Judith the Savior and the Mother of All Wars

Judith is a Jewish heroine. Her name is meant to imply “Jewish” and some think it is a feminine version of Judas the Maccabee, Savior of Israel during the war in the 160s B.C.

With Jeshua/Jesus son of Josedek and his new dynasty of High Priests in charge, we hear no more of strange women. But during the reign of Onias III, the fifteenth High Priest, it all came crashing down and for the same reason the House of David crashed: invasion. The Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes decided to conquer tiny Judah in the 160s B.C. The war is captured in The Books of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha and by Josephus using those books.

The book of I Maccabees tells the story from the point of view of Judas the Hammer who rose up against “Epiphanes”…a name that means “god”…making their resistance a Holy War.  II Maccabees is written from the point of view of the priests in Jerusalem. Both sides tell the gruesome story of Antiochus’ plan to make Jerusalem “the common graveyard of the Jews.” Pigs and prostitutes were brought into the Temple and priests were forced to offer sacrifices to the Greek king. Mattathias son of Hasmon, a priest, killed another priest making the sacrifice and took off to the hills:

Let everybody who is zealous for the Law…come out after me.” I Maccabees 2

Mattathias’ five sons and their “women and cattle” fled with him into the desert wilderness and set up camp in caves. Others joined them and they created a militia—with one son Judas as their military leader. And in the way of warrior priests, Judas also fought the Oniad priests left in control in the Temple by Antiochus who they saw as collaborating with the enemy. (Antiquities XII.VI.1)

This war had a huge impact on the Judean/Jewish psyche. The holiday of Hanukah comes from Judas’ recapture of the Temple during this war. Many beliefs and factions that developed during the war will shape all that came after, even to the lifetime of Mary and her son, as we will see.

Judas was clearly the hero of the war and was even hailed as the “Savior” of the Jews. There are no women mentioned in I Maccabees because war was men’s business. But women were there and are were mentioned in II Maccabees, as we will see. But oddly, a book was written during this war with a young female war heroine.[i]

The Book of Judith has a young widow as a heroine with the name “Judith” used as a feminization of the name of the hero Judas. The villain of the story was Holofernes, commander of overwhelming enemy forces. He was besieging the small Judean town of Bethulia, where they were fast running out of water.

In those days news of it came to Judith the daughter of MerariJudith had been a widow[1] …for three years and four months. She built herself a tent on top of her house, and she wore sackcloth next to her skin…She fasted all the days of her widowhood except the day before the Sabbath and the Sabbath and the day before the new moon and the new moon…She was very beautiful and…(t)here was nobody who spoke ill of her, for she feared God in all her heart…

She listened as her town leaders said that they would surrender to Holofernes if God did not send them rain in five days. She summoned the leaders and commanded them to let her and her maid leave the city at night and wait the five days they were going to wait anyway before giving themselves up and she, a mere widow, would do something to save them; just don’t ask her about it later. Judith prepared herself with fasting, ashes, incense, and a prayer:

O God, my God, listen to a widow like meput in the hand of a widow like me the strength to do what I have planned…And it came to pass, when she had ceased calling on the God of Israel…that she took off her widow’s mourning and washed herself with water and anointed herself with rich ointment, and braided her hair and put on a headdress and she dressed herself in festal attire …she took sandals for her feet, and put on her anklets and bracelets and rings and earrings and her ornaments and made herself very beautiful to attract the eyes of any men who might see her. Then she gave her maid a leather bottle of wine and a jar of oil. And she filled a bag with parched grain and figs and pure bread, and she packed all her dishes and had her carry them.

Then they went out through the gates of the city…and down the mountain and…straight to the outpost of the Assyrians. The carefully worded story tells how Judith used her charms to disarm Holofernes enough that he fell asleep so she could decapitate him. She and her handmaiden walked out of the still sleeping camp and presented the severed head to her townspeople. The leader of the town said to her:

Blessed are you, my daughter, beyond all the women on earth in the sight of the Most High God…And all the women of Israel came to see her…and they crowned themselves with olive leaves…and she led the women and all the people of the town in a song of victory after the men of the town had routed the leaderless Assyrians. She then led them up to Jerusalem where the High Priest Joakim blessed her and them.

After those days…Judith returned to Bethulia and remained on her estate… Many men desired to marry her, but no man had relations with her, all her life long, from the day Manasseh her husband died…She became greater and greater and she grew old in her husband’s house until she was a hundred and five…The Book of Judith 16:21-25

The book was mainly war propaganda for women…and for their husbands…assuring women, mainly widows, that if she needs to leave the house or commit some dastardly act to save her town she will be forgiven as long as she was pure before and comes back and remains pure her remaining days. But there is more to the message for women in the Book of Judith, the message that one needs to remain a widow for her dead husband. The word “widow” is used repeatedly in the story and as we go along, I will point out what I see as a cult of widowhood developing during this war…a desire for widows to remain widows and not remarry. Turns out there is a very specific reason for it that I will go into in the next post.

[i] According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia on line, the name Judith signifies “Jewess” and “Bethulia” was perhaps a Hebrew word meaning “virgin” or “virginity.” It does not appear on any maps of Judea and in some early versions Judith was called a virgin not a widow.

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