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Women in the Old Testament: Susannah

Friday, September 28, 2012
Daniel 13:1-64. 

The account of Susannah has an unusual textual history. Although we now only have it in Greek versions of Daniel, the original may have been in Hebrew, but if so it was cut from the final version of the Hebrew text, fixed perhaps in the years after the emergence of Christianity. The Septuagint (LXX) canon, ie the Greek language canon – the one New Testament writers typically draw on – determined the Catholic Old Testament canon, one rejected by the Protestants, in favour of the Hebrew canon which in the case of Daniel stops at ch 12. Daniel 13 is highly unusual in that the text that was reproduced in most manuscripts and so the popular one came from a third century figure, Theodotion, and it is longer and more vivid than the LXX text, but tells the same story. Most Bibles translate the longer version. 

Although it is set in the events of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC, there are very good reasons for placing the writing of the Book of Daniel during the vicious persecution of Jews by Antiochus Epiphanes IV between the years 167-164 BC. It is thus a late text. It portrays characters who are true to their Jewish faith and trust in God, despite false accusations and real threats of death, and whom God vindicates. It expresses a conviction about God’s transcendence and foreknowledge and so God’s control of history, notwithstanding human freedom. In this way it encourages God’s people to keep faith, despite what is going on around them, and even to be willing to die than abandon God and his ethical and religious demands. It exhorts and inspires them to look to God for deliverance. We see all these themes in the story of Susannah, a story also designed to tell us about the youth of Daniel and of his wisdom and righteousness.

Susannah is a beautiful but very virtuous and pious Jew, married, with a family, and of high standing in society. Two Jewish elders lust after her. When they know that she is alone bathing in a garden, and thus has no witness to defend her, they demand that she sleep with them, making it clear to her that if she refuses they will have her condemned for adultery, since they will accuse her falsely of sleeping with a young man who escaped but whose sexual relations with Susannah they witnessed and interrupted. Susannah decides to accept death (the penalty for adultery) rather than sin in the eyes of the Lord by having sex with them. But she appeals to God in prayer, giving a loud shout (vv 23-24). Since they are elders in good public standing, she is duly condemned, not attempting a defence, but confidently turning to God (v 35). After her condemnation she prays more explicitly, protesting her innocence to God and putting her faith in God who knows all things before they happen, accepting death, but protesting her innocence and making clear that false evidence has been given (vv 41-43). Then the young Daniel intervenes, having first dissociated himself from the judgement of guilt. He interviews each elder, traps them and exposes their testimony as false. Susannah is set free and the elders are executed, and the people gave thanks that the life of the innocent Susannah had been spared.

The text was much commented on, not least in the early Christian centuries. In this context of persecution and in the original Jewish one of persecution, the character of Susannah shows the reader how one is to present oneself when attempts are made to force one to deny one's faith and also its moral requirements, and how to deal with false accusation and when faced with death. Not even care and concern for one’s family – Susannah was a wife and mother – permits one to deny God in any way. Susannah models trust in God and the conviction that God will vindicate his faithful, whether in this life or eternity (another theme in the book of Daniel). She thus models how to be a witness and, if the situation requires it, how to be its fullest expression, a martyr. She was thus a figure to help God’s people face persecution and be faithful in it.

Susannah, whose name means ‘lily’, is a model of sexual purity, in the married form. Since such married sexual fidelity was seen in the Old Testament as an expression of God’s covenant with his people, and their breaking it portrayed as sexual infidelity, it has been suggested that the story of Susannah was also seen as an allegory of the importance of wider religious fidelity to God, with the added warning that temptation can come from people or religions that appear upright at first (the corrupt elders). In the early Church Susannah was seen as a model of the persecuted Church. She is a very apt model for the virgin martyrs in particular, of whom there were many.

But she was also seen as a type of Jesus himself. Both were arrested in a garden. Both were falsely accused. Both were put on trial (twice). Neither of them really gave evidence in their own defence. Rather they both trusted in God, and each is recorded as praying to God for vindication. Up to 30 similarities have been noted, including verbal ones. The parallels are closest in Matthew’s Gospel and it has been suggested that Matthew actually used the story of Susannah to structure his passion account. Whether this is true or not, Susannah may well be the first woman to be explicitly recognised as a type of Christ.

This Christocentric note may well be an appropriate point on which to end a series on Old Testament women. All of the Old Testament looks forward to its fulfilment in Jesus. The grace given to all the people we have looked at came from him. In his blood their errors can be forgiven. It is the life of Jesus, supported by that of Mary, that casts full light on their significance, interpreting them most fully and truly, and in whose life that their virtues, faith, hope, love and prayers come to fullest meaning and focus.

Andrew Brookes OP


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