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Nice Jewish Girls:

Liquor, Sex, and Power in Antiquity


Charles David Isbell

A popular bumper sticker on the campus of Louisiana State University features a ridiculous looking person holding up a huge mug. The caption reads: "BEER: Helping ugly people have sex since 1862." Although biblical literature does not ban the use of alcohol or teach total abstinence, it is certainly fair to say that the majority view is at least cautionary and perhaps even negative. On the positive side, wine can bring pleasure (Jdgs 9.13; Ps 104.15) even to the point of banishing sorrow (Prov 31.6-7), and may be acknowledged as a legitimate part of a sacrificial meal.1

On the negative side, drinking to intoxication was a disgrace on the order of "harlotry," according to the prophet Hosea (Hos 4.11, 18). And drunkenness was perceived as a sin most likely to be committed by rulers like the hapless Israelite king Elah (1 Kgs 16.9), the Syrian Ben-Hadad (1 Kgs 20.16), the profligate Persian Ahasuerus (Esth 1.10), or by a wealthy but foolish person like Nabal (1 Sam 25.36). In fact, habitual drunkenness--along with stubbornness, rebellion and gluttony-- could form the grounds for capital charges to be brought by parents against an insubordinate son (Deut 21.18-20).

Isaiah tied drunkenness to the moral confusion of spiritual leaders like priests and false prophets (Isa 28.7-13), or simply to the greed of the wealthy (Isa 5.11-12, see also Isa 56.11-12). The Book of Proverbs offers quite a practical argument against excessive drinking by reference to the inevitable hangover complete with hallucinations, delusions, bleary eyes, and bruises on the body, whose cause cannot be remembered (Prov 23.29-35)! Even as righteous a man as Noah serves as an example of the evil of drinking to excess (Gen 9:20-27).

Talmudic opinion holds that a drunken person is forbidden to conduct a service, and concludes that if a person prays in a state of drunkenness, his prayer is an abomination (Ber. 31b). Furthermore, judges must not render decisions after drinking wine (‘Erub. 64a), and the judges of the Sanhedrin had to abstain from wine throughout the time of their hearing of a capital case (Sanh. 5:1; and see also Sanh. 42a). In fact, as a precautionary measure, judges were forbidden to eat dates because of their possible intoxicating effects (Ketub. 10b).

While we moderns view the use of alcohol as a weapon typically used by males to lure females into trouble, the Bible offers four classical examples of Jewish women who used alcohol as a weapon against men, either to achieve personal power or status or to perform acts of heroism on behalf of the Jewish community when it faced a dire crisis. In each case, a hapless and unsuspecting male was bent to the will of a powerful and purposeful female who used wine as a major part of her arsenal.2 Indeed, these four examples teach us how appropriate the observation of ben Sira was: "Wine has been the undoing of many" (Sir 31.30).



In the narrative of Genesis 19:31-38, Lot is seduced by his two daughters. In order to succeed with their seduction, they ply their father with wine to such excess that he was unable to realize he was having intercourse with his own daughters. Their purpose in so duping their father has nothing to do with modern ideas about sex. Rather, for them intercourse was the necessary means for procreation; their intentions are described quite specifically in the text as the desire to establish a family. Pointedly, the text twice attests that the daughters sought to acquire "seed" from their father (Gen 19.32, 34), a word pregnant (!) with meaning elsewhere in Genesis to describe the future descendants of mighty Abraham. In short, the daughters of Lot were anxious to attain for themselves the biblical form of immortality normally reserved for men, and wine was the tool they used to accomplish their aim. It gave them power over the man in their lives, allowing them to play on his lack of self-control so as to control their own destinies.

As noted, the narrative twice states that Lot was an ignorant dupe of the two females, remaining ignorant when each of his daughters entered his bed and when she rose to leave (Gen 19.33, 35). What is also of more than passing interest is that the text itself nowhere condemns the daughters for their actions. Readers do learn that these improper liaisons produced people who became terrible enemies of the Israelites, namely, the Moabites and the Ammonites, among whom were Balak and Bil‘am (Num 22-24), Eglon the obese (Jdg 3), and later King Mesha (2 Kgs 3.6-27). But the Genesis text seems to take for granted that both the motivation and the method of the daughters should be understood and accepted, even though the final result produced unforeseen and negative consequences.



The story of Ruth has become one of the most beloved in the Bible for several reasons. First, it is beautiful narrative art that can be read and appreciated quite apart from the normal struggles of the professional exegete to determine its date, author, and meaning as a biblical text. Second, it ends in the most perfect way possible, securing for the heroine a place of wealth along with the prestige of a permanent place in the ancestry of David. Third, it towers over some of the more troublesome exclusivistic and chauvinistic passages of biblical literature: it teaches "how great is the reward that accrues to those who perform deeds of kindness" (Ruth Rab. 2.14), while Ruth Rab. 3.5 invites readers to "come and see how precious in the eyes of the Omni-present One are converts." In addition, it draws the highest praise possible from the rabbis, being listed first, ahead even of Psalms, among the Writings (b. Ber. 14b).

Given its universal acceptance and the joy with which it has been read and studied, it is instructive to note how purposeful the actions of the heroines Ruth and Naomi are. Ruth, who is the quintessence of a modest young woman throughout chapters one and two, becomes openly calculating in chapter three--and she does so under the careful and detailed guidance of her mother-in-law. Naomi articulates the goal of their involvement with Boaz in 3.1: The Jewish Publication Society’s TANAKH captures the correct sense of the Hebrew: "I must seek a home for you," While the New American Standard Bible is also correct in its rendering: "Shall I not seek security for you?" In the world of their day, a home, complete with husband and children, was the only conceivable path to security for a female member of society. Naomi also reveals to Ruth where Boaz can be found (3.2), and instructs her to "bathe, anoint yourself, dress up, and go" (3.3).

Ruth also receives explicit instructions from Naomi to wait until Boaz has finished eating and drinking to approach him. This will be no ordinary chat between a shy maiden and her beau. It will be nothing less than a brazen proposal of marriage, made by the woman! The wording of 3.4 leaves no doubt about Naomi’s instructions. Ruth must observe the place where Boaz lies down, and then she must "uncover his feet." We notice that the text is concerned to assure us that Ruth’s lying at the "feet" of Boaz will not become public knowledge; plainly there is more going on here than meets the eye of the casual reader.3 It is not really necessary to employ other biblical examples to show the meaning of "feet" in Ruth, for the conclusion of the story itself cinches the point. When Boaz is startled awake by the presence of a woman lying at his "feet," she proposes to him, boldly instructing him: "spread your robe" over me (3.9). This is no less than a formal act of espousal.4

Of particular interest is the specification by Naomi in 3.3 that Ruth must wait until Boaz has finished eating and drinking before setting their joint plan into motion. This is highlighted by the notation in 3.7 that the heart of Boaz was "merry" after having eaten and drunk, before Ruth made her move.5 Boaz may well have been a righteous man willing to act in Ruth’s behalf, but clearly an appropriate ingestion of wine helped smooth the path of romance. Once again it is significant that there is no condemnation of Ruth for the employment of alcohol in order to obtain her goal. Much like the case of the daughters of Lot, neither the motivation nor the methods of Ruth and Naomi require justification or explanation from the creator of the story.



The familiar story of Esther is intriguing on many levels. We note first that the banquet given by King Ahasuerus for the ordinary citizens of the capital city lasted a mere seven days. And although this compares nicely with the report of King Ashurnasirpal’s hosting 69,574 guests for a ten day banquet, it is scarcely comparable with the 180 day bash held for the nobles and provincial princes that begins the book (Esth 1:3-4).6 Further, this biblical description of a lengthy celebration involving heavy drinking is attested in classical sources, one of which notes that Persian monarchs regularly entertained as many as 15,000 guests.7

In such a context, it is not difficult to understand why the rabbis believed that Vashti, the king’s consort, had been summoned to appear naked before Ahasuerus and his buddies. The Talmudic discussion of this passage clearly portrays Vashti as an immoral woman who had forced nice Jewish girls to work naked on Shabbat, and speculates that she herself would have had no hesitation about appearing naked except that God had smitten her with leprosy and she was ashamed of her body. A simpler and perhaps more plausible explanation appears in Esth. Rab. 2.13, which tells how Vashti did not wish to appear wearing only a crown in front of a group of drunken Persians (see Esth 1.10- 12).

While it is clear that alcohol and drunkenness figure prominently in the cultural backdrop of the story, there is a specific phrase that links this story to the incident between Ruth and Boaz. The order of Ahasuerus that Vashti be summoned to appear was given only "when the heart of the king was merry with wine" (1.10). Perhaps the narrative is trying to alert us to the fact that not even a Persian monarch would make such a demand of his wife if he were sober.

Of greater interest is the function of alcohol in describing the activities of Esther, the nice Jewish girl. The narrative, which is too familiar to require retelling here, describes Haman leaving the first banquet given by Esther "pleased of heart" (Esth 5:9), a description that calls to mind the condition of Boaz in Ruth 3:7, as well as of Haman’s own king in Esth 1.10. And just as Ahasuerus had needed wine to screw up enough courage to make an outlandish demand on Queen Vashti, both banquets hosted by Esther employed wine to prepare the way for her requests of the king. At the first banquet, she pointedly waits to make her request until after the wine has been drunk (Esth 5:6), while regarding the second banquet, we are told specifically that "the king and Haman came to drink with Esther" (Esth 7:1). Even more significant is the fact that each banquet is described as "a wine banquet" (in Esth 5.6 and 7.2).

But there is also a subtle difference between the use of wine by Ahasuerus and by Esther. Ahasuerus had used wine to bolster his own courage in the presence of his macho buddies. Esther is never described as the one doing the drinking, but rather as the clever person who used wine to soften up the king for her request, surely knowing his drinking habits well enough to believe that such a ploy would be successful. Moreover, we note a third time that there is a complete absence of biblical condemnation or even special notice taken of the use of alcohol by the heroine for a noble purpose. Once again a female outsmarts and gains power over a male. Once again, her motives are viewed positively, while her methods are merely chronicled in prosaic fashion.



The example of Judith is an intriguing extension of our theme. Even though the Book of Judith stands outside the canon of Hebrew Scripture,8 its Jewish character can scarcely be denied. For one thing, the town around which the action of the book is centered is unknown in any historical record; its significance surely lies in its name: Bethulia, or "virgin." Clearly the symbolism of "virgin Israel" under attack by godless enemies would not have been missed by early readers. The same symbolism inheres in the name of the heroine: Youdith, "the Jewess," whom the Assyrian monster wanted to ravage. That we are dealing here with symbolism rather than history is certain, as James C. VanderKam notes with remarkable understatement: "Anyone familiar with Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian history is likely to be baffled by the opening of the book."9

Regardless of the book’s date, which scholars have set as early as the Persian period in the fifth century BCE or as late as the Maccabean Period in the second century BCE, the narrative artistry of the author shines brightly and serves as the basis for understanding the theological argument. As the book opens, seven tedious chapters chronicle the dastardly plots of the "Assyrian" King Nebuchadnezzar living in Nineveh (sic) and his evil general Holofernes to besiege and conquer the city of Bethulia. Only in chapter eight are we finally introduced to the heroine of the story. Judith is a beautiful, pious, and wealthy widow who, we will learn, is also brazen and crafty. When the citizens of Bethuliah determine to surrender to the besieging enemy unless God can save them within five days, Judith volunteers to take matters into her own hands. Once she has decided that something must be done to oppose the evil Assyrians, she embarks on an incremental plan of action.

Her first step is to meticulously prepare her appearance.

She removed the sackcloth she had been wearing, took off her widow’s garments, bathed her body with water, and anointed herself with precious ointment. She combed her hair, put on a tiara, and dressed herself in the festive attire that she used to wear while her husband Manasseh was living. She put sandals on her feet, and put on her anklets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and all her other jewelry."10

Thus arrayed, Judith and her maid entered the war camp of the enemy, where her dazzling beauty immediately brought her to the attention, and into the very presence of, General Holofernes, to whom she asserted, apparently without blinking or blushing, that she would never lie to the great general! Whereupon, she began with scarcely a pause for breath to weave a pack of lies that one can only stand back and admire. Pretending to honor both the general and his king, Nebuchadnezzar, she explained that her Jewish brothers and sisters were preparing to eat treif [unkosher food] because of the exigencies of the siege to which they were being subjected. She had fled, she assured Holofernes, rather than partake of it. In light of this grave sin being committed by her Jewish brothers and sisters, she promised the Assyrian general that the God of the Jews would punish His own people and allow them to be defeated without the loss of a single Assyrian life. Holofernes was so pleased with her report and so stricken by her beauty, that he invited her to stay for supper. To underscore her commitment to kashrut [kosher food], she refused the Assyrian food, retiring outside the camp to partake of the meal that her maid had brought along in a picnic basket. We soon learn that even this apparently innocent action has a double meaning: over the following three days, Judith sets about establishing a pattern that would permit her to leave the Assyrian camp each evening for supper and each midnight or early morning for prayer.11

By the fourth day, Holofernes was totally enthralled with, and completely captivated by, the beautiful heroine. The narrator makes clear the general’s intention to seduce Judith, having him tell "the eunuch who had charge of his personal affairs" (Jud 12.11) that "it would be a disgrace if we let such a woman go without having intercourse with her" (Jud 12.12).

To this end, he sent the eunuch Bagoas to invite Judith "to enjoy drinking wine with us" (12.13). Dressed in her finest, Judith arrived at the tent of Holofernes, whose passion was aroused by her beauty once more, and who invited her to, "Have a drink and be merry with us" (Jud 12.17). Judith’s responds: "I will gladly drink, my lord, because today is the greatest day in my whole life" (12.18). She knew, of course, what she meant, but Holofernes no doubt assumed that her excitement centered on the anticipation of having sex with him. Judith plays this assumption to the hilt. She munches on her simple kosher fare, and does in fact take a drink of wine so that Holofernes can observe. The sight of his beautiful prey drinking made Holofernes so excited that, "he drank a great quantity of wine, much more than he had ever drunk in any one day since he was born" (12.20). All the servants were dismissed, "but Judith was left alone in the tent, with Holofernes stretched out on his bed, for he was dead drunk" (13.2).

Before we recount the final act of this heroine, it should be observed that the beheading of an adult male is physically quite difficult. A recent report on the development of the guillotine in eighteenth century France noted that supporters of the new machine were looking for a more efficient way to take the life of condemned criminals, specifically seeking to avoid the ghastly sight of muscular, male executioners forced to strike numerous times at a neck in order to sever a head.12 Thus, when the text tells us that Judith severed the head of the Assyrian general with only two whacks (Jud 13.8), we are supposed to be impressed. Even more impressive than the sheer physical feat is the icily calm manner in which Judith acts afterward. Rolling the body of the drunk general onto the floor, she wraps his head in the canopy, and gives it to her maid, who popped it into the trusty picnic basket. Under cover of the routine they had established each night, in plain sight of the Assyrian soldiers, Judith and her maid boldly walked out of the camp with the basket and the head firmly in hand. Under such auspicious circumstances, who could doubt that a great victory would now be achieved by the once frightened male soldiers in the besieged Jewish army?




Our survey of four Jewish heroines yields surprising conclusions. The women we observed in action were not demure and weak, but rather tough in mind and body. In order to accomplish a necessary task, they did not hesitate to use their sexuality and beauty or the notorious stupidity of men in the presence of such beauty. Nor did they shrink from employing alcoholic inducements to achieve their goals. The daughters of Lot did what they set forth to do: they achieved immortality by the only means at their disposal. Ruth was not content to settle for the existence of a powerless young widow, but set her sights on a rich husband and proposed to him. Esther manipulated the most powerful male on earth into doing just what she wanted. And Judith, the quintessential Jewish woman, stepped forward with the courage that all the men in her city lacked and acted with a level of shrewdness and bravery that Hollywood itself could not resist.13

It might be possible to argue that portrayals of women who used liquor and sex to achieve power reinforces a negative stereotype of women as sneaky, tricky, or underhanded. However, I do not believe that such a stereotype fits any of the narratives examined here. Instead, I believe that these stories depict women who acted well within the boundaries set for them by the societies in which they were seldom full and equal partners. In my judgment, these women simply learned well the rules by which men play, and then applied those rules as or more successfully than the men. They remained well within those rules, using them to achieve power in situations where societal norms might otherwise have conspired to keep them weak, dependent, and vulnerable. In addition, just as modern society tends to view a woman who drinks at wrong times and in unsafe contexts as somehow "loose" or "easy," so these ancient heroines adopted the view of their own society that men who drank foolishly or to excess were "easy" to conquer. Thus, they used their knowledge of reality to do what had to be done.

The women we have examined are not realistic historical figures, which makes them all the more remarkable. It speaks volumes that ancient audiences thought such women believable and acceptable, that Jews of an earlier era would have found their deeds worthy of legend and fame, and that indeed they were celebrated by having their stories immortalized in the literature that came to be deemed sacred by the entire community. It is safe to assume--is it not?--that the women singled out for such special notice had many a sister, unknown to us and unheralded in the literature, who gave her own measure of courage and strength to Israel whenever she was needed.


































Studies in Jewish



Women and Judaism


Edited by Leonard J. Greenspoon,

Ronald A. Simkins,

and Jean Axelrad Cahan


© Copyright 2003, by Creighton University Press

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