Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Bible’s Most Famous Courtroom Drama

   In the Greek version of the Bible, the story of Susanna appears as chapter thirteen of the Book of Daniel.  This is an interesting thing since from chapters one to twelve we have read various stories introducing us to Daniel and now in chapter thirteen we are being introduced to a very young Daniel.  According to some sources, this story may actually have appeared as chapter one of the Book of Daniel at some point since it introduces us to this character when he was much younger.
   The writing style of the Book of Daniel is known as apocalyptic.  It deals with matters of the end-time and was written either just prior to or perhaps just after the birth of Jesus.  Chapter 12, for example, deals with a Jewish understanding of the resurrection of the dead. 
   The story of Susanna is certainly not unique to the Book of Daniel.  In very modern times this could easily have been made into an episode for the television shows, “Perry Mason” or “Matlock”.  The story has everything that a good courtroom drama should have, lying, power, sex, intrigue, and deceit.  This story, or one similar to it, may have been circulating around for quite a while before it was added into Daniel. 
    This story is designed to be read as fiction.  The lack of character development is an indication that this story may not have been based upon the life of a woman named, Susanna, but may have been a collection of several similar stories which were put together into one and the main character given a name.
   Our story begins with us being introduced to Joakim; a man living in Babylon, who married the daughter of Hilkiah, whose name was Susanna, a very beautiful and virtuous woman.  Her parents were righteous and had trained Susanna according to the laws of Moses.  Therefore, they were devout Jews.  Joakim was a very rich man who had a fine garden adjoining his house.  As a result of his status he was often visited by various other Jews on a regular basis.
   In the same year, two elders were appointed as judges.  Concerning them the Lord had said, “Wickedness came forth from Babylon, from elders who were judges, who were supposed to govern the people.” These men were frequently at Joakim’s house and everyone who had a case which they wished to be heard came to these two men.
   When the people left at noon, Susanna would go for a walk in the garden. Every day the two elders used to see her.  They suppressed their consciences and turned away their eyes from looking at Heaven remembering their duty to administer justice.  Both were overwhelmed with passion for her, but they did not tell each other of their distress, for they were ashamed to disclose their lustful desires to seduce her.  Day after day they watched eagerly to seduce her.
   One day they said to each other, “Let us go home, for it is time for lunch.” However, both turned back, independently of each other, and when they finally met up together again they told each other of their feelings for Susanna.  Then they both arranged for a time when they could find her alone.
   Then the day came when they had their opportunity.  Susanna was in the garden with her two maids.  She asked for some olive oil and ointments and told the maids to close the garden door so she could bathe.  The maids closed the door and returned to the house to get the olive oil and ointments, but they did not see the elders because they were hiding. 
    After the maids left the two elders ran to Susanna and said, “Look, the garden door is shut, and no one can see us.  We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent and be with us.  If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and that is why you sent your maids away.” 
   Rather than submit to these men, Susanna shouted out and when the people in the house heard the shouts they rushed to the garden to see what was going on.  The elders told them that Susanna had been there with a young man and the maids were very much ashamed because nothing like this had ever happened before with Susanna. 
   The next day, when the people gathered at Joakim’s house the two elders came with them, intent on having Susanna put to death.  In the presence of the people they said, “Send for Susanna, daughter of Hilkiah, the wife of Joakim.” So they sent for her.  She came with her parents and all her relatives.
   Susanna was a very beautiful, refined woman. She came to court veiled, but the judges demanded that her veil be removed, so that they might see her beautiful face.  Everyone who was there, aside from the judges, was weeping.
   The two judges stood up and laid their hands on her head.  Through her tears she looked up to Heaven, for she trusted in God.  The elders said, “While we were walking in the garden alone, this woman came in with her two maids, shut the garden door, and dismissed the maids. Then a young man, who was hiding there, came toward her to lie with her.  We were in the corner of the garden, and when we saw this wickedness we ran to them.  Although we saw them embracing, we could not hold the man, because he was stronger than both of us, so he opened the garden door and ran away.  We did; however, seize this woman and asked her who the young man was, but she would not tell us.  These things we testify.” (Daniel 13:34)
   Since these two men were both elders and judges the people believed him and condemned Susanna to death. Then Susanna cried out, “O Eternal God, you know what is secret and are aware of all things before they come to be; you know that these men have given false evidence against me.  Now I am to die; though I have done none of these things which they have charged against me.” 
   The Lord heard her cry.  Just as she was about to be led off to execution, God stirred up the holy spirit of a young man named Daniel, and he shouted with a loud voice, “I want no part in shedding this woman’s blood.” 
   All the people turned toward Daniel and asked, “What is this you are saying?” He said to them, “Are you such fools, O Israelites, as to condemn a daughter of Israel without examination and with learning the facts?  Return to court, for these men have given false testimony against her.”
   So everyone returned to court.  The rest of the elders said to him, “Come, sit among us and inform us, for god has given you the understanding of an elder.” Daniel said to them, “Separate them far from each other, and I will examine them.”
   After separating the two judges, Daniel summoned one of them and said, “You relic of wicked days, your sins have now come home, which you have committed in the past, pronouncing unjust judgments, condemning the innocent and acquitting the guilty, though the Lord said, ‘You shall not put an innocent and righteous person to death.’ Now, then, if you really saw this woman, tell me this: Under what kind of tree did you see them being intimate with each other?”  The judge said, “Under a Mastic tree.”  Daniel said, “Very well!  This lie has cost you your head, for the angel of God has received the sentence from God and will immediately cut you in two.”
   Then, after putting the first judge to one side, he asked that the other judge be brought in.  Daniel said to him, “You offspring of Canaan and not of Judah, beauty has beguiled you and lust has perverted your heart.  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.  Now then, tell me: Under what tree did you catch them being intimate with each other?”  He said, “Under an evergreen oak.”  Daniel said, “Very well!  This lie has cost you your head, for the angel of God is waiting with his sword to split you in two so as to destroy you both.” 
   Everyone there raised a loud cry and blessed God, who saves those who hope in Him.  They took action against the two elders, because out of their own mouths Daniel had convicted them of bearing false witness; they did to them as they had wicked planned to do to their neighbor.  Acting in accord with the Law of Moses, they put them to death. Thus innocent blood was spared that day. 
   Hilkiah and his wife praised God for their daughter and so did her husband Joakim and all her relatives because she was found innocent of a shameful deed.  From that day onward, Daniel had a great reputation among the people.
   After reading this account of the story, one can see why this may have been placed in chapter one of the Book of Daniel instead of chapter 13, since it gives us a great insight into Daniel’s character, so we would come to expect that many of the things discussed later in the book would have come to pass.
   One thing, among others, which was very disturbing, was the fact that the entire original court case violated Jewish law.  According to Jewish law, a person could only be condemned to death following the testimony of two or three witnesses.  The people bringing the charge against someone were not to be considered witnesses, for the obvious reason that they have a vested interest in proving their own case. 
   There was no attempt on the part of these two elders to bring in some young man and tell the people that this was the young man that Susanna was with.  Even though they claimed to have been walking around the garden, the maids were never called as witnesses to determine if they ever saw these two men there. 
   We are informed early on in the story that Susanna is a righteous woman and yet no one is brought forth to testify as to her character.  Had it not been for Daniel speaking out the way he did, she would have been condemned to death by a court which was convened in her own home. 
   We are told, concerning these elders, that the Lord had said, “Wickedness came forth from Babylon, from elders who were judges, who were supposed to govern the people.”  This was stated even before the account of the trial. How did these two men become judges in the first place based upon their character?  
   It is easy to see, however, why this story has maintained its appeal through the ages. It follows the genre of “an innocent woman falsely accused” that is saved by “the wisdom and intelligence of a young judge.” The name of this judge was Daniel, but it really could have been anyone. Daniel is not essential to the details of the story. It also gives a glimpse of Jewish life during the exile. Some scholars are surprised that a Jew could have risen to such wealth in so short a time, but admit that such a possibility exists. It is also noteworthy that the Jews were, to some extent, self-governing and adherents of the Law of Moses. The secular aspects of the story are compelling—judges gone bad, lusting after their neighbor’s wife, speaking lies, and being caught and punished for them.  
   Nonetheless, Susanna’s prayer of lament, decision to remain chaste, and prayer for deliverance also speak to the hope and holiness of the Jewish people who embodied the wisdom tradition of Israel. The story highlights the importance of remaining loyal to God even when falsely accused by those entrusted as elders of the tradition. God’s deliverance affirms that God will not allow injustice to have the last word against those who are faithful to Him. Indeed, God will intervene on their behalf. Needless to say, the story of Susanna hemmed in by her accusers and threatened with death has often been used as a fitting image for the struggles of the early church hemmed in by their accusers and threatened with death by pagans and Jews alike. 1

                                                      End Notes

1)    “Daniel and Susanna”

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