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What is the Story of Judith and Holofernes?

By Kate Lonas
Updated Feb 20, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments

By anon158854 — On Mar 09, 2011

Attributing the currency of the book of Judith or the canonical book of Samuel to Christianity?! Whether they are connected to Christ and Mary or not?! Both Judith and David were Jews, and part of the Jewish bible and heritage. Both of them became known and famous because of Jewish culture! Hello, wake up!

By watson42 — On Jan 08, 2011

I really wish that this story, and others in the Apocrypha, were more widely read. The idea of a widowed woman like Judith slaying a great leader is something that I think would inspire many people who feel they live in oppressed situations.

By BambooForest — On Jan 07, 2011

@mitchell14, you make a good point. While there were certainly exceptions between different time periods and communities, in much of the time recorded in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments, widows had almost no value. In fact, you mention Bathsheba; the fact that Uriah was killed was especially in David's favor because it meant that she needed a new husband and would be unlikely to get other offers; that fact that David was king made her especially powerless to any other action besides accepting.

At the same time, Judith does have some money left over from her husband, allowing her to have a maidservant and fine clothes. But then again, independent women in the Bible are seen with skepticism by many throughout history- take Mary Magdalene, for example, who has been characterized as a whore despite there being absolutely no real evidence that she was. The fact that she was a woman alone was enough.

By mitchell14 — On Jan 06, 2011

One of the other great reasons for many of the differences between the story of David and Goliath and the story of Holofernes and Judith is that Judith was a woman, and worse yet, a widow.

As a woman, Judith had none of the patriarchal power that David had, even before he committed the great act of slaying Goliath. David's power as a man helped him to become the king and maintain his honor, even after his horrible sin with Uriah and Bathsheba.

Additionally, Judith was a widow. As anyone who has spent much time reading especially the New Testament stories knows, widows were among the lowest of the low in ancient Hebrew society; lepers and female children were perhaps the only ones lower. This is because, without their husbands, widows had no protector; if they did have children, they might have a home, but they were seen only as a burden, no other purposes.

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