The story of Susanna stands in some of the Greek versions as the first of the Daniel stories, before the Hebrew Daniel 1, but after chapter 12 in others. The motivation to place the story before the Daniel 1 was undoubtedly because Daniel is portrayed as a very young man (who is wise beyond his years) in this story.
There are significant differences between the style of the story of Susanna and the Hebrew/Aramaic stories in Daniel 1–6 (the non-miraculous form of deliverance, the internal Jewish matters, among others). Further, Susanna differs from the other two additional works included in the Greek canon of the book of Daniel mainly because of its focus on the subjects of women, sexual abuse, and internal corruption in the Jewish community.
It is often suggested that even though the story of Susanna is considered the most sophisticated and well developed of the three additions to Daniel (the Song of the Three, for example, seems a hodgepodge of literary styles; Bel and the Dragon are clearly two separate stories), it was rejected by those rabbis who determined the canon because the court procedure was improper and because the authority of elders is seriously questioned (especially in the LXX version). It can be argued, however, that there are important reasons why it is significant that Susanna appears in the Daniel collection. First, it presents a female model of courage in a community that needs all of its resources and in which all persons share the threat of political exile and occupation. Second, Susanna includes a significant criticism of internal communal corruption, similar to that found in Ezra and Nehemiah, where it is also directed against corrupt or corruptible leaders of the community. Furthermore, the story of Susanna gives us an interesting episode in the life of the young Daniel, the legendary hero.
Many theories have been suggested for the origin of the story. These include that it was a midrash on the evil prophets mentioned in Jeremiah 29; a late polemic between Pharisees and Sadducees on court procedure; and a folk tale that exhibits well-known themes in folklore, such as the wisdom of the elders overturned by a child. No single view, however, has commanded wide agreement. While Susanna is a tale that has clear similarities with the themes of Daniel 1–6, there is nothing within the story that allows a clear date or even a sociopolitical context for the Jewish community that treasured and maintained this story as a part of its religious lore.
The story of Susanna affords us the opportunity to raise questions that have not previously arisen in the study of the book of Daniel—most important, the issue of women’s rights and place in society. Indeed, besides Susanna there is only one other significant woman in the entire Daniel corpus: the queen mother, who makes her appearance in Daniel 5. There seems little evidence that Susanna was written with any aspect of the queen mother in mind as the "other woman" of the Daniel tradition. But was Susanna written with Daniel even in mind? Some scholars wonder whether Daniel originally had a role at all in an earlier form of the Susanna legend—perhaps references to him being added only when the story was made a part of the Daniel tradition at about the time of its translation into Greek (c. 100 bce).
However, this account of life in the exilic community from a woman’s perspective gives us the opportunity to consider a Jewish woman as doubly a symbol of resistance—both to the oppression of exile and to male domination within the Jewish community—and as a model of the kind of spiritual tenacity necessary for faithful resistance in circumstances of exile or occupation. It seems hard to deny that Susanna as a woman within Jewish society is meant to mirror the Jew in foreign society. She is called to resist oppression within that society as the Jews were generally called to resist oppression from outside. Her resistance, her ability to speak truth to power, is honored in this story, as well as the young Daniel’s clever courtroom technique in defending her.
Mieke Bal has asserted that there is a "dominant reading" of biblical texts and interpretative strategies that is "a monolithically misogynist view of those biblical stories wherein female characters play a role, and a denial of the importance of women in the Bible as a whole." Part of this dominant reading, according to Bal, is to dismiss certain aspects of texts and stories that seem to be "meaningless details," particularly where women are concerned. But attention to such details may have the effect of inverting previous perspectives. Such an analysis of the Susanna story, for example, has been provided by both Bal and Glancy, who focus important attention on Susanna as a woman whose actions are interpreted according to her "appearance" to the "male gaze." Another way that one can become attuned to such details is through a survey of the literature on violence against women. This commentary will have occasion to relate the study of Susanna to feminist and other sociological studies of rape and violence against women.27
Glancy notes that Susanna is largely the passive victim and the crime that stands "behind" the story is violation of possessions and honor of men—in this case Joakim the husband. Brownmiller argues that male possession laws are the foundation for most modern rape laws in Western society in that rape "was first and foremost a violation of male rights of possession, based on male requirements of virginity, chastity, and consent to private access as the female bargain in the marriage contract."
Similarly, then, Glancy notes the intriguing symmetry between Susanna, the "violated wife," and Joakim’s privileged garden:
What is at stake in the story is not Susanna’s physical well-being as she is threatened with rape and death but the honor of Joachim’s household. When garden and wife are closed against intruders, Joachim’s honor is secure. When the garden is open to intruders, or if the wife is open to a young lover, the entire household is ashamed, its honor lost.
Glancy is surely correct in her insistence that modern readers often go along with the assumption of the story that the crime is attempted seduction rather than attempted rape—mainly because the modern reader is also beguiled by Susanna’s reputed beauty. Seduction seems, from such a reading, "natural" or "normal." As Glancy puts it, the narrative of Susanna "relies on a code that represents femininity in terms of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness.’ " Is it an overstatement to call what happens to Susanna rape? The elders, as we shall see, do not physically force themselves upon her. But the difficulty with calling their actions "seduction" is that this term does not adequately express the unequal power dynamics between Susanna and two respected (male) leaders of the community. While their confrontation may not have involved physical contact, in a real way it was overpowering to Susanna and would be referred to in modern terms as sexual harassment with important power dynamics involved. Brownmiller comments:
All rape is an exercise in power, but some rapists have an edge that is more than physical. They operate within an institutionalized setting that works to their advantage and in which a victim has little chance to redress her grievance.
Given these dynamics, it is important to proceed with an assumption that we are dealing with what ought to be interpreted as attempted rape.
Glancy’s analysis also alerts us to the significance of "seeing," "gazing," and "staring" in this story. The reader is invited to imagine the beauty of the bathing Susanna, for example, and thus to relate to the gaze of the hidden elders, who "burn with lust." Significantly, Daniel catches the deceit of the elders precisely on what they have done, and not on what they have seen. The focused attention of the criminal elders on Susanna is so intent on the attempted rape of her that they give no thought to anything else.
Finally, there is the curious reversal of roles for the figure of Daniel. Susannah is celebrated in this story as the persecuted Jew—persecuted by fellow Jews no less than by the Babylonians—and it is Daniel who assumes the role of the God-sent savior. Indeed, one would have to say that Daniel assumes the role of the angelic messenger—the God-sent salvation in virtually all the other Daniel stories. All of these details will be discussed at more length in the following analysis.
Verses 1–4, Introduction and Setting Among the Babylonian Exiles. The first character to whom the reader is introduced in this story is Joakim, the husband of Susanna. He is among the exiles in Babylon, but is apparently rather well situated. The text describes him as rich, possessing a home with a fine garden. That Joakim is described as having married Susanna and built his fine home while in exile may well be a nod in the direction of Jeremiah’s advice in his letter to exiles that they marry and build houses (and plant gardens) so that their numbers will not decrease while in exile (see Jeremiah 29).
We know from the book of Ezekiel (chaps. 14 and 20) that elders met in Ezekiel’s home for important gatherings, much as the writer of Susanna reports the elders’ meeting in the home of Joakim. While this detail may be dependent on sources such as Ezekiel, there is reason to believe that it was a significant memory of the sociological circumstances of the Babylonian exiles. This form of limited self-governance in exile is an important indicator that not only were the exiles able to maintain a familiar form of governance, but also that they settled in large enough groups to make this a viable social form.
The Greek term used for Joakim’s garden (παράδεισος paradeisos) is a Persian loan word from which we also get the English word "paradise" (see 2 Chr 33:20; Neh 2:8). There is another term that generally refers to a small garden (a vegetable garden? see Neh 3:16, 26). When this term is used together with the Greek term for a "paradise" (Eccl 2:5; Sir 24:30–31), it gives the reader the impression that the "paradise," in contrast to the smaller garden, is a large area kept in a somewhat natural state of beauty. Note that the Garden of Eden is called a "paradise."
It is significant that Susanna is described as being both beautiful and Godfearing. Is the reader meant to understand that these attributes go together or that they are traits that somehow balance each other? Is feminine beauty a potential danger in a male-oriented reading of these verses? It is not unusual for matriarchs of Israel to be described as beautiful (the description of Sarah [Gen 12:14] and Rachel [Gen 29:17] use the same Greek terms; see also 1 Sam 25:3; 2 Sam 11:2; Ezek 16:13; Jdt 8:7). This very beauty, however, is taken almost inevitably as a foreshadowing of trouble (see Tob 3:14–15; 6:12). In her work on rape and violence against women, Susan Brownmiller notes the frequency with which rape cases are reported in the media with a comment about the "beauty" of the victim:
The murder of a beautiful young woman is no more regrettable, no greater tragedy, than the murder of a plain one, except in a culture that values beauty in women above other qualities. By putting greater store in the murder of a beauty, beauty acquires the seeds of its own destruction … thus the myth that rape is a crime of passion touched off by female beauty is given great credence, and women are influenced to believe that to be raped, and even murdered, is a testament to beauty.
In contrast to, or in connection with, this beauty, Susanna "fears the Lord."
The phrase used to describe Susanna as one who "feared the Lord" brings this text into an interesting relation with Sirach. The importance of "fear of the Lord" is repeated frequently in Sirach (Sir 1:13–14; 2:7–9; 6:16; 10:19–20; 21:6; 32:16; 34:14, 16), suggesting a possible relationship between the writer of Susanna and the wisdom tradition in late post-exilic Israel. Susanna, in short, practiced the way of the wise. Many readers, however, regard Sirach as blatantly misogynist (see Sir 25:16–26; 26:5–12; 42:9–14), so one must carefully note the contrasting positive view of a woman in Susanna. In short, one can make too much of wisdom connections (as has occurred frequently since such a suggestion was originally made by von Rad). Furthermore, it is noted that Susanna’s parents raised her in the knowledge of the law of Moses. This mention of the law of Moses is rather unique (and not present in the LXX version), but here in Susanna it serves as one piece of an important frame; the parents will be mentioned again in v. 62.
Verses 5–6, Introduction to the Corrupt Elders. Two elders are singled out and are introduced as being newly appointed judges. Verse 5 also features an unknown prophetic saying that is often related to Jer 23:14–15 and to the accusation against false elders in Jer 29:21–23.
The Greek term used here for "wickedness" (ἀνομία anomia) is used to translate a variety of Hebrew words that are rendered in English variously as "sin," "transgression," and "iniquity." Judgment is expressed against elders in Isa 3:14 and 9:15, and such leaders of the people were certainly vilified by Ezra (Ezra 10:14). The internal issues of wickedness suggest that Susanna was written in the Hellenistic era at a time when internal factions among the Jewish people began to tear apart the community and divide it into mutually antagonistic parties (a situation well established by the beginning of the New Testament era). It is this internal emphasis that gives Susanna its unique context in the rest of the book of Daniel.
Verses 7–12, The Lust of the Elders. Susanna takes daily walks in Joakim’s garden—a detail that is essential to the development of the story. As she walks, she is seen by the two elders, who seeing her "desire" her (the termἐπιθυμία [epithymia] is used for "covet" in Exod 20:17 LXX). The term epithymia runs throughout the story (vv. 8, 11, 14, 20, 56) and is a significant term that appears in wisdom tradition as well. According to Sirach, one is to "desire" wisdom and avoid the cheap lust of foolishness (Sir 16:1; 24:19). Consider also the wisdom context of the advice offered in 4 Maccabees:
Self-control, then, is dominance over the desires [epithymia]. Some desires are mental, others are physical, and reason obviously rules over both. (4 Macc 1:31–32 NRSV)
And why is it amazing that the desires of the mind for the enjoyment of beauty are rendered powerless? It is for this reason, certainly, that the temperate Joseph is praised, because by mental effort he overcame sexual desire. (4 Macc 2:1–2 NRSV)
Verse 9 contains an interesting interrelation of phrases and ideas. The elders do three things: (1) suppress their consciences; (2) turn away their eyes from heaven; and (3) forget their duty to administer justice. The term used in the first phrase, "suppressed" or "perverted," is common in wisdom literature (see Prov 6:14; 10:9; 11:20; Sir 19:25; 22:23). Perversion of judgment is also known in prophetic literature (see Isa 59:8; Mic 3:9; Hab 1:4).
The phrase "to look into heaven" is not common in the Bible, but similar ideas certainly occur. The book of Isaiah contains a call to vigilance for God’s near deliverance (Isa 51:6) and describes Hezekiah as being weary from "looking into heaven" (Isa 38:14). Similarly Daniel "looked up" from fasting when he turned to God (Dan 10:5). Isaiah 33:15 suggests that people who survive God’s judgment are those who "shut their eyes from looking on evil." Presumably, then, the phrase is a way to talk about trusting in God, and turning away from heaven is seen as the equivalent of the other two phrases in the verse. Moore notes, incidentally, that "heaven" could also be a replacement for "God" as is the case in the New Testament use of "kingdom of heaven" instead of "kingdom of God." In general, the context reminds the reader of prophetic condemnation of the leaders of the Jewish community.
Verse 12 brilliantly establishes the importance of the "gaze," a dark sense of watching, in this story. The specific term used here is also used in Ps 37:12, where it is translated into English as: "The wicked plot against [or "watch for opportunities against"] the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them" (NRSV). Note that the wicked also "watched" Daniel to accuse him in Dan 6:12. In the story of Susanna, this gaze is intensified.
Verses 13–14, The Plot Is Set. When, in v. 13, the two elders discover each other heading back to look once again upon the beauty of Susanna, these false judges ply their trade on each other! They "examine" each other with the acumen of lawyers and discover the truth about themselves. They agree to keep each other’s secret, and thus the second act of secrecy appears in the story (the first being the unnoticed watching of Susanna by these same elders, a watching that led to their taking their eyes off heaven). Throughout the story, secrecy is contrasted with openness, as the lustful gaze is contrasted with "seeing" in the sense of knowing the truth. The elders, however, now work in collusion. Brownmiller comments on modern cases:
When men rape in pairs or in gangs, the sheer physical advantage of their position is clear-cut and unquestionable. No simple conquest of man over woman, group rape is the conquest of Men over Women. It is within the phenomenon of group rape, stripped of the possibility of equal combat, that the male ideology of rape is most strongly evident. Numerical odds are proof of brutal intention. They are proof, too, of male bonding … and proof of a desire to humiliate the victim beyond the act of rape through the process of anonymous mass assault.
Verses 15–27, The Main Events of the Story. The main events of the story must begin with the elders’ secret entrance into the garden (a third act of secrecy). The writer does not specify when and how these men enter the garden, only that they are there when Susanna prepares to bathe. With the mention of Susanna’s bath, the reader is reminded of David’s walk on the roof of his palace and his lust for Bathsheba as he gazed on her bathing (2 Samuel 11). Like Susanna as well, Bathsheba is described as beautiful. Collins cites a number of other cases in Jewish tradition of men who are filled with desire when watching women bathe. The LXX does not include the bath scene at all, however, but instead related that the elders desire her merely from watching her on her occasional walks in the garden.
Unlike David, whose position and power did not necessitate hiding, the elders watch Susanna in secret. Since the elders are in hiding, the maids who attend Susanna do not see them, and so the maids innocently shut the doors of the garden, leaving only the two elders and Susanna in the garden without further witnesses. At the moment the doors are shut the elders become like David. They now have the power of the male over the female, of an elder over a young person, and of judges within the community.
In vv. 19–21, the elders speak as if Susanna can freely choose whether to comply with their desires—but she is not free. It is, rather, an act of coercion. Moore points out that the LXX is much stronger in the insistence of the elders and their initial approach to Susanna—suggesting rape.39 If Susanna is unwilling to have sexual intercourse with each of them, then the judges will use their powerful weapon of false accusation—the word of a trusted official over a mere woman. False accusation by the powerful was the same weapon used against Daniel (Dan 6:25). It is worth pausing to reflect on the fact that false accusation is a threat only when there is an unequal distribution of power. Susanna’s word is not equivalent to the word of the two male judges. Moreover, there are two of them to dispute Susanna’s accusations—two is the required number of witnesses for a capital case (Deuteronomy 19).
In vv. 22–23, Susanna knows that she is threatened with being given over "into the hand" of her oppressor. Daniel, too, suffered the threat of being "in the hand" of his oppressor (Dan 3:15; cf. Deut 7:24; 32:39; 2 Kgs 18:29–30, 33–35; Jer 21:12; Dan 11:41; Mic 4:10).
When faced with such overwhelming power over her, Susanna responds with the cry of the oppressed, "with a loud voice" (v. 24; see also vv. 42 and 60). Susanna thereby also fulfills Deut 22:24, which states that if a woman is threatened with rape within the city (that is, where she could be heard) she must call out; otherwise, she is suspected of complicity. The same Greek term used here is used of the Jews crying out from the oppression of Pharaoh (Exod 2:23; 14:10 LXX), and it is the same "weapon" used by Hagar in the wilderness, when she cries out to God (Gen 21:16), who delivers her. Similarly, the Jews cry out for mercy from the king in 3 Macc 5:51. This is not to suggest, however, that this outcry is a special or unique term, but the recurrence of the theme is hardly coincidental. To call out with a loud voice occurs in other important contexts as well. In Num 20:16, the call of the people in slavery is answered by God’s "sending an angel" (an obviously intriguing passage in the context of angelic deliverance in the Daniel tradition); and in Deut 26:7, the call is directed to the "God of our ancestors," a term noted in the Song of the Three (see also Jdt 4:9, 12; 5:12; Ezek 11:13, where Ezekiel pleads with God not to bring an end to the people).
But as Susanna cries out to God, the elders cry out to the other Jews. The elders make their accusation at this point in Theodotion, but in the LXX, they do not make their accusation public until the tribunal has been gathered. She has presented her fate to the only power that she now has: the delivering power of truth and, ultimately, of God. So Susanna joins Daniel and Mishael and Hananiah and Azariah, among many others, in becoming a model of piety and trustfulness in the context of exile and apparent defeat.
In response to Susanna’s cries, the people in the house come to "see." But they do not see; they only know what the elders tell them. Curiously, it is not said that Susanna tries to tell another version of the events at this point in the story. She is calm before her accusers. The elders’ version of the story is believed instantly; Susanna’s youth and femininity (and beauty?) disqualify her immediately in the face of the older male judges. Even the servants are ashamed of her.
Verses 28–33, The Humiliation of the Oppressed. It is only at this point in the story that we hear of Susanna’s children. When summoned to appear before the judges, Susanna comes with her parents, husband, and children. Although in the Theodotion text the husband is not mentioned specifically (Did he refuse to risk humiliation?), he is noted in the LXX version. Furthermore, as Collins points out, it is significant that they gather back at the house of Joakim—that is, the scene of the crime—so that they can all see the trees about which Daniel will soon question the "witnesses."41 Why is the family included at this point? Is it because it is precisely the integrity of the family that is at issue here? In circumstances of exile and occupation and colonization, family takes on heightened importance. Memmi, for one, does not necessarily celebrate this fact, suggesting that the family becomes the only place where self-governing authority is still possible. But we know that the familial structure was economically important too. Hence the tremendous importance given to the crisis of intermarriage in Ezra-Nehemiah.43
In the Septuagint version of the book of Susanna, she is stripped before her accusers. The intention of the translators was probably to convey that she was stripped naked, at least to the waist. (Being stripped for adultery is attested in Ezek 16:37–39; Hos 2:3, 10.) But there may be more going on here; Susanna has not even been adequately tried before this condemning act of stripping her is called for. The elders desire that Susanna be unveiled, so that they might "look" at her again. No reason is given for the order that Susanna be unveiled. Is her beauty supposed to be taken as further evidence against her by the court that has been called into session? Are we readers invited to be sympathetic to the elders’ lust because of her reputed beauty? Why do they demand this humiliation of her? The Greek terms used here are correctly rendered in English as "feast the eyes" (NRSV). The same complex term is used in Ps 78:29 in reference to being satiated, filled. The Old Greek adds the element of the elders’ lust in looking at her. Thus Susanna is not merely overpowered; she is to be humiliated (note the discussion of the humiliation of the defeated in the Commentary on Daniel 5).
Verses 34–41, The Denunciation of Susanna. Verse 34 relates that the elders, rising to tell their stories, lay their hands on Susanna’s head. Is this a way of identifying the guilt of the accused? In Lev 3:2, 8, 13 and 4:4, 11, 15, the officiating priest lays his hand on the sacrificial offering, an action intended to transfer punishment of guilt. If this is true, then once again her guilt is presumed in their first act, before they even begin to tell their version of the events.
For the significance of "looking into heaven," see Commentary on v. 9. Here, Susanna’s looking to heaven means trusting in the Lord. To trust in the Lord is an important post-exilic expression for faithfulness. God, according to Nebuchadnezzar, delivered servants who "trusted in him" (Dan 3:28) since no harm came to Daniel in the lions’ den "because he had trusted in God" (Dan 6:23). Sirach teaches the reader to "consider the generations of old and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed?" (Sir 2:10 NRSV; see also 11:21; 32:24; see also the trust in God noted in 2 Macc 8:18; 3 Macc 2:4; 4 Macc 7:21). In the post-exilic context, trusting in the Lord is clearly a concept related to the power of God to deliver in circumstances of overwhelming threat. Once again, the writer uses terminology that equates Susanna’s plight with the most serious of threats to Jews by foreigners in the book of Daniel and elsewhere.
The accusation brought against Susanna in vv. 36–41a is adultery. The elders, so they claim, saw her lying with a young man, who escaped when the elders presented themselves to the young couple in the course of sexual intimacy. The Greek terms used here make the sexual nature of this accusation clear (see Gen 19:5; 39:10; and Jdt 12:16). In the Theodotion version, the alleged young man was too strong for the elders to restrain him, while in the LXX the young man escapes in disguise. In the Theodotion version, the elders claim to be overpowered, but in reality it is Susanna who is overpowered by the elders’ story. The judges are believed, and Susanna is convicted. The reader is invited to experience indignation at this injustice and to side with, if not identify with, the female against the authority of the male elders.
Verses 42–51, Susanna’s Cry and Daniel’s Arrival. Once again, Susanna is portrayed as the oppressed "crying out" to God. This is obviously an important theme in the story and, as the commentary has indicated, throughout the Bible—especially in the post-exilic period. But what is of further interest here is precisely what Susanna cries out. The phrase "O eternal God" is not widely attested in the Bible (Gen 21:33; Isa 26:4; 40:28), but it is found rather extensively in the book of Daniel (Dan 3:33 [v. 10 of The Song of the Three]; 4:31 [Theodotion]; 7:14, 27; 9:24; 12:2). It appears to be the case that this is yet another of the ways of referring to God ("the living God," "God of heaven," etc.) that became popular in the period of exile and occupation.
A second interesting phrase in this prayer is the reference to God as the "knower of secrets" or the "one who knows things hidden" (author’s trans.). This aspect of God is of obvious importance in a story where evil and corruption have been associated with persons, ideas, and thoughts that are hidden. Truth will be a revelation in the sense that it will be released from its captivity at the hands of the powerful. Susanna knows their deceit, of course, and now finally protests her innocence (v. 43). Susanna, once again, is similar to Daniel (see Daniel 6).
Verse 44 is deceptively short, but politically powerful: "The Lord heard her cry." Compare the hearing of God in stories of two other women of Jewish history and lore: Hagar (Gen 21:12, 17) and Judith (Jdt 4:13; 8:17). In v. 45, God’s action is to stir up trouble for human leaders once again—God’s resistance to human oppression and incompetence. Daniel, now in the role usually expected of an angelic messenger, is "stirred" by the Spirit of God (see Judg 5:12; Isa 51:9, 17; 52:1; Dan 7:4; 11:25; 12:2; 2 Macc 13:4).
Daniel calls out, in prophetic tones, that he will not be a party to the shedding of innocent blood (cf. Jer 7:6 as a classic example of this phrase in prophetic literature; it is used extensively as an image of killing the innocent, especially God’s chosen messengers). Daniel describes the people as "fools." Jeremiah, too, condemned his listeners as fools (Jer 5:21), and the image of the fool runs through Sirach as the antithesis to the godly, the pious, and the wise: "The mind of fools is in their mouth/ but the mouth of the wise is in their mind" (Sir 21:26; see also Sir 4:27; 8:17; 16:23; 21:14).
Daniel calls on the judges to judge properly. The witnesses have not been thoroughly examined. This is necessary in Jewish law, but is the reader to presume from the story that Daniel is reacting to the improper conduct of the trial or to some knowledge he possesses of the events that he has not yet revealed? Should the reader assume that Daniel was clever enough to sense something wrong about the elders’ story or that such knowledge comes with being "stirred" by God? Whatever the reason for Daniel’s coming to Susanna’s defense, the other elders recognize in him a wisdom beyond his years.46 Daniel is invited to come and to finally reveal what has been hidden from everyone but Susanna, the two corrupt judges, and Daniel himself.
Verses 52–59, The Examination of the Judges and the Truth Revealed. Daniel separates the two false judges, intending to examine each of them in turn. He requests that each judge be brought to him separately. What is interesting is that Daniel greets each of them with hostility. The first is called "an old relic of wicked days." (Since the "day of adversity" is noted in Isa 50:9; 51:6; Jer 16:19; and Amos 6:3, one may wonder whether "the evil days" that are referred to here are the days leading up to the exile. After all, it was a central tenet of deuteronomistic theology that the exile was brought on by the sins of the people, and the leaders particularly.) Daniel delivers a searing condemnation of the generation of the exile in words similar to those of Jeremiah or Isaiah. In v. 53, Daniel lists the sins of leaders in a manner that is highly stylized in prophetic speech (see Isa 5:23; 29:21; Jer 7:6; 19:4; 22:3, 17) but is also noteworthy in wisdom literature (Prov 17:15; 24:24).
Verse 54 leaves no doubt that sexual impropriety/adultery is the accusation here (cf. the situation in Judith 12 that uses some of the same Greek terminology). Daniel’s asking the elder about what kind of tree under which this alleged sin took place allows for a clever wordplay in Greek. The type of tree the elder names is calledσχῖνος (schinos; NAB and NRSV, "mastic"), and Daniel follows this up with a condemnation that calls for the false witness "to be cut in two", or σχίζω (schizō, v. 55). Moore, interestingly, suggests that we maintain the wordplay even in English and, therefore, supplies "clove tree" and "cleave" in the first instance, and "yew" and "hew" in the second instance. It is also noteworthy that an angel appears as an agent of judgment in Daniel’s condemnation of the lying elder.49
Verse 56 mirrors the preceding questioning, this time of the second elder. Once again, Daniel meets the false witness with hostility, and once again the specific vocabulary of abuse is noteworthy: Daniel calls him a "son of Canaan" (NAB and NRSV, "offspring of Canaan"). Both Ezra 9:1 and Neh 9:8 use "Canaanite" as a term of derision, referring to the peoples traditionally conquered by Joshua at the Israelites’ entry into the land; by Ezra’s time, the term had long since ceased to be an accurate description of an actual, contemporary cultural/religious group. It is possible that Ezek 16:3 is intended to be a similar slur in the context of delivering a judgment. However, the use of "Canaan" as the name for the people who dwelled in Palestine before the Israelite settlement was common in the late Hellenistic literature (see Judith 5; Bar 3:22; 1 Macc 9:37). Its use here, strikingly, seems to be intended as an ethnic slur. Again, in this accusation, lust is given the blame for leading the judge into sin. The wisdom associations of this idea have already been noted (it plays a role in the beginning of the story, v. 14, and at the end, v. 56), but note also that "corruption" also turns up at the beginning and ending (vv. 9 and 56). There is a circular sense of "just rewards" in the story of Susanna; the lying, lustful elders are condemned for what they gave themselves up to in the beginning.
The contrast between the daughters of Israel and the daughters of Judah is quite interesting, although somewhat obscure. Are we to see in Daniel’s statement a reference to the well-known northern propensity to mix with Canaanite religious ideas on a scale supposedly not tolerated in the southern kingdom before the exile? Collins doubts this, because Susanna herself is called an Israelite earlier, and he suggests that perhaps the later Samaritan split is what is referred to here. This would be a post-exilic religious development in the Jewish community. The precise nature of the Samaritan split, however, is still quite controversial,52 so this must remain an enigmatic reference in the story.
When questioned about the kind of tree under which they witnessed Susanna’s "adultery" taking place, the second elder answers, "Under an evergreen oak" (v. 58). The reader is struck by the difference in the testimony of the elders and joins the surrounding community, as if sitting in a modern courtroom, when they all come to know the truth of the matter. The second elder, too, is condemned by Daniel to face the executing angel of God, who stands ready with sword in hand.
Verses 60–64, Reaction and Conclusion. The people cry out, but this time in jubilation. God is celebrated as the one who saves those who hope in God (see Pss 33:18; 42:5, 11; 69:6; Sir 34:13; 49:10; 2 Macc 2:18; 7:20; 9:20; 4 Macc 17:4). Verses 61–62 participate in the role-reversal that is typical of the Daniel stories—the guilty are condemned, and the innocent are vindicated.
Five verses seems a lot of text to dedicate to the happy ending of this story, but the passage serves to justify the conclusion that putting the world right and vindicating the innocent are extremely important aspects of the story. This is an idealistic ending—the restoration of the community under the law of Moses. And it is precisely these last five verses that represent the vision and the hope of the writer of the story of Susanna.
The LXX has a rather nice thought at the end:
On account of this, the youths are the beloved of Jacob, in their singlemindedness. Let us also watch out for capable young sons, for youths will be pious, and there will be in them a spirit of knowledge and understanding for ever and ever.
Given Susanna’s courage, obviously we should amend this quotation to read that we should watch out for capable sons and daughters! Collins suggests that this ending has the tendency to focus the story on youth vs. elders, rather than Theodotion’s emphasis on the courage of Susanna. But we should note that the general themes of innocence, guilt, and truth are all seen as significant in the conclusion of the story. This should not distract the reader from the central elements of the story as a whole—that is, the oppression of the powerless by the powerful.
Germaine Greer has suggested two categories of rape: "grand rape" and "petit rape." The former is what we ordinarily associate with forcible rape. The latter, however, is a form of rape in which "the seducer in fact has some disproportionately unfair advantage over the woman. He need not threaten her, but it is his superior power which induces her to acquiesce against her will." Clearly, the difference between seduction and rape is not so clear, especially in a case like that of Susanna.
Only when one reads literature on rape does one begin to realize how complicit one becomes in Susanna’s abuse by "understanding" (read: excusing) the near rape of her as just a symptom of the social circumstances of exile. Such a view diminishes Susanna’s suffering and marginalizes her as a possession of her husband and as a temptress (only because she is beautiful). But it is only when we understand the story about rape, when we confront the sobering impact of using the term itself, that the story actually unfolds with all its power as a part of the Daniel corpus about resistance.
Susanna is approached by two men who try to exert their influence, power, and authority over her. The distribution of power and choice is clearly weighted in favor of these elders. She must either give herself to them or face death as a falsely accused adulteress. Susanna’s courage, her turning to God in the face of overwhelming danger, is, therefore, the equivalent to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah standing before Nebuchadnezzar and refusing his command to bow down and pray to him.
The story of Susanna invites us to consider injustice within as well as outside of our religious life. Thus the context of exile is almost an ironic twist—as if to say to the reader, "The Babylonians aren’t the only sources of injustice here." Finally, we must remember that the story is not only about the sin of the elders, but also about the corruptibility and foolishness of the entire exiled community. The elders are not the only fools identified by the young Daniel. The community in the story of Susanna is ready to judge her without a trial, and she is marched through a kangaroo court. The community, too, is showing signs of internal corruption and lack of fortitude. Daniel calls for solidarity as well as wisdom when he labels them fools for condemning "a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts" (v. 48 NRSV). Note, further, the enigmatic saying "This is how you have been treating the daughters of Israel, and they were intimate with you through fear; but a daughter of Judah would not tolerate your wickedness" (v. 57 NRSV). It has been speculated that this verse refers to conditions before the exile, or perhaps to the Samaritan split (i.e., Samaritans=north/Israelites). In at least one significant passage, "daughters" is a metaphor for the people as a whole. In Ezekiel 23, the northern kingdom, called Oholah (Samaria), and the southern kingdom, called Oholibah (Jerusalem), are condemned for having committed "adultery" with Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. If Daniel intends a similar metaphor, then the "daughters" are the people as a whole, corrupted by the "foreigners," implied in his calling the corrupt elders "Canaanite" (v. 56). Susanna’s treatment, then, is severely condemned by Daniel in terms that suggest that the elder’s behavior is equivalent to idolatrous behavior of the people as a whole in previous eras.
It is clear that Susanna goes through all the steps of the otherwise oppressed male Jews in the Daniel tradition: confrontation with an overpowering threat, calling out to God, angelic/miraculous delivery, and punishment of the accusers. Reflection on this detail calls on us to face a most uncomfortable reality in the modern church: We can become so wrapped up in the faith and justice issues of the world that we fail to address the insidious presence of injustice within our own fellowship.
The continued second-class status of women within some churches, and particularly the continued refusal of some faith traditions to accept a woman’s call to equal leadership in ministry, is simply an acceptance of the world’s judgment of women, and it makes a mockery of the church’s claim to seek justice and the full expression of the kingdom of God within our world. Those who would continue such suppression and oppression, even in the church, ought to keep in mind that the story of Susanna emphasizes that "the Lord heard her cry"!
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