Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Book of Judith

I was put onto the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes by my friend Pete who described her as an example of ancient girl power. Judith plays nemesis to Holofernes’s hubris, with the Assyrian losing his head both metaphorically and literally in the process...


The book of Judith is listed as one of the Apocrypha and has disappeared from modern printings of the King James Version, but it is still regarded as canonical by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as far as I can work out. I’ve resorted to Gutenberg and their text from the Challoner revision of the Douay Rheims translation here.

The story begins with the onslaught on Israel by the Assyrian army, led by Holofernes. He puts the land to the sword and demands that the people follow his king, Nebuchadnezzar. Naturally, the Israelites are having none of it, a brave and noble stand to take, and one that seems increasingly perilous as Holofernes advances on Jerusalem.

In the city abides Judith, a widow of just three months, who has spent the time since her husband died locked in her house wearing a hair shirt and refusing to eat. Hearing of the threat, she puts on sackcloth and ashes and prays to God for the city’s deliverance:

9:12. Bring to pass, O Lord, that his pride may be cut off with his own
sword.

The plot is then hatched... Judith, an exceptionally beautiful woman, is sent to the Assyrian camp where she will wile her way into Holofernes company and do away with him:

10:4. And the Lord also gave her more beauty: because all this dressing
up did not proceed from sensuality, but from virtue: and therefore the
Lord increased this her beauty, so that she appeared to all men's eyes
incomparably lovely.
10:5. And she gave to her maid a bottle of wine to carry, and a vessel
of oil, and parched corn, and dry figs, and bread and cheese, and went
out.

Holofernes is duly stunned, and responds by asking her to stay in his camp, the old goat. After four days of her refusing to eat his food, he decides that enough is enough and he must seduce her; it’s now a matter of Assyrian national pride that he gets his leg over:

12:10. And it came to pass on the fourth day, that Holofernes made a
supper for his servants, and said to Vagao his eunuch: Go, and persuade
that Hebrew woman, to consent of her own accord to dwell with me.
12:11. For it is looked upon as shameful among the Assyrians, if a woman
mock a man, by doing so as to pass free from him.
12:12. Then Vagao went in to Judith, and said: Let not my good maid be
afraid to go in to my lord, that she may be honoured before his face,
that she may eat with him and drink wine and be merry.

And eat drink and be merry they do:

12:16. And the heart of Holofernes was smitten, for he was burning with
the desire of her.
12:17. And Holofernes said to her: Drink now, and sit down and be merry;
for thou hast found favour before me.
12:18. And Judith said: I will drink my lord, because my life is
magnified this day above all my days.
12:19. And she took and ate and drank before him what her maid had
prepared for her.
12:20. And Holofernes was made merry on her occasion, and drank
exceeding much wine, so much as he had never drunk in his life.

Silly boy has got a bit carried away, and has passed out on the couch, overcharged with wine:

13:1. And when it was grown late, his servants made haste to their
lodgings, and Vagao shut the chamber doors, and went his way.
13:2. And they were all overcharged with wine.
13:3. And Judith was alone in the chamber.
13:4. But Holofernes lay on his bed, fast asleep, being exceedingly
drunk.
13:5. And Judith spoke to her maid to stand without before the chamber,
and to watch:
13:6. And Judith stood before the bed praying with tears, and the motion
of her lips in silence,
13:7. Saying: Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, and in this hour look
on the works of my hands, that as thou hast promised, thou mayst raise
up Jerusalem thy city: and that I may bring to pass that which I have
purposed, having a belief that it might be done by thee.
13:8. And when she had said this, she went to the pillar that was at his
bed's head, and loosed his sword that hung tied upon it.
13:9. And when she had drawn it out, she took him by the hair of his
head, and said: Strengthen me, O Lord God, at this hour.
13:10. And she struck twice upon his neck, and cut off his head, and
took off his canopy from the pillars, and rolled away his headless body.

He probably never felt a thing... Judith then stuffs his noggin in a bag and decamps back to Jerusalem, and the city is saved.

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