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The Story of Judith

Art History Stories from Sacred Texts

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© Museum Schloß Friedenstein, Gotha; used with permission

Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472-1553). Judith Dining with Holofernes, 1531. Mixed media on limewood. 98.5 x 72.5 cm (38 3/4 x 28 1/2 in.).

© Museum Schloß Friedenstein, Gotha

The story of Judith who saved the Jews of Bethulia from annihilation during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (ruled 605-562 BCE) can be found in the Apocrypha from the Hebrew Bible. Judith was a Jewish widow who lived in Bethulia, when Nebuchadnezzar's famous general Holofernes brought his army to their village, directed to conquer the area for his Babylonian king. However, Holofernes discovered that the village flourished with one spring of water. Delaying his invasion, he decided to have his army plug up the spring with stones and stand guard. After three days, the Bethulians were thirsty and desperate. Judith stepped forward to ask the elders to intervene. They told her to trust in God. Instead, she returned home, took off her dark widow's garb and put on her sexiest outfit, determined to take matters into her own hands.

Judith set out for Holofernes' encampment with her maidservant, taking wine and cheese in a sackcloth as a gift for the general. At the entrance to the encampment, Judith convinced the guardsmen she was ready to share strategic information with the general. Since she was Jewish, no one doubted that she needed to carry her own kosher food to sustain her for the journey. Once inside the general's tent, she fed Holofernes plenty of salty cheese which required that the general drink plenty of wine to quench his thirst, as in Lucas Cranach the Elder's Judith Dining with Holofernes (1531). The wine made him drunk. In a stupor, he lay down on his bed expecting Judith to follow. Seizing her chance, Judith took Holofernes sword and with her maidservant's help, cut off his head and put it into her sack. The two women then walked past the guards easily, as they assumed that Holofernes was still in his tent much satisfied, as in Cristoforo Allori's Judith with the Head of Holofernes (1613). The next day, Holofernes' army discovered their murdered leader and decided to retreat, leaving the Bethulians free to unplug their spring and return to normalcy. Judith was celebrated throughout the village and lived a long and prosperous life thereafter.

Today we believe that Judith was an ancestor of the Maccabees who fought Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ruled 175-164 BC) in order to regain control of the Temple in Jerusalem during the Hellenistic period. Hanukah, the festival of light, celebrates the Maccabee victory over Antiochus, the rededication of the Temple and the miracle of the lamp oil which should have lasted only one day, but lasted eight. On the fifth day of Hanukah, Jews eat cheese and other dairy products to remember Judith's great deed which parallels the Maccabees' in 167 BCE.

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