The Hebrew Old Testament is a collection of writings on the history and ascent of an ethnic group of Middle Eastern-desert rabble known as the Israelites. This collection—infinitely richer in characters and narrative, and far and away more compelling, than its upstart “companion” volume of another religion—omits several “books” from its canon of approved sacred writings. These exclusions, excised or trivialized for whatever reasons (politically or, perhaps, philosophically troublesome) are called the Apocrypha.
The Apocrypha of the Old Testament are several books censured because their provenance could not be established clearly or the story told did not fit the flow of the sacred writings’ narrative. Or, the books may not have fit the Hebrews’ religious ideas. Jewish scholars, of course, know of these stories – as does the average practitioner of Judaism – and are very familiar with them. They are not “forbidden” or necessarily considered heretical in most cases; they are just not accepted as canonical.
Such works have value, though the Hebrews had omitted them. The Protestants – taking their cues from the Jewish example – have done the same, not accepting such texts as part of their
Stories of heroics and piety can be found in the Apocrypha. Perhaps one of the best and most action-packed tales of the Old Testament Apocrypha is the Book of Judith. This is a wonderful narrative of a gorgeous woman who used her brains and her beauty to save her city from certain obliteration. Armed with nothing but a maidservant, Judith of Bethulia brought down an invading army by literally cutting off the head of the beast as it lay in its bed.
A group of people in antiquity was expelled from the Mesopotamian region over refusal to worship the local gods. The text notes the movement of these people to the land of Canaan from their original dwelling place (in modern-day southern Iraq). After a time, these Canaanites prospered in their new home, but later immigrated to Egypt (in the wake of a severe famine in their homelands).
In Egypt, they learned to favor the god Yahweh (over their earlier gods popular in the Canaan lands). The refugees, however, were enslaved by the Egyptians after being in the Land of the Pharaohs for many generations. Finally, they were ejected (or voluntarily departed, as detailed in the Old Testament’s epic, Exodus). They made their way back to “The Promised Land” (their old Canaan homelands, now occupied by others), ultimately reclaiming it after much warring and bloodshed.
In a nearby part of the world, Babylonia had conquered several regions that paid tribute to it, among which was Assyria to its north. King Nebuchadnezzar II had assumed the Babylonian throne in about 605 BCE upon his father’s death. He was the second of what history calls the Chaldean kings, and he was the greatest. The capital was Babylon (about 55 miles south of Baghdad, near the modern city of al-Hillah).
During his reign, he devoted efforts to rebuilding Babylon and improving its infrastructure: paving roads, rebuilding temples, and digging canals. He was also accredited with commissioning the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (considered one of the ancient world’s Seven Wonders). [Folklore attribution of the Gardens’ creation also alternatively suggests a semi-legendary queen, Sammu-ramat, as their builder.]
Nebuchadnezzar’s desire for empire meant conquering the known lands from “sea to sea” (in his day, this meant everything between the Persian Gulf in the east to the Mediterranean in the west). Within his sphere of influence, several territories in the Near and Middle East came under Babylonian rule.
In the 12th year of his reign, Nebuchadnezzar planned an invasion of the lands of Mede (in what is now northwestern Iran). He sent messengers to other kingdoms, seeking military assistance from his vassal allies and other communities that, while perhaps neutral or disinterested in such a conflict, he felt could lend material aid. Many of these outsiders sent manpower to help fight against the Medians. After a conflict lasting about five years, Nebuchadnezzar was victorious over Mede and its king.
He did not forget, however, that in his time of need many of the peoples to whom he had sent messengers for help had failed to respond. In their thinking, he was of no consequence, a lone voice in the wilderness that could not harm them. Nebuchadnezzar, with the megalomania of a despot, vowed to take revenge on these peoples.
Smarting from the diplomatic indifference of his neighbors, in the 18th year of his reign, he summoned his military’s greatest leader, an Assyrian general named Holofernes. Holofernes was equipped with an army of over 120,000 soldiers, over 10,000 cavalry men, and a support contingent (including servants and staff in the hundreds to tend the army). Holofernes’ instructions were to lay waste to all of the lands whose representatives had failed to aid in his conquest of Mede.
They started in the southern parts of Babylonia and waged war on every village and city in their path. The objective by then had changed somewhat – they were to return to the land of Judah and recapture it. Swinging westward, the marching army slaughtered and pillaged, subjugating Damascus, and then several coastal cities, including Tyre, as well as the inland city of Amman.
The way to the Judean lands, and ultimately to Jerusalem from the direction the army approached, was through a mountainous area. High up in the range, accessible only by narrow foot paths that two men could not walk abreast, was a fortified city called Bethulia. The leaders of this city (Uzziah and his council) were among those who had not lent their support to Nebuchadnezzar’s request for additional arms in his fight for Mede. Thus, they were pegged for annihilation by Holofernes in revenge and to clear a path to Judah.
A high priest in Jerusalem, knowing of the Assyrian army’s objective, had sent word to the surrounding mountain communities to fortify their aeries. These villages served as a defensive line for Jerusalem. They were to store up food and supplies and to throw up roadblocks on the plains. They were asked to do anything in their power to hinder Holofernes’ advance. The mountain people did these things to Holofernes’ great frustration.
Camping in the foothills and valley of the range leading up into Bethulia, the army made ready for assault. Finding the mountain passes barricaded, Holofernes sent for representatives from the recently conquered Canaanite cities, among which was a man named Achior, the leader of the Ammonites. This man was asked for intelligence about the people holed up in Bethulia high above the plains. Achior advised the mountain paths were steep and inaccessible to anyone but those marching in single-file.
Achior claimed (probably to intimidate and cause a retreat) that the people above were protected by their god and would not be defeated unless they had committed some offense against that god. In this, he gave Holofernes an option. If the Jews in Bethulia had indeed sinned against that deity in some way, and this could be verified, then Holofernes’ army could readily march up there and conquer them, as it would be ordained. If they had not sinned against their god, then they would be under its clear protection and Holofernes, no matter what he did, could not conquer them.
Bent on conquest, Holofernes was infuriated by Achior’s words. He was certain his army could overtake and ruin Bethulia, god or no god. Because Achior was so sure of the Bethulians’ enjoyed godly protections, Holofernes decided that Achior should share in their fate. He had the hapless informant bound. He was to be delivered to the Israelites of Bethulia.
As Achior and his kidnappers approached, men from Bethulia set upon them and drove them off. Holofernes’ minions dropped the man at the foot of the mountains to die of exposure. The warring party from the mountain town grabbed Achior up and took him into their city. He told of the army lying in wait and what had befallen his own people. Achior’s account left the Israelites of Bethulia resigned to a certain death by an overwhelming horde.
Holofernes, meanwhile, moved his army closer to the mountains. Seeing he could not access the passages leading to the town, he spread his army across the plain and secured all of the watering sources that served the people above. He posted lookouts in the nearby mountains in case the Bethulians tried to evacuate. And then he waited.
The citizens beseeched the city’s leader, Uzziah, to call an end to this. They assumed that laying down arms and walking out of the city and throwing themselves on the mercy of Holofernes would be better than dying of thirst and starvation. A resigned Uzziah and his advisers agreed but decided to wait another five days to see if their god would deliver them.
Within Bethulia lived a young and pious widow named Judith. Her husband had died almost 3½ years earlier. She had been well provided for by him, but instead she chose to mourn by
Hearing of Uzziah’s plan to surrender the city in five days, she mulled the situation over. She then had one of her servants ask Uzziah to come and see her. He and his council paid a visit. She begged his indulgence; she chastised him for faithlessly pre-supposing that their god would not yet save them. Without giving him details, she told him that she would deliver the city from Holofernes’ clutches. If she failed, he could proceed with his surrender plans. Uzziah, with nothing to lose, blessed her and left.
Judith chose a favored maidservant, and then she made preparations. She had a supply of food gathered along with some other few travel items. She bathed, fixed up her hair, put on her most beguiling gown, and draped herself in her finest jewelry. She and her maidservant passed through the city gates as soon as darkness fell.
Rumblings from the hungry, according to Judith, had led to the slaughtering and eating of animals that were taboo under kosher law. They were also eating the first fruits (usually reserved for sacrifices) and the tithes of wine and oil. These acts were all offenses against their god. The people had not engaged in this behavior; Judith’s lie about her people’s “sins”, based on Achior’s statement to Holofernes, seemed prudent.
To Holofernes, this was good intelligence. It meant, true to Achior’s telling, that the Israelites of Bethulia had now sinned against their god. Therefore, Holofernes would be able to handily defeat them. Holofernes promised her she would not be harmed. She was, of course, not free to leave, but she did ask that for the length of her stay she be allowed to wander off at night, without guards or escorts, to pray. Holofernes approved this.
That night, he asked her to dine with him. She demurred, telling him she had her own food. She was taken to a tent where she ate from her provisions with her handmaid. Then she slept till midnight. She rose and, unchallenged, walked out into the valley a ways from the camp. She bathed in a spring and then prayed. She returned to her assigned tent afterwards.
True to his word, Judith remained unmolested by his men or him. She spent the next three days as she had on arrival – eating from her provisions, sleeping till late in the night, then rising and praying, always returning as promised.
Her maid prepared food for Judith and preceded her to Holofernes’ tent. She spread a small fleece carpet on the ground before Holofernes and set a place for Judith to dine. When Judith arrived, Holofernes was overwhelmed by her beauty. He had ached for her since first meeting her in his camp, and tonight he was determined to have her.
The meal progressed, with Judith eating her own food and drinking her own wine. Holofernes, feeling amorous and apparently needing the courage that the vine can bring, drank more than he had in any other single sitting in his life. Judith flirted and tittered, feeding his desire for her.
Holofernes finally dismissed all of his house servants; the servants went to bed, tired from the night of revels. This left only him and his eunuch alone with the seductive widow from Bethulia and her servant. The eunuch withdrew from his master’s bedroom area and stood guard. Judith dismissed her handmaid, telling her to wait outside as well and that she would be along at her usual time for prayer. She told the same thing to the vigilant eunuch and then retired to Holofernes’ bed chamber.
Unfortunately, Holofernes’ will was stronger than his way, and he was so drunk he passed out on his bed. She went to the bedpost where his sword hung. Unsheathing it, and with a prayer muttered to herself for strength, she grabbed his hair, jerked his head back, and with two
She rolled Holofernes’ lifeless body from the bed to the floor. She removed the canopy from over his bed and rolled it up. She bundled his head under her arm and left his tent. She passed the head over to her surprised maid (who had not been told of her plans); the maid stuffed it into Judith’s empty food pouch. The pair strolled off into the night without suspicion as it was the time the camp was accustomed to seeing Judith go off for her solitary prayers.
Instead of stopping at the ravine where she normally prayed, the two women stole away to a path leading up to Bethulia. Making it to the front gate unchallenged, Judith called out to be let in. Much excitement attended her arrival—fires were lit and she showed the head of Holofernes for all to see. She also displayed his bed canopy as further proof that it was indeed the man himself the beleaguered Bethulians beheld. Finally, she made it clear that she neither submitted to him or anyone sexually nor had she been forcibly raped.
But Judith’s strategy had not completely unfolded merely with the death of the great general. She told the men to take up arms and, when day dawned, to head out into the open where the enemy’s outpost keepers could see them. The raiders would see the Israelites and believe they were ready for combat. She said these soldiers would then run off to warn their commanders, ultimately needing to strategize with Holofernes. Once the army learned of Holofernes’ assassination, they would be fractured—with no leadership, she believed they would fall into disarray and scatter.
The next day, all transpired as Judith had planned. The Israelites appeared ready for battle, and the opposing lookouts ran to warn the main camp. Finding Holofernes dead – and it dawned on all of them early by whose hand he met his doom – they were frantic. No one kept ranks, and the lot of them fled in all directions. The Israelites gave pursuit and annihilated them as they ran.
Uzziah sent messengers to nearby cities telling of the fleeing army, and soldiers of those towns also slaughtered Holofernes’ men as they retreated in confusion. Even into Damascus, where Holofernes had been recently victorious, his army’s remnants were hunted and killed as they scattered.
The Bethulians, meanwhile, marched victorious into the abandoned main camp of Holofernes. There, they found the riches of that army’s plundering awaiting them. They (and the returning Israelite soldiers) spent the next 30 days looting the camp of its valuables. To Judith was given all of Holofernes’ personal household goods: his tent, his couches, his silver, his dishes, and his furniture. She harnessed her mules, hitched them to her wagons, and loaded her prizes of war.
In the wake of her subterfuge and triumph, she was fêted by her people. The celebration lasted for days, and a song was made up in her honor, praising her feat of bravery and in delivering the people from a certain death with her beauty and her cunning. Then the people of Bethulia decamped for Jerusalem for further celebrations and worship of their god. They gave offerings of material goods as part of their sacrificing. Judith donated willingly all she had been granted of Holofernes’ possessions. In addition, she handed over the canopy from his bed, which she had taken herself, as an offering.
After three months of festivities, the people returned to Bethulia. Judith retreated to her estate. She did not don the widow’s mien again; and though she was still young and very desirable and received many offers of marriage, she remained single for the rest of her life.
Before she died she divided her goods between her dead husband’s relatives and her own kin. She gave freedom to the maidservant who had accompanied her on her mission of murder. Judith lived to be a very old woman of 105. She was buried in the tomb of her husband and the Israelites mourned her for seven days.
The Book of Judith certainly originated by a Hebrew hand, and was later translated into Greek. Scholars note the similarity of the language and style used in the Greek version to confirm this; that version also borrows heavily from the Septuagint for inspiration. [There is, for example, the retelling of the Jewish people’s history as was done in Exodus.]
Biblical archaeology, a genuine science that uses the scientific method, has discovered many artifacts and dwelling sites consistent with, or positively identified with, many of the locales described in the Hebrew biblical record. The same scientific method has been used to discredit other findings of a similar nature. It is an objective measure of the relative “truth” of an event. Though it cannot prove the details of a narrative, it can at least show that human activity occurred in a cited area.
A great example of the discoveries of biblical archaeology is the site of the ancient city of Ur in Chaldea (part of Babylonia, and the region from which Nebuchadnezzar II, the Chaldean king, was descended). This is the birth city of the biblical Hebrew patriarch, Abraham (or Abram), and it is from there he and his “one god” people were either ejected or voluntarily left for the Land of Canaan (known from archaeology as having been continuously occupied since Paleolithic times, with towns developing in the Neolithic period, 7000-4000 BCE).
From unearthed Babylonian writings, from accounts of other civilizations having contacts with the Babylonians, and physical evidence uncovered in the Iraqi sands, much is known about Nebuchadnezzar II. Though sometimes called simply Nebuchadnezzar (or Nebuchadrezzar), his proper name was Nabu-kuduri-uçur. He was born about 630 BCE.
His military career started around 610 BCE when he assumed the role of military administrator. He wrested Syria from the Egyptians in 605 BCE, and after the death of his father, he assumed the Babylonian throne either later that year or in 604 BCE. He subjugated the Assyrians, the Medians and many other tribal groups, leaving them as vassals paying tribute to his kingdom.
In about 597 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar’s armies attacked Judah and captured Jerusalem. He was unable to hold it, though. He later returned to the region, and in 587-586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar’s armies invaded the Canaan lands and retook Jerusalem. He removed its Jews to live in exile in his lands. There they remained for about almost 50 years before being allowed to return to their “Promised Land”. [It was during this first Jewish Babylonian exile, about 587-539 BCE, that Daniel was tossed into a pit with lions. The conquering Persian king, Cyrus, had ordered it. However, it was Cyrus who allowed Daniel, who survived, and the captured Jews to leave and return to their homeland.]
Establishing texts for inclusion in canonical writings requires confirming many things. Is the moral or spiritual lesson relevant? Is the work significant (i.e., does it add to the narrative of the people’s history in a meaningful way)? And, of course, the major question to ask: did it happen?
The moral lesson in the Book of Judith, trusting in one’s god and having faith in its power, is certainly emphasized in Judith’s story. Her faith guided her mind and hand to great reward. So, at least there is an affirmation of belief present in her tale.
However, her story fails to be significant in the sense that it contributes nothing to the historicity of the people. It tells of an isolated incident that began and ended near Bethulia with almost no consequences elsewhere. The vanquished were restored their autonomy in the wake of Holofernes’ assassination; guerillas routed and slaughtered his scattered army. This would be a blip on the radar of Jewish history; therefore, it would not be terribly noteworthy.
When asking “did it happen?” there is nothing to independently corroborate the events. It is of less concern whether such a woman ever existed and successfully slew a potential ravager and vanquisher of her people. It is known and supported by physical evidence that he successfully invaded Jerusalem on two occasions, subjugating the populace in his latter attempt. More topically, though, historians cannot find evidence of such an incursion described in Judith’s narrative by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces in the affected region during the relevant time.
The “12th year” of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (the start of the Book of Judith), allegedly the launch year of his campaign against Mede, would be 593-592 BCE. This fits with his first capture and loss of Jerusalem; it is certainly possible that the same army used in trying to gain possession of Jerusalem, either before or after the Jerusalem activity, could have assaulted Mede. That seems to be plausible and should not be used to discount the authenticity of the Book of Judith as a historic account.
The mustering of Holofernes’ army, according to the Book of Judith, began in the “18th year” of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, or 587-586 BCE. This would be the known period of his second, more successful conquest of Judea. Yet, Judith tells of an army being routed; no mention is made of Jerusalem’s fall. In fact, her people celebrated for three months in that obviously unconquered city after their deliverance from Holofernes thanks to her. Thus it can be concluded the incursion by Holofernes either happened at a different time in history than noted in the Book of Judith or it never happened at all (and the details of adding regnal years to the account may merely have served to lend an air of authenticity to the story).
With respect to the campaign involving Bethulia it only stands to reason an army of 120,000 plus tens of thousands of cavalry and support personnel would have left a significant trace on not only the physical landscape (razing cities, treading down and packing the earth, etc.) but in the “race memory” (oral and written traditions) of the people so affected. Stories of Holofernes’ rampage would have been part of every culture in the area. Such evidence does not exist, though; there are no references readily cited of such an army’s passing nor is it “written on the landscape”.
At the outset, such a tremendous loss of population by the Egyptians most certainly would not have gone unremarked in their writings. More particularly, the sudden departure of most, if not all, of Egypt’s slave labor force would have crippled the country economically. With no manual laborers, the country’s public works, stopped where they were, would have suffered.
And yet the Egyptians do not record such a catastrophe. There seems to be no account of a sudden movement of a recalcitrant slave population from their lands. For example, the economic and cultural shock in a similar situation would have been the same in the United States before its Civil War. If suddenly every slave, the hundreds of thousands of them, in bondage had managed to coordinate a departure and returned to Africa, such a migration would have not only been talked about (to this day), it would also have featured in many written accounts both public and private. And such a massive labor shortfall, particularly in the American South (though the North would have been affected as well with a loss of Southern raw materials such as cotton), would have been devastating. Crops would have moldered in the fields; other labors that slaves provided would have gone undone.
Such a mass migration would also have been noted by others in the lands the swarm passed through; desert or no desert, the arid plains were crossed and re-crossed by nomads, traders, and travelers. Certainly, any such transients would have made note of an amazing sprawl of tents, animals, and humanity in the middle of nowhere.
And, the numbers of people involved over the time span of this migration (and while certainly not the biblical 40 years, it would still have been a long time nonetheless) would have left an indelible mark on the physical world. There would be evidence of such a passage: the ground would have been packed tight as cement from continued pounding by several hundred thousand marching people and their animals, earthworks such as the digging of pits for latrines and fire would be evident, detritus (as in cast-off bones, potsherds, and other artifacts) would be no doubt plentiful, minor rearranging of rocks to create cairns and shelters would be found, etc. There is none of this. That means 1) the migration referenced in Exodus involved far fewer people than claimed (whose effect on the landscape was minimal and whose cultural and economic impact on Egypt would have been negligible and thus not worthy of recording by the Egyptians); 2) the route believed is incorrect (and researchers are looking in the wrong places for such evidence); or 3) it never happened.
The traditional route has the people follow Moses to Mt. Sinai (in the Sinai Peninsula) where he allegedly received the Ten Commandments from the Israelites’ god, Yahweh. With respect to the route solely, there is sufficient evidence, based upon the earliest texts themselves and
The site of the giving of the commandments—using the earliest texts as guideposts and rational research—is now believed to be a volcano, Mt. Bedr, in Saudi Arabia. Not only does Mt. Bedr fit as the source of Yahweh’s guiding hand (a column of smoke during the day, a fiery beacon by night, both physical manifestations of an active volcano), the plateau and terrain surrounding Mt. Bedr could support a throng of displaced people (something Mt. Sinai’s environs cannot). Finally, there is the biblical reference to the fires of the mountain as symbols of Yahweh’s presence as Moses ascended. This, too, can be easily attributed to volcanic activity, something which strengthens Mt. Bedr as the more likely place of the birth of Judaism with the giving of Moses’ commandments to the people.
The true reason Judith’s story is considered non-canonical is the simple fact the protagonist is a woman. For the patriarchal Jews who decided what texts should or should not be included (and the content of the Old Testament was still not finalized even during the time of Jesus in the 1st Century CE), this heroic woman’s story was just that: a woman’s story.
The leaders of Judith’s people were men, but they were quaking, weak men who had decided to not have faith that their god would save them. Instead, they chose to surrender to the enemy. Uzziah even feebly suggested that, since Judith was so devout, she should offer up prayers so that their god would send rains to fill their cisterns as a solution to their woes. She castigated these faithless male leaders for doubting, and she took matters into her own womanly hands. She presented herself as an instrument of their god.
This is a woman of action and intelligence. Near the end of the book, there in Chapter 13:15, after showing Holoferne’s head to the villagers, she proclaims, “Here is the head of Holofernes, general in charge of the Assyrian army, and here is the canopy under which he lay in his drunkenness. The Lord struck him down by the hand of a woman.”
It is in the latter sentence—“. . . struck him down by the hand of a woman”—that a patriarchy would take issue. It seemed inconceivable that their male god would choose such an unworthy creature to do his work. A mere woman could not be elevated to such heroic standing (almost equaling Moses’ comment to his freeing the people of Israel from slavery “by his own hand”). [Proof of the non-status of women is readily found in the Old Testament’s Book of Numbers. The census taken of the Jews emigrating from Egypt only included men and boys beyond a certain age. Women and daughters were not counted, though cattle were.]
Also of minor interest in the Book of Judith (and perhaps another reason to exclude it): the Jews had yet to completely impress their god on all of the inhabitants of the “Promised Land”. At the time of their arrival into their old homelands after The Exodus, the existing dwellers mostly worshipped the original gods of Abraham’s people (brought from Babylonia to the Canaan lands).
During their time in Egypt the Israelites shifted allegiance from their earlier Mesopotamian and Babylonia gods, such as Marduk and other household deities, to Yahweh. The word they used to designate a god was “baal”; it is a word that means merely “owner” or “protector”. Thus, the Israelites’ baal was Yahweh. [The word “baal” also described attributes of a particular god in Canaan. For example, there was a baal of the covenant, Baal-berith, and a baal of flies, Baal-zebub. The latter was later bastardized into “Beelzebub” and erroneously used to euphemistically refer to the Jewish Yahweh’s antithesis, Satan. “Baal” came to be used as a generic disparagement of polytheists by later Hebrews.]
When the Israelites resumed occupation of Canaan, most of the people they warred against still worshipped other baalim as their primary gods. It is noteworthy that Yahweh’s supremacy in the region had not yet been attained in Judith’s time – Achior, an obvious adherent of another god, is clearly impressed by Yahweh’s workings through Judith. He submits to having his foreskin cut off so he may forsake his baal and join the house of Israel.
Despite the Hebrews’ dismissal of Judith’s story (and the later Protestants doing the same), Catholic collections and bibles have almost always included apocryphal writings from both the Old and New Testaments. It is to that religion’s credit that it at least recognizes these writings (while perhaps not significantly sacred or prophetic) as noteworthy; Catholicism makes them available to readers.
Judith’s adventure was once well known. She figured as a central symbol of both virtue and bravery. In the late 18th Century at the height of France’s Reign of Terror, a young female assassin, Charlotte Corday, compared herself to Judith of Bethulia. Charlotte had stabbed to death a key
Judith featured as a popular figure in many great artworks, most notably by Florentine artist, Cristofano Allori (1577-1621). His 1613 painting, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, ranks among the best and most dramatic works featuring her.
Judith’s exciting exploits (the beautifully enticing agent provocateur putting herself at risk saving her people) should be embraced, even though the tale’s provenance is unclear. Her name simply means “Jewess”. Considering her cunning, beauty, piety, and valor, she is more than a mere “Jewess”—Judith is a towering heroine.