Monday, October 24, 2016

Know Your Bible: Biblical Femmes Fatales - Episode Three: Judith


In this series of posts I will outline examples in biblical literature of the femme fatale, defined as a woman whose mysterious and seductive qualities ensnare males into dangerous and deadly lapses of judgement. But I will expand it to include, as well, biblical stories in which women directly kill for various motives.

The next installment involves a case in which Holofernes, a general of the armies of Nebuchadnezzar (ca. 634 – ca. 562 BCE), believed he had successfully seduced a beautiful Jewish woman. Things didn't turn out as he planned.

3. Judith

The book of Judith is classified as "Deuterocanonical," meaning, it is in the canon of Scripture of the Orthodox and Catholic Communions, but not considered biblical by most Protestants. It was almost certainly written in Hebrew, but not so much as a fragment of the original exists. What we have is a Greek translation probably dating to the 2nd century BCE. 

The action hinges on the town of Bethulia, which lies on the way to Jerusalem. They are besieged by the invading Assyrian army. The town resolves to wait five days before surrendering, hoping for some deliverance from God (Judith 7:29-32).

A woman named Judith, the widow of one Manasseh, declares to her people that she has a plan to deliver them (Judith 8:32). She prays to God for strength, dolls herself up, and then, with her maid, leaves town toward the Assyrian camp.

Judith, by Gustav Klimt
They are immediately captured at an Assyrian outpost and brought to the camp, everyone marveling at how drop dead (tee-hee) gorgeous Judith was (Judith 10:11-19).

When General Holofernes meets her, he's obviously smitten, assuring her that she will be safe from harm (Judith 11:1-4). Judith tells him that she will collaborate to ensure his victory and ultimately the seizing of Jerusalem itself (Judith 11:16-19).

Judith and her maid establish that she must leave the camp nightly to go and pray, which Holofernes permits (Judith 12:6-7).

On the fourth night, there was a dinner party. Judith was invited and Holofernes, deep in cups, was burning with desire for her (Judith 12:16)

When the dinner was over, a very drunk Holofernes was finally alone with Judith. We learn that, in fact, he had been so charmed with Judith and the prospect of being with her, that he drank more than he had ever drunk on one single day in his life (Judith 12:20)

She sent her maid outside the room for a bit. Alone with the soundly, drunkenly asleep man, she prayed to God and grabbed the sword of Holofernes. She grasped his hair and said, "Strengthen me this day, O God of Israel!" (Judith 13:7).

Judith and Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi
She struck him twice on the neck and cut off his head. She handed over the head of Holofernes to her maid, who put it in her food pouch, and the two of them left camp, as they were accustomed to do for prayer (Judith 13:8-10).

The book of Judith then proceeds to describe a follow-on attack by the Israelites on the headless (get it?) army of the Assyrians which totally never happened because they lost this war and Jerusalem was destroyed.

Judith is described as having lived to the ripe old age of a hundred and five and we read that during her life and for a long time after, no one again disturbed the Israelites (Judith 16:23, 25).

This also never happened, because Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BCE and the inhabitants of the land taken into humiliating exile.

Not surprisingly, the episode of Judith and Holofernes became an artistic motif. Representations range from those that highlight the purity of the woman with modesty apparel and also those that include the raw sexuality of the near seduction followed by murder. Here are some notable examples.

Judith, with the Head of Holofernes, by Christofano Allori (1613)

Judith and Holofernes, by Trophime Bigot

Judith and Holofernes, by Franz Stuck

Judith, by Jan Massys

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