“She came close to his bed, took hold of the hair of his head, and said, “Give me strength today, O Lord God of Israel!” Then she struck his neck twice with all her might, and cut off his head.” (Judith 13:7-8)
After Judith deceives the wicked king Holofernes (who had plans to slaughter the Israelites) into thinking she wanted to have sexual relations with him, the king throws her a great feast, at which he becomes so drunk that he’s knocked out cold on his bed. Judith seizes this opportunity to take a sword and cut his head off in order to save God’s people from the coming destruction of his armies.
As entertaining of a story as this is, it does raise a couple serious moral questions. Namely, why was Judith, a woman, praised for 1.) lying to a king, and 2.) cutting off his head, which most ancient cultures would said is a job for a man? In order to understand this, we have to go all the way back to the beginning, to the Garden, where we learn of the woman’s first encounter with an intelligent creature other than her husband:
“He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:1-6)
I can’t get into the full implications of this story here (as there’s a LOT more going on in this passage than is immediately apparent), but for our purposes: what did the Serpent do in order to bring about the fall of man? He deceived the woman. St. Paul confirms this when he wrote:
“and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (1 Timothy 2:14)
Many people think that St. Paul here is saying that the woman was a “worse” transgressor than Adam because she was deceived, but that’s not at all the case. The woman was deceived, she didn’t fully understand what she was doing. Adam, however, was not deceived, he fully understood what they were doing, and sinned with perfect knowledge, thereby making his transgression far worse than his wife’s. As our Lord said:
“That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:47-48)
But what’s so important about the woman being deceived by the Serpent as the beginning of the fall? Well, it’s because of this chain of events that God announces perhaps the most famous prophecy of Scripture:
“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
This is the beginning of a pattern that runs throughout Scripture: there is enmity between the woman and the Serpent. The seed of the Serpent spreads throughout the world, and then has its head crushed by the seed of the woman.
Once all of this is understood, we can now make sense of what exactly it was that Judith was doing to the wicked king: she was reversing the events of the fall, and fulfilling the Lord’s prophecy. Rather than the woman being deceived by the Serpent, in this case, it is the woman (Judith) who deceives the Serpent (king Holofernes). Hereafter, she “crushes” his head by cutting it off in the name of the Lord. In this, Judith acts as the embodiment of the woman who is at odds with the Serpent, while also being the literal seed of the woman (in that she is a child of Eve). She is also a prefigurement of our Lady whose seed, our Lord Jesus, crushes the Serpent’s head once and for all (Revelation 12). We also see this pattern play out with the story of Jael:
“Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed. He asked water and she gave him milk, she brought him curds in a lordly bowl. She put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet; she struck Sisera a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple.” (Judges 5:24-26)
Once again, we have the woman of God deceiving the Serpent, in this case by bringing him the wrong drink, and then literally “crushing his head” with a mallet. Here again, Jael reverses the fall, fulfills the prophecy, and even more explicitly prefigures our Lady because she is the “most blessed of women,” just as our Lady is “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42).