Core story with discussion questions
Once upon a time, a powerful general named Holofernes declared war against Bethulia (or, in some versions, Jerusalem) with a great army. He besieged the city for many days, making sure no food or drink could enter, so that the people began to starve. The Israelites suffered tremendously during this siege and were in great distress. They were on the verge of surrendering when a young woman named Judith announced that she had a plan.
Judith was a young widow who had been in mourning for three years, since her husband died unexpectedly. A woman of great faith, Judith rebuked the leaders of Bethulia for their intention to surrender and declared that God would act through her. Judith devised a plan to help her people. She removed her mourning attire and dressed in beautiful clothes and jewels, and prepared a bag with wine and (in some versions) kosher cheese. Then she waited until nightfall.
Accompanied only by her maid, Judith left the besieged city under cover of darkness. She walked into the enemy camp, and eventually entered the royal pavilion and came before Holofernes. Since she was exceedingly beautiful, when Holofernes saw her, she found favor in his eyes. He asked, "Who are you? Where do you come from and where do you wish to go?" Judith answered, "I have heard of your wisdom and skill, and since Israel has sinned, I know that you will conquer the city and take possession of it, so I came to save myself and my father's household when you take the city." Judith offered to help Holofernes conquer the city with inside information; the general agreed, and invited her into his tent.
Inside the tent, they feasted. Judith ate the food she had brought; in some versions, Holofernes provided his own food, and in others, he ate the cheese Judith brought in her bag. Either way, Holofernes drank a great deal of wine, became drunk, and fell asleep. Judith turned her thoughts to God, took Holofernes’ sword from his bedpost where it hung, and cut off the general’s head. Judith then took Holofernes’ head and placed it in her bag. She and her maidservant passed unnoticed through the camp until she reached the gates of Bethulia. There she summoned the gatekeepers and told them to place the general’s head as high on the city gates as they could, so that the army would see it when they awoke. When the general’s men found his body in the morning, and saw his head on the gate, they fled. The war was over, and Judith’s people had won.
[Most modern retellings end here, but there is more to the story. When the people of Bethulia saw the enemy army retreat, they stormed out to attack. They plundered the abandoned enemy camp for thirty days, returning home with great riches, and gave Judith the tent of Holofernes as well as all his silver dinnerware, his beds, his bowls, and all his furniture.
All the women of Israel came to bless Judith. Judith led the women in dance, and the men followed in song. Judith offers a song of praise to God, and all the people joined her loudly; they offered thanks to God in Jerusalem, and Judith dedicates Holofernes’ objects to God. The city continued to celebrate Judith’s victory for three months.
The story concludes: many men desired to marry her, but Judith gave herself to no man all the remaining days of her life. She freed her maid in her old age, and was buried and mourned by all of Israel at the age of one hundred and five. No one ever again spread terror among Israel during the lifetime of Judith, or for a long time after her death.]
Note: in writing this retelling of Judith’s story, we drew on summaries by Ritualwell and Jewish Women’s Archive, as well as the original texts.
- Does anything surprise you about this story?
- Which moments in this text seem most interesting or dramatic to you?
How to cite this page
Jewish Women's Archive. "Core story with discussion questions." (Viewed on June 8, 2023) <https://jwa.org/node/22770>.