have put God to the test this day, and are setting yourselves up in the place of God among the sons of men?13 You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test -- but you will never know anything!14 You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart,nor find out what a man is thinking; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought? No, my brethren, do not provoke the Lord our God to anger.15 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.16 Do not try to bind the purposes of the Lord our God; for God is not like man, to be threatened, nor like a human being, to be won over by pleading.17 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.

32 Judith said to them, "Listen to me. I am about to do a thing which will go down through all generations of our descendants.33 Stand at the city gate tonight, and I will go out with my maid; and within the days after which you have promised to surrender the city to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand.34 Only, do not try to find out what I plan; for I will not tell you until I have finished what I am about to do."35 Uzziah and the rulers said to her, "Go in peace, and may the Lord God go before you, to take revenge upon our enemies."

The Prayer of Judith

Judith 9:1, 7-10

Alessandro Botticelli, 
'Judith's Return to Bethulia'

1 Then Judith fell upon her face, and put ashes on her head, and uncovered the sackcloth she was wearing; and at the very time when that evening's incense was being offered in the house of God in Jerusalem, Judith cried out to the Lord with a loud voice

7 "Behold now, the Assyrians are increased in their might; they are exalted, with their horses and riders; they glory in the strength of their foot soldiers; they trust in shield and spear, in bow and sling, and know not that thou art the Lord who crushest wars; the Lord is thy name.8 Break their strength by thy might, and bring down their power in thy anger; for they intend to defile thy sanctuary, and to pollute the tabernacle where thy glorious name rests, and to cast down the horn of thy altar with the sword.9 Behold their pride, and send thy wrath upon their heads; give to me, a widow, the strength to do what I plan.10 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.

Judith Prepares to Seduce Holofernes

Judith 10:1-4, 6, 11-13, 20-23

1 When Judith had ceased crying out to the God of Israel, and had ended all these words,2 she rose from where she lay prostrate and called her maid and went down into the house where she lived on sabbaths and on her feast days; 

Jewelry excavated at the women's quarters 
in the ancient city of Nimrud

3 and she removed the sackcloth which she had been wearing, and took off her widow's garments, and bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment, and combed her hair and put on a tiara, and arrayed herself in her gayest apparel, which she used to wear while her husband Manasseh was living.4 And she put sandals on her feet, and put on her anklets and bracelets and rings, and her earrings and all her ornaments, and made herself very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all men who might see her. 

6 Then they went out to the city gate of Bethulia, and found Uzziah standing there with the elders of the city, Chabris and Charmis. 

20 Then Holofernes' companions and all his servants came out and led her into the tent.21 Holofernes was resting on his bed, under a canopy which was woven with purple and gold and emeralds and precious stones.22 When they told him of her he came forward to the front of the tent, with silver lamps carried before him.23 And when Judith came into the presence of Holofernes and his servants, they all marveled at the beauty of her face; and she prostrated herself and made obeisance to him, and his slaves raised her up.

Judith 11:20-23

20 Her words pleased Holofernes and all his servants, and they marveled at her wisdom and said,21 "There is not such a woman from one end of the earth to the other, either for beauty of face or wisdom of speech!"22 And Holofernes said to her, "God has done well to send you before the people, to lend strength to our hands and to bring destruction upon those who have slighted my lord.23 You are not only beautiful in appearance, but wise in speech; and if you do as you have said, your God shall be my God, and you shall live in the house of King Nebuchadnezzar and be renowned throughout the whole world."

Judith at Holofernes' Banquet

Judith Returning with the Head of Holofernes, Giorgione, 1504

Judith 12:10-20

10 On the fourth day Holofernes held a banquet for his slave only, and did not invite any of his officers.11 And he said to Bagoas, the eunuch who had charge of his personal affairs, "Go now and persuade the Hebrew woman who is in your care to join us and eat and drink with us.12 For it will be a disgrace if we let such a woman go without enjoying her company, for if we do not embrace her she will laugh at us."13 So Bagoas went out from the presence of Holofernes, and approached her and said, "This beautiful maidservant will please come to my lord and be honored in his presence, and drink wine and be merry with us, and become today like one of the daughters of the Assyrians who serve in the house of Nebuchadnezzar."14 AndJudith said, "Who am I, to refuse my lord? Surely whatever pleases him I will do at once, and it will be a joy to me until the day of my death!"15 So she got up and arrayed herself in all her woman's finery, and her maid went and spread on the ground for her before Holofernes the soft fleeces which she had received from Bagoas for her daily use, so that she might recline on them when she ate.16 Then Judith came in and lay down, and Holofernes' heart was ravished with her and he was moved with great desire to possess her; for he had been waiting for an opportunity to deceive her, ever since the day he first saw her.17 So Holofernes said to her. "Drink now, and be merry with us!"18 Judith said, "I will drink now, my lord, because my life means more to me today than in all the days since I was born."19 Then she took and ate and drank before him what her maid had prepared.20 And 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.

Judith Hacks Off Holofernes' Head

Judith 13:1-10

1 When evening came, his slaves quickly withdrew, and Bagoas closed the tent from outside and shut out the attendants from his master's presence; and they went to bed, for they all were weary because the banquet had lasted long.2 So Judith was left alone in the tent , with Holofernes stretched out on his bed, for he was overcome with wine.3 Now Judith had told her maid to stand outside the bedchamber and to wait for her to come out, as she did every day; for she said she would be going out for her prayers. And she had said the same thing to Bagoas.4 So every one 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 upon the work of my hands for the exaltation of Jerusalem.5 For now is the time to help thy inheritance, and to carry out my undertaking for the destruction of the enemies who have risen up against us."

Caravaggio's 'Judith and

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio

6 She went up to the post at the end of the bed, above Holofernes' head, and took down his sword that hung there.7 She came close to his bed and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, "Give me strength this day, O Lord God of Israel!"8 And she struck his neck twice with all her might, and severed it from his body.9 Then she tumbled his body off the bed and pulled down the canopy from the posts; after a moment she went out, and gave Holofernes' head to her maid,10 who placed it in her food bag. Then the two of them went out together, as they were accustomed to go for prayer; and they passed through the camp and circled around the valley and went up the mountain to Bethulia and came to its gates.

A Grisly Head Hangs From The Wall

Judith 14:11-19

                      with decapitated head11 As soon as it was dawn they hung the head of Holofernes on the wall, and every man took his weapons, and they went out in companies to the passes in the mountains.12 And when the Assyrians saw them they sent word to their commanders, and they went to the generals and the captains and to all their officers.13 So 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, in order to be destroyed completely."14 So Bagoas went in and knocked at the door of the tent, for he supposed that he was sleeping with Judith.15 But when no one answered, he opened it and went into the bedchamber and found him thrown down on the platform dead, with his head cut off and missing.16 And he cried out with a loud voice and wept and groaned and shouted, and rent his garments.17 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,18 "The slaves have tricked us! One Hebrew woman has brought disgrace upon the house of King Nebuchadnezzar! For look, here is Holofernes lying on the ground, and his head is not on him!"19 When the leaders of the Assyrian army heard this, they rent their tunics and were greatly dismayed, and their loud cries and shouts arose in the midst of the camp.

Walls of the ancient city of Dan

Judith 15:1-3

1 When the men in the tents heard it, they were amazed at what had happened.2 Fear and trembling came over them, so that 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.3 Those who had camped in the hills around Bethulia also took to flight. Then the men of Israel, every one that was a soldier, rushed out upon them.

The Happy Ending

Judith 16:21-25

21 After this every one returned home to his own inheritance, and Judith went to Bethulia, and remained on her estate, and was honored in her time throughout the whole country.22 Many desired to marry her, but she remained a widow all the days of her life after Manasseh her husband died and was gathered to his people.23 She became more and more famous, and grew old in her husband's house, until she was one hundred and five years old. She set her maid free. She died in Bethulia, and they buried her in the cave of her husband Manasseh,24 and the house of Israel mourned for her 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.25 And no one ever again spread terror among the people of Israel in the days of Judith, or for a long time after her