I remember the first time I saw Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. It was in my European history class in high school. I was astounded. Should a woman be doing that, I wondered? At the same time, I was intoxicated by her display of female power. In the painting, a woman has seduced a general to help her people, who are besieged by the Assyrians; and she is beheading him. Although Judith grimaces slightly, she and her handmaid seem relatively emotionless as they are going about this brutal task. The general Holofernes, completely drunk, has no time to react, and a cruel spurt of blood ejects from his neck. Judith looks like she’s slicing a large piece of meat. Her cleavage shows, underscoring the power of her sexuality as she exacts revenge and helps to free her people.
I admire Judith’s bravery. And, perhaps more than her display of force, I love the wisdom Judith displays before her people as a “God-fearing woman” (NRSV, Judith 8:31). Her people are perishing of thirst and hunger from the siege, and they angrily suggest their leaders surrender because God has seemingly abandoned them. Their leaders say that if God has not delivered them within five days, they will surrender. But Judith rebukes the leaders for “putting the Lord Almighty to the test” (8:13): “You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?” (8:14). And rather than sitting passively waiting for God’s deliverance, Judith offers herself as an instrument of that deliverance and enters the enemy camp. After seducing Holofernes and getting him drunk, she strikes off his head with his own sword and takes the head back to her people, who display it on their wall.
This great act of heroism and intimidation inspires an attack on the Assyrians. The sweetest bit of revenge of all? “They gave Judith the tent of Holfernes and all his silver dinnerware, his beds, his bowls, and all his furniture” (15:11), which she later dedicates to God at the temple. The account of the female celebration that ensues is quite touching. The Israelite women bless Judith and dance to honor her. And Judith leads “the people in the dance . . . bearing their arms and wearing garlands and singing hymns” (15:13). Judith sings a thanksgiving hymn that is a song of her personal deliverance and of Israelite triumphalism, ending, not surprisingly, violently: “Woe to the nations that rise up against my people! The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment; he will send fire and worms into their flesh; they shall weep in pain forever” (16:17). Judith becomes more revered with age, and peace remains among her people for years after her death.
I wish celebrations of female strength were more a part of our religious and secular culture. I was so happy to learn of a group of Indian women, known as the Gulabi (pink) Gang, who have taken redress for various crimes against women and the poor into their own hands, since local officials shirk their duty to the law. The women carry bamboo staffs and use violence to retaliate if they are being bullied or intimidated. And the officials fear them and are changing their behavior. These women are saving their people. And, although I don’t endorse violence, or vigilante justice, I do endorse women taking matters into their own hands when the balance of power and the law are against them and will remain against them unless they do something. Women are more powerful than much popular and religious culture would lead women to believe. Hooray for these women, and hooray for Judith.