The story revolves around Judith, a daring and beautiful widow, who is upset with her Jewish countrymen for not trusting God to deliver them from their foreign conquerors. She goes with her loyal maid to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, with whom she slowly ingratiates herself, promising him information on the Israelites. Gaining his trust, she is allowed access to his tent one night as he lies in a drunken stupor. She decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. The Assyrians, having lost their leader, disperse, and Israel is saved. Though she is courted by many, Judith remains unmarried for the rest of her life.
The Book of Judith can be split into two parts or “acts” of approximately equal length. Chapters 1–7 describe the rise of the threat to Israel, led by the evil king Nebuchadnezzar and his sycophantic general Holofernes, and is concluded as Holofernes’ worldwide campaign has converged at the mountain pass where Judith’s village, Bethulia, is located. Chapters 8–16 then introduce Judith and depict her heroic actions to save her people. Part I, although at times tedious in its description of the military developments, develops important themes by alternating battles with reflections and rousing action with rest. In contrast, the second half is devoted mainly to Judith’s strength of character and the beheading scene.
The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha identifies a clear chiastic pattern in both “acts”, in which the order of events is reversed at a central moment in the narrative (i.e., abcc’b’a’).
In the Christian West from the patristic period on, Judith was invoked in a wide variety of texts as a multi-faceted allegorical figure. “Mulier sancta,” she personified the Church and many virtues – Humility, Justice, Fortitude, Chastity (the opposite of Holofernes’ vices Pride, Tyranny, Decadence, Lust) – and she was, like the other heroic women of the Hebrew scriptural tradition, made into a typological prefiguration of the Virgin Mary. Her gender made her a natural example of the biblical paradox of “strength in weakness”; she is thus paired with David and her beheading of Holofernes paralleled with that of Goliath – both deeds saved the Covenant People from a militarily superior enemy.