For those not familiar with these books, let's begin with a quick synopsis. Esther is a book in the Old Testament that tells the story of a Jewish beauty queen chosen to be the king of Persia's wife. While in the king's palace, she learns of a plot to plunder and kill her countrymen, and through a brilliant and daring ploy manages to turn the tables on the antagonists.
The book of Judith, found in the apocryphal literature of the Church, is similar in scope, but set some 200 years earlier. In this case, Nabuchodonosor the king of Assyria besieges Bethulia, a strategic city south of Jerusalem. Nearing starvation, Judith manages to wile her way into the enemy's camp, indeed, the commander's tent. She manages to gets the commander quite drunk and with two deft blows she lops off his head. Judith returns to Bethulia triumphant with the head as a trophy. Because of her deed, the Assyrians were thrown into a frenzy and were summarily overthrown by the townspeople.
Both Esther and Judith were heralded as heroines, and though they accomplished courageous deeds in distinctively different ways, their stories are similar. However, as our writer pointed out Esther made it into the Hebrew canon of scriptures, while Judith did not.
Interestingly enough, Esther almost didn't make it into the canon either. The book of Esther is unique in the entire Bible because it is the only book that makes absolutely no reference to God. The rabbis were divided when it came to accepting this book, but in the end popularity won out and it was accepted. Judith, on the other hand, was rejected even though the heroine is devoted to worshiping God and the book ends with her singing a song of praise as she credits God with the victory. Why?
In the end, it seems it may come down to historicity. Although there are significant doubts as to whether or not the events in Esther ever really took place, there is little evidence to disprove the story one way or another. On the other hand, the story of Judith has long been considered by most scholars to be a work of "historical" fiction. While most believe that Judith may well have been an actual figure of history (a fifteen-generation genealogy would be pointless in a work of pure fiction), much of the rest of the book is in doubt.
The author of Judith carefully sets the scene by dating the reign of Nabuchodonosor of Assyria in 605 BCE. However, Assyria was actually overthrown in 606 (one year earlier) and the Assyrian people ceased to exist as an ethnic group. The city of Bethulia doesn't seem to have ever existed - and though the author is careful to specifically locate the city geographically, there is no archaeological evidence of any settlement at that site. Additionally, the book uses a mixture of Babylonian, Greek, and Persian names - some of which would not be used in this region until hundreds of years later. And finally, there are many, many variant ancient manuscripts of the book of Judith, few of which correspond with the others. Thus, it has been difficult to accept the account as historical.
The fact is, none of this really effects the book's message of trusting God in trying times and the acceptance that God raises up whom God chooses to do his bidding - even women (a little accepted concept in ancient days, and unfortunately in some of our churches today). However, when the process of canonizing the scriptures came about, the question of history played an important role in finally deciding what would was accepted as Holy Scripture. Apparently because the book of Judith had so many discrepancies, it didn't make the cut. However, the book was so popular that it was given special status and placed within the apocrypha (a collection of writings considered edifying, but not authentic, i.e., fictional or of doubtful authorship).
The book of Judith is a fine work of art and its message clear and true. I recommend it to those who haven't taken the opportunity to read it, especially those in need of a great role model. It may not be accepted as scripture, but it has a lot to say to us both then and now.