Susanna: An Apocryphal Fable

The Story of Susanna is a beautiful but brief tale of a virtuous woman, Susanna, who is wrongly accused of infidelity by two lustful men. She has been raised in a family that follows the laws of Moses. She is reportedly very beautiful, which is why two old men spy on her each day. One day, she goes to bathe in her garden, and the old judges spring out of their hiding place and blackmail her. They demand that Susanna have sex with them, or else they will accuse her of lying with another man, and the council will trust their opinion as judges. Susanna rejects them, trusting that the Lord will watch over her.

“Susanna and the Elders” by Guido Reni (1620-1625)

At her trial, Susanna is condemned to death by the council at the recommendation of the lecherous, old judges, however the Lord hears her cries. Why does God hear Susanna? Perhaps because she is virtuous and was raised in a God-fearing household. If so, then virtue is the catalyst which allows God to hear some people, and not others. In response, God raises up a young Daniel in Susanna’s defense. He separates the two old men, and when separately questioned, they give differing accounts of a tree under which the alleged activities took place (there is a clever Greek pun on the different trees in the Septuagint). Thus their accusation is ruined, and they are put to death, while Susanna and her family praise the Lord.

This is the story of how Daniel rose up to become a spiritual and ethical leader among the Israelites, prior to his captivity in Babylon and his famous story of interpreting the King’s dreams. It is a story of justice as vengeance. Exoterically, the plot is a fable, reaffirming the moral teaching that faith can provide, even in the most dire circumstances. Faith is rewarding to those who decide to act in a virtuous way, and in fact, faith can even punish enemies. What would have happened had Susanna decided to sleep with the two old judges? In the eyes of God she would have sinned, or disobeyed a divine law, while following the law of her particular nation (at least in the eyes of the judges). Thus, the true theological devotee is in a perpetual conflict between the laws of man and the laws of God. Virtue, as taught in the writings of theology, is reserved for those who follow divine laws. But surely humans would not follow the laws of God unless there were strong incentives to do so, such as the promise of life without death in heaven (as Christianity teaches) or the chance that the Lord will listen in times of suffering and save you -a deux ex machina, or perhaps ‘God out of the machine.’ What would happen if the Susanna fable ended in Susanna being wrongly condemned to death? There would be no redemption, and thus little incentive for readers and listeners to follow the teachings of God and Moses. It would simply be a tragedy, not a fable. Only in the promise of potential redemption (or freedom from injustice and suffering) can we see and hear the theological teaching of Susanna.

The Susanna story is considered apocryphal since it was not found in the Hebrew Tanakh. It is also absent of the Septuagint (though apparently included in early versions) and Jerome removed it from the Latin Vulgate. Today, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles have included Susanna with the book of Daniel.

For this reading I used an internet-based Project Gutenberg translation.

1 thought on “Susanna: An Apocryphal Fable

  1. Pingback: Notes on Additions to the Book of Daniel | Great Books Guy

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