The Ethics of the Book of Judith: Sex, Lies, and Murder

In the book of Judith, Judith is presented as a model of virtue, yet she lies repeatedly and seduces Holofernes in order to murder him. Did the author of the book of Judith intend the reader to see her as a model of virtue? Like Jael, Tamar, or Esther, Judith is a hero with a dark side.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio

In her prayer prior to entering the Assyrian camp, Judith tells God she has a plan and asks him to “By the deceit of my lips strike down the slave with the prince and the prince with his servant; crush their arrogance by the hand of a woman” (9:10). She more or less says, “bless my lies.”

She dresses to entice men: “she made herself very beautiful, to entice the eyes of all the men who might see her” (10:4), and the people of Bethulia prayed to God to give her success (10:8). When the Assyrian soldiers see her “she was in their eyes marvelously beautiful” (10:14). In fact, they judge Israel positively because of Judith’s beauty, “Who can despise these people, who have women like this among them?” (10:19).

Yet the people of Bethulia praise Judith and God when she returns with the general’s head in a bag. “When she had finished, the people raised a great shout and made a joyful noise in their town” (14:9). The elders of Bethulia say she has walked “the straight paths of God” (Judith 13:20). The Hebrew Bible has many examples of characters who are morally corrupt, but their actions are not praised or set up as a model to be emulated. For example, David uses his power to sleep with Bathsheba and murders her husband to cover up the affair. Even though the ultimate result of that relationship is Solomon, the greatest king of Israel, nothing in the text implies David’s adultery was a noble act. Yet Judith 15:9-10 the elders of Bethulia call Judith the “pride of our nation.”

Judith 15:9–10 When they met her, they all blessed her with one accord and said to her, “You are the glory of Jerusalem, you are the great boast of Israel, you are the great pride of our nation! 10 You have done all this with your own hand; you have done great good to Israel, and God is well pleased with it. May the Almighty Lord bless you forever!”

David deSilva suggested Judith should be read through the lens of honor and shame. Moral obligations toward God, kin, and nation differed from moral obligations to outsides (“Judith the Heroine?,” p. 56). A lie told in order to protect the honor of one’s family or one’s nation was an “honorable means” according to deSilva. He illustrates this with several stories from the Hebrew Bible in which zeal for defending the family or the nation includes lies and violence. He mentions Simeon and Levi’s defense of their sister Dinah (Gen 34) and Jael’s breech of hospitality when she killed Sisera (Judges 4-5). Although Simeon and Levi are not praised in Genesis, the Second Temple period book Testament of Levi describes Levi’s perpetual priesthood as a reward for his zeal for keeping Israel pure. In deSilva’s view, Holofernes is a threat to the honor of Israel, so the use of lies and violence to meet that challenge is acceptable and honorable. God’s honor is at stake, so Judith’s actions as she defends God’s honor are acceptable. Still, for many modern readers Judith’s use of her sexuality to seduce the general seems offensive. This this, as deSilva suggests, a case of “all’s fair in love and war”?

Geoffrey Miller suggest Judith is depicted similar to Israel’s Divine Warrior, God rising up to rescue his people in the day of distress. The writer of Judith did not intend for Judith to be an example for people to follow. (I would add here, this is unlike Daniel, who is presented in the first part of Daniel as model for resisting the empire.) For Miller, Judith’s behavior is difficult to justify (p. 232) and any attempt to do so falls short. Miller therefore argues Judith’s words are similar to divine utterance and her character is designed to evoke divine warrior theme from the Hebrew Bible.

Judith is often described as a heroic woman, “a woman who fights with a woman’s weapons, yet far from being defined by her ‘femininity,’ she uses it to her own ends.” (Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, 117).

The book of Judith is especially striking for its feminism. In creating a protagonist the author has chosen a woman, who calls to mind the Israelite heroines of the past-Judith “the Jewess.” As the narrative unfolds, Judith is consistently depicted as superior to the men with whom she is associated: Uzziah and the elders; the Assyrian army and their general. George Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 108.

Pamela Milne, for example, is not comfortable using Judith as a feminist icon and tracks a range of views from feminist interpreters moving away from the view of Nickelsburg. She suggests that “feminist readers reject any suggestion that she is a feminist heroine or a feminist’s heroine.” (Milne, “What Shall We Do with Judith?,” 55) For Milne, Judith is still presented “from a male, patriarchal perspective” even if she is a heroic figure.

The Book of Judith should be read as part of a wide range of responses to threats to Israel in Second Temple literature. Daniel was willing to die rather than eat the king’s food or pray to the Persian emperor. In fact, there is no hint of a violent resistance in most of the book of Daniel. God’s faithful resist and are willing to die rather that cross certain boundaries. Judith represents another response to similar challenges. Perhaps God’s people ought to actively resist by any means to protect the honor of God.

Maybe I am over-reading what was intended as an entertaining story, but it seems to me the book of Judith provides support for the violent resistance of the Maccabean Revolt as opposed to the passive resistance found in Fourth Maccabees.

What would Daniel do in a similar situation?


Bibliography: deSilva, David A. “Judith the Heroine?: Lies, Seduction, and Murder in Cultural Perspective.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 36 (2006): 55–61; Efthimiadis-Keith, Helen. “Judith, Feminist Ethics and Feminist Biblical/Old Testament Interpretation.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 138 (2010): 91–111; Miller, Geoffrey David. “A Femme Fatale of Whom ‘No One Spoke Ill’: Judith’s Moral Muddle and Her Personification of Yahweh.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 39 (2014): 223–45; Milne, Pamela J. “What Shall We Do with Judith? A Feminist Reassessment of a Biblical ‘Heroine,’” Semeia 62 (1993): 36-56; Tamber-Rosenau, Caryn. “Biblical Bathing Beauties and the Manipulation of the Male Gaze: What Judith Can Tell Us about Bathsheba and Susanna.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 33 (2017): 55–72.

5 thoughts on “The Ethics of the Book of Judith: Sex, Lies, and Murder

  1. The book of Judith promotes ethics that differ greatly from the ethics that are found in the Bible. Some commonly known ethics from the Bible are to tell the truth, avoid dressing in a provocative manner, being compassionate/kind to others, and do not murder. The book of Judith contradicts these ethics. For instance, throughout the book of Judith, it is evident that Judith purposely dresses in a manner that will catch the attention of men. In fact, she was described as being beautiful by Assyrian soldiers. However, time and time again, the book of Judith proves the saying that beauty is only skin deep. A person cannot be beautiful on the inside as well as the outside if they lack integrity and morals.

    What stood out most from this article is how people such as David in the Bible would have affairs with other people, but it was never held in a high regard as something great. Instead, it was held as a sort of disgrace. However, when Judith does something similar to this, she is held as the pride of their nation. While the book of Judith is a story, it can be applied to society today. People who have good morals and present themselves in a conservative manner are viewed in society as being on the outside of what is popular. Then there are the people who present themselves in the opposite manner where they are wearing revealing clothing and do not seem to have a good head on their shoulders. While not everyone fits into one of these categories, this is how our society is today. Similarly, to the book of Judith, it praises those who are provocative, which instead of being called what it is, it is labeled as being confident. Overall, from what I have read, the book of Judith seems to view the bad as good and the good as bad.

  2. The book of Judith sounds similar to a strange old testament battle. An example of that would be in 1 Samuel 18 when Saul is jealous of David and wants him to die, so he tells him that the only way for David to marry his daughter is by bringing back one hundred Philistine foreskins. It only gets weirder that David goes out of his way to bring back two hundred foreskins. The Bible we accept as canon is not much less strange. However, I agree that there is a difference between what is celebrated and shown as noble. The main thing that felt off about reading Judith was that she exploited her sexuality in ‘the name of the Lord’ making her the Israelites’ hero. This does not line up with how the Bible portrays people who do works on behalf of God. There is a lack of integrity that Judith portrays as well as the absence of ownership of what she did being wrong. With David and Bathsheba, at least it is shown through a moral lens owning up to the fact that he made a mistake and what he did was a lapse of integrity, not something to be celebrated as we see with Judith.

  3. In the canonical Old Testament, actions such as Judith undertook would have been presented not as morally good, but from either a more neutral, “this is what happened” perspective, or one of condemnation and immorality. An example of this would be Jacob marrying both Rachel and Leah. At that point, God had not condemned polygamy yet, so Jacob was not technically committing an offense (using logic based on Romans 4:15). However, we know that God’s design for marriage and sexual relations is one man and one woman, and we know that His will does not change, therefore had God given the Law prior to this account, Jacob would have been in sin. Based on this, Jacob having two wives cannot be used as a defense of polygamy. However, though it is technically a transgression, Jacob is also not shown being punished for it or having to atone for it. Therefore this narrative is neither a defense of or a warning against polygamy; it’s a purely factual and historical retelling. Judith, on the other hand, is the opposite; here we have a promiscuous, sexually immoral woman, lying and killing her way to the top, asking God to bless her efforts. This is part of how we know it’s a fictional account; no God-fearing Jewish woman would ask God’s blessing on sin, as well as be successful in her efforts. She’s shown as a heroine, despite her clear disregard for God’s Law. Because of this, there’s very little likelihood that this was ever seen as a historical account (ignoring the blatant historical discrepancies, of course). God doesn’t change His standards of morality, therefore Judith has to be fictional.

  4. She is not a promiscious woman no where does it say that she never slept with holfornes because he was too drunk. That being said she did dress sexy and act seductive in order to seduce the man. But she never did sleep with him or do anything actually sexual with him. It was also to save the people of Israels lives she did that whereas David took advantage of innocent people. She wasn’t trying to lie and kill her way to the top though I agree with what the rest you said . I think this is more to do with Gods people delivered then a book for moral example.

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