Judith - Introduction
Judith, perhaps more than any other biblical book, consistently reverses the reader's expectations. The potent Assyrian army, able to defeat mighty nations both east and west, is routed by the tiny Israelite town of Bethulia. Judith, a Jewish widow, so beguiles Holofernes, the invincible head of the Assyrian army, and all his servants and soldiers that she is able to assassinate him in the middle of his camp and sneak away without being caught. The book's characters and scenes resonate with irony, humor, wordplay, suspense, and the unexpected. The story's characters are vividly drawn and take on lives of their own. Judith is an especially compelling figure. She is morally ambiguous: Although pious, faithful, and religiously observant, she lies, seduces, and murders. She is introduced as a traditionally ideal Jewish woman in many aspects: beautiful, well‐connected, devoted to God and her late husband; yet it is she, and not the male rulers of Bethulia, who acts to save the town and rallies the people to her cause. She has often been viewed as a model for human liberation, and her courage and complexity have fascinated artists, writers, and composers for centuries.
The book of Judith is a well‐crafted work of fiction, an example of the ancient Jewish novel in the Greco‐Roman period. Its tone is exaggerated throughout; it contains historical inaccuracies so great that they strike a historically informed reader as absurd; and many of the geographical sites, including the principal scene of the action (the town of Bethulia), are unknown. Religion is a primary concern in the book. The plot's central conflict revolves around the question of whether true power lies with Israel's God or with the military might of a foreign ruler. Moreover, the work features many traditional religious practices, including prayer, fasting, and observance of dietary laws.
The unity of plot and detail suggests that the book of Judith is almost certainly the work of a single anonymous author. Because the story includes Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic persons and practices, it is difficult to know when the book was originally composed. Most scholars agree that it was written at some point during the Hasmonean dynasty (165–37 BCE). The book was certainly completed by the late first century CE, when it is mentioned in 1 Clement, an early Christian writing. The geographical setting of the story in Palestine, along with its emphasis upon worship in Jerusalem, suggests that it was composed by a Palestinian Jew.
The figure of Judith and her mode of operation have been variously compared to the biblical characters of Jael and Deborah (Judg 4.4–5.31 ), Moses, Esther, Abraham, Delilah ( 16 ), and Woman Wisdom ( 8 ). Yet she also may have been fashioned after the real‐life persons Judas Maccabeus (hence her name “Judith”) or the popular queen Salome Alexandra. It is probably best to view Judith as a fabricated character, a composite of the traits and activities of many other figures from the Bible and from history.
Although Judith herself does not appear until ch 8 , the first seven chapters establish the narrative themes that undergird the entire story: fear, deceit, hearing, blessing, and the proper recipient of worship. Contrasts such as weakness and strength, innocence and guilt, courage and timidity, and godliness and ungodliness should be noted. False appearances and misunderstandings occur regularly; for instance, the Assyrian army only seems strong. Judith's lies are often interpreted as wisdom, and the success of her mission is achieved by means of cosmetic adornment.
The book is divided into two main parts, each with a chiastic structure and thematic repetition. The first part ( 1.1–7.32 ), which narrates the Assyrian campaign and revenge against western nations, begins with Nebuchadnezzar's attack on Arphaxad, king of the Medes ( 1.1–16 ), his commissioning of Holofernes to attack disobedient vassals ( 2.1–13 ), and Holofernes's attack ( 2.14–7.32 ). In Holofernes's campaign, the people of other nations surrender ( 2.14–3.10 ), and consequently Israel is afraid and the high priest Joakim prepares for war ( 4.1–15 ). After advising Holofernes not to attack the Israelites, Achior is expelled ( 5.1–6.11 ). Then the pattern reverses itself: Achior is received into Bethulia and advises the Israelites ( 6.12–21 ); when Holofernes prepares for war, Israel is afraid ( 7.1–5 ); and in the campaign against Bethulia, the people wish to surrender ( 7.6–32 ). In the second part Judith accomplishes her victory over the Assyrians ( 8.1–16.25 ). Judith is introduced ( 8.1–8 ) and plans to save Israel ( 8.9–10.8 ). Judith and her servant leave Bethulia ( 10.9–10 ), and Judith's stratagem succeeds: She overcomes Holofernes ( 10.11–13.10a ). Then the pattern in part two reverses itself: Judith and her servant return to Bethulia ( 13.10b–11 ), Judith plans to destroy Isrl's enemy ( 13.12–16.20 ), and the narrative concludes with a summary of Judith's remaining life ( 16.21–25 ).