(Novel Review) Judith by Leslie Moise; reviewed by Mary Saracino

Judith book cover for reviewIn this finely crafted novel, Leslie Moise has done a wonderful job of fictionalizing the story of Judith of Bethulia, a Hebrew woman whose story did not “make the cut into the Bible”. In her Author’s Notes in the end matter of the novel, Moise notes that Judith’s saga was “deemed too fictional a tale for the official text, and not quite historically accurate enough for the bishops who sat in judgment in the fourth century after the Common Era.”

When Moise was a child, she first learned about Judith and her heroic deed of slaying the Assyrian general Holofernes to save her village and its people from being destroyed. Years later, when Moise encountered Sister Wendy Beckett’s series on the great art of the centuries, she came upon Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting of Judith (depicted on the cover of the novel), and her interest in the tale reawakened. She read the Apocryphal Book of Judith and was taken aback when, ironically, Judith’s participation in the story did not appear until two-thirds of the way through the book that bears her name. Moise felt that Judith deserved her own voice, so she wrote the novel, Judith, in an attempt to depict the tale from Judith’s point of view.

Since Judith is a Hebrew widow, the plot of this novel necessarily arises out of the Hebrew Old Testament tradition that depicts god as male (Judith refers to him as the One or the Lord), and while this tale is not a tale about the divine female, it is a story about a strong female protagonist who defies the traditions of her people (i.e., the elders of Bethulia don’t believe that the One would speak through a woman) to eventually save them from a dire fate at the hands of their mortal enemy.

And, Judith is a remarkably strong female protagonist. Under Moise’s skillful hand, the reader comes to see her quiet inner strength and determination as she struggles to trust that the visions she is having are sent from the One and that the One is asking her to take action to save her people (even if—or maybe because—she is a woman).

As the novel opens, Judith does not consider herself to be particularly courageous. She is still grieving the untimely death of her beloved husband, Mannaseh, and she is busy running her household. When Holofernes sends Achior—a former commander of the Ammonites and a recent captive of Holofernes—to deliver a message to Bethulia to warm them of the impending siege, Judith’s life changes forever.

As the town reels from the dire news, Judith rallies the townswomen to gather water and to prepare for the impending onslaught. As days pass into weeks, the tension in the village mounts until one day, Judith has a vision of how to save her people. She tells the male village elders about the message she has received from the One. At first, they scoff at the idea that the One would send a vision to a woman, but, eventually, they come to realize they have no other option than to let Judith’s plan unfold.

With the magistrate’s blessing, Judith shores up her courage and takes her servant Abra with her to the Assyrian encampment of General Holofernes, a ruthless, blood thirsty war monger who is intent on besieging Bethulia, killing and/or enslaving its people, and claiming the town for his king, Nebuchadnezzar.  As an Assyrian general, Holofernes is charged with taking vengeance on the cities and the nations that refuse to relinquish their god or gods and solely worship Nebuchadnezzar as a god-king.

Moise has Judith and Abra enter the Holofernes’ camp under the guise of giving the general information about how the people of Bethulia intend to surrender; however, after getting Holofernes drunk, Judith beheads the general and escapes the encampment and returns to her village, thereby circumventing the Assyrian siege of her town. Thanks to Judith, the mighty, ruthless war monger has been brought down by a “mere” woman.

Judith’s immense act of courage saves her people. And while that alone would make this novel a worthy read, I still have some reservations about it.  The novel juxtaposes the Hebrew beliefs of the Old Testament male god (the One) against the “pagan” goddess that Holofornes venerates. More specifically, Moises has Holofernes venerating Ishtar as a goddess of war and passion (“Holofernes studies the image of his goddess, sovereign of love and of war,”), a goddess whose thirst for blood he happily satisfies through his brutal, violent actions.

When Judith first enters Holofernes’s tent, she notices the altar to Ishtar and thinks to herself, “Holorfernes worships a goddess? A man who thought nothing of torturing living women thought God was a woman? How does he justify his acts? she wondered. Maybe he simply reduced his goddess to her most bloodthirsty aspect to justify his own actions…” (p. 183).

And, while “pagan” gods are also mentioned (Marduk for one), the emphasis is clearly on the fact that the most vile character in the book venerates a goddess, and thus, the subliminal message is that the act of venerating a goddess is necessarily “vile” by default.

The only positive reference to Ishtar in the entire novel comes close to the story’s end when Judith is still in the Assyrian encampment, but before she slays Holofernes. Moise draws an analogy between Judith’s strength and courage and Ishtar’s power.  “Holofernes gazed through the still-open doorway at Judith’s pavilion. Hidden inside there, she slept on the cushions he had provided. She slept, her body as full and powerful as the goddess Ishtar’s” (p.  229).

Ultimately, the altar to Ishtar is destroyed in the struggle that ensues when Judith beheads Holofernes, which sends a subliminal message about the “lesser than” status of an altar to a Goddess. “Judith stared at the smaller mess beyond the bed, a smashed figurine, a cracked bowl. Fallen flowers and spilled water, with Holofernes’s bloodstained weapon in the middle of it all. An altar to some Assyrian war god? [Judith] would never know” (p. 236).

One could argue that, under patriarchy (which was firmly in place by the time in which the novel is set), the “warrior” side of the Goddess Ishtar most likely would have been used to reinforce war and imperialism; given that, perhaps the way that Moise depicts Holoferenes’s devotion is accurate. However, what is missing is a positive (or at least a less blood thirsty) image of a Goddess—if not Ishtar, then some other Goddess— to counter balance the sentiment that the male Hebrew god is “good” and the Assyrian goddess is “evil”. As it stands, with Ishtar being the only Goddess mentioned in the novel, by default that negative implication of her taints all Goddesses and is not merely a reflection of people like Holofernes, who venerate her for her warrior aspects.

In her essay, “Animal Mother Goddess,” (excerpted from her book Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the Pagan priestess), Hearth Moon Rising provides a different viewpoint of Ishtar.

She writes that Ishtar is:

…the popular name of the fertility goddess originating in Mesopotamia….she controls the fertility of all things, including people, animals and plants. She has a multitude of lovers, but the bull and vegetation god Dumuzi is her most celebrated consort. She calls him her honeyman, her sweet shepherd, the one her womb loves best. She eventually kills her mates, as her would-be lover Gilgamesh complains bitterly when repelling her advances. Ishtar initiates life, so she must also take it….she rules the sexual force that allows life to perpetuate itself…she is credited with bringing the many gifts of civilization to her city of Uruk—gifts like writing, building, irrigation, religious ceremony and medicine….She wears a horned or crescent headdress and has large wings. Often she carries a weapon. Her symbols are the eight-pointed star, the omega and the reed bundle. Ishtar is a benevolent, generous goddess, whose sweetness is compared to honey. (http://magoism.net/2013/07/15/essay-part-2-the-animal-mother-goddess-by-hearth-moon-rising/)

Even though Moise’s novel serves up an unbalanced depiction of Ishtar, I still recommend it to those interested in a fictionalized account of the story of Judith. In a world in which strong female protagonists are too rare of an occurrence, in Judith, Moise has crafted a solid character that is both fierce and memorable. Ultimately, Moise has succeeded in giving Judith an opportunity tell her side of the story.

For more information about Judith (Pearlsong Press, 2013) or to purchase a copy of the novel, visit: http://www.pearlsong.com/judith.htm

Read Meet Mago Contributor, Mary Saracino

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