Judith: The Mata Hari of the Second Century BC

Strozzi, Bernardo; Judith with the Head of Holofernes; Christ Church, University of Oxford; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/judith-with-the-head-of-holofernes-229201

Guest post by The Revd Philippa Judith White, Succentor of Christ Church Cathedral

If you are familiar with the more esoteric reaches of the Revised Common Lectionary – esoteric enough in and of itself – you will know that, every so often, it sends us to read the Apocrypha: the set of books written after the Old Testament proper, but read as Scripture by Jews and many Christians. And, if you’re among the seventeen people (and the odd dog) who do follow the Morning Prayer lectionary, then every three years, in October, you’ll read edited highlights of the story of Judith, told in the Apocrypha in the book that bears her name.

For the rest of the world, the story of Judith is well worth seeking out. It’s a war story – and like the best war films, it focuses on a small human drama that puts the whole ghastly gigantic conflict into a human scale that we can comprehend.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria, is waging war upon the whole world. He sends his best general, Holofernes, to conquer Israel. Holofernes starts with a border city, Bethulia. He uses tactics that have worked before: he besieges them. And sure enough, before long the city leaders are ready to surrender.

Not, however, if Judith has anything to do with it. She isn’t introduced until chapter 8 of her own book, but she comes in like a whirlwind. After a brief introduction in which we learn she’s a wealthy and beautiful widow, she’s straight into action. She summons the city elders and tells them off. How dare they consider surrendering? What on earth were they thinking? They are sheepish. They ask her to pray for rain, so that they can hold out under siege for longer. And Judith laughs: she’s going to do better than that.

Then Judith said to them, ‘Listen to me. I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants. Stand at the town gate tonight so that I may go out with my maid; and within the days after which you have promised to surrender the town to our enemies, the Lord will deliver Israel by my hand. 

Judith 8: 32-34

The story leaves the elders at the town gate and follows Judith out to the enemy’s camp. She has taken off her mourning clothes; she’s dressed to the nines, and she’s stunning. She gets herself picked up by enemy patrols and sweet-talks her way to Holofernes the general, to whom she introduces herself as a deserter willing to turn her city over to him. On one condition: that she’s allowed out of the camp each evening to pray, and that she doesn’t eat his food – she’s keeping kosher and she’s brought her own, in a bag that her maid is looking after. Holofernes, smitten, falls for it. He agrees to everything; lets her get him drunk; and summons her back a couple of nights later with one thing on his mind.

Judith arrives. She’s set it all up perfectly. Holofernes sends all his guards out and the two of them are alone. She drinks him under the table and, when he passes out, beheads him. The guards are expecting her to go out of the camp with her bag of food; so they don’t stop her. And she just keeps going, back to Bethulia, back to the elders, where she opens her bag – and there’s the head of Holofernes.

When the enemies find out in the morning what has happened, they panic and flee. Israel is saved. Judith leads the city in a song of praise and lives to the age of 105 – freeing her maid, refusing all suitors, prosperous, wise and universally respected.

Reflection

Judith is my middle name, named after a very dear godmother. So I was always going to like the story of the biblical Judith. I don’t remember when I first heard it, or even whether I read it for myself; but Judith the clever, the resourceful, the faithful, the beautiful, has always been one of my heroes and I’ve always been pleased to have her name.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to appreciate different facets of Judith’s character. The astonishing courage of her actions – the way she risked not just her life, but her body. The mutual trust between her and her unnamed maid. The quiet courage she had shown before this moment, calmly managing her late husband’s estates and businesses, respected by everyone at a time when women – especially women acting in ways that women didn’t usually act – were not automatically treated as worthy of respect. Her willingness to position herself in a place that wasn’t just vulnerable, but that laid itself open to misinterpretation. She knew she wasn’t planning to sleep with Holofernes or to betray her city, her friends, her nation or her God – but anyone watching would have been forgiven for thinking she might. Judith doesn’t care how she’s perceived – she only cares about doing the right thing, the thing to which God is calling her. And, paradoxically, because of this she is rightly perceived as wise and holy.

Judith is not only a woman, she’s a childless widow. Feminist readings highlight this as a particularly vulnerable position – and they’re correct. But Judith is also wealthy, having inherited her husband’s estates and businesses. With means, and with the intellect to manage them, she is far less vulnerable than many people. So Judith – like many of us – occupies a paradoxical position: in some ways vulnerable, in other ways privileged. And she responds to this paradoxical position not by emphasising the ways that she’s vulnerable, nor by claiming her privilege, but by using her position and the resources at her disposal – wealth, beauty, wisdom – for the good of her city and her nation. Perhaps this can make her a particularly good example for those of us who are privileged in some ways and vulnerable for others; or for those of us trying to work out what it means to respond to God’s call in the changed circumstances around us.

Before she leaves Bethulia for the enemy camp, Judith prays. Let’s conclude with the words of her prayer:

For your strength does not depend on numbers, nor your might on the powerful. But you are the God of the lowly, helper of the oppressed, upholder of the weak, protector of the forsaken, saviour of those without hope. Please, please, God of my father, God of the heritage of Israel, Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of the waters, King of all your creation, hear my prayer!

Judith 9: 11-12

Prayer

God of the broken, strength of the vulnerable, we give you thanks that throughout history, you have called women and men to unite with you in helping the oppressed, upholding the weak, protecting the forsaken, saving the hopeless. God of the poor, friend of the weak, give us your compassion and inspire us with your love. Teach us, like Judith, to defend and protect those in need; to challenge injustice; and to work for healing in your world. Amen