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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading the Book

As the introduction notes (OT, p. 553 ), the tale of Judith is well known. Over the centuries her story has attracted a remarkable amount of attention from writers, artists, and composers.

Chiasm I Chiasm II
1. 2, 14–3, 10 Holofernes begins campaign; nations surrender A. 8, 1–8 Introduction to Judith
B. 8, 9f Judith plans to save Israel
2. 4, 1–15 Israel prepares for war C. 10, 9f Judith leaves Bethulia
3. 5, 1–6, 11 Holofernes talks with Achior D. 10, 11–13, 10a Judith overcomes Holofernes
3'. 6, 12–21 Achior talks with Israel C'. 13, 10b–11 Judith returns to Bethulia
2'. 7, 1–15 Holofernes prepares for war B'. 13, 12–16, 20 Judith plans to destroy
1'. 7, 6–32 Holofernes begins campaign; the people wish to surrender Israel's enemies
A'. 16, 21–25 Conclusion about Judith
Many composers, such as Thomas Arne, Antonio Vivaldi, and Arthur Honegger, chose Judith as the subject of their oratorios and operas. Painters have represented her story on canvas, and the sculptors of the facade of the cathedral at Chartres depicted her story in stone. One reason for all this attention is that Judith's story is such a good one. It is a heroic tale in which an unlikely character overcomes the cowardice of her own people in the face of the enemy. She defeats an arrogant general who thought that he was invincible in love and war. The plot begins in part I ( 1, 1–7, 32 ) with the introduction of the antagonists: Nebuchadnezzar and his general Holofernes.

  • 1, 1–16 : Nebuchadnezzar declares war on the Medes and demands that his vassals aid him in his campaign. His vassals, Judah among them, ignore his call. Despite this, Nebuchadnezzar is victorious.

  • 2, 1–13 : Nebuchadnezzar commissions Holofernes to punish the disloyal vassals.

The story then focuses on the fate of Judah, whose king and people ignored Nebuchadnezzar and now await his retribution. In telling the rest of the story, the book of Judith arranges the plot in two chiasms. (A chiasm is a type of inverted parallelism.) This is a frequent rhetorical device in biblical literature. Each incident leading up to a central event is balanced in reverse order with a similar incident following the central event.

Chiasm I ( 2, 14–3, 10 ) delineates the struggle. That it is both a religious and political conflict is clear from the words of Holofernes deriding the Israelite hope for victory when be boasts: “Who are you, Achior&to tell us not to fight against the Israelites because their God protects them? What god is there beside Nebuchadnezzar?” ( 6, 2 ). Achior was an Ammonite whom Holofernes, Nebuchadnezzar's general, summoned to provide him with intelligence about the Israelites. Achior eventually converted to Judaism.

Chiasm II ( 8, 1–16, 25 ) introduces Judith, the heroine who relieves the tension created in Chiasm I. She defeats Holofernes and proves that the Lord alone is God. Chiasm II portrays Judith as a model of faith. She not only crushes the arrogance and pride of Nebuchadnezzar and Holofernes but overcomes the cowardice and timidity of her fellow Jews who are ready to surrender. She takes her action without any guarantee from God that she will be successful. Her only guarantee is her faith.

The Image of Judith

The heroine's name is not a proper name. It means simply “Jewish woman.” Judith, then, is more than an individual; she is a composite of all the women who have saved Israel in the past by their piety, wisdom, and action. On one level, the book of Judith is a tribute to those women whose achievements and memory ancient Israel cherished. Like Miriam (Ex 15, 20f ) she led Israel in a song of thanksgiving following God's deliverance of the people (Ex 15, 14–16.17 ). Like Deborah (Jgs 4, 4–9 ) she aroused the flagging faith of Israel, besieged by its enemies (Jgs 8, 9–27 ). Like Jael (Jgs 4, 17–21 ) she assassinated her people's adversary. Like the wise woman from Abel Beth‐maacah (2 Sm 20, 15–22 ) Judith challenged the strategy of Israel's leaders and substituted her own ( 8, 16; 9, 2 ). By telling the tale of Judith, the storyteller was in effect honoring all the women whose memory ancient Israel revered. These women saved the people of ancient Israel at times when the more usual channels of leadership were not able to meet the challenges to their faith.

The first people to hear the story of Judith lived in a traditional society in which the roles assigned to men and women were distinct. The book of Judith offers a surprising dissent from the assumptions of its culture about the role and status of women. In this story, the men proved to be utter failures in the face of the threats of Nebuchadnezzar and Holofernes. As happened several times in Israel's past, God chose a woman to be the instrument of salvation. Judith, like her predecessors, is a most impressive channel of God's deliverance. The usual channels (the king, priests, and other notables) failed. The impact that this story made on a traditional society like that of early Judaism is difficult for us to appreciate because we live in a society where change occurs with greater frequency and rapidity.

Despite its countercultural veneer, the book of Judith is otherwise conservative in its outlook on the role of women in Jewish society. By rescuing her people from destruction at the hands of Gentiles, Judith is a model for the Jewish woman as the conservator of tradition. Her socially assigned role is to preserve tradition and keep her family protected from the pressures to assimilate to the dominant non‐Jewish culture that threatens to envelop it. Judith is a paradigm for the Jewish woman who shields her family against incursions from the outside that threaten to dilute their loyalty to their ancestral religion. The heroine of the book carries out the role assigned to her by her culture, but she also transcends that role.

The Irony in the Book

The story of Judith is full of unexpected turns. The first and most obvious, especially to those who first heard or read Judith's story, was that a woman—not a man—saved Judah in its time of severe distress. Judith is more faithful and resourceful than any of the men of Bethulia. She is more eloquent than the king and more courageous than any of the leading citizens of the city, yet Judith is a very unlikely heroine. She is a childless widow; as such she occupied a very low place in the social hierarchy. While the king, the priests, and other leaders of Judahite society show themselves incapable of dealing with the crisis, lowly Judith stands up to the threat posed by Holofernes and takes decisive action to end it.

The means that Judith used to accomplish her end may offend some. She used her beauty to gain access to the enemy camp and to beguile Holofernes. Judith, though, was using the one weapon that she had available to her, and it happened to be a weapon that exploited the weakness of Judah's enemy. This leads to the second irony. Judith destroys Judah's enemies not with military might but with her beguiling charm and disarming beauty. The Bible sometimes portrays a woman's beauty negatively as a snare (2 Sm 11, 2–5; Prv 6, 26; Sir 9, 2f ), but here it is the means of deliverance.

Finally, Judith is a childless widow, yet the book portrays her as the mother of faith. It was her faith that gave new life to Israel. That is why the high priests and elders praise her so highly ( 15, 9 ). The Latin hymn Tota pulchra es applies these words of praise to Mary. The liturgy finds the story of Judith as an appropriate image to speak of the Virgin Mary, who is the Mother of the Church.

The Judaism of the Book

The book of Judith asserts that the deliverance of the Jews in Bethulia depends not on power and might but on fidelity to the law. This is the point that Achior makes to Holofernes ( 5, 5–21 ) and that Judith makes to the elders of Bethulia ( 8, 17–21 ). The author portrays Judith as living according to the law as Jews interpreted it at that time. As a widow, she lived in a state of mourning marked by fasting ( 8, 4–6 ). She prayed daily at the hour of the incense offering in the Temple ( 9, 1 ). She observes the Jewish dietary laws ( 10, 5 and 12, 2.19 ). She purifies herself by bathing in running water at the appropriate time ( 12, 7–9 ). Judith criticizes the people of Bethulia for violating the law of first fruits and tithes ( 11, 11–14 ).

The book departs significantly from earlier tradition as it describes the conversion of Achior the Ammonite ( 14, 10 ). According to Deuteronomy, the Israelites were never to admit an Ammonite into their community (Dt 23, 4 ). Presumably the author was able to justify this by the example of Ruth, who (as a Moabite woman) belonged to the other nation that Deuteronomy excludes from ever becoming part of the Israelite community. While the book of Judith presents obedience to the Torah as the key to Israel's deliverance, it shows a type of flexibility that is able to respond to a person such as Achior, who wishes to join the Israelites in the service of God. The issue of inclusion and exclusion was a perplexing one for Judaism, as it was for the first Christians (Acts 10, 1–49; 11, 1–18; 15, 1–12 ).

Though the story of Judith remained a popular one among Jews for two thousand years, there is no evidence that the book was ever regarded as canonical in Palestine. It was, however, included in the Greek translation of the Old Testament made for Diaspora Jews, many of whom could no longer read Hebrew. There were continuing debates among Christians about its canonical character. The Council of Trent (1546) included Judith in its list of canonical writings, while Protestants, following Luther, did not.

The Religious Horizons of the Book

The book of Judith may date from as late as the first century (see the introduction, OT, p. 553 ), but in some respects it reflects the circumstances of the Maccabean revolt in the second century. For example, there are strong parallels with the defeat of Nicanor, Antiochus's general, as narrated in 1 Maccabees 7, 43–50 . In some ways, Judith is the feminine counterpart of the Maccabees. The book is an eloquent statement of traditional worship of the Lord. It affirms belief in the one God ( 6, 2; 8, 16f; 14, 18; 16, 13 ). It asserts that this one God guides all human events toward their intended goal ( 9, 5f ). Finally it describes this God as One who is present with the weak and oppressed ( 9, 11 ).

The storyteller paints a portrait of Judith much like the Israelite storytellers who told of the exploits of Ehud (Jgs 3, 12–30 ), Jephthah (Jgs 11, 1–40 ), Samson (Jgs 13–16 ), and David (1 Sm 16, 1—1 Kgs 2, 10 ). Their personal character and the means they used to save Israel did not come under careful moral scrutiny. Judith uses seduction and assassination to achieve her ends, although the text is careful to state that Judith did not have to complete her seduction of Holofernes before she could kill him ( 13, 16 ). Like these earlier stories, the book of Judith shows that God brings deliverance out of the evil that people create for themselves. Even though the book is ostensibly about Judith, its pivotal affirmation is about the God of Israel:

Your strength is not in numbers, nor does your power depend upon stalwart men; but you are the God of the lowly, the helper of the oppressed, the supporter of the weak, the protector of the forsaken, the savior of those without hope ( 9, 11 ).

The book of Judith then is a profession of faith in the God of Israel who saves the lowly. The story of Judith is simply an illustration of this article of ancient Israelite faith.

The book also asserts very forcefully that God's deliverance does not come except through the faithful action of people such as Judith. Unlike the king, the priests, and the elders of Bethulia who were content to pray and then surrender to Holofernes, Judith's prayer leads her to take action to save Bethulia. Though she receives no revelations or guarantees from God, her faith supplies the support she needs to begin and complete the perilous adventure that saved Israel. God saves the lowly, and prayer puts people in contact with that God, yet God's presence among the people does not absolve them from the duty to act on their beliefs. Judith is a mother of faith not only because she believed and prayed but especially because she acted on her beliefs—another perspective this book shares with 1 Maccabees.

The Image of Women in the Church

The book of Judith offers a model for the process of contemporary theological reflection on the role and status of women in the Church. It is itself one product of early Judaism's reflection on the role of women in its own social and religious system. At the very least, the book sees women as at times better fit to be instruments of salvation than men—a conclusion that was an unexpected one, given the cultural milieu in which it arose. Like Judith, Catholic women throughout the centuries have made enormous contributions to the life of the Church and are invited to see themselves as conservators of what is best in our religious heritage.

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