A Bedtime Story for Adults
I never heard much about the biblical character of Judith back in the little Protestant church of my youth. Maybe it’s because Judith’s storyline is not really the stuff of a good children’s book. If you’re not familiar with it, the story goes like this: Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria, became enraged at his western provinces so he called together a great army under his most bloodthirsty general, Holofernes. Holofernes, who had slaughtered his way through many lands, led the great horde toward Jerusalem, stopping to lay siege to the little town of Bethulia in Israel, telling the Bethulians that they should surrender or die.
The leaders of the Bethulians wrung their hands for weeks and then decided they would give their God five more days to deliver them before they capitulated and began worshipping Nebuchadnezzar. A local widow named Judith overheard the leaders’ plans and decided to something about it.
To implement her plan, Judith had her maidservant prepare ritually pure foods while Judith dolled herself up. The women loaded up a donkey and headed out at night across no-man’s land. When they reached the lines of the Assyrians, they were escorted to the tent of Holofernes who was overcome by Judith’s beauty and promised that if she would give him information about the Bethulians, she and her maidservant would be spared.
Four uneventful days passed during which Holofernes dreamt of taking Judith. When he could wait no more, he invited Judith to dinner; Judith accepted his invitation and on the afternoon of the fifth day showed up fit to kill in her most alluring outfit.
At the feast, Judith spoke seductively to Holofernes, whispering, “This is the greatest day of my whole life.” Refusing the food of the Assyrians, she ate only the ritually pure foods prepared by her maid while Holofernes, as men sometimes do, made a fool of himself and drank himself into a stupor.
When evening fell, Holofernes commanded everyone but Judith to leave the tent, and then immediately passed out drunk. Judith took out Holofernes’sword and deftly removed its drunken owner’s head.
The women stuffed the head into the food bag and made their way undiscovered back to Bethulia. On their arrival Judith was hailed as a great hero, and the Israelite army prepared to chase away the Assyrians in a great rout at daybreak the next day.
Judith lived happily ever after, remaining a widow for the rest of her 105 years. And to this day, Judith remains a hero of Israel and a woman among women.
So what does Judith’s story have to say to postmodern women involved in the life of their community? In the dominant patriarchal narrative, women were denied independence and blocked from leadership roles; even women’s bodies were seen as inferior and corrupt.
But then comes Judith, and her arrival on the scene hails the eventual coming of a more equal, just, and inclusive society, one that empowers previously powerless women to help build a liberating new society of love and justice, truth and peace.
Though not particularly suitable as bedtime reading for youngsters, Judith’s is a tale of strong women who defy the odds while remaining faithful to their traditions and to their community.