Sisterhood of Faith
In most churches we hear a lot about the “patriarchs” – Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph- of the faith. We don’t really get a chance to hear the stories of women leaders of our faith, the Matriarchs of the Jewish and Christian tradition. In chronicling my own struggle with faith, I’ve found it comforting to learn about the women that came before me. As I’ve mentioned before, women need to know these stories. We need to see ourselves represented in the historical and mythological accounts of our faiths. How will we ever see ourselves as rightful members of this family if we only ever hear about the male characters of our religious texts?
As a second installment of the Sisterhood of Faith series I give you Judith- Heroine of the Jewish people. Check out the first post in this series, Sarah with an ‘h’.
Judith with the Head of Holofernes
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Judith with the Head of Holofernes, I was enthralled. Who was this woman? One hand grabbing the hair atop a decapitated head, her other holding the knife, and an expression that dared you to ask her what she had done. Her face so determined, her skin so pure,… her dress so clean for having just cut a dude’s head off.
There are many, many paintings of this biblical story. In some, the artist chooses to show the Judith caught in the act, slicing through Holofernes neck with blood gushing and staining the bed sheets. Others show Judith demurely holding a platter with a head on it, but it could easily be a roast, she seems just as disinterested. Some artists show Judith wearing a European headpiece and dress, while in others she is barely clothed and seductively posed. I’ve seen probably 6 or 7 in various museums around the world, and no matter the artist or style there is something about these paintings that is extraordinary to me. Who was this woman? Why had I never heard of her?
Note: The Book of Judith is found in the Apocrypha, a group of fifteen books that were part of the Greek translation of the Bible, but not accepted by the protestants because they were not part of the original Hebrew Scriptures.
Who was Judith?
Judith was a wealthy widow who lived in the hilltop town of Bethulia, a town perfectly situated as a gatekeeper for the rest of Israel, get through Bethulia – get to Israel. Which is what the Assyrians, led by General Holofernes had been trying to do. We meet Judith on the 34th day of an Assyrian siege on the little town just as the water supplies are running dangerously low. The towns people have all but overthrown the government and demanded their leaders surrender to the General. The governor tells them that if after 5 days God does not deliver them from the hands of the Assyrians they will surrender.
Judith, however, disagrees with this plan. She sends her handmaid to the leaders and asks them to come see her. They come to her. Brilliant move, already I like this lady’s style. She reminds them that they have no right to give God a deadline –
‘Listen to me, rulers of the people of Bethulia! What you have said to the people today is not right… Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs? …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?”- Book of Judith 8:11-14
And then she tells them that she is going to take care of this, and not to ask her of her plans.
Then Judith said to them, ‘Listen to me. I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants… 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.’ –Book of Judith 8:32- 34
I mean honestly. This woman is amazing.
After she dismisses the leaders, she sets about the business of saving her people. First she prays, then bathes, then she dresses. She removes her widow’s clothing and adorns herself in her finest dresses. She anoints her body with scented oils. As she leaves the town with her handmaid and enters the Assyrian camp, it is quite clear she is relying on her femininity and sexuality to get her to Holofernes. The text is not subtle here, it describes the way the men at the camp are enthralled with her beauty and do whatever she asks.
This is probably a good place to mention why some scholars believe the Book of Judith is not found in the protestant Bible – its loaded with sexual overtones and undertones. As she presents herself to Holofernes, who is immediately interested, it is clear that she is using herself to get as close as she can to the warlord. Holofernes “invites” her to dinner every night for three nights. She is basically taken prisoner now. Before Jesus was in the tomb for three days to save Israel, Judith was dining with Holofernes for three nights to save them. By the third dinner Holofernes is so comfortable with her that he gets himself piss drunk and passes out. His plan was to seduce her but that doesn’t quite work out for him.
…With the head of Holofernes
Here is where Judith becomes the Kill Bill version of Esther. She is more than a pretty face, she is a cunning mind. Judith takes Holofernes knife from his sheath and brings it down on his neck twice, separating his head from his body. She takes the head, passes it to her handmaid who is waiting outside, and they leave.
It’s probably a good idea to mention another reason why this book is not found in the Protestant Bible- it’s morally ambiguous, not to mention unladylike. Judith is a virtuous heroine, buuuuut also a murderess. The ends justify the means.
While it is tempting to look at this story and see only the female version of David and Goliath (which would be reason enough to appreciate it) there is so much more here. Upon her arrival back to the city she continues to take charge, telling the leaders to put the General’s head on the front gates of their city for the invaders to see. Once the enemy sees they have lost their leader their panic makes them easy prey for the Israelite army. The Israelites devour the army, plunder the camp, and give all of Holofernes riches to Judith. Judith leads the towns people out of the camp, crown of garland on her head, dancing back to their small hilltop town. She leads all the women who are dancing around her, and “all the men of Israel followed in their armor.” She leads all of the men…
She sings a song of praise to God and praise of herself, dropping in more than one feminist line.
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!
“Her beauty captivated his mind and the sword severed his neck!”
That’ll preach. Imagine coloring that page in Sunday school as a little girl.
No thank you, I don’t need a slingshot, I’ll use a man’s lust against him and his own sword to save my people.
I just love this story. I love how she defies expectations of biblical womanhood. She takes matters into her own hands. She spoke truth to power, she stood up when her leaders were wrong. She sought God, prayed through it all, but did not wait for something miraculous to happen. She made the miraculous happen. She put her life and her body on the line for her people, just as Sarah did, just as Esther did, just as Mary did.
She saved her people.
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