Judith

Caravaggio, Judith and Holofernes

When the Assyrians first surrounded Bethulia, our town, and seized its spring, the people vowed never to surrender. But then thirty days later without water, the people were desperate. As the widow of a former chief magistrate and still of some influence, I summoned the three magistrates of the town to come to me and explain what they proposed to do.

Ozias, the chief magistrate, threw up his hands and argued that we should surrender. God would protect us, he said. He was sure the Assyrians would treat us well.

Ozias was known for his tendency toward wishful thinking. I reminded the magistrates of that and said our only option was to resist. I reminded them, “Who are you to put God to the test?”

None of them answered me. They went away resigned to defeat and very likely slavery. From the roof of my house I could see the Assyrian army spread out over the plain. With their tents and baggage train, they made an immense encampment. It occurred to me that all those men were nothing but for the man leading them, the famous general Holofernes. We couldn’t defeat the Assyrian army, but killing their leader — that was certainly possible.

The more I tried to think who might be able to do such a thing and how it might be accomplished, the clearer it became that I was really the only one who might actually do it. A man would never succeed, but a woman might. I believed my plan was sound but I knew I would be severely tested, and if I failed, I would suffer terrible consequences. But then if I did nothing, I would also suffer terrible consequences. I had to put myself in God’s hands and trust that he would make me the instrument of his will and the savior of his people.

There was no time to waste. Clearly the Assyrians were getting ready to attack. I bathed, unwound my hair and dressed in the bright clothes I used to wear when my husband was alive. I put on sandals and anklets, bracelets and rings. Then I gave my maid a skin of wine and a flask of oil. I had her fill a bag with fig cakes and bread. When all was ready, we went out toward the gate of Bethulia, as Ozias and the elders came running. I ordered them to open the gates so that we might pass through.

The guards looked one to the other and did nothing.

“You stupid woman! Ozias shouted. “What are you trying to do?”

“God will deliver us by my hand,” I said.

Ozias laughed and told the gatekeepers not to let me pass. “The traitor wants to save herself,” he said.

“I’m your last hope!” I said.

He scoffed at my words, and we continued to argue and shout. Soon a crowd gathered and many were people who knew me. They knew I could never be a traitor. Headstrong and unyielding, but never a traitor. They began shouting, “Let her pass, let her pass!” The crowd grew in number and threatened to storm the gate. At last, Ozias had no choice but to relent, saying, “Let the fool go and remember this day when the Assyrians burn your houses and slit the throats of your children!”

My maid and I passed through the gate and descended the hills into the valley and past the spring where the Assyrians had posted a guard. The soldiers stopped us and asked where were we going. I said, “I’m on my way to Holofernes, your commander-in-chief, with information he will find useful. I can show a way he can take the city of Bethulia without the loss of a single man.”

The men said, “You have saved your life by doing this.” They immediately took me to the tent of Holofernes and said, “Tell him what you have told us, and he will treat you kindly.”

Holofernes was bathed in the glow of silver lamps and resting on his bed under a purple net interwoven with gold and emeralds. He motioned with his hand to come closer, his eyes moving over my body. “Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Judith,” I said, “I’m a widow. My husband was once the chief magistrate of Bethulia.”

“I would never have raised my spear against your people if they hadn’t been so foolish as to resist me. Now tell me why you’ve come. Be quick. I have important business.”

“My people are starving and will soon consume everything that God has prohibited them from eating, the first fruits of the grain and the tithes of wine and oil. As soon as they do this, they will be given up by God to you to be destroyed.”

Holofernes stared at me, searching my face, looking into my eyes. “You speak truly?”

“I do, my lord.”

“Well then, your God shall be my God!” Holofernes could not contain his mirth and he laughed. And when he laughed, so did all the others in the tent with him. Then he said, “Forgive me, madam, I’m not steeped in the peculiar lore and beliefs of your people. Please continue.”

“I take no offense, sir. You are Holofernes, second only to Nebuchadnezzar, lord of the earth, and I’m your slave. But please listen to what I say. I will stay with you and pray to God. And when he tells me my people have committed the sins I told you of, then I’ll bring you the word, and you’ll be able to go out with your army and meet no resistance.”

“God’s own messenger!” Once again Holofernes laughed, the cheeks above his great black beard turning red and his eyes moist. “I have no doubt that King Nebuchadnezzar will be as enchanted with you as I have been. He’ll have you live in his palace, and you’ll be renowned throughout the world.”

Holofernes then ordered a meal to be served to me. But I told him that I could not eat any of it for fear of giving offense to God. What I had brought with me would meet my needs. “But if it would please my lord,” I said, “I would like to go out in the evening into the valley of Bethulia to bathe myself.”

Holofernes gave orders to his guards to let me pass out of the camp. For three days I went out to bathe in the spring and afterward to pray. Each time I saw that a man followed me. At the spring, the man concealed himself in the bushes and watched me. I gave no sign that I saw him and showed no shame in my nakedness, but went about my business, bathing myself in the cool water.

On the fourth day Holofernes called me into his tent. He had been drinking wine and seemed displeased. When, he asked me, was this troublesome god of mine going to abandon my people. “I know it’s not your fault. I have heard about your god,” he said. “He enjoys punishing your people for their offenses, which have been many in number. He delights in making every minute of their lives miserable with endless rituals and requirements.” Holofernes drained his cup and belched. “We have a much better god. He is called Marduk. Marduk isn’t interested in what we eat. Sacrifices and offerings bore him. He has no special preference for circumcised or uncircumcised men, brown men, black men, dead men, or even living men. He’s as indifferent to prayers as he’s to the sound of rain and wind. He never has, and never will, meddle in the world. It may even be that he has forgotten all about us.”

“What’s the point of such a god?”

“Marduk is his own point,” Holofernes said, calling for more wine. “Marduk is what he is. Do you ask what is the point of the wind? Of the rain? Of the pool in which you bathe? It’s not for us to fathom these mysteries. Let’s live our lives without pretensions, strive to achieve the best we can, seek knowledge and truth, enjoy the little happiness that each day brings. Marduk can look after himself.”

I wanted to block my ears, I wanted to tear out his eyes, but I smiled and said, “My lord is very wise.”

Holofernes laughed, saying, “Wise? You give me too much credit. I’m just a soldier. In the court of Nebuchadnezzar, there are men who do nothing but study the heavens and plot the motions of the stars. I lead a host of armed men into remote and savage lands, where I must kill certain numbers of the population so that others can be persuaded as to the benefits of commerce and law.”

Holofernes took another sip of wine. “You are quite beautiful — perhaps the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. And here in this desert of ignorance and superstition! But tell me, tell me truthfully, why did you come to me? Please don’t repeat that promise to alert me as soon as your god was fed up with his people — your people will either be defeated by my army or they will surrender rather than starve to death. This has happened a thousand times before, and it will happen a thousand times again.”

I said nothing. I prayed that God might show me the way to work his will.

“You’re young and beautiful and rich,” he said, his eyes dull and bloodshot. “You said to yourself: Why should I perish with these stubborn, ignorant people? If they want to die or be enslaved that’s their business. I’ll settle things on my own terms.”

“No!”

“We saw them open the gates for you. They let you leave. What did you tell them? That you would come to me, dressed in your most alluring clothes, scented with a fragrant perfume, and try to beguile me? To gain my confidence? To become intimate with me? And then when the opportunity presented itself, to plunge a knife into my heart?”

“My lord, I’m a good and pious woman!”

“Isn’t there a story your people tell about a woman — good and pious I’m sure — who does something like that? An enemy commander enters her tent and she beguiles him, teases him, then when he falls asleep, she drives a tent peg into his head?”

I said nothing.

Holofernes dismissed all the other guests from the tent and then reached for his sword that hung nearby and put it into my hands. “Here’s your chance.”

I took the sword but knowing he was testing me, let it fall to the ground.

Holofernes said, “You acted wisely in trying to save your own life. But there was no need to lie to me. Did you think I would despise you for telling the truth? I love the truth. I worship at its altar. The meanest truth is more wonderful to me than all the splendors of Nebuchadnezzar’s court. A lie is a serpent in the grass. A lie is a beautiful woman with malice in her heart.”

He had seen through my deceit, but he hadn’t seen all the way through. “All you say is true,” I said. “The things I told you were lies. I’m not used to deceit. I’ve always lived according to God’s commandments.” As I spoke, tears came into my eyes. My throat tightened and I couldn’t say anything more. It seemed as if God had abandoned me to the enemy because I dared trying to do something that was really a man’s duty to do.

Holofernes wiped away my tears with his silken scarf. “The real truth is never sweet,” he said. “It’s bitter. And the bitterest truth is the truth of what we really are. Do you think I haven’t tasted the bitterness? The mighty Holofernes, second only to King Nebuchadnezzar himself? I love wine. I’m a drunkard. I have no wife, no children. I prefer the company of prostitutes. I burn at the sight of a beautiful woman. For the last three nights, I’ve followed you like a pitiful slave to the spring of Bethulia and watched you bathe in its waters. I saw how you rejoice in your nakedness. And now, sitting beside you, I’d give all I own to be able to take you into my arms!”

“You command a great army, my lord,” I said. “You can take whatever you want.”

“I’m a lustful man, not an animal,” he said in a whisper. I could taste wine as he touched his lips to mine, and I felt how feverish they were, but I couldn’t move, so fearful and helpless did I feel. Then his mouth opened, and I raised my hands to his face, my fingers reaching into his beard, my body trembling. I prayed to God, my strength dissolving, my will uncertain and faltering, afraid to follow this terrible road God had set before me. But there was no going back, and so I opened my mouth to his and saw his eyes, half-lidded, spring wide. Panting, my heart heaving, I drew back, turning away my face.

“I knew it,” he said. He reached into my gown and took my breast in his hand as I withered under his touch. “I know what you feel! You burn as I burn! Don’t turn away. Follow your desire! This is all there is! Take the pleasure that is rightfully yours! Be what your god made you! Do what he made you to do!”

He opened my gown, and I felt his lips touch my breasts. A drunken smile came upon his face, and I parted his tunic and bent down my head between his legs, my nostrils filled with the sourness of his body. I heard him groan in his throat as I took him into my mouth and shut my eyes, praying to God to give me the courage to do his will, to do what he had made me to do.

With one hand, I searched the ground for the hilt of his sword. Finding it, I picked it up and grasping his hair, his stuporous face flushed, upturned, his eyes closed and his mouth agape, I pulled away and struck at his neck as hard as I could. His body jerked, his eyes opened, blood spurted from the gash. He staggered to rise. With both hands holding the sword, I struck again. Blood poured from his mouth. His body jerked. I struck again, and this time his head came away. Blood shot forth in a hot stream onto me. I tried to step back, but his fingers had become clenched in my clothes and I fell, bringing him down on top of me, his terrible weight pinning me to the ground, his body trembling and shuddering in the throes of death. I lay in a stupor of horror, inundated by his blood.

I cried out, and God filled me with strength so that I was able to heave the body aside.

Using water from a basin, I cleaned myself as best I could. Then I took the head, put it into my food bag and returned to my tent. “I have killed him,” I told my maid when she saw my bloody clothes. “We must leave quickly.” I put on a shawl to cover myself, and the two of us went out together as we usually did every evening to bathe, not a single soldier paying us any heed.

Upon reaching the gates of Bethulia, I cried out to the sentries: “Open! Open the gate! God has showed us his might against our enemies!”

But the sentries only jeered and said, “Go back to the spring and bathe your stinking body! Go back to your whoremaster!”

I took the head from the bag and held it up. “Look!” I shouted. “The head of Holofernes! God has struck him down by the hand of a woman!” But the sentries only jeered again and would not believe me.

By this time Ozias had come out, along with many others of the town. When he saw what was happening, he sent for a man who had been captured by the Assyrians but who had managed to escape. The man came and looked at the head. He said, “It’s Holofernes.”

They opened the gate and then as evening came lit a fire to see by. The people gathered around us. I cried out, “Praise God, who has crushed our foes by my hand this very night!” The people took Holofernes’ head and hung it on the wall, raising a great shout and making the streets ring with their cheers. Ozias said, “You are the proud boast of our people!” Musicians brought out their instruments and the women, after making garlands of olive leaves, tied back their skirts and danced, while the men, dressed in their armor and brandishing their weapons, followed them in a circle about the fire, singing hymns to the glory of God.

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Katheryn Clegg

Katheryn Clegg

Katheryn Clegg lives and writes in San Francisco. Her new novel is “RiverRun.” She loves clear prose and foggy weather. Folllow her on www.katherynclegg.com