Who Was Judith?

Judith: Wise Woman of Bethulia is based on the book of Judith in the apocrypha (writings included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scriptures). Most everyone easily identifies her as “the woman from the Bible who cut off the general’s head to save her people.”

Most scholars have concluded that the text was written near the beginning of the first century B.C.E. shortly after the land of Judea had overthrown its Hellenistic overlords, the Seleucids. With blatantly false and anachronistic elements, the audience of that period understood the story to be a thinly guised critique of the events of that time. The original author intended the story to be a satire by mixing geography willy-nilly and rapidly moving scenes from the Far East to Asia Minor to Africa and random places between.

The writer stirred up historical timeframes in an equally haphazard way, erratically jumping through Persian, Babylonian, Greek and Assyrian references. The ancient audiences undoubtedly found this hilarious in the same way speaking of Napoleon as President of the United States with an office on the moon would be farcical to us today. Unfortunately for modern readers, the “inside jokes” no longer hold currency leaving us confused and bewildered. The ancient story of Judith has found great renown in the visual arts where the “chaos” of the narrative is not such an impediment.

There are hints of a larger tale than the one written down. What motivated the characters to act as they did? I wanted to uncover the missing logical connections. With such a dramatic storyline and a powerful central character, it would be a shame to leave Judith in literary neglect. But how to make sense out of the story for contemporary audiences? I piled all the historical references into their respective timeframes and chose a path through the geographical tangle. With the least number of changes to the given text, the story could be made lucid to readers by setting the narrative in the time of Sennacherib, King of Assyria (705 – 681 B.C.E.). To remain faithful to the narrative I’ve kept the mocking spirit of the original and focused on the irony inherent in the tale.

This historical timeframe is one of the most well documented periods of ancient history. Not only do we have a great deal of information from the biblical books of 2 Kings, Isaiah and Chronicles about Sennacherib’s invasion of Israel and Judea, we also have Sennacherib’s extant accounts, various references in Babylonian sources, some corroborating evidence in Egyptian records and an account described by the Greek historian Herododus, among others.

Many scholars’ careers have been sustained by writing about the conflicts between all these sources. The majority of researchers account for the discrepancies by dismissing them as scribal errors or the inconsistencies inherent in the redactive process. They have devised elaborate schemes to rearrange the text to organize the account.

A minority of scholars see the parallel structures as descriptions of two distinct Assyrian campaigns against Hezekiah, King of Judea. These scholars have proposed the “Two Campaign Theory” wherein the conflicting elements of the account of the Assyrian invasion of Judea are divided into two separate wars. Judith: Wise Woman of Bethulia follows the historical assumptions inherent in the “Two Campaign Theory” for its strength in explaining plot details.

Clearly Judith is an important and exciting story. So that she not become “Judith the Obscure” I have added to an ongoing conversation about how bold woman can use wisdom to bring peace.

Imagine you live in Israel 2,700 years ago. It’s a warm spring day. The sheep are sleeping in the shade of a giant oak tree. You are sowing seeds in the newly plowed furrows of the field. A young man cries out that the Woman of Wisdom has taken her seat at the Tree of the Morah. You throw down your empty sack and run to take a seat at the feet of a woman with long white hair. Even though she is far past the age of childbearing, her face glows like a new mother full of deep peace and happiness. You are among the people of your village who have come to ask her advice. What would you seek?

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