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.

Is Judith Historically Inaccurate?

There are several obvious errors in the book of Judith. Perhaps it does not even matter if Judith is historically inaccurate. The obvious historical blunders may be 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 Inaccuracies 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).

 

What is the Book of Judith?

Judith is a novella written shortly after the Maccabean revolt, probably 150-100 B.C. Carey Moore suggested Judith is reminiscent of the general spirit of the days of Judas Maccabeus” (“Judith, Book of,” ABD 3:1123). The book appears in the Apocrypha and tells the story of a threat to the Israelite village Bethulia. Judith is a beautiful widow who acts bravely and saves both her village and all of Israel from the Assyrian threat. The story is reminiscent of other Jewish women in the Hebrew Bible, including Rahab, Jael, Ruth, and Esther.

Judith 4:12 may allude to Antiochus’s desecration of the Temple in 167 B.C., “the sanctuary to be profaned and desecrated to the malicious joy of the Gentiles.” The defeat of Nicanor in 1 Maccabees 7:43-50 is remarkably similar to Judith’s assassination of Holofernes. Nebuchadnezzar demands to be worshiped as a god, recalling Daniel 3. Some place names which can be identified in the book suggest a date after 107 BC, after Alexander Janneus destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. Judith is only known in Greek although Jerome was familiarity with Aramaic version of the book. It does not appear in the Qumran library and is not mentioned in rabbinic literature.

Even if Judith was rarely considered canonical, the book important for both Christians and Jews. The book was included in the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate and the Syriac Peshitta, and appears in many early and important Greek Bible (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus). Although it was never considered part of the Jewish canon, it is considered canonical in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox traditions.

Moore suggests a major problem for Jewish acceptance of the book is the conversion of Achior, an Ammonite. Deuteronomy 23:2 specifically states, “no Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the Lord, even to the tenth generation.” Achior is a gentile convert to Judaism who submitted to circumcision but is not baptized. Later Halakah required both for a Gentile to become a Jew (Moore, “Judith, Book of,” ABD 3:1124).

In his recent commentary on Judith, Lawrence Wills suggests Judith may have been known by the authors of Greek Esther and Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities (Wills, Judith, 2), but there are no citations or clear allusions to Judith. He suggests the reason Judith was never canonized may be as simple as the language, since it was not written in Hebrew it was considered secondary from the beginning.

Some early readers may have found the character Judith to be too brazen (Toni Craven, Artistry and Faith in the Book of Judith, 117). Yet her actions are not too different than Ruth or Esther. She was not too brazen to keep the book out of the western Christian canon.

Both Clement of Alexandria and the council of Nicaea considered Judith canonical, as did most of the western church fathers. Luther questioned the canonicity of the book but treated it allegorically as a “passion play.” For modern Protestants, the historical anachronisms are enough to reject the book. The historical and geographical errors are a problem for anyone who holds to biblical inerrancy. However, modern studies of Judith treat these obvious errors as a sign to the reader that the story is fictional. For conservatives like Geisler and Nix, Judith is “subbiblical and, at times, even immoral,” citing God’s assistance and approval of Judith’s lies (9:10-13; A General Introduction to the Bible, Rev. ed.; [Moody, 1986], 271). It may be the case Geisler and Nix forgot about the prostitute Rahab’s lies (Joshua 2:4-7).

Even though the story of Judith is fiction, it reflects what some Jews thought about the struggle between Hellenism and Judaism. In Daniel, the four young men resisted the imposition of the empire and were willing to die rather than compromise. In Judith, resistance to the empire takes a more violent turn as Judith assassinates the Assyrian general Holofernes, forcing the invading foreigners back to their own territory.

Does story of Judith support to the Hasmoneans? Perhaps, but it may be the case the readers of Judith looked back to Judas Maccabees as the ideal defender of Israel rather than the later Hasmonaean kings.

Who was Ahikar?

Also spelled Ahiqar, Ahikar is Tobit’s nephew (Tobit 1:21-22) and an example of a faithful Jew living in the Assyrian empire.

Tobit 1:21-22 (NRSV) But not forty days passed before two of Sennacherib’s sons killed him, and they fled to the mountains of Ararat, and his son Esar-haddon reigned after him. He appointed Ahikar, the son of my brother Hanael over all the accounts of his kingdom, and he had authority over the entire administration. 22 Ahikar interceded for me, and I returned to Nineveh. Now Ahikar was chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and in charge of administration of the accounts under King Sennacherib of Assyria; so Esar-haddon reappointed him. He was my nephew and so a close relative.

Ahiqar is “one of the best-known and most widely disseminated tales in the ancient modern world” (Lindenberger, OTP 2:480). The text is quite old, probably dating from the fifth or sixth century B.C. Fragments appear in the Elephantine documents. The book likely had an influence on several Apocryphal books, such as Tobit 1:41 and was popular well into the Christian Era. The book was “still being copied in Arabic as late as the eighteenth century and in Syriac as late as the end of the nineteenth “(Lindenberger, 492).

By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=92797982

Elephantine Papyrus of Ahiqar Photo Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)

While the book is wisdom literature, it may not be Hebrew wisdom literature, at least in its most basic form. The genre of Ahiqar is a “court tale,” so often a parallel is made to Daniel (Goldingay, Daniel, 6) and there are parallels to Esther (Ahiqar saved a man’s life then later that man has power over him) The value of the book for New Testament studies is primarily in the “sayings” section. There are many sayings which have parallels to Old Testament wisdom and therefore may be present in the New Testament as well. Likely as not the New Testament stands on the foundation of the Old rather than on a book like Ahiqar. The book does serve to show the sort of proverbial wisdom which was current in the centuries before Christ and an interesting study could be done tracing the trajectory from Old Testament wisdom to Ahiqar then to Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, then into Christian wisdom like material.

The plot of the book concerns the retirement of Ahiqar after the death of Sennacherib. Ahiqar requests that his adopted son Nadin take his role as advisor and scribe for the new king, Esarhaddon. Nadin spreads a rumor that Ahiqar has devised a “wicked plot” against Esarhaddon, so the king orders him killed. The guard sent to capture and execute Ahiqar was once involved in a court intrigue himself and Ahiqar spared his life. This guard proposes to kill a eunuch slave and tell people it was Ahiqar in order to spare his life. They do this, and Ahiqar hides himself while everyone thinks he is dead.

The story breaks off at that point, but Lindenberger summarizes the rest of the story as reconstructed from later versions: The king of Egypt contacts Esarhaddon and asks for the wisest man in Assyria to come and supervise the building of a temple between heaven and earth. No one can meet the challenge of the king’s riddles and Esarhaddon rues killing Ahiqar. The guard realizes the time is right, so he brings Ahiqar out of hiding and the king rejoices. After the king apologizes, Ahiqar asks to punish Nadin (which involves being chained up and beaten while Ahiqar lectures him.)

The Sayings of Ahiqar amount to several pages of proverbial wisdom. Many are nearly identical to Proverbs (line 82, for example, “spare the rod and spoil the child” cf. Prov. 23:13). Some are obscure and difficult to understand the point (line 117, there is no lion in the sea, therefore the sea-snake is called labbu, Akkadian for lion). Other proverbs invoke the name of various gods (Shamash the Sun-God, Baal Shamayn, “The Merciful” in line 107).

Several sayings can be describe as supporting the word of the king, as expected from someone who served the empire for many years. For example, “Quench not the word of a king; let it be a balm [for] your [hea]rt. A king’s word is gentle, but keener and more cutting than a double-edged dagger.”(100-101). “The k[ing]’s tongue is gentle, but it breaks a dragon’s ribs. It is like death, which is invisible” (105-106).

There are a few lines reminiscent of New Testament verses. Line 100, for example, describes the king’s word as sharper than a double-edged sword, compared to Hebrews 4:12, “the word of the Lord is sharper than a double-edged sword.” The parallel is superficial but may indicate the figure of speech was part of common in the first century. Other parallels are thematic, such as line 137 which condemns amassing great wealth, a common theme in the Old and New Testament (1 Timothy 6:10, for example). Line 171, “If a wicked man grasps the fringe of your garment, leave it in his hand” is similar to Matthew 5:40, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

Although Ahiqar has not left his mark on the literature of the Second Temple period quite like Daniel or Tobit, he is another example of a faithful Jewish exile who finds success serving a pagan king, is persecuted unfairly, yet God protects and prospers him.

Why are stories like Daniel, Esther, or Nehemiah so popular during this period? What do they have to say to the Hellenistic Jew living far from Jerusalem?

 

Bibliography: J. M. Lindenberger, “Ahiqar: A New Translation and Introduction,” ITP 2:479-507; James C. Vanderkam, “Ahikar/Ahiqar (Person),” ABD 1:113; Vanderkam, “Ahiqar, Book of,” ABD 1:119.

What is the Letter of Aristeas?

The book uses an epistle format to present Jewish faith as a rational religion worthy of the respect of the Hellenistic world. In addition, the Letter describes the apocryphal origin of the Septuagint. While there are a number of historical references in the book, these may very well be literary devices used to tell the story of the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

The Letter of Aristeas

Majority opinion dates the book to 150-100 B.C., although it may be dated as late as the first century. Since the book demonstrates a detailed knowledge of Judaism it is undoubtedly the work of a Jewish writer, likely from Alexandria. The book is extremely valuable for the study of the New Testament since it has a great deal of information about Judaism in the century before Christ. Of primary importance is the detailed description of the temple service and the city of Jerusalem. The letter contains a description of temple service as it was performed a little more than a century before the Jesus. While the book is usually thought of as the “origin of the Septuagint,” it is far more important for what it says about first century B.C. Judaism both in theory (the banquet questions and answers) and in practice (temple worship).

The first eight lines introduce the work. Like Luke and Acts, Aristeas addresses his work to Philocrates, who is praised in the prologue for his scholarly mind and understanding. The purpose of the book is to relate the meeting Aristeas had with Eleazar and the circumstances through which Aristeas led a group of Jewish scholars to Alexandria for the purpose of translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek.

Lines 9-51 relate the decision of the king of Egypt to collect books from all over the world into a single library. The Jewish books, however, cannot be used since they are written in Hebrew. They need to be translated before they are suitable for the great library. The king frees the Jews living in Egypt from slavery and honors them greatly. A letter is written from the king to Eleazar the high priest in Jerusalem explaining to him the plan to translate the Hebrew Bible for the library. Eleazar responds positively to this invitation and Aristeas leads the delegation to Jerusalem to bring the translators to Egypt. Six men are selected from each of the twelve tribes, a total of seventy-two men in all.

Lines 52-82 is a detailed description of the furnishings the Temple in Jerusalem. The items described are fantastic and beautifully adorned with gold and jewels. Lines 83-120 describe Jerusalem and the area of the Temple in detail, including a wonderful description of the vestments of the priests and the process by which they lead in the sacrifices. “Everything is carried out with reverence and in a way worthy of the Great God” (95). All of the details given have an “eyewitness” quality about them, although we must take into account the probability of exaggeration and boasting on the part of our faithful Jewish author. The impression we have is of great wealth and artistic skill in the design of the Temple and the surrounding city.

Aristeas returns to the intended theme of the letter in line 120b, with a slight apology to Philocrates for the detailed diversion. Eleazar selected men for the translation committee who were of the most noble character and well educated in the study of the Law (120b-127). Aristeas questioned Eleazar with regard to these men and he receives a lengthy discussion of the rationality of the Jewish religion (lines 128-171). The bulk of this section concerns the food laws, which the author seems to think need a special explanation. Some animals are forbidden for good reason: mice pollute everything they touch. Weasels are unclean because they were though to give birth out of their mouths. Eleazar convinces Aristeas in each case of the truth of the Jewish religion, and he tells Philocrates he desired to impart to him the “solemnity and characteristic outlook of the Law.”

Eleazar makes appropriate sacrifices and sends seventy-two representatives with Aristeas to Alexandria (172-186). They arrive with gifts for the king and are settled into quarters and well provided for by the king. A huge banquet is prepared, and the men as seated in the order of their age (cf. Gen. 43:33, Joseph seats his brothers in order as well.) There is a long section (187-300) in which the king asks each man in turn some question (usually ethical, philosophical or political) and the man pauses for a moment then gives a brief yet wise answer. The king is impressed by each and increasingly demonstrates his approval of the answers.

Each night of the seven-day banquet the king asks ten men a question. Each of these questions and responses gives an insight into the thinking of Judaism just before the turn of the centuries. It would be interesting project to take each question and answer and search for parallels in the debates between Hillel and Shammai in order to determine how current these questions may have been in the first century. It would also be possible to take each answer and find parallel in the New Testament, especially in the teaching of Jesus and Paul. For example, there seems to be a running theme of self-control and self-sufficiency throughout the responses which find a parallel in the letters of Paul (Gal. 5:23, Phil 4:10-13, for example.)

After the king is satisfied with the worthiness of the translators, they are taken to an island where they would set about the work of translating (lines 301-321). This is the most famous part of the letter as it relates the legendary origins of the Septuagint and the abbreviation LXX for the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Each of the translators sets about their work for seventy-two days. After the work is finished, the books are read and accepted by the Jews with applause and no one suggested any changes be made to the translations. The translation was read to the king and he marveled at the wisdom of the Lawgiver. The translators are rewarded and told that if they ever wanted to return to Egypt the king would receive them gladly.

Like the rest of the Letter of Aristeas, this idealized apocryphal story of the origin on the Greek Old Testament is an attempt to show the Hellenistic world the Jewish faith is worthy of respect. But is that really the purpose? Who would read and be convinced of the excellence of the Jewish faith about 100 B.C.? I think it is highly unlikely a Greek living in Alexandria, Egypt would read the Letter of Aristeas and be convinced Judaism was a worthy religion and contemplate converting.

I think this Letter is apologetics for insiders. Aristeas does not write to convert Greeks to Judaism, but rather to convince young Hellenistic Jews that their faith is worthy of respect and to encourage them to remain in the faith. The Jewish people do not need to be embarrassed about their Scripture or their Laws because they are rational, and they can be proud of their worship in the Jerusalem Temple. By way of analogy, most Christian apologetics is not read by atheists who are considering converting to Christianity; Christians read this literature in order to bolster their faith and remain Christians.

Is this a fair reading of Aristeas? Perhaps I am wrong and this is missionary literature rather than insider apologetics.