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Women as Victim: Susanna (8/15/21)

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

Rev. Jessica Palys

Scripture: Selections from Daniel 13

You’ve probably never heard of Susanna - unless your name happens to be Susanna - but her story is the forerunner to all detective shows we now love, from Law and Order, to Columbo, to Murder She Wrote, to Sherlock Holmes. Like most detective stories, it has a victim, 2 villains, a hero, a search for the truth, and a conclusion of justice. Perhaps it is the book of Susanna that inspired detectives to make separation of the witnesses a bedrock of their investigation technique. But it’s also a critique on state power, and how God responds when the law abuses the powerless.

The story of Susanna appears in some, but not all bibles. It was included in the Greek but not the Hebrew manuscripts of the Book of Daniel, and was left out of the Protestant biblical canon, our collection of sacred texts, along with 14 other books that we call the “Apocrypha” and many people know as the Catholic Bible. Why is there a shorter and longer bible canon? At this point, all we can do is speculate - after we review the story.

Susanna is a lovely wife of Joakim, who was seen as so honorable among Jews that his house also functions as a courthouse for the Jewish community. Two elders have been appointed as judges, even though God seems to foreshadow their corruption when they are introduced: “Lawlessness has come out of Babylon, that is, from the elders who were to govern the people as judges.” So Babylon’s culture had infiltrated the culture of Yahweh and we can expect that people are not adhering to the honor code of God’s covenant. Still, Jews followed their governing tradition of having disputes settled by judges in the community. When these judges develop lustful feelings for Susanna - coveting their neighbor’s wife - they conspire to entrap her by bearing false witness. As judges, they would know the law, and would know that Deuteronomy 22 states "if a man is discovered lying with a woman who is married to another, they both shall die, the man who was lying with the woman as well as the woman. Thus shall you purge the evil from Israel” (Deut 22:22) and that 2 witnesses are required for the death penalty (Deut 17:6).

When they confront her, it is with an awful choice - give into their request or be slandered as an adulteress and likely put to death. Susanna chooses her innocence in God’s eyes over her own life, and almost immediately the action ensues. She calls out, and so do the elder judges to mask her cry, because they all know the law regarding rape; if a married woman is alone with a man and does not cry out, it’s not considered rape. When the servants arrive, the judges speak their lies and the servants believe them without quandry. The next day she is put on trial in her own house. She is accompanied by her children and parents, but there is no mention of her husband. The elders proceed with their accusations, claim that the man they found her with was too strong and therefore eluded capture, and that Susanna is uncooperative in refusing to name her lover. Because of the credibility of the elders in the community, the assembly believes them and Susanna is sentenced to death.

Susanna is not allowed to speak for herself, nor does anyone come forward to testify on her behalf, but she believes God hears her and so we see her take this action to save herself; she cries out to heaven and God hears her. And so we meet Daniel. In order to intervene in this miscarriage of justice, God ‘stirs the spirit’ of a young boy named Daniel when Susanna is on the way to her execution. Here, Daniel becomes Columbo, asking for permission to cross-examine the judges, separating the witnesses, and asking for specific details. He shrewdly asks for the location where the elders saw Susanna’s alleged affair. Surprised by this request for detail, one elder says under the Mastic tree, a short Mediterranean variety that grows only 12 feet high. The other elder names the towering Evergreen Oak, typically 20 to 30 feet high. Recognizing there is no conceivable way these two trees could be mistaken for each other, the crowd realizes the judges are lying! As a result, the judges are sentenced to the same fate as their victim, death, in accordance with the law that anyone bearing false witness is due the fate of that whom they slandered.

After this exciting conclusion worthy of any episode of Murder, She Wrote, we aren’t given the opportunity to hear Susanna’s reaction, but her husband and parents rejoice. And even though Susanna’s character is the one that got God’s attention, it’s Daniel’s reputation that gets built from this story: “from that day onward Daniel had a great reputation among the people”. Perhaps this is because Daniel is the symbol of the noble and righteous character they needed in the Babylonian exile.

The Book of Daniel begins with what can be seen as a collection of ‘morality plays’ in a time when Israel is trying to figure out its identity and how to function in exile. Scholars believe both books of Daniel, the Hebrew and the Greek, were written about 200 years before Christ, during the time of the Babylonian diaspora, or the time when Jews were scattered abroad by the Babylonian conquest and living outside of the land of Israel in Syria or Mesopotamia. Remember, God promised his people they would live in their ‘land of milk and honey’ which became known as the promised land. To be exiled from their sacred destiny creates a huge crisis of identity for Israel. Not only are they living outside their homeland, during this time the one and only Temple has been destroyed; the Temple where they go to pray, show gratitude and make sacrifices - their special connection to God. Therefore without the Temple, the sacred medium between Jews and God no longer exists.

These morality plays found in Daniel serve to be a vehicle through which the people of Israel explore the issues and anxieties that come from living in Diaspora - living as a small sub culture within a larger, more powerful culture. Just like we’ve discussed, the female character Susanna represents a community under attack; but in this case, the attack is from internal corruption. These judges have so much power that people take their words against even the most saintly and pious of Jews. And apparently, this isn’t the first time this has happened - When Daniel says, “this is how you’ve been treating the daughters of Judah, and they were intimate with you through fear.” he suggests that the judges have committed such a crime before with women less honorable and courageous than Susanna, and they have gotten away with it. It is only by Susanna’s unwavering hold on her piety that they have been caught. The wickedness of the elders in the garden suggests that even a community accustomed to luxury and stable governance has the capacity to self-destruct through lax attention to morality, corruption and slander. It suggests that when there is disinformation, unchecked power and people are never held accountable, corruption grows - something that is still relevant today.

The people of Israel are reflecting on who they were and how they have gotten to the point where they are. What did they do wrong to end up living scattered in Babylon, with only this corruptible echo of their noble system of religious law and righteousness? Without their promised land and religious system of laws, how can they maintain their morality and identity? This story lesson of Susanna suggests some answers to the dilemma of how to live in Diaspora. Daniel becomes the example of a young, principled leader showing how to be righteous and just, as opposed to the corruption and entitlement of the elder judges. Daniel, who’s name means “God is Judge”, becomes the example of noble and honest character. Susanna becomes the example of honoring God’ by choosing to follow the law rather than save herself. Daniel becomes representative of the character of God’s righteousness This is part of the discussion in Israel of how to maintain the moral identity of God’s people when your people are no longer in charge of their own community, but rather are living under the thumb of a different kingdom. Eventually, the religious leaders of Israel come to the conclusion that one must follow God in their heart, and Susanna exemplifies such a person, who would choose humiliation and death over disappointing God.

We, too, are in a place where we would be well served by reflecting on who we are and why we have come to this point. What does Christianity, or living an upstanding or righteous life mean in this day and age? When our system of how we govern ourselves is beginning to falter under the weight of disinformation, unchecked power and lack of accountability, do we jump into action to correct the wrong? How do we exercise our noble character and true heart for God’s love? Do we speak up for the powerless when we learn about how they suffer? When living in the midst of a deconstructing or restructuring society, these are difficult questions but ones that are critical. If we let injustice pass under our noses but don’t do anything about it, we become no better than the maid servants and townspeople who just watched Susannsa condemned to death.

No one knows, of course, why this story of Susanna wasn’t included in the canon, but one speculation is that in a precarious time of critical importance in Israel’s history, it critiqued the religious establishment too much. The book of Daniel, according to the Women’s Bible Commentary, is seen as a long theological critique of state power. In fact, Jesus pulls on these stories in his confrontations with the religious authorities of his day, reminding them that the law is not infallible if the people arbitrating the law are susceptible to corruption themselves.

Susanna’s story is one that reminds us of the damage slander and falsehoods can do, especially in the mob mentality of the community that was ready to put Susanna to death. Whereas leveling an accusation is easy, pursuing the truth requires more of us. It requires someone to take a closer look, to examine the evidence, and to share that knowledge with the community. It requires courage, and thoughtfulness, and noble intentions. Lessons we could well use in this age of disinformation that is so dangerous it can land you in the hospital.

In spite of the fact that Susanna had no legal recourse in the proceedings against her, no one to speak on her behalf, compared to other stories of rape in the bible where the women are not named and not given the voice to call out to God, Susanna actually has more power than most. She actually has God’s ear. As a victim of injustice, she raises her voice to God in protest, and God responds, reminding us that God is always on the side of the unjustly accused. Indeed, in the entire book of Daniel, Susanna is the only woman who has a name; in that she is distinguished from all other women in Daniel. She is the symbol for prayer, calling on God, and finding one’s own voice to refuse evil and choose good. This pursuit of the good through truth is what our world is built on, so we should offer our thanks to the example provided by Susanna and Daniel. Like Columbo, Angela Fletcher and Olivia Bensen, in the pursuit of truth, justice prevails. And in Susanna’s story, we are reminded that good triumphs because God pays attention to the wrongfully accused, the ostracized, the discarded the victim; and God pays attention to our cries of injustice. We can draw strength through the knowledge that God hears our prayers and is at work in our world, inspiring others to use their voices to defend the weak and vulnerable. God heard Susanna’s prayer, God hears our prayers, and God will hear your prayer so lift up your hearts on this day. Amen.

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