Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics


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The story of Judith is set in a time of crisis facing the people of Israel: the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar has sent Holofernes, his general, to destroy the nations resisting Babylonian conquest. Curiously, Holofernes is also described as general of the Assyrian army: ‘Assyria’ here must be either a mistake for Babylon, or a symbol for any threatening enemy. Holofernes makes the invasion a conflict between the respective gods of the two sides: ‘And who art thou, Achior, and the hirelings of Ephraim, that thou hast prophesied among us as today, and hast said, that we should not make war with the people of Israel, because their God will defend them? and who is God but Nabuchodonosor?’ (6: 2). Not surprisingly, the appearance of the Babylonian army terrifies the people, who retreat into their city. At this point Judith, a very pious, very beautiful, and very rich widow, enters the story (8: 1–8) with a plan to deal with Holofernes: ‘Hear me, and I will do a thing, which shall go throughout all generations to the children of our nation’ (8: 32). The story of Judith's seduction of Holofernes is told at great length (9–12), but eventually reaches its climax (12: 16–13: 9). ‘Now when Judith came in and sat down, Holofernes his heart was ravished with her, and his mind was moved, and he desired greatly her company; for he waited a time to deceive her, from the day that he had seen her’ (12: 16). But as many a man before and after him in the presence of a beautiful woman has done, he drank too much: ‘And Holofernes took great delight in her, and drank much more wine than he had drunk at any time in one day since he was born’ (12: 20). The inevitable happens, and when everybody except Judith leaves after the overlong feast, Holofernes collapses in a comatose heap on his bed. Praying in her heart, she takes his sword and, seizing him by the hair, strikes him twice, so that ‘she took away his head from him’ (13: 4–8). Holofernes indeed lost his head over Judith. Echoes of classical biblical tales about Jael smiting Sisera, and Salome's contriving the beheading of John the Baptist, help to make the story of Judith's conquest of Holofernes an integral part of one of the great topoi in the Bible: the weak invariably destroy the strong (the David-and-Goliath syndrome). After beheading Holofernes Judith makes much play with the head in a bag, disconcerting all the enemies of Israel and enabling the Israelites to annihilate them (15: 5). The battle concludes with the honouring of Judith (15: 11–13) and with Judith singing a victory song (16: 1–17). The story ends with some observations on the rest of her life: ‘And many desired her, but none knew her all the days of her life, after that Manasses her husband was dead, and was gathered to his people’ (16: 22). So Judith lived as a free and powerful woman all her days and died a very old woman at the age of 105. The last acts recorded of her include the freeing of her maid and the distribution of her goods to all her kindred (16: 23–4).

Chapter.  559 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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