A Hanukkah Heroine: The Story of Judith

Sistine Chapel Judith
Pictured above: Judith carrying the head of Holofernes. Artist: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican City, c. 1512.

Judith was one of the great Jewish heroines. Judith single-handedly conceived of a daring and ingenious plan to save the Jews during an earlier time of Syrian Greek oppression.

The book of Judith (Yehudit in Hebrew), records that Holofernes, a Greek general, had surrounded the village of Bethulia as part of his campaign to conquer Judea.

The fighting was intense. The Greeks had cut off the Jews’ water supply. The situation became desperate and the Jews were ready to capitulate. But Judith, a pious widow, told the leaders that she had a plan to save the city.

Judith went to the Greek camp pretending to surrender. She met the general, Holofernes, who was taken by her beauty. Judith agreed to go to his tent with him, where she plied him with cheese and copious cups of wine.

When Holofernes fell into a drunken sleep, Judith beheaded him. She escaped from the camp, secretly taking the general’s severed head with her. When Holofernes’ soldiers found his beheaded corpse, they were overcome with fear. The Jews, on the other hand, were emboldened, and launched a surprise and successful counterattack. The Syrian Greeks were defeated and the town was saved.

When Judith returned to the town of Bethulia, with Holofernes’ head wrapped in her belongings, Uzziah, the leader in Judaea said to her

“O daughter, you are blessed by the God most high above all other women on earth… 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 of the people said, “Amen, Amen!”
– The Book of Judith 13: 15-20 

The Book of Judith is one of the most energetic stories in Judaism, and yet it is not in the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible. But it is one of the Apocryphal texts and is included in the New Testament. As a result, today the story of Judith is better known to many Christians than to most Jews. We find it wonderful that the story of Judith became an inspiration for some of the greatest of classical painters, like Caravaggio and Michelangelo, and is featured on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And yet the story is a surprise to many modern Jews. In celebration of Judith’s heroics (her own Maccabean-like victory), we eat cheese dishes during Hanukkah!

See depictions of Judith’s beheading of Holofernes by the great classical artists Michelangelo and Caravaggio in this blog.

Judith beheading Holofernes. Artist: Carvaggio, c. 1598-1599

Judith beheading Holofernes. Artist: Carvaggio, c. 1598-1599

For those of you who would like to read the detailed text references, following are the key highlights from the Story of Judith.

The Jews were afraid of King Holofernes

“When the Israelites 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, they were therefore greatly terrified at his approach; they were alarmed both for Jerusalem and for the temple of the Lord their God.”
– Judith. Chapter 4 verses 1-2

Holofernes came to conquer the Israelites

The next day, Holofernes ordered his whole army, and all of the allies who had joined him, to break camp and move against Bethulia, and to seize the passes up into the hill country and make war on the Israelites.”
– Judith Chapter 7 verse 1

Judith made her plan to save the Israelites

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”
– Book of Judith Verse 32-36

Judith prepared to visit Holofernes

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, (and cheese).”
– Judith Chapter 10 verse 4-5

Judith entered the Army camp of Holofernes and convinced his troops to bring her to the General so she can “betray” the Israelites

“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… they marveled at her beauty…and led her into (Holofernes) tent.”
– Judith Chapter 10 verses 13-20

After convincing Holofernes of her plan and going back and forth between the Israelite town of Bethulia and the Camp of Holofernes, Judith finally returned to execute her plan.

Judith returned to Holofernes’ tent and “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….”

“…Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofernes stretched out on his bed, for he was dead drunk…(Judith) 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 with all of her might, and cut off his head…(Judith) gave Holofernes’ head to her maid, who placed it in her food bag.”
Judith Chapter 12 Verse 16-20 and Chapter 13 Verse 2-10

Judith returned to the Town of Bethulia with Holofernes’ Head

“(Judith) 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…The Lord has struck him down by the hand of a woman.” “All the people were greatly astonished. They bowed down and worshiped 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 Judith “O Daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth, and blessed be the Lord God…who 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 of the people said “Amen, Amen.”
– Judith Chapter 13 – Verses 15-20

Finally, when the Army of Holofernes found his decapitated body, they panicked and fled Israel

“So Bogaos went in and knocked at the entry of the tent, for he supposed that (Holofernes) 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 leader of the Assyrian army heard this, they tore their tunics and were greatly dismayed.

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.”
– Judith Chapter 14 verse 14-19 and Chapter 15 Verse 1-2