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JACOB AND LABAN'S DAUGHTERS

In his old age the Hebrew patriarch Isaac, at the urging of his wife Rebekah, sends their second son Jacob from Canaan to find a wife in Mesopotamia ("Paddanaram"). They do not want Jacob marrying a daughter of the Canaanites--their first son Esau has already married two Hittite women, to Isaac and Rebekah's "grief of mind." (More importantly, Rebekah wants to get Jacob away because his "hairy" brother Esau, the eventual founder of Edom, plans to kill him.)

Jacob has an auspicious dream on the very first night of his journey to Mesopotamia. He dreams of a stairway to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, and the Hebrew God Yahweh himself telling Jacob, "Thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, . . . and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed." ("Kings," God tells Jacob years later in person, "shall come out of thy loins.")

Jacob reaches Haran, the Hebrews' ancestral Mesopotamian home, and stops to ask shepherds at a well about an uncle named Laban. Who should come along now but Rachel, a lovely maiden tending her father Laban's flock of sheep. When Jacob lays eyes on her (and on her father's wealth of sheep), he immediately falls in love. Jacob waters the sheep, kisses Rachel, cries, then finally introduces himself. Rachel runs to tell Laban, who comes running to welcome this kinsman from Canaan.

Jacob goes to work for Laban. "I will serve thee seven years," Jacob tells him, "for Rachel thy younger daughter." Laban, who has an older daughter named Leah, agrees, and Jacob puts in the seven years, though they seem like only "a few days" because of his love for Rachel.

On the wedding night Jacob is given his veiled woman and, as the Bible often describes sexual intercourse, "he went in unto her." Jacob then awakes in the morning to behold her face, and--it's Leah!

"What is this thou hast done unto me?" Jacob asks Laban, who replies that in "our country" one must not "give the younger before the firstborn." Laban then lets him have Rachel too on condition that Jacob serve him for seven more years. Thus Jacob "went in also unto Rachel," says Genesis, and loved "Rachel more than Leah."

The Lord, seeing that "Leah was hated," blesses her with fertility, and she bears Jacob four sons, while Rachel remains barren. "Give me children," the envious Rachel says to Jacob, "or else I die." To which Jacob retorts, "Am I in God's stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?" Rachel resorts to the custom of using a concubine as a surrogate childbearer. "Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her," Rachel tells Jacob, "and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her."

Jacob dutifully goes into Bilhah, who conceives and bears a son. This makes Rachel so happy ("God," she exults, "hath given me a son") that Jacob goes into Bilhah again. Bilhah bears a second son, which Rachel also calls her own, while Leah is apparently no longer fertile. "I wrestled with my sister," brags Rachel, "and I have prevailed."

This is too much for Leah, who has Jacob go into her handmaid Zilpah. This concubine bears two sons, whom Leah names Gad ("fortune") and Asher ("happy"), saying "Happy am I!"

The sibling rivalry continues. Rachel asks Leah to give her some of the mandrakes--plant roots believed to promote fertility--that Leah's oldest son Reuben one day finds in the field and brings home. "Is it a small matter," responds Leah, "that thou hast taken my husband? and wouldest thou take away my son's mandrakes also?"

Rachel proposes a deal: Jacob "shall lie with thee tonight," she tells Leah, if Leah will give Rachel the mandrakes. Leah hands over the mandrakes. That evening she eagerly goes to meet Jacob--heading home from another day's work for Laban--with the news: "Thou must come in unto me." He has been "hired," Leah tells him, with the mandrakes.

It proves to be a good deal for both sisters. Leah proceeds to bear three more sons and a daughter, while Rachel also conceives and bears a son, God at last having "opened her womb." She names the son Joseph ("he adds"), for God, says Rachel, "shall add to me another son." But after Jacob has taken his wives and children home to Canaan, Rachel dies giving birth to her second son. She lives long enough to name him Benoni ("son of my sorrow"), a name that Jacob changes to Benjamin.

Jacob does not leave Laban's service, incidentally, without paying him back for deception. In the one biblical passage that describes animals having sex, Jacob produces stronger animals for himself, and weaker ones for Laban, by manipulating what the animals see while they're breeding. (On Rachel's theft of her father Laban's teraphim, see MENSTRUATION: SEVEN LONELY DAYS.)

In all Jacob--who also earns the name Israel, "he who strives with God," by literally wrestling with the Lord at Peniel (Gen. 32:24-30)--has twelve sons and one daughter by Laban's daughters and their handmaids. The sons are the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Interestingly, Reuben loses his preeminence among the tribes by committing incest (he has sex with his father's concubine Bilhah [Gen. 35:22; 49:3-4]), a transgression under the later Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26), which Jacob violates as well. A man shall not "vex" his wife, says Lev. 18:18, by marrying her sister while the wife lives. Jacob certainly vexes Leah and Rachel! (See INCEST: "COME LIE WITH ME, MY SISTER") (Gen. 28-30; 35:16-26) (On to SHECHEM AND DINAH)

William Dyce, The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel / Private Collection



JEHORAM AND ATHALIAH

See ATHALIAH AND JEHORAM.



JEPHTHAH'S DAUGHTER

See VIRGINITY: "THE BRIDEGROOM REJOICETH."



JEREMIAH: "Thy Lovers Will Despise Thee"

The prophet Jeremiah portrays the kingdom of Judah in the sixth century B.C.E. as a promiscuous woman, a wife of Yahweh who commits adultery by worshipping other gods. "Thou hast played the harlot with many lovers," Jeremiah tells Judah, "and hast scattered thy ways to the strangers under every green tree" (3:1). Jeremiah also has choice words for the kingdom's males--they are "all adulterers, an assembly of treacherous men" (9:2), gathered "by troops in the harlots' houses," each man neighing like a horse for his neighbor's wife (5:7-8)--but the adulterous woman is the image that is predominantly used. "Where have you not been lain with?" Jeremiah asks Judah (3:2). "How can you say 'I am not defiled, I have not gone after Baalim'?" (2:23). Jeremiah even likens Judah to "a wild ass" in heat: "who can turn her away? . . . in her month they shall find her" (2:24).

Yahweh asks the "backsliding" people, who have "wrought lewdness with many" (11:15), to come back to him, "for I am married unto you" (3:14); but because Judah persists in her idolatry--committing "adultery with stones and with stocks" (3:9)--as did her backsliding sister Israel before her, Jeremiah prophesies disaster for Judah and her capital city. "Woe unto thee, O Jerusalem!" (13:27) for the pain that is coming will be like that of "a woman in travail" (13:21; 22:23; 31:8; 49:24). Yahweh, Jerusalem is told, will shame her, he will lift her skirts up over her face (13:26). "In vain shalt thou make thyself fair" with crimson dress, gold ornaments, and painted face, the Lord tells the city, for "thy lovers will despise thee, they will seek thy life" (4:30). Just as Samaria, the capital of adulterous Israel, fell to the Assyrians (722 B.C.E.), so the Babylonians "shall come and set fire" to Jerusalem for her idolatry and other wicked works (32:28-31).

Jerusalem is indeed destroyed (587 B.C.E.), with Judah's leading citizens either killed or taken into exile over the course of three Babylonian invasions. But to the survivors Jeremiah, having foretold such destruction, speaks of reconciliation and renewal. "Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love," says Yahweh, and "will save thee from afar, and thy seed" (31:3, 30:10); "ye shall be my people, and I will be your God," and again "shall the virgin rejoice in the dance" (30:22, 31:13). (Jeremiah) (On to EZEKIEL)

Michelangelo, Jeremiah / Sistene Chapel



JERUSALEM: "As a Bride Adorned"

"How the faithful city has become a harlot!" So the prophet Isaiah (1:21) describes Jerusalem (also called Zion), capital of the kingdom of Judah, in the seventh century B.C.E. For the Judahites' idolatry, foreign intrigue, and social injustices, Yahweh, says Isaiah, "will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts" (3:17). Jerusalem's women have been walking "with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes," but now "the Lord will take away the brave tinkling of their ornaments," stink will replace their "sweet smell," and there will be baldness instead of "well set hair" (3:16,18,24). "Thy men shall fall by the sword," Isaiah tells them, and in that desolate time "seven women shall take hold of one man" and beg to be called by his name (3:25-26).

Female wantonness as a metaphor for Jerusalem's unfaithfulness to Yahweh is also employed by the prophet Jeremiah in the late seventh and early sixth centuries, leading up to the city's destruction (587 B.C.E.). "Woe unto thee, O Jerusalem!" says the Lord, for "I have seen thine adulteries and thy neighings, the lewdness of thy whoredom, and thine abominations on the hills in the fields," and for this "will I discover thy skirts upon thy face, that thy shame may appear" (Jer. 13:26,27). Jerusalem, says Yahweh in Jeremiah, shall be given "into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon," whose army shall burn it, destroying the houses "upon whose roofs (the people) have offered incense unto Baal, and poured out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger" (32:28-29).

The prophet Ezekiel, writing before Jerusalem's fall as well as in Babylonian exile afterward, dwells at length on two sexually charged images of the city. In chapter 16, Jerusalem is a girl born in Canaan to Amorite and Hittite parents, who abandon her at birth; as a young maiden, naked and bloodied, she is found by Yahweh, who cleans her up, decks her with "excellent ornaments," and takes her as his wife. But she turns out to be a "whorish woman," committing fornication with Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian lovers, whom she even pays for their services. In chapter 23, Jerusalem is a woman named Oholibah, who like her older sister Oholah (representing the fallen Israelite capital of Samaria) is a bride of Yahweh and bears him children, but then backslides precipitously into the "whoredoms" of her youth. (See EZEKIEL.)

Female imagery is used also in Lamentations, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah, to describe Jerusalem's desolation after its fall into Babylonian hands. "I called for my lovers," says the ruined city, "but they deceived me" (1:19). The Babylonians "ravished the women in Zion" (4:4), and "the virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground" (2:2). Those who honored Jerusalem "have seen her nakedness" and despise her (1:8); "her filthiness is in her skirts" (1:9), "Jerusalem is as a menstruous woman" (1:17). "From the daughter of Zion all her beauty is departed" (1:6), for the Lord himself "hath trodden the virgin . . . as in a winepress" (1:15), and there is "none to comfort her" (1:1). (On the problem of divine punishment portrayed as violence toward women, see YAHWEH.)

But there is also hope and assurance expressed in the prophets that Jerusalem the fallen woman shall be raised up again. "They called thee an Outcast," the city is told in Jeremiah, "saying, This is Zion, whom no man seeketh after" (30:17). But Jerusalem will be built again "upon her own heap"; she will "dwell safely," and her name will be "The Lord (is) our righteousness" (30:18, 33:16). Ezekiel also foresees a glorious new city, to be named "The Lord is there" (48:35). "Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh," commands Isaiah (62:11), who has yet another new name for the city: "Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken . . . but thou shalt be called Hephzibah ('My delight is in her'), and thy land Beulah ('Married')." For "as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee" (62:4-5).

The imagery of bridegroom and bride returns in the book of Revelation: "And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband" (21:2). In John's vision, the husband is Christ "the Lamb" (19:7), and "the Lamb's wife," symbolizing the Christian church, is the new Jerusalem (21:9-10). "Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready" (19:7).

James Theophistos, Marriage of the Lamb / BibleVerseArt.com



JESUS CHRIST: There Ain't No Sex In Heaven

Did Jesus have a sex life? Ever since Chalcedon (a fifth-century ecumenical council), it has been the orthodox Christian view that Jesus was "truly God" and "truly man." (See also VIRGIN BIRTH: "CHILD OF THE HOLY GHOST.") The Chalcedon definition was a response to Monophysitism, the heretical view that Christ had a divine nature only. Fully human (and more), Jesus, says normative Christianity, shared human needs and desires; born "according to the flesh" (Rom. 1:4), he was "in all things like his brethren" (Heb. 2:17).

Yet despite his humanity and the many women whom his ministry attracted, the Bible is silent on any sexual involvement of Jesus. Moreover, statements attributed to Jesus regarding sex are basically negative. Thus a lustful thought is itself adultery (Matt. 5:28). Jesus is liberal in not condemning the woman taken in adultery, but he commands her to "sin no more" (John 8:3-11.) (He does not accuse the Samaritan woman, living with a man out of wedlock, of immorality, but that may be because she changes the subject when Jesus brings it up [John 4:5-26].) Jesus even refers to "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" (Matt. 19:12), an apparent endorsement of sexual abstinence for those so inclined. Others should perhaps enjoy sex while they can, for Luke 20:33-36 quotes Jesus as saying there will be no marriage in the resurrection. In other words, there ain't no sex in heaven.

It can be argued that the ascetic portrayal of Christ in the gospels reflects not the historical Jesus but an antisexual attitude, under Hellenistic influences, that developed in the early church. One can then try reading between the lines for a sex life of Jesus, and it's intriguing what some people find. The Rev. Robert Williams, for example, finds what we might call the Gay Galilean. As Anglican Bishop Hugh Montefiore did some thirty years earlier, Williams suspects a homosexual lover in the unnamed "beloved disciple" in the Gospel of John (see HOMOSEXUALITY: "THAT WHICH IS UNSEEMLY"). This would also explain why Jesus was unmarried, since Jewish rabbis and priests customarily had wives. But then Protestant theologian William E. Phipps and Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong suggest that Jesus was married. (On the missus most likely, see MARY, CALLED MAGDALENE). The Australian author Barbara Thiering not only has Jesus marrying Mary of Magdala, who bears him three children, but then has her divorcing him, after which Jesus weds Lydia, a traveling saleswoman who later entertains Paul (Acts 16:14-15). This might have made a good novel, but Thiering's work is classed as nonfiction.

Theories or fantasies about Jesus' sex life must remain speculation. And among conservative Christians one can still find some Monophysites in sheep's clothing. To them, the very idea of a sexually active Jesus, giving in to erotic desire, is taking 1 John 4:7, "Let us love one another," too far. (Consider the highly publicized furor over the 1988 film version of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Jesus only dreams about having sex.)

The Bible goes pretty far, though, metaphorically. As Yahweh takes Israel as his bride (Isa. 54:5; 62:4-5; Ezek. 16), so Christ's love for the church is compared to that of a man for his wife (Eph. 5:22-32). "I have espoused you to one husband," Paul tells the Corinthian church, "that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ" (2 Cor. 11:2). In the Apocalypse, "the holy city, new Jerusalem," is "the Lamb's wife," descending from heaven "as a bride adorned for her husband" (Rev. 21:2, 9-10). "The marriage of the Lamb is come," says Saint John, "and his wife hath made herself ready" (Rev. 19:7). The love imagery becomes sexually explicit in the Song of Solomon, insofar as the lovers in that fine piece of Old Testament erotica have down through the ages been interpreted by many as an allegory of Christ and the church. (See SONG OF SOLOMON.) (On to MARY, CALLED MAGDALENE)

Lorenzo Lotto, Christ and the Adulteress / The Louvre



JEZEBEL: "This Cursed Woman"

See AHAB AND JEZEBEL.



JOHN THE BAPTIST

See ELIZABETH AND ZECHARIAH and HEROD AND THE DANCE OF SALOME.



JOSEPH AND MARY

See VIRGIN BIRTH: "CHILD OF THE HOLY GHOST."



JOSEPH AND POTIPHAR'S WIFE

Jacob's ten other sons (six by Leah, four by his concubines Bilhah and Zilpah) resent the fact that his favorite son is seventeen-year-old Joseph, "the son of his old age" by Rachel (who will later bear Benjamin, Jacob's twelfth son). They see the fine coat Joseph wears while helping them tend the flocks; they hear of the "evil report" he makes about them to his father; and they have to listen to him recount his dreams, such as that of the sun, moon, and stars bowing down to him. They finally have enough of "this dreamer" and sell him for twenty shekels of silver to some Ishmaelites passing through Canaan. Joseph's fancy coat they dip in blood and take to Jacob, who mournfully assumes that the lad has been devoured by some wild beast.

Joseph is taken to Egypt, where the Ishmaelites sell him to Potiphar, an officer of the Pharoah. Seeing that "the Lord made all that (Joseph) did to prosper in his hand," Potiphar makes Joseph the overseer of his house. And day after day, while the master's away, Potiphar's wife tries to lure the Hebrew into bed. "Lie with me," she tells him, but Joseph resists the temptation, if there is any. "How can I do this great wickedness," he asks her, "and sin against God?"

Finally one day she grabs Joseph by his garment. "Lie with me," she repeats, but Joseph flees, leaving the garment in her hand. Hell having no fury like a woman scorned (according to the dramatist William Congreve), Potiphar's wife cries out for the men of her household. They come and she shows them the garment. "He has brought in a Hebrew to mock us," she says of her husband. She claims that Joseph came "to lie with" her, and that he ran away, leaving his garment, when she screamed.

When Potiphar comes home and hears his wife's lie, he angrily has Joseph thrown into prison. In almost no time at all, though, Joseph is running the prison. He also has a knack for interpreting dreams, which wins him the Pharoah's favor. The Pharoah soon puts Joseph in charge of the whole land of Egypt. He also gives him Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of the sun god Re, in marriage. (In the pseudepigraphical Joseph and Aseneth, Joseph refuses to marry this Egyptian priest's daughter until she converts from her idolatry; see Burchard.)

Asenath bears Joseph two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. They are later adopted by their grandfather Jacob, who is reunited with Joseph in Egypt. Joseph's sons thus join Jacob's twelve natural sons (Benjamin having been added by Rachel) as ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel (the tribe of Joseph becoming the two tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim). (Gen. 37, 39-41, 47-48) (On to MOSES AND ZIPPORAH)

Guercino, Joseph and Potiphar's Wife / National Gallery of Art (D.C)



JUDAH AND TAMAR

Jacob's fourth son Judah, praised by his father as "a lion's whelp" (Gen. 49:9), goes to visit a friend named Hirah in the Canaanite town of Adullam. While there Judah is attracted to the daughter of a man named Shuah. Taking her as his wife, Judah, we are told, "went in unto her." She bears a son named Er, for whom Judah in due course finds a wife. Judah's Canaanite wife conceives twice more, bearing sons Onan and Shelah.

Judah's eldest son Er turns out to be a lion's whelp himself: "the Lord slew him," the Bible says, for being "wicked." As Er leaves no children, Judah tells second son Onan to marry Er's widow Tamar. This is in keeping with the Hebrew levirate law (from levir, "brother-in-law"), according to which the brother of a man who dies childless shall marry the widow to give his dead brother offspring (Deut. 25:5-10). But Onan resents the fact that the offpsring so produced will not be considered his. So when Onan has sexual intercourse with Tamar, he deliberately spills his semen on the ground. He is then slain by the Lord for not properly discharging his duty. (See ONAN AND TAMAR.)

Judah tells Er's and Onan's widow Tamar to go live with her father till third son Shelah is old enough to be next. But when the boy is grown, Judah, understandably reluctant to have a third son marry this woman, does not give Tamar to Shelah.

There is another death (apparently unrelated) in the family, Judah losing his Canaanite wife. But there is still lots of life left in Judah. On a trip to Timnath for a sheepshearing, Judah spots a veiled woman sitting on the wayside. Assuming she's a prostitute, he stops to proposition her: "Go to, I pray thee, let me come in unto thee."'

"What wilt thou give me," she asks, "that thou mayest come in unto me?"

"I will send thee a kid from the flock," says Judah.

She asks if he will give her something as a pledge till the kid is delivered. "What pledge shall I give thee?" he asks.

She requests his signet, bracelets, and staff, which Judah promptly hands over. The two then have sexual intercourse.

When Judah later sends his friend Hirah the Adullamite to deliver the kid and recover his signet, bracelets, and staff, the woman is nowhere to be found. Hirah asks some men in the area about "the qedeshah" who had been on the wayside. Their reply: "There was no qedeshah in this place." (Hirah's use of the term qedeshah--literally "holy woman"--instead of zonah, the Hebrew word for a harlot, has historically been seen as evidence for the practice of sacred prostitution in ancient Israel. But it is unclear why Hirah uses the term. Since a holy woman or a harlot could either one have conceivably been there, perhaps Hirah asks folks about a "holy woman" because he prefers not to be asking about a "whore." See PROSTITUTION.)

Hirah has to inform Judah that he has apparently seen the last of his signet, bracelets, and staff. Soon Judah gets even more bad news: his daughter-in-law Tamar, someone tells him, has "played the harlot" and is pregnant. "Bring her forth," says Judah, "and let her be burnt."

When Tamar is brought forth, she brings forth with her Judah's signet, bracelets, and staff, and rhetorically asks "Whose are these?" Tamar, Judah now realizes, was the whore on the wayside--she had indeed "played" the harlot--and it is presumably his offspring she carries. Judah acknowledges his belongings, and the fact that Tamar--though she has tricked him, for the sake of offspring, into committing incest (Lev. 18:15)--is "more righteous" than he, for his failure to give her to Shelah.

Tamar bears twins named Perez and Zerah. While still in the womb, Zerah puts out his hand, as if to say "I'm first." The midwife accordingly ties a scarlet thread around Zerah's wrist. But then the hand goes back in, and Perez (whose descendants will include King David and Jesus) is born first.

Tamar is admired today as a woman who asserted her rights in a patriarchal society--albeit through deception--despite Judah's attempt to deny them. Yet, as Sharon Pace Jeansonne notes, there is a "lingering injustice" at the end of the story: it leaves Tamar as a single mother, still denied the husband she was promised, and with no hint of assistance from Judah. The statement that Judah "knew her again no more" implies social as well as sexual non-contact. In the pseudepigraphical Testament of Judah, the dying man states that after his experience with Tamar--whom he did not recognize on the road to Timnath, he says, because he was drunk at the time--he went to join his brother Joseph in Egypt, and did not go near Tamar for the rest of his life (12:1-2; see Kee). (Genesis 38) (On to JOSEPH AND POTIPHAR'S WIFE)

Horace Vernet, Judah and Tamar / The Wallace Collection, London



JUDAH, THE KINGDOM OF

See ISRAEL: "BEGET SONS AND DAUGHTERS"; SOLOMON AND HIS "OUTLANDISH WOMEN"; MAACHAH AND REHOBOAM; ATHALIAH AND JEHORAM; EZEKIEL: TALKING LEWD WOMEN; JEREMIAH: "THY LOVERS WILL DESPISE THEE"; and JERUSALEM: "AS A BRIDE ADORNED".



JUDITH AND HOLOFERNES

Talk about sex appeal, Judith has it. She is a beautiful woman, with a face so lovely that men marvel to behold it. And she's rich, her late husband Manasseh, dead from sunstroke, having left her with money, slaves, cattle, and fields. Yes, a man could easily lose his head over a woman like Judith (whose name in Hebrew means "Jewess" or "female Judean"). But though many desire her, she chooses to remain a widow, fasting regularly while maintaining her estate in the Judean town of Bethulia.

Judith also speaks wisely, and has plenty to say upon hearing that Bethulia's magistrates have decided to surrender the town to Assyrian invaders--who have besieged it for over a month and cut off the water supply--unless God intervenes in five days. (This invasion is an anachronism in the story, which is set in postexilic Judea, long after the demise of Assyria.) Judith summons the magistrates and upbraids them for testing God, who can protect his people whenever he wishes, by giving him a five-day deadline.

When the magistrate Uzziah points out that the people are dying of thirst, Judith replies that she is about to do something--something momentous that will be remembered, she says, for all generations--to take care of the situation.

That night Judith takes off her widow's garments, bathes, and anoints herself with fine ointment. She puts on a tiara, anklets, bracelets, and earrings, and the brightest of the clothes that she wore when her husband was living. She fills a bag with a bottle of wine, a flask of oil, and some food, and then, with her maid who carries the bag, Judith heads for the city gate.

At the gate Uzziah and the other elders are bedazzled by Judith's appearance. Praying that God will favor her plan, the elders open the gate for her, and watch as Judith and the maid proceed down through the valley till no longer in sight.

Judith is stopped by an Assyrian patrol, which marvels at her beauty as much as her story: she has fled Bethulia, and wants to tell Holofernes, commander of the Assyrian army, how he can take all of Judea without losing a single man.

Her gorgeous appearance excites the whole camp as she is escorted to Holofernes's tent. Who can hate the Hebrews, the Assyrians wonder, when they have women like this? The general Holofernes, relaxing on his canopied bed, is as struck by her beauty as everyone else. When he graciously asks why she has come, Judith tells him that her people in their hunger are planning to break God's law by eating first fruits consecrated for priestly use only. On the day that they do this, they will be destroyed by the Assyrians. So she fled, and has been sent by God to Holofernes. Staying with the Assyrians, she will go out and pray each night in the valley, and God will tell her when the Hebrews have sinned. She will tell Holofernes, who can then march with his army all the way to Jerusalem, without so much as a dog barking at him.

Holofernes likes what he hears. "Your God shall be my God," he tells her, and on each of the next three nights Judith is allowed to leave the camp unhindered to go pray in the valley. Holofernes also likes what he sees, of course, and on the fourth night is determined to have Judith in his canopied bed. It would be a disgrace, he tells his eunuch Bagoas, to let such a woman go without having her, and on top of that she would laugh at him.

That night Holofernes invites Judith, through Bagoas, to a banquet in his tent. "Who am I," Judith replies through Bagoas, "to refuse my lord?" While Judith gets dressed, her maid goes and spreads fleeces on the ground before Holofernes, so that Judith may recline while she eats.

When Judith, dressed to kill, comes in and lies down, Holofernes can hardly control himself. He tells her to drink and be merry, and Judith says, "I will indeed drink, my lord, for my life this day means more to me than in all the days since I was born." The excited Holofernes proceeds to drink more wine than he has ever downed in his life, while Judith consumes kosher food and drink from her food bag. By the time the other guests leave, and Bagoas shuts the tent from outside, leaving Judith alone with Holofernes, the general is stretched out on his bed in a drunken stupor.

Judith takes down a sword from the wall. Stepping to the bed, she takes the general by the hair of the head. Judith utters a prayer, asking the Lord God for strength, and with two strokes she cuts off Holofernes's head.

Judith puts the head in her food bag, which she hands to her maid waiting outside. Judith also takes the bed's canopy as a trophy. The two women proceed out of the camp, the Assyrians assuming that she is off again to her prayers. (How she transports the canopy is unstated.) Judith returns to Bethulia, where at dawn the head is hung up for display. The inspired Israelites go out to do battle, prompting Bagoas to go wake his master--and make a grisly discovery. The Assyrians are routed, and her people hail Judith as "the glory of Israel." ("It was my face that deceived him," she assures them, "he committed no sin with me, to defile and disgrace me.")

Judith, needless to say, is one of the most imposing figures, male or female, in Hebrew tradition. The story told in the book of Judith (found in the Apocrypha in the Catholic Bible) is similar to that of Jael, in the days when the prophetess Deborah judged Israel. As it is told in Judges (ch. 4), the Kenite woman Jael gives Sisera, a defeated Canaanite general fleeing from the Israelites, a place to hide in her tent, some milk to quench his thirst, and, after Sisera falls asleep, a tent peg through the head with a hammer. But unlike Judith, Jael does not use sex appeal to do in the villain. Jael kills him with kindness. (For discussion of sexual nuances in the Jael story, see Susan Niditch.) (Apocrypha: Judith) (On to ELIZABETH AND ZECHARIAH)

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes / Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome




Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld
New Jerusalem
Woodcut from Das Buch der Bucher in Bilden


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