The Ethics of Judith: Sex, Lies, and Murder

Judith is a paragon of virtue who lies repeatedly and seduces Holofernes in order to murder him. But did the writer of Judith intend the reader to see Judith as a model of virtue?

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio

In her prayer prior to entering the Assyrian camp, she 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 the story of Judith 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.

There is a spectrum 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 overreading what was intended as an entertaining story, but the story of Judith provides support for the violent resistance of the Maccabean Revolt.

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.

Is Judith Historically Inaccurate?

There are several historical errors in the book. Or are these obvious historical blunders ironic? “The storyteller, speculated Torrey, might even have given his listeners “a solemn wink” as he delivered his opening sentence” (Moore, “Judith, Book of,” ABD 3:1121). As David deSilva suggested, any attempt to defend the historicity of Judith is doomed to failure (Introducing the Apocrypha, 94).

There are many historical problems in the book, I list just a few here:

  • The book begins in the twelfth year of Nebuchadnezzar, ruler of Assyria and the great city of Nineveh. Nebuchadnezzar was a Babylonian king (not Assyrian) and Holofernes was a Greek (not Assyrian).
  • Holofernes marches his massive army from Nineveh to Cilicia in three days, over 300 miles (2:21). Two verses later the army is fighting in Put and Lud, in North Africa, then remarkably they are back in Cilicia in the next verse.
  • The place names may have been created by the author. Bethulia, for example, did not exist. But the name means “young woman” and may be a hint of Judith’s victory later in the book. As Otzen says, “The topography of the book of Judith is also bewildering” (81).
  • The book claims Jerusalem can only be reached by a narrow pass, which anyone reading the book would know was geographically false.
  • The king of the Medes, Arphxad, is also fictional, the name is (probably) drawn from Genesis 10:22, one of the sons of Seth.
  • The book constantly refers to people living in Judea as the Israelites, a historical anachronism since Israel ceased to exist in 722 B.C.

How could any intelligent Jewish writer living about 150 B.C. make such a historical error as Nebuchadnezzar was king of Assyria, after the Jews returned from the exile? They only solution that makes sense is these anachronisms are intentional. As Lawrence Wills puts it, “The book of Judith telescopes multiple historical epics into one imaginary frame” (Wills, Judith, 9). There is a little Assyrian assault on Jerusalem (2 Kings 18), Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian Exile, and Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

I agree with Wills: “the author was intentionally playing with a fanciful story line that would have been obvious to the audience” (Judith, 9). But what is the point if intentional historical errors? Should the reader look for a real historical figure behind the un-historical references to Nebuchadnezzar or Holofernes?

Wills offers the example of the Christian writer Sulpicius Severus (c. A.D. 403, Sacred History 2.16) who identified Nebuchadnezzar with Artaxerxes III Ochus of Persia (358-338 BC). It is also common for commentaries to take the reference to Nebuchadnezzar as a reference to the Assyria king Ashurbanipal (668–626 B.C.), although this does not solve the problem of the claim the Jews have only recently return from exile after 539 B.C.) Since Otzen says there are at least twenty suggested historical solutions, perhaps these historical errors are not substitutions for actual historical facts.

Although Judith is entirely fictional story, I suggest the author drew on stories of heroic women from the Hebrew Bible and well-known historical threats to the Jewish people to create a story which encourages readers to resist the empire, whatever empire happens to be oppressing at the time. Looking back at Jewish history, threats from Assyria, Babylon, Persian and the Salticid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes are bended together.

If the book is written just after the Maccabean revolt, perhaps the writer wanted to encourage readers to consider violence as a possible solution to threats and oppression. While Daniel encouraged passive resistance and a willingness to die rather than compromise, Judith describes a woman who does what is necessary to end the threat by assassinating an Assyrian general. The historical details are fuzzy because the Jewish people are always under a threat from a Gentile empire.

Do the books of Daniel and Judith represent two different approaches for Jews living in the exile?

 

Bibliography: Benedikt Otzen, Tobit and Judith (Sheffield Academic, 2002); Lawrence M. Wills, Judith (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2019).