Questions about the Bible: What Is the Book of Susanna?

 

The book of Susanna (also known as History of Susannah and the Elders) is part of what is considered the Apocrypha / Deuterocanonical books and appears in the Old Testament of Catholic Bibles. The books of the Apocrypha were generally written in the roughly 400 years between the composition of the books in the Old and New Testaments, the intertestamental period. Susanna is one of 12–15 books generally recognized as comprising the Apocrypha.

Susanna is among the additions to the book of Daniel (as are “Bel and the Dragon,” “The Prayer of Azariah” and the “Song of the Three Jews”) and was most likely composed between 200–100 B.C. Allegedly written by the prophet Daniel himself (12:4) in the sixth century B.C., the book of Daniel itself is placed in different locations of the Bible pending on the culture: the Jewish place it amongst the writings, dismissing its prophecies, while the English translations place it amongst the major prophets.

The book of Daniel begins with King Nebuchadnezzar’s desire to impose Babylonian culture upon some Israelite youths of whom Daniel was one, but as the years pass, Daniel astonishes Nebuchadnezzar by interpreting his symbolic dreams. After a series of religious confrontations, Daniel’s interpretations were clear: accept God or suffer His wrath. The king finally accepts God. Years after these events, Daniel was called to interpret prophetical words towards Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar. He died and lost the kingdom to Darius the Mede. After being bestowed with power by Darius (and surviving an encounter with lions through divine intervention), Daniel underwent a series of intense personal visions; dreams ranging from the future to the ‘end of days.’

Susanna however, is most commonly placed before the events of Daniel 1 (Theodotion tradition); however, the Septuagint (and Vulgate) editions position it between Daniel 12 and 14. Susanna’s strongest literary influences are the Old Testament books of Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy though ironically, is not dependent on Daniel itself. Though the early church originally considered it canon, debate erupted to whether it should be excluded as early as the third century, as attested in the Letter to Africanus, a detailed correspondence between Africanus and Origen.

Structurally, the book is only 64 verses long and can be broken down into the following. In Babylon, a wealthy man called Joakim marries the God-fearing Susanna, daughter of a priest (1–4). When two elders become the local judges, they visited Joakim’s house and stalked Susanna, lusting after her and disobeying God’s law (8–9). Then, many days later, while watching Susanna preparing to bathe (15) they approach her and say ‘Look, the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away’ (20–21). She rejects their blackmail and cries out against the attempted rape (24). Drawing attention, the elders state their innocence and Susanna is trailed the next day. During the court session, the elders fulfill their threat to Susanna and speak of her betrothing a young man (36–41). Deemed guilty, she is ‘led off to execution, [until] God stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel’ (45). Daniel compels the townspeople to return to the trial, as he declares the elders have lied (49). They return and Daniel asks each elder separately ‘Under what tree did you see them being intimate with one another?’ (54). When each answers differently, Susanna was freed and the elders were put to death (62).

Both abiding and refuting God’s law are at the core of Susanna. From the beginning, we are told that Susanna had been trained ‘according to the law of Moses’ (3) and this is clearly visible throughout the text. When forced to choose between adultery or accusations of adultery (leading to certain death), Susanna is aware of God’s law as it is written in Leviticus 20:10, ‘If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death’ and Deuteronomy 22:22, ‘If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.’

When facing possible rape (24), Susanna knows that the law instructs that a woman must cry for help, for if she doesn’t, she will not be seen as having been violated (Deuteronomy 22:24). When placed on trial before the accusing elders, Susanna shouts to the Lord that ‘these men have given false evidence,’ (43) indicating her understanding of law in accordance with Deuteronomy 19:16–21. Later, it is Daniel who refers to the same law when asking ‘Are you such fools, O Israelites, as to condemn a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts?’ (48).

The ‘two elders from [whom] the people … appointed judges’ (5), are clearly aware of the law of Moses, handed down from God, but choose to disobey them. The elders ‘began to lust’ after Susanna, despite the law in Exodus 20:17: ‘you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.’ Before they give false testimony against Susanna, they ‘laid their hands on her head,’ as written in Leviticus 24:14, ‘Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him.’ The elders are clearly aware that two witnesses are required when trying a Jew that has been charged with a crime, as attested in Numbers 35:30, ‘no one shall be put to death on the testimony of a single witness’ and Deuteronomy 17:6, ‘On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness.’ In an ironic twist, when the elders are found to be liars and have mocked God’s law, those same laws deal them their fate (62) in accordance with Deuteronomy 19:16–21.

More commentary can be offered regarding the issue of divine intervention as a major religious idea espoused in the book of Susanna. Had God not ‘stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel’ (45), it is certain that Susanna would have been unjustly killed. The intervention of God, often through a human vessel, is a prominent theme throughout both the Old and New Testament canons. That humankind strays from the laws of God, or even break them, often has God having to become involved in the affairs of humans to correct injustice or, in some cases, express His wrath in a just and necessary manner. What is striking about Susanna is that it depicts the ongoing struggle of the Jewish nation in abiding by the laws commissioned by God. From their initial failure to abide by the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32) to Paul’s statement that one should ‘not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God’ (Romans 14:20), the laws decreed by God were seen by some Jewish thinkers as being susceptible to human corruption or multiple interpretations which required the intervention of a merciful God when humans used or abused His laws incorrectly.

Susanna, though brief, is a compelling book of innocence and man’s corruption of God’s law. While not canonical, it is worthy of study and application to contemporary Judaism and Christianity, for it is a story which contains a message relevant to everyday life, even if it is considered a work of fiction by most Jews and Christians. By exploring its major religious ideas and Jewish thought in the period it was written, readers of Susanna may better understand the strengths and weaknesses of man’s application of God’s law and that no matter what, God will ensure that justice reigns.[1]

 


[1] Got Questions Ministries. (2010). Got Questions? Bible Questions Answered. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

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