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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Aesthetics and Ethics.


Because the titular heroine does not appear until midway through her story, the volume has been regarded as unbalanced. However, closer reading indicates substantial connections and correctives between the first and last seven chapters (Craven 1983 ). Paragraphs 2–4 below are examples of the balance:


Chs. 1–7 emphasize military campaigns, fear engendered by overt show of strength, and success based on armaments, numbers of soldiers, and male dominance; at the end of this section, Achior appears condemned, Nebuchadnezzar triumphant, and the Bethulians doomed. Chs. 8–16 provide the corrective by emphasizing Judith's personal history (e.g. her genealogy), clever strategizing, deception, and the power of the individual. For these reasons and others, commentators typically divide the book between the first and second eight chapters (Craven 1983 ). One notable exception is the theory of Ernst Haag (1963 ), which suggests the Book of Judith forms a tripartite structure (1–3; 4–8; 9–16).


Characterization serves to yoke the two parts. In the first seven chapters, Achior provides the transition. His speech relates Assyrian plans and Jewish abilities, and his forced removal from the military camp to the outskirts of Bethulia shows the division between the two areas both geographically and ideologically. This most unlikely of heroes will enter Israel not only as an involuntary exile, but as a willing convert, as his circumcision attests. Judith is Achior's opposite: the second section of the book depicts her traversing from Bethulia to the enemy camp, but through her own will rather than as an outcast. Whereas Achior truthfully summarizes Jewish history and is not believed, Judith dissembles about plans for the temple sacrifices and is believed. While Achior undergoes circumcision and therefore changes both identity and appearance, Judith only feigns change: her make-up can be washed off and her festive clothes replaced by sackcloth.


Judith is also the opposite of Holofernes. The Assyrian general insists that everyone worship Nebuchadnezzar as divine, although the king had not actually given this order (Craven 1983 ). That is, Holofernes interprets his task theologically. Judith does the same: she invokes God through prayer, but her actions are of her own devising. Furthermore, unlike Greek Esther, Susanna, or Tobit's Sarah, who explicitly receive divine aid, Judith's prayers are answered by the machinations of the plot rather than the entry of the supernatural.


Just as the book of Judith is frequently regarded as aesthetically uneven, so it is often condemned as ethically untenable. Interpreters have excoriated the heroine, who lies, who lulls her victim into a false sense of security, who kills. Such a focus misses the narrative's irony even as it displays sympathy for Holofernes, who is a ruthless butcher. The irony accompanies the assassination motivated by self-defence: Judith decapitates the general, with his own sword no less, by the ‘hand of a woman’ (the phrase appears several times). Nothing could be more ignominious (see Judg 9:53 ). Enhancing the irony are the numerous doubles entendres, the fainting of the seasoned soldier Achior at the sight of Holofernes' head, and the name of the theologically weak Bethulian leader, Uzziah, which means ‘God is my defence’.


Yet irony and self-defence do not preclude the fact that the book, and its heroine, can be regarded as dangerous. More cunning than Jael (Judg 4–5 ), who dispatches the enemy general Sisera by tucking him into bed, giving him milk, and then pounding a tent peg into his temple, Judith seeks out her victim, takes the head as a trophy, and then facilitates the slaughter of the Assyrian army and the looting of their camp (White 1992 ). More dangerous than Jael, the ‘wife of Heber the Kenite’ and therefore distanced from the covenant community, Judith is ‘one of us’. More threatening to traditional gender roles than Deborah, who is aided by Barak and is called a ‘mother in Israel’, Judith as book and as character subverts the social expectations for men and women. Judith remains independent, her female slave runs her estate, she refuses all sexual advances, the men she encounters are at best inept, even her donkey is female (Craven 1983 ). Perhaps then it is not surprising that the book insists upon its fictional status, that Judith finally retires to her house, and that she does not produce children.


The connection of the books of Judith and Judges is, however, a helpful corrective to those who find her story unethical or unladylike. Judith is, in terms of narrative genre and character development, in the model of the judges: she is resourceful and brave like Jael; she is a mother figure in her protection of the community, like Deborah; she is sly (and even conveys a possible hint of sexual scandal) like Ehud. As with the judges, the land remains at peace until her death.


The book of Judith evokes more than the stories of the judges, and herein lies a major part of its aesthetic import. Throughout, by drawing upon other texts, it adds to its own literary richness even as it contributes to the tradition- history of its literary predecessors. Most significant is Judith's connection to Gen 34 , the rape of Dinah. From the (probably) Samaritan setting of Bethulia, to Judith's descent from Simeon, to her promise to protect the ‘virgin’ (Heb. bĕtûlâ), to the deceitful conquest, and even to the suggestions in each story of castration, the Apocryphal narrative recapitulates the earlier story. Indeed, the character of Judith redeems that of Simeon (as do two other Second-Temple texts, Jubilees 30, and the Testament of Levi), condemned for his violence by Jacob (Gen 49:5–7 ).


Like Jacob, Judith travels from her home, cleverly defeats an enemy who has been feigning friendship, and escapes enemy territory unnoticed. Judith may also be compared to Moses: both faced lack of water and a suffering people with weakening theological grounding (Ex 17; Num 20; Deut 33 ); both, with divine help, preserve and strengthen the covenant community (Van Henten 1995 ). Like Abigail, Judith descends a mountain, takes her own food, humbles herself before a military leader (David), and is involved with a drunk man who dies (Nabal); see 1 Sam 25 (Van Henten 1995 ). Like Esther, with whom she is typically paired in both ancient manuscript collections and modern interpretation, Judith uses her physical charms along with her clever words and loyalty to her people to defeat a genocidal enemy. Like the Maccabees, she rescues her people from false worship as well as military conquest.


Given Judith's composition during the Hellenistic era, it is not inappropriate to compare her also with Greek figures. Like Medusa, her looks prove deadly (see Bal 1994 for art-historical and literary connections); like Euripides' Bacchae, she carries a thyrsus and produces the decapitated head of a ruler. For more on connections between Judith and Greek fiction, see Wills 1995 .

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