Her name was Judith and she lived about two and a half thousand years ago. Over the centuries the artistic world has loved to present her as a cross between a vamp, a femme fatale or a warrior queen, with a sword in one hand and a bearded, blood-dripping head in the other. But there is more to Judith than a morally dubious beheading of a cruel and ruthless general named Holofernes, carried out in the name of God. (Read more)
At one stage I tried to find out why or how my parents had chosen to name me, but the answers were vague. Any religious reasons were way off the mark as my father was unfamiliar with the Old Testament and my mother had grown up with the Methodist bible which skipped the Book of Judith all together. There were no Judiths in my family tree, but as Judith was one of the top five girl’s names the year I was born probably the answer lies there
Religious curiosity led me eventually to read the book of Judith, sandwiched between Tobit and Esther in the Old Testament. It had all the elements of a pot boiler – sex, murder, violence and lies, a cruel and ruthless villain and a brave, beautiful, prayerful and wise heroine. Using every feminine wile in her book, and then some more, she deceived the fellow we know as Holofernes – then she murdered him and in so doing saved a whole nation from certain death or slavery. With their general beheaded the troops panicked and fled down the mountain, leaving the Israelites victorious and Judith leading the dancing through the streets. Definitely not your ordinary pious woman!
Even though I still have problems with Judith from a conventional moral standpoint, a recent re-reading has blurred my former image of her as a warrior queen with religious overtones and replaced it with something more feminine and relevant. Invited to meet with the religious authorities to discuss the danger faced by the city, Judith disagreed with both the strategies they proposed and with the image of God that underpinned their reasoning. Typically they responded by advising her to go home and pray and leave the decision stuff to them.
Now I’ve actually been to meetings like that. The biblical Judith, instead of going home chastened or maybe inwardly fuming like I might, challenged them, pointing out that they approached God as someone who can be bargained with. Without coming across all militant and confrontational she suggested that it was pretty arrogant of them to assume that they could more or less manipulate God to their own way of thinking and concluded by advising them to let God be God.
They went home, shaking their heads at the temerity of a woman presuming to teach them about God and she started planning. Preparations complete, sackcloth laid aside and jewels and silks ready, before setting out for the Assyrian camp Judith prayed, “Lord God, please, please, …give me a beguiling tongue to wound and kill those who have formed such cruel designs against your covenant.”
Only a woman who had a loving and familiar relationship with God could feel confident to ask God to help her lie. When Judith prays aloud, her relationship with God comes through the pages and down the centuries like a breath of fresh air.
I’m glad I was named Judith. What Judith did and how she did it took courage. Catholic women who are tired of being dismissed as irrelevant and second class need role models in their struggle for religious equity. While I won’t be seducing any modern day Assyrian generals, sometimes I could think of a few heads I wouldn’t mind seeing roll.
In some peculiar way the re-reading of the story of Judith reminded me of my paternal great-grandmother, Maria Warren. Together with her mother, father, brother and sister she arrived in Tasmania in 1854. Even though she married my great-grandfather two months later and gave birth to ten children I never heard any family stories about her. That is, until a couple of years ago when I researched the logbook of the ship she arrived in. Unflatteringly it stated that ‘Maria Warren was one of the worst on board.”
Now isn’t that a bit like Judith –remembered and recorded because for a small time she defied the behavioural roles expected of her religion and gender.