The woman who cut off a general’s head

The apocryphal character Judith is the unsung heroine of Chanucah


Judith decapitates the sleeping Holofernes, as painted by the 17th-century French artist Trophime Bigot (Walters Art Museum)

Judith decapitates the sleeping Holofernes, as painted by the 17th-century French artist Trophime Bigot (Walters Art Museum)

Chanucah is the easiest festival to keep. What’s not to like about lighting candles and eating doughnuts? You don’t even have to go to the trouble of reading a book, as you do with Megillat Esther on Purim.

There is, in fact, not just one ancient book but a number associated with Chanucah: but they failed to make it into the biblical canon. The story of the Hasmonean revolt against the Assyrian rulers of Judea is related in the First Book of Maccabees. While it is extant now only in Greek, scholars believe it was written originally in Hebrew and it is now part of the collection of extra-biblical books which the Churches preserved as the Apocrypha.

There are various theories why the rabbis excluded it from the Bible: their desire to downplay military heroics in favour of the miracle of the burning oil (which is not mentioned in Maccabees) and subsequent political developments which cast the Hasmoneans in a bad light in a rabbinic eyes. The Apocrypha also contains a Second Book of Maccabees, which is thought to have been written in Greek.

But there is a third apocryphal book linked to Chanucah, named after its heroine, Judith. It tells of events set some four centuries earlier than the Maccabean rebellion, in the sixth century BCE. According to the Book of Judith, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, wants to punish the nations who failed to respond to his call for an alliance against the Medes. He dispatches his general Holofernes on this mission of vengeance and not before long his army is camped around the Judean city of Bethulia (possibly Jerusalem).

As the beseiged inhabitants begin to lose hope, a wealthy widow called Judith takes charge. She leaves the city and arrives with her maid to the Babylonian camp, pretending be a defector who can tell Holofernes how to enter the city and defeat the Jews.

The general is smitten with her beauty and arranges to entertain her at night. But after he drinks and eats himself into a stupor, the sober Judith takes his sword as he slumbers and slices off his head. Carrying the severed head in a bag, she steals back to Bethulia, where the Jews hang the trophy on the walls in the morning. When the Assyrians go into the general’s chamber, they discover his decapitated body and, seized with panic, they scatter in flight.

The first thing to say is that the story is legend since there is no historical record of any such episode. While a warrior called Holofernes did exist, he comes on to the scene only two centuries after Nebuchadnezzar. Scholars believe the book was actually written during the Hasmonean revolt in the middle second century BCE as a story to inspire the rebels fighting then for Jewish independence. Like the First Book of Maccabees, it was probably written in Hebrew but survives only in Greek translation.

Judith contains various biblical echoes: in Judges, the general Sisera is killed by Jael, who drives a tent pin through his head as he sleeps. But whereas Jael is non-Jewish, Judith is Jewish and, like the judge Deborah after Sisera’s defeat, she sings a triumphal song. Like Esther, Judith puts her looks to her people’s service but whereas Esther has to marry non-Jewish King Ahaseurus, Judith preserves her chastity with Holofernes (her book records that, though many men desired her, she never remarries, loyal to the memory of her husband until her death at the age of 105).

So why did it not make the cut for the Bible? Whereas the rabbis clearly believed in the events of Megillat Esther, perhaps they suspected the historical veracity of the story of Judith. The loss of the original Hebrew version must have influenced their decision, too. But there may be another reason.

Judith is from the tribe of Simeon and, in her book, recalls the infamous massacre he and his brother Levi inflicted on the men of Shechem after the rape of their sister Dinah — a bloodthirsty act for which their father Jacob never forgave them. Yet Simeon’s violence is cited as a deed of honour by Judith (a resort to arms which later rabbis found troubling).

Yet, in its religious favour, whereas the Book of Esther famously does not mention the name of God, Judith is full of pious rhetoric. Wait for God’s salvation, she counsels her countrymen, and have faith because although previous generations had strayed into idolotary, “there arose none in our age… which worship gods made with hands”.

Even if the story is fable, it is fascinating that the author chose a woman as the exemplar of such heroic virtue and courage. But though her book may be little read, Judith is not forgotten, for her name remains one Jews still give to their children. And so she endures as a model female Jewish leader to this day.

Last updated: 1:59pm, December 13 2012