As Protestants we rarely dive into the extra-biblical literature that our Orthodox and Catholic sisters and brothers read as Scripture. However, when we read these deuterocanonical books as literature we can gain more than just fascinating insight into Judaism. We enrich our own faith through the stories of Jewish women and men of faith, which help us to experience Jesus as the promised Messiah of the Jews.
The book of Judith depicts one such woman of faith, who is as chaste and shrewd as she is beautiful. Judith uses her superficial charms as a gateway to her gallant actions, which save her people and exemplify her trust in Yahweh. Judith opens with a “historical” setting: King Nebuchadnezzar seeks to punish the states within his political control for failing to assist him in his battle against Media (2:3). The Jews are among those who refuse to fight, so Nebuchadnezzar orders Holofernes, his commander-in-chief, to besiege the Jews. Holofernes cuts off the Israelites’ water supply, leaving the people weak and ready to surrender (7:12–13).
In the time of crisis, though, Judith’s character, cunning, and strength are revealed. After thirty-four days without water, Uzziah, a town official, declares to the Jews that they will surrender in five days unless the Lord comes to their aid (7:30). Meanwhile, the people beg Judith to intercede for them because they know she is a pious woman.
Judith, who trusts in God to rescue her people, has a plot of her own. She leaves the town with her female slave and goes into the enemy camp. Traveling alone was an audacious task for women, but Judith goes under the guise that she plans to betray her people because their destruction is imminent (10:12–13). As a beautiful woman, she captures the lust of Holofernes, and as an intelligent woman, she wins Holofernes’ trust. The enemies set up a tent for her and her servant, and she spends three days at the camp (12:8–9). On the fourth night, Holofernes invites her to dine with him. Her plan, under the direction of God, comes to fruition.
The vile commander-in-chief wants to seduce Judith, yet he becomes inebriated and passes out. His guards, assuming that the prowess of their lord has tempted the widow Judith, leave him unguarded. Judith prays to God for strength (12:7), takes Holofernes’ sword from the bedpost, and gives his neck two hard blows, severing his head and killing the enemy. She wraps his head in a net, and goes out of the city with her female slave who was waiting outside.
When they return to the Israelites, the women reveal Holofernes’ head, inspiring the warriors for battle. Judith has remained chaste in her ploy (13:16) and is praised for her victory and virtue (13:17, 15:9). The women adorn their heads with olive wreaths—the symbol of victory—and the men sing songs of praise to the women, while the women process in front of them (15:13). Judith’s valor now ranks among the biblical stories of David, who decapitated Goliath (1 Sam. 17:51), and Jael, who drove a tent peg through the temple of Sisera (Judg. 4:21).
The book makes clear, on several occasions, that Judith never has relations with the malevolent ruler. She is praised as a heroine, a God-sent warrior, and a chaste woman with great restraint. Judith was a woman who challenges the stereotype that females are timid and docile. By looking to heroes like Judith who trusted God with their lives, we can see how God calls and uses both women and men to act courageously and boldly in the face of overwhelming obstacles.