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Hebrew Tales

The Story of Judith

Dramatis Personae


The "Book of Judith" was written down about 100 BC, and variants of it are preserved in Greek and Latin, although it was probably composed in Hebrew.

The story is set much earlier, in the reign of the imperialist Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar c. 634 – 562 BC. His father Nabopolassar had succeeded in destroying the oppressive Assyrian rule of Babylonia, and Nebuchadnezzar was engaged in a policy of empire building to impose his own oppressive rule as far as possible, preferably in the lands that his father had just freed from the Assyrians.

This project began with his marriage to a Median princess and the unification of the empires of the Medes and the Babylonians. That arrangement was destined to be blood-drenched. It was not long before rebellion arose in Median states, and Nebuchadnezzar failed to gain the support of the Babylonian client states to suppress a rebellion there. His client states also failed to help in his unsuccessful invasion of Egypt, which had been mischievously doing whatever it could to encourage restiveness among them.

Finally, seriously annoyed, Nebuchadnezzar undertook a punitive expedition in the Levant, which had also produced a number of the local rebellions. As part of this, he decided to conquer and destroy Jerusalem. The destruction happened in 587 BC. (He sent Jerusalem’s leaders to Babylon in what history has come to call the “Babylonian Captivity.” Still fresh in their minds was an earlier “Assyrian Captivity” referred to in chapters 4 and 5 of the present story, so the possibility of an upcoming Babylonian Captivity was not something they would have imagined in very positive terms.)

As our story here begins, “The Jewish People” are camped at Bethulia, a town protecting the road leading into Jerusalem. They are surrounded by Nebuchadnezzar’s vastly more numerous and better equipped troops, and their situation appears grim until a fabulously beautiful and pious widow named Judith takes on the project of saving them.

The story appears to have been a popular one in antiquity and throughout Europe in the Middle ages and Renaissance. That is probably why the text itself has been preserved.

Various contradictions in the text convince scholars that the story is not historically reliable as an account of anything that really happened. Its importance lies instead in the fact that many people apparently did believe in its historicity, and probably also believed that the moral lessons it illustrated were historically demonstrated by it. For our purposes, it provides an insight into how Hebrews (and later Christians) who consumed popular stories —the people who made popular stories popular— understood their collective identity as a “people” and their relationship to God.

The text is not part of the Jewish or Protestant scriptures, but it is part of the “deutero-canonical” portion of the Old Testament for Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians. (The prefix deutero- means “secondary.” These books are also referred to as the Old Testament Apocrypha. They were not originally part of the Catholic canon, but were added at the Council of Trent in 1548.)

This reading is provided in both full and slightly abridged versions, with a toggle at the top of each page to shift between them. The abridged text represents about 80% of the full one.

At the end of the last chapter are links to a series of review quizzes.

The version provided here is from the copyright-free World English Bible. As is usual in scriptures, individual "verses" are numbered. I have retained the chapter and verse numbering, but have increased the number of paragraph breaks to facilitate on-line reading. For a different translation, with useful interpretative notes, check the New American Bible text of this work on the web site of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Link) (For a full Hebrew version, from 1885, click here. For a trilingual English, Greek, and Latin presentation of the Book of Judith click here.)

The occasional illustrations that decorate these pages are identified at the foot of each page. To the best of my knowledge, all are available for free public use.

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Background Design: Hebrew Lines From the Book of Jonah