The story of Judith and Holofernes is, like the story of David and Goliath, an Old Testament tale of the oppressed vanquishing the oppressor, or virtue conquering vice. For this reason, both David and Judith were considered antecedents of Christ in the kind of Biblical analysis called typology, where Old Testament events bear some relation to the New Testament’s narrative of salvation. Judith, whose name means simply "Jewish woman," is a rare Biblical heroine, in a story from the Apocrypha in the Bible, who took violent action to save her people.
The encounter between the two is at the center of the Book of Judith, a brief and likely non-historical account of Assyrian aggression against the Jews. The Assyrian general Holofernes laid siege to the city of Bethulia, and soon the inhabitants began to agitate for surrender. A rich widow named Judith, however, conceived a plan. That evening, dressed in her finest clothes and perfumed with ointment, she passed through the gate with her maid and walked across the valley to the encampment of the general. There, she explained to the guards that she wanted to provide thim with information about the best means of entering Bethulia.
When she was admitted to his presence, Judith explained that the siege had caused the Jews to turn away from their religion, and so they therefore merited destruction. She maintained that God himself had sent her on this errand. All of this pleased Holofernes very much, as did Judith’s appearance. They came to an agreement: he would not harm her, and she would be allowed to leave the camp at night for prayer. This, Judith claimed, would allow her to learn from God exactly when the city should be attacked. For three days, Judith stayed in the camp, eating only the food her maid prepared and carried with her in a cloth sack.
On the fourth night, Holofernes held a banquet for his servants, and he invited Judith, whom he had come increasingly to admire. She came dressed in her finest clothes and also took with her the fleece she had been given to sleep on. Happy with her there, Holofernes drank quite a lot, more than he’d ever drunk in his life, and far too much to retain consciousness. Everybody but Judith and Holofernes left the tent. Alone with the drunkenly sleeping general, Judith prayed for strength. Then she took hold of his sword, and, in two strokes, cut off his head. Her maid, waiting outside the tent, came in with the food sack. Judith put Holofernes’ head in the sack, and the two women left the camp on what seemed to be their nightly errand of prayer.
This time, however, they kept walking. At the gate of Bethulia, she called for entry, showed her trophy, and told the men to mount an attack on the Assyrian camp on the next morning. They did so, and when the Assyrians ran to the general’s tent to rouse him, they found their leader headless. Horrified, the Assyrians decamped. The Israelites plundered the camp; all the best things of Holofernes were given to Judith, who then passed them to her late husband’s heirs.
Both the story of Judith and Holofernes and that of David and Goliath became important within Christian imagery of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. That this tale is today much less commonly known has to do with both the source of each story, and the larger significance of the protagonist of each. The Book of Judith is one of the apocryphal books of the Bible: it is omitted from the canonical Protestant versions, although is remains a part of the Catholic text. The book, then, has far less currency than the Book of Samuel, a canonical book of the Bible in all Christian sects, and the source of David and Goliath’s story.
Further, that King David was an ancestor of the Virgin Mary was of great significance in the medieval and later periods, and made all of his actions of great consequence. Judith, however, was not connected to the genealogy of Christ, and, after her great victory, returned to the ordinary life of a widow.