Yehudit: Chosen by God is a rare book, difficult to classify. It is a fictionalized reimagining of the apocryphal book of Judith, a historical Christian romance, a devotional message to women, an egalitarian manifesto, and an invitation to follow Jesus. The author, Lauren Jacobs (who also goes by Aliyah), is equally a rare combination—Christian Jewish (or Messianic Jewish), South African, a counselor, pastor, writer, and speaker. Friends of CBE have seen her frequent blogs and articles highlighting women of the Old Testament and bringing egalitarian theology to bear on the topics of abuse and her South African context.
Yehudit is Jacobs’ first Christian novel, and won the South African 2017 Desmond Tutu-Gerrit Brand Prize for the best Christian debut novel. More academically trained writers probably would classify Yehudit more as a devotional retelling rather than a pure novel. Many readers who enjoy Christian romance novels or inspiring devotionals will embrace this new book and its inspiring devotional message. Yehudit includes a devotional application and reflection guide at the end, which would make it a good fit for an evangelical Christian women’s book club or Bible study group. However, the book would probably not be a good fit for women well-steeped in feminist or womanist theology, because of its romanticism, and somewhat simple message.
Both in the Book of Judith and in Jacobs’ novelization of her story, Yehudit, or Judith, is successful in her crusade because of her beauty, which she uses to access the enemy general. The book does not engage with the problem of dehumanizing that comes when women only have power and agency because of their physical beauty. The book also does not engage with the violence Judith inflicts in order to save her nation from oppressor violence. Finally, the book seems to propose that coming to know the true God of Israel instantly transforms the lives of two non-Israelites: a captured slave girl who we can assume (from hints in the text) has been raped by her oppressors and an Ammonite king, who is then rewarded with marrying Yehudit’s godly cousin.
Yehudit stays extremely tightly linked to the apocryphal book of Judith, rather than taking the liberties necessary for a true historical fiction novel. Additionally, most scholars do not consider Judith a historical record of actual events. However, the devotional messages are where Jacobs focuses her retelling, and I found her reflection guide at the end to be where Jacobs’ gifts shined most brightly. Jacobs encourages readers to reflect on multiple Scripture passages and does a great job leading readers through guided meditations of personal encounters with Jesus. She clearly has a heart for ministry to women who need encouragement.
The Book of Judith touched Jacobs in a dark period, when she was struggling with a long illness, and she began to write Yehudit’s story. At the end of her illness, she typed up what she had written and realized she’d written a novel expanding on Yehudit’s saving her nation. The novel personally strengthened Jacobs and gave her a vision of what the story could mean for other women. Jacobs hopes that the novel will encourage other women of faith “to rise up and come out from behind the veil and receive the marching orders of purpose and destiny.” She says that some theological traditions have stripped women of their identity and agency and “place[d] shackles of ungodly submission and emptiness on them.” Thus, she hopes her novel will give women courage and strength to follow God in whatever God has called them to, but especially bold and powerful leadership.
Yehudit is a strong, bold, and godly protagonist, who struggles through the death of her young husband to save her nation from military oppression. In the novel, she frequently prays and hears God speaking to her. The novel has a lot of dialogue, action, and adjectives, but not a lot of character development or descriptive setting. Readers should look for personal devotional application, rather than a researched historical novel such as The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.
The novel has a very egalitarian bent, with loving marriages between the main character Yehudit and her husband Manasseh and between Yehudit’s parents. In fact, the equality message is so strong, Yehudit’s father appeared as a proto-Jewish/Christian feminist. Some readers who want historicity might find this distracting, but many readers will be cheered and encouraged to see an engaging evangelical egalitarian novel breathing life into ancient biblical characters. Additionally, it seems many novels from Christian publishing houses are more complementarian in their bent, so this novel is refreshing. However, the sexuality is in line with what would be acceptable to a conservative Christian audience, including for teens, so the book could be given to friends or family who are less egalitarian in their understanding of gender relationships. I imagine many readers would find this novel and the lengthy devotional reflection guide encouraging, leading them back to deeper biblical engagement and greater ability to follow God’s calling on their lives.
In the US, Yehudit is available only in e-book, but was published in print in South Africa by a well-known Christian publishing house in both English and Afrikaans.