Women Get a Head: Gender and Other Weapons

Dr. Caryn Tamber-Rosenau explains how gender is performed in the Hebrew Bible by two lethal women in Season 1 Episode 7. Judith and Jael were talented Jewish heroines who skillfully leveraged their hands (and bodies) to save their people from invading armies.

We combine gender performance and femmes fatales, Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, and even Italian art to talk about how gender is played and subverted in ancient texts. How might  Aeschylus’ Clytemnestra and the Ugaritic goddess Anat have shaped these biblical stories?  How does the tale of Judith connect to the Maccabean Revolt? How is virginity a sexual orientation?

CW: This episode discusses themes of sexual assault.

Women without male oversight are dangerous and therefore powerful.

— Caryn Tamber-Rosenau
Headshot of Caryn Tamber-Rosenau


Dr. Caryn Tamber-Rosenau is an Instructional Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Houston. She received her PhD in Religion from Vanderbilt, her MA in Jewish Studies from Towson University (Baltimore Hebrew Institute), and her BA from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation and first book, Women in Drag: Gender and Performance in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature (2018), explore how biblical heroines like Judith and Jael perform or perhaps even parody the female gender.


[The podcast’s theme music begins, an upbeat detective vibe with a Mediterranean flavor]

Rebekah Haigh: Welcome to Women Who Went Before, a gynocentric quest into the ancient world! I’m Rebekah Haigh…

Emily Chesley: …and I’m Emily Chesley…

Rebekah: …scholars, friends and fellow text-raiders.

[theme music continues, then pops out]

Rebekah: In today’s episode, “Women Get a Head: Gender and Other Weapons,” we talk with Caryn Tamber-Rosenau about some unusual Jewish heroines, murder mysteries, and even Italian art.

[theme music picks up again]

Rebekah: The Times dubbed it “one of Agatha Christie’s most gruesome murder plots.”[1] In her dark, unpublished radio play Butter in a Lordly Dish, Christie tells the story of an adulterous lawyer whose latest flame turns out to be a vengeful serial killer. After a meal and a cup of, well, drugged coffee, she drives a nail into his head. In her monologue, the murderess invokes a biblical femme fatale Jael who lured another “lordly” figure to his death over a dish of butter.[2]

Emily: Much like her biblical precursor, Christie’s villainess puts on the womanly front that her victim expects, playing the part of an inviting lover ready for pleasure. The liberated 1940s woman, free to date as she pleases and even stay overnight with a man.

But in her case, the social role she plays is just that. A role.

Rebekah: Clothing and social roles are their own kind of performance. Last episode, we mentioned that the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut wore men’s clothing and a beard when she ruled as pharaoh. As Ru Paul says, we’re born naked, the rest is drag!

Emily: Or as Shakespeare put it, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” (As You Like It, II.vii).

Rebekah: In a biting political move, the orator Cicero accused Mark Antony of having once cast off (praetexta) his toga to don women’s attire and of taking up prostitution to avoid poverty (Cicero, Philippics 2.44-47).[3]

Emily: [wryly] So that explains why Mark Antony beheaded Cicero! [laughs]

Rebekah: Some serious motive there! [laughs] 

And it explains how gender roles have teeth. Certain behaviors and ways of dressing in Roman antiquity were associated with particular gender roles. 

Emily: In early Christian literature as well, female gender roles were often sites of rhetorical stagecraft. In one novel, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the eponymous heroine Thecla is presented as a lovesick follower of the apostle Paul.[4] Mesmerized by his teaching and wishing to follow in his footsteps, Thecla spurns her fiancé (§7–20), baptizes herself (§34), and even cross-dresses as a man (§40). She escapes her socially-prescribed gendered role as wife and mother by becoming a Christian ascetic.[5]

Scholars have questioned whether she was an emblem of autonomy or whether the tale simply replaced the traditional Roman values of marriage and motherhood with a new, Christian gender role: the elite, yet virginal follower of Christ.[6] But either way, Thecla’s choices of celibacy and masculine attire infuriated her family and village as she contravened the traditional Roman expectations for women.

Rebekah: Gender performance is about more than performing expectations of biological sex though. Men can perform masculinity, and women can perform femininity. Playing a gender role is more than a man in a dress or a woman in a kilt and beard. Our actions and language alongside clothing choices signal certain characters and roles to society. We perform who we are and who others expect us to be throughout our lives in a variety of contexts. For instance, code switching from text-speak with our friends to writing professional memos at work.

Emily: A sixth-century Syriac homily by Jacob of Serugh also uses this language of performativity to explain seeming sexual transgression. The biblical women Leah and Rachel, Ruth and Tamar had all schemed and maneuvered for sex. But as we talked about in Episode 4, the preacher Jacob of Serugh excused the women as motivated by love for Christ. Their scandalous sexual deeds, he says, were merely “putting on the outward guise of wanton women” (Mimro on Tamar line 103, trans. Brock, 2002).[7] They were performative acts that belied their holy intentions.

Rebekah: Or sometimes unholy intentions!

Emily: We saw another version of this gender stagecraft in Agatha Christie’s play: A woman adopts the sensual persona her male target expects in order to get close to him to achieve her goals.

Rebekah: Christie’s literary inspiration for that gruesome murder mystery comes from one of the oldest sections of the Bible. 

According to Judges 4–5, the ancient Israelites were at war with the city of Hazor and its general Sisera. Fleeing from a sound routing by the Israelites, General Sisera meets Jael, the wife of a Kenite. She invites the general to take shelter in her tent, giving him milk in a covering, trusting her to guard his rest and taking her somewhat for a protective motherly figure. Sisera falls asleep. 

Suddenly, in an unmistakably phallic imagery, Jael stakes his head to the floor with a tent peg! As the Israelite prophetess Deborah later memorialized in song, “She struck Sisera, she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple. Between her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still” (Judges 5:26–27). In defeating the general Jael fulfilled the prophecy that the Lord would “sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (4:9).

Emily: Similar motifs appear in the much later apocryphal story of Judith, written sometime around the second or first centuries BCE. Once again, the Israelites are faced with a foreign enemy, this time the Assyrians. 

When a pious widow Judith hears that the Assyrian army is approaching her town, she takes off her widow’s weeds, braids her hair, and adorns herself with rings and earrings. She decks herself out and travels to the camp of the enemy general Holofernes, where she claims she has a secret way to defeat the nation. This appeals to Holofernes, as does her extravagant beauty. 

Eventually, the general summons Judith to his tent to drink and be merry, and he falls into a drunken stupor on his bed. The moment is ripe. Judith decapitates him and then sneaks away with his head as she sets off for morning prayer. In her concluding hymn, Judith praises God for delivering Israel not by men or Titans, but “by the hand of a woman” (Judith16:6–7, trans. Haigh).

Rebekah: The point isn’t that women too can be violent. The point is rather that by performing social femininity, certain women deflected suspicion and maneuvered into positions where they could take out the men. Gender roles can be performed to meet social expectations and to subvert them.[8]

We see this in spy movies when a female secret agent presents herself as sexy and flirtatious in order to wheedle secrets from a mark before disposing of them with her gun. Her gown and sultry voice trick her targets into lowering their defenses. Her performance of femininity masks her ultimate aim.

Emily: [joking] Insert any Bond girl ever! [both laugh]

In the total narrative arc of their stories, these two biblical literary heroes, Judith and Jael, do not transcend their female gender roles. They remain wives and widows who act within domestic spaces, epitomized by the tents in which they operate. Judith returns from her victory with a head in hand, only to resume her life at hearth and home and put on her widow’s weeds once again.

But both women are complex literary characters that invite a variety of readings and interpretations. Judith and Jael can be read as portraying themselves in the manner most calculated to elicit a response from their enemies. In the case of Judith: the manner, pose, and dress of a seductive woman.[9] In the case of Jael: a nurturing, protective mother.

Rebekah: To unpack the myriad of ways gender can be performed in ancient texts we have with us today Dr. Caryn Tamber-Rosenau. Caryn is an Assistant Professor [now, Associate Professor] of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at the University of Houston. She received her PhD in religion from Vanderbilt in 2015, her MA in Jewish Studies from Towson University (Baltimore Hebrew Institute), and her BA from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Her dissertation and first book, Women in Drag: Gender and Performance in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature (2018), explore how biblical heroines like Judith or Jael perform or perhaps even parody the “female” gender. 

[theme music interludes]

Rebekah: In your work, you discuss how literary characters play with notions of femininity. How in essence, gender can be performed. I’ve been thinking about the unspoken rules of being a female academic, how in some ways it becomes a kind of performance – what you wear, how you speak. At times it’s kind of hard to discern where you end and the role you’re playing begins. 

What was the biblical idea of womanhood and how do Judith and Jael “play act” ideal roles like mother, widow, or seductress? Can you flesh this out a bit more for our audience?

Caryn Tamber-Rosenau: There are actually multiple biblical concepts of womanhood, depending on the text. Certainly many if not most positive female characters in biblical literature are gonna be mothers. It’s considered really important that a woman is a mother, and preferably that she’s a mother of sons – that she is moving forward the people through the line of bearing male offspring.

There are other images, though. Widows are a recognized part of society. They are seen as objects of pity and in need of special protection because they’re vulnerable, especially widows who are childless, because they don’t have a son to take care of them, provide for them. They don’t have a husband to take care of them and provide for them. They are vulnerable; they’re all alone. So we have, you know, these constant exhortations in the Bible to care for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the poor. Widow was always grouped there.

There are also negative characters who are femmes fatales or seductresses or whose sexuality is somehow dangerous. And this concept overlaps really heavily with foreign women. There are all these warnings about foreign women and their dangerous sexuality, particularly that foreign women might entice Israelite men to participate in the worship of foreign gods. Those are danger points, right? Foreign women, their sexuality, and their gods are danger points. 

And their sexuality is used as a metaphor for the relationship of Israel and God because if you are not strictly following only the Israelite God, you are seen to be whoring, right? You’re whoring after other gods. You’re committing some sort of adultery.

So Judith and Jael are both characters who take some of these archetypes and turn them around, use them to their advantage. Judith plays that widow part at the beginning of her story and then she turns around and she plays the seductress part really, really well. Jael uses the foreign seductress archetype to her advantage and also the mother archetype—the woman as mother. She uses both of those things to get where she needs to be.

Emily: You mentioned the femme fatale briefly within the biblical context. And earlier this season we talked with Solange Ashby about historical warrior women. Are there other literary examples of this “lethal woman” or femme fatales in Ancient Near Eastern literature or Greco-Roman traditions that maybe the biblical narrative is referencing or drawing upon in the ears of its listeners?

Caryn: Yes! There have been many that various scholars have tried to compare Jael or Judith or both to. And some of these I see as better comparisons than others. But there’s a whole bunch.

There are several goddesses. And of course you know we do run into some difficulties when we try to compare goddesses to mortal women. But if, like I am, you are doing a literary reading, the comparisons become a lot more possible because we’re not dealing with actual historical figures in any case. 

We’re dealing with literary imaginings, probably the literary imaginings of male authors anyhow.

But we have goddesses like Anat who have been compared to Jael and Judith. And I don’t see this as a great comparison, because you know you mentioned a previous guest who talked about warrior women and you know female warriors. And Anat really is that: she is a warrior. She is a warrior goddess. She is basically a professional soldier. And part of the appeal and part of the real conceit of these stories of Judith and Jael is that they’re not—that they are these really unlikely characters to kill, right? 

Anat is not. Anat is in the Baal cycle. She winds up going to war fighting on behalf of her brother, and then when the battle’s over she turns her kitchen furniture into soldiers so that she can keep fighting because she has such a bloodlust. You know she’s wading up to her thighs in blood. This is not what we see with either of these biblical women.

You could find some better comparisons in terms of goddesses. So Shaushka, the Hittite Shaushka in the Kumarbi cycle, is a pretty decent comparison in that she is using her sexuality to distract and defeat enemies. 

Others have also compared these femme fatale characters in the Bible to Athena or to Artemis. And Athena is a decent comparison in some respects and not in others. So she has a real sense of asexuality, right? She’s really not a sexual being. And so we could compare her to Judith, who is really not a sexual being but is kind of playing one on TV, right? She’s playing one for the purposes of the story. And she also has, you know this real disassociation from motherhood as these characters do as well. 

The comparisons are a little tenuous. 

Artemis is another one. She is a good point of comparison in that she defends herself and others against unwanted advances. And we can see a way in which Jael and/or Judith defend their countrymen or Israelite women against the possibility of sexual violence, you know at least implied if not explicit.

But there are other a couple of other characters. 

Pagat or Paghit in the Ugaritic Aqhat story. It’s very incomplete, but she is a character who takes revenge for the death of her brother Aqhat. She takes revenge on Anat’s henchman Yatpan. And she dresses up—she dresses as a warrior and then puts feminine attire over that and goes into Yatpan’s tent, and it seems maybe drinks with him or gets him drunk. And then the text breaks off. So it’s really tantalizing! I think it’s a real safe assumption that she’s doing something very similar to what we see with Jael or Judith. But we don’t know because it’s so fragmentary.

I think actually one of the best analogues—it’s not one that I’ve seen discussed at any length or in any detail elsewhere, but I’ve discussed it in my work—is Clytemnestra. She’s a character who exists in multiple textual traditions. But in Aeschylus she is a pretty decent parallel. She’s a villain. You know, she’s not a good character; and these characters in the Bible are really played as heroes. But other than that, which is a pretty big other-than-that, Clytemnestra is— She kills her husband Agamemnon when he comes home from war. But the way that she does that. He comes in, and she’s speaking to him with these really like erotic words and, you know, these overtones: “just let me, you know, it’s so great for me to unbar my gates to you. Or hey.” And she says, “let me draw you a bath” and then she traps him in the bath with a cloth, like basically ties him up and kills him.

And I think she’s she is like also like our biblical character. She is not somebody who is in any sense a professional soldier or warrior anything like that. And she is doing this sort of erotic trickery that we see with both with both Jael and Judith. 

And I like this as just like a little ah! fun fact: she kills Agamemnon and textiles are involved, like there’s this fabric. There’s this cloth. And we have the same thing. Jael covers Sisera with a blanket or a cover or rug or something, and Judith when she slays Holofernes wraps his head up in the canopy of his you know battlefield’s tent bed. So I think, we have we have textiles in all of these. And textiles of course are uniquely associated with women. I think it’s very interesting that they’re involved in the killings in all three of these stories.

So several of these characters we can see as femme fatales or lethal women. There’s a variety of comparisons that we can make, some of them better than others.

Rebekah: So you mentioned that Judith and Jael are works of literary imagination. And some scholars have interpreted Judith as a foil for the Assyrian general’s sort of shameful death at the hands of a woman. And of course, not just any woman but a woman who seems to rely on her sexuality as a weapon of choice. 

So, what damage has been done to women through this motif of the femme fatale in Judith and elsewhere? And what are some of the alternative ways of thinking about or even reclaiming some of these stories of gender play?

Caryn: Oh, these stories are tremendously damaging. 

Doesn’t this idea of the femme fatale or the woman whose sexuality is dangerous, begin with Eve? Or to be more accurate even, the interpretation of Eve? The interpretations that have been put on that Genesis story as sexual? You know, even if— We can debate whether those sexual elements are actually present in the text. 

But there’s this idea that women’s sexuality is so dangerous for men and that women’s sexuality is a point of danger and can bring a man down and can, gosh, bring all of humanity down right?

So it results in these ideas that you need to stay away from women. Use them for what you need them for. Use them to bear sons. Use them for sexual gratification. But don’t get too invested. Don’t get too close. 

It results in a lot of sex negativity as well. That sex is dangerous. And of course that women are dangerous. It results in a desire to control women’s sexuality, sometimes in a violent way. 

So what I think is interesting for the purposes of your question here is to see characters who use sexuality to trap men—that’s not surprising. But to see characters who use sexuality to trap men and are heroes? That’s kind of surprising.

Though we do need to note here that the sexuality is all suggestion and no actual action. So, some have pointed out that characters like Delilah are villains where there’s not a lot that distinguishes Delilah from Jael or Judith, but the two things that do— Well, Delilah is acting against the interests of patriarchal Israel, and Judith and Jael are acting for. And Delilah goes all the way, and Jael and Judith do not. They are suggesting, but they are not engaging in sexual behavior. So that is certainly something that we should note, right? The heroism is okay because it doesn’t reach its logical sexual end.

But I think that we can maybe reclaim some amount of agency for these characters or for the people who are reading them perhaps, by seeing them as surviving by using whatever tools they have available to them. There’s an amount of overdetermination, overacting, over-the-topness in these biblical characters. And to me, to a modern reader it reads pretty clearly as playing a part.

And I think that there is some kind of agency that we can reclaim when we imagine that they are these characters. And they are characters; they are literary creations. But that these characters are playing a role. And that they’re doing an amazing job of it! And they are using every tool that they have at their disposal to deliver exactly what the enemy general needs in that moment to get him in the position that they need him to be in.

Emily: Both Judith and Jael are heroes and they’re the archetype to be followed. But these stories have been kind of reinterpreted in many ways over the centuries. I was kind of looking at some theatrical productions from the 19th and early-20th century where Judith and Jael are reinterpreted in sometimes shameful and sometimes romantic ways. 

So there’s Friedrich Hebbel, 1840, produced a performance of Judith where she admirers and is even attracted to the virile Holofernes. And then he rapes her, and she kills him out of shame and humiliation. And so there’s sort of an element of shame that’s added into the story. 

But then in another, a 1931 tragedy by Jean Giraudoux, Judith is an unmarried heroine, and she’s driven to this role of savior by God and by her people. But then she wants to choose love, so she chooses this well-meaning general over her own people and ultimately killing Holofernes to prevent their love from fading.[10] This very, like romantic French idea. So it’s been interpreted many ways. 

But within the world of the text how should we think about Judith or Jael’s characterization? Are they presented as liberating figures for women, as some second wave feminist scholars have kind of suggested? Or are they disempowered in the world of the text in that they go back to their original lives and this is kind of a one-moment episode? They’ve saved their families and kind of their nation. And then they go back and put on the widow’s weeds. So, yeah.

Caryn: I really think that it’s somewhere in between. I don’t think that we can see them as these unequivocally good-for-women characters. Because you know as we talked about, their power is fleeting. This is maybe not the best image of women.

And we have to remember that they are likely creations of men and that ultimately act to further patriarchal goals and patriarchal interests. They act to further the war interests of patriarchal Israel.

But especially with Judith I do want to push back a little on this idea that this is kind of a one-and-done. And then she goes back. [Emily murmurs, assenting] You know, some have argued that she’s reinscribed in the patriarchal world of her people, and that she just goes back and she becomes a widow again and she just fades into the background. So I do want to push back on that.

I think that if she were fully reinscribed and re-domesticated, at the end of the book what we would see was a happy marriage and children. And we don’t. The way that a woman gets subjugated in ancient Israel is by becoming property essentially, or becoming subservient or secondary to a man. And she never does. And I think that her remaining a celibate widow—this is the way for her to maintain some kind of autonomy.

She’s not fully re-inscribed. We could certainly take that as a “well now she’s tainted goods,” even though she never went all the way with Holofernes. “Yeah, sure she’s a heroine, but what guy is gonna, what guy should marry her?”

But we can’t ignore the fact that as it’s written she is proposed to many times. You know, many men want to marry her. A lot of men apparently want this slightly scary woman to be their wife. But she says no! You know, she remains that slightly scary woman living outside of society in a sense and living outside of male control.

But yes, absolutely. These are, you know, likely the creation of elite men, and we can’t really get past that, you know. To a degree we’re always going to be dealing with the fact that these characters are not written by people who are crusading feminists. And they are not written to further the goals of modern or you know, if such a thing had existed, which it didn’t, ancient feminism, right? [That’s] an anachronistic, of course.

But in our world perhaps we can find ways to read these women that are slightly more positive, and slightly more liberating. While understanding that yes, we are perhaps reading against the grain of the text here.

Rebekah: We’ve kind of talked about Judith, but what about Jael? I know in your work you’ve explored also Biblical Antiquities. How is Jael— What’s the reception history like there? How is she presented? More positively, less positively?

Caryn: Sure. So I love the presentation of Jael in the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo in roughly 1st century CE. It’s just such a wonderful reimagining of the text. 

So I see this rewriting, reimagining as being probably heavily inspired not only by the story of Jael in Judges but also by the story of Judith.

I think that it’s pretty clear that the author of Pseudo-Philo would have been familiar with what Judith does, with this motif of the woman who kills the enemy general, because Jael in the Biblical Antiquities is far more sexually frank than Jael in Judges 4 and 5.

My very favorite detail from the story is that she scatters rose petals on her bed in preparation for Sisera coming into her tent. And I just love this. Like I mean, we recognize this even today as wow, okay, well that’s a clear sexual invite. And I think people would have recognized it back then as well. This is a well-known trope even in Greek literature back then.

The text is more religious in tone. It’s more theological. Jael stops in the Pseudo-Philo text to pray to God. 

Also she uses gendered language a lot. She is constantly making reference to, like using language to refer to her own femaleness and to refer to Sisera’s masculinity. And she’s constantly talking about mothers and fathers.

And I enjoy this very much, that in his death scene when she strikes him with the tent peg, he gets some last words. And he says “Oh Jael, I die like a woman.” And she says “Go and tell it to your father in hell!” [All laugh]

Emily: Yes!

Caryn: It’s such a great last line! But it’s this repartee where he says “look what you’ve done to me; you feminized me in my moment of death.” And she says, “Well I have been acting,” essentially what she’s saying to him is, “I have been acting like your mother. I have been mothering you. But now go complain to your father in hell.”

There’s a lot of use of gendered language. It’s really marvelous. It’s quite an entertaining text.

Another detail that’s really kind of interesting about this is that they flesh out the character of Sisera’s mother. Sisera’s mother appears in Judges 5, but she’s not given a name. And in the Biblical Antiquities they name her. After Sisera is dead, the general Barack sends Sisera’s mother his head. Which is gross and you know, grisly and everything, but you know she has more of a role to play. 

And Sisera also just is referring to his mother kind of throughout, like oh, he thinks to himself after he sees the rose petals: “If I get free, I will go to my mother and Jael will become my wife.” He’s like explicitly thinking of Jael in sexual terms and also of like Jael-mother-home. You know, he’s making these implications a lot more explicit.

Rebekah: One of the things that scholars come up against is that books like Judith and Esther and Ruth and even famous stories that we’ve kind of already mentioned like Delilah or even Bathsheba, are literary works. Something we’ve been talking about. They represent sort of a spectrum of fictionality and literary construction. So how do we recover ancient women when their stories are at best larger than life and at worst pure fiction?

Caryn: Great question. It’s really difficult. 

I mean, how much can we recover the real women behind the text when the texts are not written by women and they portray women as tools or objects? I think that these stories are not sources for what women were really like in the ancient world. 

But they can be sources for what certain segments of elite literate men thought women were like or thought women should be like or wanted to polemically claim that women were like in the ancient world. I don’t think that we can piece together fragments of biblical material to come up with much about real women.

I think we can look elsewhere. But it’s frustrating that what we have is always going to be from elite educated men with the exception of material remains. You know, archaeological evidence can maybe shed some more light on some of these questions, but literary creations are always going to have some pretty severe limitations on what women were actually like.

Rebekah: Yeah, one of the ways I’ve been thinking about this is sort of Judith’s piety. She’s very attentive to purity, to her diet. And so again, remembering that this is a text constructed by men, you know, is this their ideal of a good Jewish woman’s piety. Are women actually that attentive, you know during the Second Temple period to these things?

Caryn: It’s true. And how do we know?

Emily: Yeah! So for our listeners who maybe don’t know, the book of Judith was written around 150 to 100 BCE, more or less. So it’s contemporaneous with the Hasmonean Kingdom, the Maccabean revolt, the memory of Judah Maccabee.[11] And if we’re thinking about Judith as this deeply pious woman wearing sackcloth, widows weeds, observing the Jewish purity laws like Rebekah said, who then responds to the challenge of the invading Assyrians when the men failed to do much of anything— 

Is it possible to read this text from another angle as well, about masculine failure in addition to feminine victory? Is it possible to understand the story of Judith as maybe a counter discourse to Hasmonean propaganda, or like a critique of Hasmonean monarchy and the men who go along with that?

Caryn: So short answer, yes. Long answer, I’m going to suggest three different possibilities for how to read Judith along with the Hasmoneans.

So yes, we could absolutely read this as a critique of ineffectual male leadership. That the people who in Judith are supposed to be taking care of the town are completely ineffectual. You know we have basically no leadership from the high priesthood. We have no leadership from the Bethulian elders, the elders of her village.

But we also have some scholars making the suggestion that Judith is actually pro-Hasmonean because she is meant to represent or symbolize Queen Salome Alexandra Shalom-Zion, who was the only Hasmonean queen and who succeeded her husband on the throne. “Ah, you know, we’ve got this queen who’s going to war, we’ve got Judith who’s going to war. And therefore Judith is kind of a symbol to prop up the Hasmoneans.” So that’s option 2.

And then option 3. So something that I argue in an article that I published in Biblical Interpretation in 2020[12] is that Judith is essentially Judah Maccabee in drag. 

So I mean, their names are—one is the masculine, one is the feminine. His name is Jew, her name is Jewess, right? So they’re both symbols, right? And I don’t know if this is an accident. As Judah in the feminine and not Judah as in tribe of Judah, as in son of Jacob. Judah, as in Judah Maccabee, who is probably somewhat contemporaneous So they have some commonalities.

In Maccabees, Judah beheads Nicanor and hangs his head on the city wall. Judith beheads Holofernes and hangs his head on the city wall. I think that we can understand Judith as Judah in the feminine, and she makes some necessary adjustments for gender.

You know, this character is not just Judah in a dress. She doesn’t kill on the battlefield. She’s not a male warrior. She kills in the bedroom. There are these ways in which we can see her as essentially a female version of Judah Maccabee.

But later on, when we see interpretive material on Judith in the Middle Ages— Because, you know, Judith of course, as something that doesn’t ultimately make it into the canon, you know it’s not the subject of rabbinic writings or speculation or anything. And the book of Judith really disappears from Jewish consciousness for hundreds of years.

 And when it reemerges, if you read the work of Deborah Levine Gera on this, she does some amazing work on Judith in the Middle Ages. So she points out that when Judith reemerges she’s different. She is softened as a character. Sometimes she is a younger virgin rather than an older, mature, and sexually wise widow. She is often then also defanged. She’s associated with Judah as a relative: She’s his sister or she’s his aunt or she’s his niece or something like that. So there are ways in which later Jewish tradition connects her very explicitly with Judah Maccabee as some kind of relative and places Judith’s story in the period of the Hasmonean rebellion.

So yeah, I think we’ve got these three different options here, right. Either she’s,  she could be a critique of male leadership that’s ineffectual. She could be a pro-Hasmonean piece of propaganda to represent Queen Salome Alexandra. She could be essentially Judah in drag.

Emily: One of these beautiful things about literary texts, right, is they can have multiple valences and we can dig into them like that.

Caryn: Yes.

Rebekah: Speaking of canon, right, Esther is the other book named after a woman. So I wonder, thinking about these two books—one ended up in the canon, one did not. Like Judith, Esther becomes a model of feminine piety, but a very different sort of model of feminine piety. 

Why do you think that one ended up in the canon and one didn’t? Is it happenstance, or is there something else at play in the particular models of femininity that they evidence?

Caryn: So, I don’t think it was happenstance, I don’t. I think that there are maybe two things at play. 

One is, the book of Esther as irreligious as it is, makes at the end, an explicit connection, to a festival. And we could see the book of Esther as being written in part to legitimize a pre-existing popular festival of Purim. And whatever misgivings anybody in the Jewish community in antiquity may have had about Esther

And they probably did! Right? Famously it’s not at Qumran, not in the scrolls. And there’s some rabbinic debate about Esther and does it render the hands unclean, right? Is it a holy text? Whatever misgivings people might have had about Esther there’s only so much you can do if it’s already associated with a very popular festival.

Judith does not contain, there’s nothing in Judith it that leads you to believe that there’s going to be a permanent yearly festival commemorating the events. And I really wish there was and continued to be, because I would be all over that holiday! I would be there for it, but there isn’t. 

So I think that might be part of it. If Esther was unnerving because it didn’t mention God and because Esther was married to a Gentile and because she doesn’t do anything particularly religious in the text, fine. But there’s only so far you can move away from this because it’s associated with Purim. Judith, you have more leeway. 

And so here, the second reason. I agree with the scholar Sidnie White Crawford on this, who argues that Judith scared people essentially. If all of the women were like Judith, you know, watch out. If all of the women are like Esther, okay, she kind of works within the system a lot more. 

Yes, she is absolutely. I’m working on some scholarship right now on Esther and I think that she absolutely has a lot more power and agency than sometimes we give her credit for. She innovates a lot more from her relative Mordechai’s instructions than we give her credit for. But ultimately she is working within the system, and she doesn’t actually cut off anybody’s head. She does play a part in the death of a lot of people, but she doesn’t actually pull the trigger, so to speak.

Judith does. She’s scary. She makes men nervous and in a way that Esther did not. So I do think those twin reasons there that I’m going to go with: you know the festival tie and with Judith is terrifying.

Emily: Picking up on this thread of men and sort of male power. Something you’ve talked about in your work is that powerful women in antiquity were often celibate in the texts. The judge Deborah has a husband, but he’s kind of mentioned as an afterthought. Miriam doesn’t get a husband at all. Jael has a husband but he’s not present in this story, not in the tent. Judith, her husband has died. She studiously maintains her chastity. What was the connection between male oversight and social power?

Caryn: Women without male oversight are dangerous and therefore powerful. I think that’s what it comes down to. These can be widows. These can be virgins. These can be prostitutes. All of these have something in common, and that is a way in which they are not defined by their relationship to a man. There is a sort of power in that.

And yes, when you see powerful women or women with agency, women who are important in the text, who are associated closely with men who are actually present in the text—you can bet that they are powerful or interesting or lauded because of their reproductive capability.

But when we see women who are either unmarried or widowed or perpetual virgins, or they are married but their husbands are complete nonentities—like we know their names and that’s it, and you know, and we never hear about them again—those are women who generally have some power that is outside of the reproductive. 

And I don’t want to diminish the importance of reproduction! I don’t want to diminish the power of motherhood.

But I think that women who are not in that sphere are allowed, in the text, allowed to do a broader range of things. And sometimes that involves swords and tent pegs and prophecy and things that are outside of only reproduction.

Emily: That was kind of what Queen Elizabeth I found out, wasn’t it? 

Caryn: Yes!

Emily: She famously refused to get married because she didn’t want to turn over the kingdom to a man, didn’t want her worth to fall into bearing children.

Caryn: Right! I’ve used the work of one of my professors from graduate school, Kathryn Schwartz, who is not a Religion person. She is an Elizabethan literary scholar. And she’s essentially argued that Queen Elizabeth I, that her “virginity,” and I’m giving you know serious air quotes here, because you know, everybody knows that she wasn’t.

Emily: [laughing] We know!

Caryn: Everybody knows that she wasn’t. She wasn’t a virgin, right? She was just unmarried. She was the Virgin Queen because she was unmarried. That you know, that’s essentially, she made it into her sexual orientation.

Virginity is a sexual orientation. Celibacy is a sexual orientation when it is performed in this way. So sexual independence is a sexual orientation. When it is performed in a way that’s like, this is how I am, and this is how I’m going to stay, and like this is key to my identity—it’s an orientation in and of itself.

I think Queen Elizabeth is tremendously instructive for seeing the ways in which celibacy—or for Elizabeth “celibacy” in some, you know, with a serious grain of salt or the whole saltshaker—can empower women. 

You know, of course it says a lot about patriarchy that that’s what you have to do, right? And here we could go to Paul and Thecla which you mentioned. To have this sort of agency that Thecla does, yes, she has to completely reject her fiancé and swear off men forever and be a perpetual celibate virgin.

Rebekah: Well obviously you didn’t study Elizabethan England as your career of choice. [Caryn laughs] What drew you to the study of religion and women in the biblical tradition?

Caryn: This is one of the most important collections of books in the world, right. And many people view these as inspired and inspiring and prescriptive in a way that it’s hard to see many other collections of books as being. And if people are going to point to these books as so important, well then wow, you know, I can’t really think of anything more important and interesting to devote my career to studying than, like you know, literally one of the most important collections of books in the world.

That you know, to put it mildly, has got some female issues. Has got some issues with women. Like you know, really really putting it very mildly. 

Like how do these texts treat women? How have these texts been used to talk about women? What do they say about what women are supposedly like? How do women use these texts themselves? And going back to some of your earlier questions, can we actually recover anything authentic here? And if not, why not? And how can we? And you know, like all of these questions, I just find endlessly fascinating. So I guess I’m in the right line of work. 

Emily: [laughs in support] Where do you hope your field, this study of women in the Bible will go next? Where’s the horizon?

Caryn: I do hope that that we continue to make some further connections with other fields and with interdisciplinary critical theory of all sorts. There’s often this charge of anachronism when you do this, when you use modern or postmodern literary theories to read the biblical text. But ultimately, all of these theories are created to explain the world, and biblical literature is something that is a product of the world.

So I think that these can be tremendously productive and important and interesting and novel ways of reading the biblical text. Reading alongside feminist theory, reading alongside gender criticism or queer theory, reading alongside critical race theory or postcolonialism or any number of other things.

I think that we also should be paying a lot of attention to the connections between the biblical texts and pop culture and reception. Right, I think that what some people call reception history, what some people call the “history of consequences”—which is, I think, a term that that Choon-Leong Seow coined and which I quite love, history of consequences. 

I also think that we need to be paying some close attention to the ways in which these texts are used in political discourse. I’ve been thinking for a while now. I haven’t done work or research on this as of yet, but I’m kind of thinking about it and turning it over in my head. You know, how some of the modern political movements especially on the far right might be using  “biblical womanhood,” again, in quotes because I don’t think that there’s one aspect, you know, definition of “biblical womanhood.” But the way that they might be using female characters to inform their own activist work on the political right. I think that’s something really important to pay attention to.

So not just the text in antiquity, but the text as it is today. The texts as they are today, and the ways in which they are used. And the ways in which new meanings are produced and are being produced all the time. You know, we’re kind of reshaping the text by reinterpreting it.

[Podcast theme music interludes]

Rebekah: Literary stories often tell us more about the reader than the writer. The potent narratives of Judith and Jael can and have been resisted and reclaimed, bought into and interpreted in many different ways over the centuries. 

In the medieval period, Jewish commentators whose sense of piety at the time required women to be bound at home refashioned Judith’s story. Bizarrely, some linked it to the Hanukkah tradition and made her a sidekick for the male war hero Judah Maccabee. This tradition reinterpreted Judith as a dependent woman, diminishing her role in the narrative. Her beauty and intelligence were minimized, if mentioned at all 

Emily: For medieval Jewish communities, Judith personified what pious women ought to be: pure, dependent, and silent. But for one early modern woman, Judith mirrored her own story, becoming a vehicle to claim the vengeance society had denied her.

In 1612, the talented Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi was put on trial in Rome for her own rape. In a widely publicized court hearing, the 19-year-old testified clearly to her attacker’s crimes and even under gruesome torture, cried out, “It is true. It is true. It is true. It is true.”[13]

Despite her cogent testimony and evidence of further violent crimes committed by her assailant, Artemisia’s rapist was declared not guilty. She was tortured and he set free – a bitter failure of justice, sadly not much different from the treatment that victims of rape often experience in America’s justice system.[14]

Artemisia was silenced by the law, but the talented painter, regarded as one of the most important Baroque artists, took up her brush. Many scholars believe that Artemisia’s painting of Judith Slaying Holofernes recalls her recent traumatic rape. In Artemisia’s bloody rendition of the scene, Judith wears a bracelet depicting Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt and chastity for whom Artemisia was named.[15] Judith’s overpowering of a soldier became the medium for the revenge Artemisia had been denied. Using Judith’s story, Artemisia convicted her rapist through art, with the punishment the law had refused.[16]

Rebekah: When the world refuses to accept your story, to honor your truth about who you are and what has happened to you, sometimes we’re forced like Artemisia to present ourselves in other forms and fashions. We perform and re-perform the roles society has imagined – sometimes to subvert them and gain our freedom.

And sometimes like Judith and Jael, we wear our makeup and smiles as armor. It isn’t hypocrisy, but survival. Sometimes you just need to get ahead.

[podcast theme music begins, and plays over the outro as the hosts start speaking]

Emily: If you enjoyed our show, please rate and review us on Apple PodcastsSpotifyAudible, or wherever you get your podcasts. Check out our website womenwhowentbefore.com or find us on Twitter @womenbefore

This podcast is written, produced, and edited by us, Emily Chesley and Rebekah Haigh. Our music is composed and produced by Moses Sun. The podcast is sponsored by the Center for Culture, Society and Religion, the Program in Judaic Studies, and the Stanley J. Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies all at Princeton University

Rebekah:  Thanks for listening to Women Who Went Before! And don’t forget: women were there!

[music grows in volume, the detective quest coming to its conclusion]

[1] Jack Malvern, “Found: Agatha Christie’s most gruesome radio play,” The Times, 17 September 2015.

[2] Agatha Christie, The Lost Plays: Three BBC radio full-cast dramas: Butter in a Lordly Dish, Murder in the Mews & Personal Call,narrated by full cast, Richard Williams, and Ivan Brandt, audiobook (BBC Worldwide Ltd: 2015).

[3] Domitilla Campanile, “The Patrician, the General and the Emperor in Women’s Clothes: Examples of Cross-Dressing in Late Republican and Early Imperial Rome,” in TransAntiquity: Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World, eds. Domitilla Campanile, Filippo Carlà-Uhink, Margherita Facella (London: Routledge, 2017), 52–64.

[4] Thecla listens to Paul and begins to display what in Greek novels were seen as signs of lovesickness: abstinence from speaking, eating, and sleeping. B. Diane Lipsett, Desiring Conversion: Hermas, Thecla, Asenath (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 55.

[5] See Virginia Burrus, “Chastity as Autonomy: Women in the Stories of the Apocryphal Acts,” Semeia 38 (1986): 101–117. On the freedom that the ascetic life provided women and the rhetorical trope of becoming male, see Karen O’Donnell, “Women and the Eucharist: Reflections on Private Eucharists in the Early Church,” Feminist Theology 27, no. 2 (2019), 172–173.

[6] Tertullian certainly read her as a model for female autonomy (On Baptism 17); he rages against those who use Thecla as a license for female teachers and baptizers. On gender reversal in ascetic chastity see Ross S. Kraemer, “Thecla,” in The Oxford Handbook of New Testament, Gender and Sexuality, ed. Benjamin H. Dunning (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 485–502, at 497. On the new Christian ideal of virgin brides of Christ, see Elizabeth A. Clark, “The Celibate Bridegroom and His Virginal Brides: Metaphor and the Marriage of Jesus in Early Christian Ascetic Exegesis,” Church History 77, no. 1 (2008), 13–18. On the role and status of virgins in the early church see Susanna Elm, Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 25–59.

[7] Sebastian Brock, “​​Jacob of Serugh’s Verse Homily on Tamar (Gen. 38),” Le Muséon 115 (2002), 295. 279–315.

[8] Caryn Tamber-Rosenau, Women in Drag: Gender and Performance in the Hebrew Bible and Early Jewish Literature (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2018). And, at p. 192, “Performances of ‘femininity,’ such as putting on drag or ‘femme’ personas, can serve to underline the very idea of a natural ‘womanhood.’”

[9] On the variety of roles Judith inhabited, see Caryn Tamber-Rosenau, “Biblical Bathing Beauties and The Manipulation Of The Male Gaze: What Judith Can Tell Us about Bathsheba and Susanna,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 33, no. 2 (2017): 55–72.

[10] Karin Schöpflin, “Judith On Stage: The Dramatic Career Of A Biblical Heroine,” in A Pious Seductress Studies In The Book Of Judith, ed. Géza G. Xeravits (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012), 198–213.

[11] Tamber-Rosenau, “Biblical Bathing Beauties,” 63.

[12] Caryn Tamber-Rosenau, “No Future for Bethulia? Judith and Queer Time,” Biblical Interpretation 28 (2020): 451–465.

[13] Jonathan Jones, “More savage than Caravaggio: the woman who took revenge in oil,” The Guardian, October 5, 2016.

[14] Not unlike how victims of rape today suffer a near-impossible struggle to get the system to convict their attackers. See Jon Krakauer, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (Knopf Doubledy: 2015).

[15] Esperança Camara, “Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes,” Smarthistory, July 19, 2015; and “Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’,” Art Institute Chicago, exhibition notes, Oct 17, 2013–Jan 9, 2014.

[16] Artemisia apparently went though a horrible form of judicial torture by means of a sibille. She screamed out in court “”It’s true, it’s true, it’s true” about her accusation of rape. While her rapist was found guilty, his punishment was not enforced. Elizabeth Lowry, “No Man Could Stop Her,” The Times Literary Supplement (October 23, 2020): 14–15.

  • Sebastian Brock. “​​Jacob of Serugh’s Verse Homily on Tamar (Gen. 38).” Le Muséon 115 (2002): 279–315. 
  • Virginia Burrus. “Chastity as Autonomy: Women in the Stories of the Apocryphal Acts.” Semeia 38 (1986): 101–117. 
  • Esperança Camara. “Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes.” Smarthistory. July 19, 2015.
  • Domitilla Campanile. “The Patrician, the General and the Emperor in Women’s Clothes: Examples of Cross-Dressing in Late Republican and Early Imperial Rome.” Pp. 52–64 in TransAntiquity: Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World. Edited by Domitilla Campanile, Filippo Carlà-Uhink, Margherita Facella. London: Routledge, 2017.
  • Agatha Christie. The Lost Plays: Three BBC radio full-cast dramas: Butter in a Lordly Dish, Murder in the Mews & Personal Call. Narrated by full cast, Richard Williams, and Ivan Brandt. Audiobook. BBC Worldwide Ltd: 2015. 
  • Elizabeth A. Clark. “The Celibate Bridegroom and His Virginal Brides: Metaphor and the Marriage of Jesus in Early Christian Ascetic Exegesis.” Church History 77, no. 1 (2008): 1–25. 
  • Susanna Elm. Virgins of God: The Making of Asceticism in Late Antiquity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Jonathan Jones. “More savage than Caravaggio: the woman who took revenge in oil.” The Guardian. October 5, 2016. 
  • Ross S. Kraemer. “Thecla.” Pp. 485–502 in The Oxford Handbook of New Testament, Gender and Sexuality. Edited by Benjamin H. Dunning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
  • Jon Krakauer. Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. Knopf Doubleday: 2015. 
  • B. Diane Lipsett. Desiring Conversion: Hermas, Thecla, Asenath. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Elizabeth Lowry. “No Man Could Stop Her.” The Times Literary Supplement (October 23, 2020): 14–15.
  • Jack Malvern. “Found: Agatha Christie’s most gruesome radio play.” The Times. 17 September 2015.