KING NEBUCHADNEZZAR OF ASSYRIA had a nasty temper and a long memory, and after pulverizing his enemies the Medes, he sent a man named Holofernes with a hundred and thirty-two thousand men to straighten out all the peoples who hadn't coughed up military aid when he needed it. The ones who resisted were to be liquidated. The rest were to tear down their temples, throw out their gods, and see to it that from then on the only god they had any dealings with was Nebuchadnezzar himself.

The Jews were among the others on Nebuchadnezzar's black list, and the place where Holofernes attacked them was a town called Bethulia, to which he laid siege. In Bethulia there lived a very attractive, well-heeled young widow named Judith, and she decided to go to Holofernes and see what she could do.

First she prayed to Yahweh to prosper her cause and then, just to play it safe, made a few preparations of a more secular nature. She skinned out of the drab black clothes she'd been wearing in memory of her late husband and took a long, hot tub. Then she sprayed herself with some expensive eau de cologne, had her maid give her a permanent, and slipped into a dazzling little number left over from happier days. She polished things off by decorating herself with all the chains, bracelets, earrings, and assorted bric-a-brac she could put her hands on and set out with her maid for the enemy lines (Judith 10:1-5).

As a Jew, she had a little trouble getting to see Holofernes, but when she said she was going to show him how to take Bethulia without losing a single man, they let her in. "I will declare unto the Lord no lie this night," she told him as soon as they'd been introduced (Judith 11:6), and you can only hope she had her fingers crossed at the time.

The only circumstances under which Yahweh would think of letting his people be defeated, she said, was if they sinned. As it happened, she went on to say, right that minute they were sinning like crazy back in Bethulia by eating a lot of unkosher food because, thanks to the siege, that was all there was left. She knew for a fact that the Jews in Jerusalem were about to pull the same stunt, and as soon as they did, Holofernes would be able to take the lot of them with both hands tied behind his back, and Yahweh wouldn't lift a finger to interfere. All Holofernes had to do was wait till she gave him the word.

Holofernes was not only much encouraged by what she had to say, but he was also knocked right off his pins by her good looks and fancy clothes. For three days he tried to lure her into his tent for an intimate little supper, and for three days she played hard to get. On the fourth day she finally said she'd come and put on an even flashier number for the occasion than the one she'd started out in. They had a gourmet meal together, during which Holofernes had three glasses of wine for every one of Judith's, and when it was over, he sent his servants packing so that it was just the two of them at last.

Unfortunately, he'd gotten himself so tanked up by then that before anything much had a chance to happen, he passed out on his bed. His scimitar was lying nearby, and with two good whacks Judith cut off his head, put it in her picnic basket, and went back to Bethulia, where she had it prominently displayed on the battlements. When the Assyrians saw it there the next day, they ran like rabbits, and the Jews drew their first easy breath in months.

They rewarded Judith by giving her the entire contents of Holofernes' tent including the silver cups and the bed he'd passed out on, but Judith turned around and gave them all to Yahweh. For all she knew, she might have forgotten to keep her fingers crossed when she said all those things to Holofernes the first time they met and thought the present might help make it up to Yahweh for having stretched things a little. And apparently she gauged things right because, although she never married again, she lived a long, happy life as Bethulia's leading citizen, and died peacefully in her bed at the age of one hundred and five.

The Book of Judith

-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

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