THE HISTORY OF SUSANNA
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The Book of Susanna (also known as History of Susannah and the Elders) is part of what is considered the Apocrypha / Deuterocanonical books and appears in the Old Testament of Catholic Bibles. The books of the Apocrypha were generally written in the roughly 400 years between the composition of the books in the Old and New Testaments, the intertestamental period. Susanna is one of 12-15 books generally recognized as comprising the Apocrypha.
Susanna is among the additions to the book of Daniel (as are Bel and the Dragon, The Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Jews) and was most likely composed between 200–100 B.C. The Book of Daniel, written by the prophet Daniel himself (12:4) in the sixth century B.C., is placed in different locations of the Bible depending on the culture: the Jews place it among the Writings, dismissing its prophecies, while the English translations place it among the Major Prophets.
The Book of Daniel begins with King Nebuchadnezzar’s desire to impose Babylonian culture upon some Israelite youths, of whom Daniel was one, but as the years pass, Daniel astonishes Nebuchadnezzar by interpreting his symbolic dreams. After a series of religious confrontations, Daniel’s interpretations were clear: accept God or suffer His wrath. The king finally accepts God. Years after these events, Daniel was called to interpret prophetical words towards Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar. Belshazzar died and lost the kingdom to Darius the Mede. After being bestowed with power by Darius (and surviving an encounter with lions through divine intervention), Daniel experiences a series of intense personal visions; dreams showing events ranging from the near future to the end of days.
The Book of Susanna is most commonly placed before the events of Daniel 1 (Theodotion tradition); however, the Septuagint and Vulgate editions position it between Daniel 12 and 14. Susanna’s strongest literary influences are the Old Testament books of Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, though, ironically, it is not dependent on Daniel itself. Though the early church originally considered it canonical, debate erupted to whether it should be excluded as early as the third century, as attested in the Letter to Africanus, a detailed correspondence between Africanus and Origen.
Structurally, the book is only 64 verses long and can be summarized as follows: In Babylon, a wealthy man called Joakim marries the God-fearing Susanna, daughter of a priest (1-4). When two elders become the local judges, they visited Joakim’s house and stalked Susanna, lusting after her and disobeying God’s law (8-9). Then, many days later, while watching Susanna preparing to bathe (15) they approach her and say, “Look, the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away” (20-21). She rejects their blackmail and cries out against the attempted rape (24). After Susanna’s draws attention to their actions, the elders state their innocence, and Susanna is put on trial the next day. During the court session, the elders fulfill their threat to Susanna and speak of her betrothing a young man (36-41). Deemed guilty, she is “led off to execution, [until] God stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel” (45). Daniel compels the townspeople to return to the trial, as he declares the elders have lied (49). They return, and Daniel asks each elder separately, “Under what tree did you see them being intimate with one another?” (54). When each answers differently, Susanna is freed, and the elders are put to death (62).
Both abiding in and refuting God’s Law are at the core of the Book of Susanna. From the beginning, we are told that Susanna had been trained “according to the law of Moses” (3), and this training is clearly visible throughout the text. When forced to choose between adultery or accusations of adultery (leading to certain death), Susanna is aware of God’s Law as it is written in Leviticus 20:10, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” and Deuteronomy 22:22, “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.”
When facing possible rape (24), Susanna knows that the Law instructs that a woman must cry for help, for if she doesn’t, she will not be seen as having been violated (Deuteronomy 22:24). When placed on trial before the accusing elders, Susanna shouts to the Lord that “these men have given false evidence” (43), indicating her understanding of law in accordance with Deuteronomy 19:16-21. Later, it is Daniel who refers to the same law when asking, “Are you such fools, O Israelites, as to condemn a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts?” (48).
The “two elders from [whom] the people… appointed judges” (5), are clearly aware of the Law of Moses handed down from God but choose to disobey them. The elders “began to lust” after Susanna, despite the law in Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Before they give false testimony against Susanna, they “laid their hands on her head,” as written in Leviticus 24:14, “Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him.” The elders are clearly aware that two witnesses are required when trying a Jew that has been charged with a crime, as attested in Numbers 35:30, “No one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness” and Deuteronomy 17:6, “On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness.” In an ironic twist, when the elders are found to be liars and have mocked God’s Law, those same laws deal them their fate (62) in accordance with Deuteronomy 19:16-21.
More commentary can be offered regarding the issue of divine intervention as a major religious idea espoused in the Book of Susanna. Had God not “stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel” (45), it is certain that Susanna would have been unjustly killed. The intervention of God, often through a human vessel, is a prominent theme throughout both the Old and New Testament canons. That humankind strays from the laws of God, or even breaks them, often has God having to become involved in the affairs of humans to correct injustice or, in some cases, express His wrath in a just and necessary manner. What is striking about the Book of Susanna is that it depicts the ongoing struggle of the Jewish nation in abiding by the laws commissioned by God. From their initial failure to abide by the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32) to Paul’s statement that one should “not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God” (Romans 14:20), the laws decreed by God were seen by some Jewish thinkers as being susceptible to human corruption or multiple interpretations, which required the intervention of a merciful God when humans abused His laws.
The Book of Susanna, though brief, is a compelling book of innocence and man’s corruption of God’s Law. While not canonical, it is worthy of study and application to contemporary Judaism and Christianity, for it is a story which contains a message relevant to everyday life, even if it is considered a work of fiction by most Jews and Christians. By exploring its major religious ideas and Jewish thought in the period it was written, readers of Susanna may better understand the strengths and weaknesses of man’s application of God’s Law and that, no matter what, God will ensure that justice reigns.
Daniel 13-14 New American Bible (Revised Edition) (NABRE)
III. Appendix: Susanna, Bel, and the Dragon[a]
Susanna. 1 In Babylon there lived a man named Joakim, 2 who married a very beautiful and God-fearing woman, Susanna, the daughter of Hilkiah; 3 her parents were righteous and had trained their daughter according to the law of Moses. 4 Joakim was very rich and he had a garden near his house. The Jews had recourse to him often because he was the most respected of them all.
5 That year, two elders of the people were appointed judges, of whom the Lord said, “Lawlessness has come out of Babylon, that is, from the elders who were to govern the people as judges.” 6 These men, to whom all brought their cases, frequented the house of Joakim. 7 When the people left at noon, Susanna used to enter her husband’s garden for a walk. 8 When the elders saw her enter every day for her walk, they began to lust for her. 9 They perverted their thinking; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments. 10 Though both were enamored of her, they did not tell each other their trouble, 11 for they were ashamed to reveal their lustful desire to have her. 12 Day by day they watched eagerly for her. 13 One day they said to each other, “Let us be off for home, it is time for the noon meal.” So they went their separate ways. 14 But both turned back and arrived at the same spot. When they asked each other the reason, they admitted their lust, and then they agreed to look for an occasion when they could find her alone.
15 One day, while they were waiting for the right moment, she entered as usual, with two maids only, wanting to bathe in the garden, for the weather was warm. 16 Nobody else was there except the two elders, who had hidden themselves and were watching her. 17 “Bring me oil and soap,” she said to the maids, “and shut the garden gates while I bathe.” 18 They did as she said; they shut the garden gates and left by the side gate to fetch what she had ordered, unaware that the elders were hidden inside.
19 As soon as the maids had left, the two old men got up and ran to her. 20 “Look,” they said, “the garden doors are shut, no one can see us, and we want you. So give in to our desire, and lie with us. 21 If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was here with you and that is why you sent your maids away.”
22 “I am completely trapped,” Susanna groaned. “If I yield, it will be my death; if I refuse, I cannot escape your power. 23 Yet it is better for me not to do it and to fall into your power than to sin before the Lord.” 24 Then Susanna screamed, and the two old men also shouted at her, 25 as one of them ran to open the garden gates. 26 When the people in the house heard the cries from the garden, they rushed in by the side gate to see what had happened to her. 27 At the accusations of the old men, the servants felt very much ashamed, for never had any such thing been said about Susanna.
28 When the people came to her husband Joakim the next day, the two wicked old men also came, full of lawless intent to put Susanna to death. 29 Before the people they ordered: “Send for Susanna, the daughter of Hilkiah, the wife of Joakim.” When she was sent for, 30 she came with her parents, children and all her relatives. 31 Susanna, very delicate and beautiful, 32 was veiled; but those transgressors of the law ordered that she be exposed so as to sate themselves with her beauty. 33 All her companions and the onlookers were weeping.
34 In the midst of the people the two old men rose up and laid their hands on her head. 35 As she wept she looked up to heaven, for she trusted in the Lord wholeheartedly. 36 The old men said, “As we were walking in the garden alone, this woman entered with two servant girls, shut the garden gates and sent the servant girls away. 37 A young man, who was hidden there, came and lay with her. 38 When we, in a corner of the garden, saw this lawlessness, we ran toward them. 39 We saw them lying together, but the man we could not hold, because he was stronger than we; he opened the gates and ran off. 40 Then we seized this one and asked who the young man was, 41 but she refused to tell us. We testify to this.” The assembly believed them, since they were elders and judges of the people, and they condemned her to death.
42 But Susanna cried aloud: “Eternal God, you know what is hidden and are aware of all things before they come to be: 43 you know that they have testified falsely against me. Here I am about to die, though I have done none of the things for which these men have condemned me.”
44 The Lord heard her prayer. 45 As she was being led to execution, God stirred up the holy spirit of a young boy named Daniel, 46 and he cried aloud: “I am innocent of this woman’s blood.” 47 All the people turned and asked him, “What are you saying?” 48 He stood in their midst and said, “Are you such fools, you Israelites, to condemn a daughter of Israel without investigation and without clear evidence? 49 Return to court, for they have testified falsely against her.”
50 Then all the people returned in haste. To Daniel the elders said, “Come, sit with us and inform us, since God has given you the prestige of old age.” 51 But he replied, “Separate these two far from one another, and I will examine them.”
52 After they were separated from each other, he called one of them and said: “How you have grown evil with age! Now have your past sins come to term: 53 passing unjust sentences, condemning the innocent, and freeing the guilty, although the Lord says, ‘The innocent and the just you shall not put to death.’ 54 Now, then, if you were a witness, tell me under what tree you saw them together.” 55 “Under a mastic tree,”[b] he answered. “Your fine lie has cost you your head,” said Daniel; “for the angel of God has already received the sentence from God and shall split you in two.” 56 Putting him to one side, he ordered the other one to be brought. “Offspring of Canaan, not of Judah,” Daniel said to him, “beauty has seduced you, lust has perverted your heart. 57 This is how you acted with the daughters of Israel, and in their fear they yielded to you; but a daughter of Judah did not tolerate your lawlessness. 58 Now, then, tell me under what tree you surprised them together.” 59 “Under an oak,” he said. “Your fine lie has cost you also your head,” said Daniel; “for the angel of God waits with a sword to cut you in two so as to destroy you both.”
60 The whole assembly cried aloud, blessing God who saves those who hope in him. 61 They rose up against the two old men, for by their own words Daniel had convicted them of bearing false witness. They condemned them to the fate they had planned for their neighbor: 62 in accordance with the law of Moses they put them to death. Thus was innocent blood spared that day.
63 Hilkiah and his wife praised God for their daughter Susanna, with Joakim her husband and all her relatives, because she was found innocent of any shameful deed. 64 And from that day onward Daniel was greatly esteemed by the people.