Susanna Did What!

There is a narrative that does not appear in all Bibles, which exemplifies the pick-and-choose habit of faith systems to select only things that they wish to accept as true.  The narrative in question is in regard to Susanna and the Elders, which is omitted in Protestant Bibles such as the King James version and the Revised Standard.  The tale is regarded as of questionable origin or of doubtful religious significance but which was tacked onto the  Book of Daniel.  The earlier Roman Catholic Church, due to the Council of Hippo (393 CE) and Council of Trent (1546 CE), made up of priests needing occasional suggestive reading matter, cleared the tale as the word of God and added it to Daniel as chapter 13.  This was allowed despite the fact that the style and setting of the story, and even the character traits of Daniel do not harmonize with the rest of the book of Daniel.  The work is now place in an appendix after chapter 12, which also includes the work  known as Bel and the Dragon.

In a nutshell, Susanna is about a beautiful and devout Jewish woman who is falsely accused of adultery by two Jewish elders who had lustful desires for the untouchable Susanna.  In essence, the story verges on soft porn, but the tale was included as an example of justice being  triumphant due to her plea to the Omniscient Lord to reveal the truth of her innocence.  Susanna was summoned before the judges who constituted the court, and the two accusers were  among them.  A beautiful woman being publicly accused of adultery attracted widespread attention, for the prospect of witnessing the sadistic punishment and death for a female adulterer was a powerful magnet.  But young Daniel is alleged to have risen to her defense, seeing in her the living example of truth and faithfulness as she faced her accusers, the court, and the gathered mob.

The trial began with the two lying elders demanding that she uncover her face, a custom prescribed in the book of Numbers 5:18; but by the historical timeframe in which the tale is set, the Mishna, tr. Sota 1, 5, forbade public unveiling of an attractive woman at such an event.  But the story goes on that the two elders rose up “…in the midst of the people, (and) laid their hands upon her head.”  Not a likely move, for under Jewish judicial procedure a witness could not also serve as judge.  But the false witnesses, their lust unfulfilled, told of having been by chance  in the orchard where the alleged incident took place and seeing Susanna receiving and having congress with a young man.  The mob absurdly believed that honored elders were above lying  about anything, and so the mob, manipulated into a  frenzy, condemned her to death. 

It is here that young Daniel enters the tale.  The  story does point up the fact that the majority of people  do not like to apply reason to a problem; they prefer finding gratification in having their opinions manipulated.  Ignored was the detail that no one had bothered to ask; why the two elders just happened to be loitering in the woman’s private garden.  Nor had anyone bothered to ask them to describe the young man or describe what the young man had been wearing.  Fortunately there was an established juridical procedure in this timeframe by which an appeal from a conviction of a capital offense stayed an execution until new evidence was asked for and received. 

Daniel made use of this procedure, and in the reopening of the case proceeded to cross-examine the two dishonorable elders separately in front of the court so that neither man knew what the other had said.  The single question put to the men was, under what kind of tree had the intimate incident occurred?  The first elder, without hesitation, declared the sexual act took place “under a mastic tree.”  The second elder, a bit reluctant, said it had occurred “…under a holm tree” (Daniel 13:58).  The assemblage recognized the discrepancy in the alleged witnesses’ testimony, and true to the fundamentalists’ mentality moved to, “To fulfill the law of Moses…(and) put them to death, and innocent blood was saved that day.” 

Unanswered is the nagging question, where was Susanna’s husband during this sordid trial?  He is absent for the simple reason that if the husband, named Joakim, had played the loyal husband role at the trial, Daniel would not have held the starring role: the episode was inserted as part of Daniel, after all.  So the tale ends with a fairytale flavor, the implication being that Susanna and Joakim lived happily ever after.

We are supposed to ignore that in gambling with contradictory answers from the elders to a single question, Daniel was actually gambling with Susanna’s life.  It was not totally impossible that both elder might have named the same tree.  Modern legal practice would never hinge on such a flimsy procedure.  What this tale does accentuate, however, is how easy it is to sway the populace through inflammatory remarks, slanted news, and  unethical persuasion. 

Unfortunately, the crude, swift, and erratic injustice personified with the elders and by the mob is still to be seen in religious and political arenas to this day.  For some reason we may wonder why we think of the Tea Party crowd in today’s US politics.

  • Related post: Book of Daniel, Another Borrowed Myth
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