Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"The First Detective Story"

On this Tuesday of Lent 5, the first reading is the story of Susanna, included in the Apocrypha. The New Oxford Annotated Bible's commentary on the apocryphal book, Susanna or Shoshana (Hebrew: שׁוֹשַׁנָּה = lily), describes it as "often called the first detective story". It is an addition to the book of Daniel, and the Greek text survives in two versions: the Septuagint text, appearing only in the Codex Chisianus; and the version of Theodotion, which appears in Roman Catholic bibles. It was regarded as a part of the Daniel literature and was placed at the beginning of the Book of Daniel in Hebrew Scripture manuscripts. 

St. Jerome (347-420), in translating the Vulgate, treated this section as a non-canonical fable. He notes that Susanna was an apocryphal addition because it was not written in Hebrew, as was the original book of Daniel, but was written in Greek. Origen observes, in his Epistola ad Africanum that it was "hidden" by the Jews in some fashion. There are no early Jewish references to the book. 

Susanna occurs in the Book of Daniel, as chapter 13, in the Scriptures of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, whereas Protestants generally consider it apocryphal. It is listed in Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and of the Episcopal Church among the books which are included in the Bible for teaching, but not for doctrinal, purposes. It is not included in the Jewish Tanakh.

As the story goes, Susanna, daughter of a possible priest, Hilkiah, and the "very beautiful" Hebrew wife of a wealthy man, Joakim, gets trapped in quite a compromising situation. She and Joakim, from the southern kingdom of Judah originally, apparently had a wonderful villa in Babylon, with a magnificent garden. Because of Joakim's honor and reputation, many folks frequently came and went at their home, including prominent community members such as elders/judges. It was customary for Susanna, once the hubbub of business had subsided in the afternoon hours, to relax by strolling alone in the ample garden. Unbeknownst to her, two of the judges who used to see her "began to lust for her", each of them separately. 

So it was that two "politicians", probably viewed as pillars of the community and upholders of justice and righteousness, secretly in their hearts ignored the principles they were committed to uphold. As it's later pointed out, in fact, one of them had been routinely terrorizing and blackmailing Israelite women into non-consensual sex. One day, as the two judges left the villa for a lunch break, both bade each other farewell and went on their way, only to backtrack, in order to peek in on Susanna. Unfortunately, the paths they chose crisscrossed and they bumped into each other. Embarrassed at catching one another "with their pants down", as it were, or almost so, they compared notes, "confessed their lust, and decided to join forces in carrying out their nefarious mission.

It was a very hot day, and Susanna, instead of walking, decides to bathe in the garden. Her attendants bring her olive oil and ointments, then leave her to herself, exiting by the side doors of the garden. The two judges seize the opportunity, run to Susanna, and confront her: "The garden doors are shut and no one can see us. We're both burning with desire for you and want you to have sex with us. If you don't, we'll tell everyone that you sent the maids away just so that you could be with a young man." Susanna realized immediately that she was trapped in a no-win situation: if she consented, she'd be stoned to death; if she refused, she'd still be hauled to public court and, to make things worse, these reprobates would be the very judges who'd condemn her to death! 

Susanna, whom the writer desribes earlier as "one who feared the Lord" and who'd been trained by her parents according to the law of Moses, declares that she's not about to give in to their perverted wishes, preferring to "fall into your hands, rather than sin in the sight of the Lord." Immediately the two men begin shouting, opening the garden doors, accusing Susanna of shameful acts, to the complete dismay of Susanna's household, friends, and even her servants who "felt very much ashamed, for nothing like this had ever been said about Susanna."

The next day everyone gathers at Joakim's home, including the two self-righteous judges who send for Susanna. She arrives "with her parents, her children, and all her relatives." The author of the story notes that Susanna was both "a woman of great refinement and beautiful in appearance." So much so that she was brought in veiled. The men, who in modern parlance could only be considered "scumbags", actually order her to be humiliated by insisting that she be unveiled [the Septuagint says "stripped"] "so that they might feast their eyes on her beauty." Lest we think it couldn't get worse than that, the author says the two judges then "laid their hands on her head" in harsh judgment, the closest they would ever get to fulfilling their hypocritical sexual fantasies, as Susanna, in tears, raises her eyes to heaven, "for her heart trusted in the Lord." The two judges proceed to repeat their false accusations, and are convincing enough that "the assembly believed them and condemned her to death." All, that is, except one young man, Daniel = Hebrew, my judge is God, standing in the crowd, in whose heart "God stirred up the holy spirit" of prophetic ability and wisdom.

Daniel interrupts the proceedings, shouting "Are you such fools, O Israelites, as to condemn a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts?" This shocks everyone into a reality check, and the elders, recognizing something special in Daniel, invite him to "sit among us and inform us, for God has given you the understanding of an elder." Daniel immediately demands that the two judges be separated so that he can question each of them. He thereupon proceeds to cross-examine each of them about the details of what they saw. It quickly becomes evident that they disagree about the kind of tree under which Susanna purportedly met her imaginary lover. The Greek text employs a play on words. The first judge says that they were under a mastic = clove tree, and Daniel says that an angel stands ready to cleave the liar in two. The second judge says that they were under an evergreen oak = yew tree, and Daniel says that an angel stands ready to hew the other liar in two. The great difference in size between a mastic and an evergreen oak makes the elders' lie plain to all the observers. The author says that "out of their own mouths Daniel had convicted them of bearing false witness", and so, in accord with the law of Moses, the false accusers are summarily put to death.

It has long disappointed me that this, among other Scriptural stories, whether apocryphal or not, does not appear more in our Christian liturgies. This story is one which will certainly resonate with many in our day and age, bombarded as we are by continual exposés of sexual injustice, violence, manipulation, and demeaning of women in our society and, yes, particularly in our church communities! The story's point, I believe, is not just that virtue triumphs over ungodliness, or that, in the closing words of the story's author "from that day onward Daniel had a great reputation among the people." It's a story dealing with the inherent value and dignity of every human being, and of the absolute injustice and sinfulness of using power over another person for one's own selfish satisfaction; not only that, but of the injustice and sinfulness of allowing or promoting in our society the presumption that somehow men, particularly, have a "right" to such abuse, or the privilege of being "excused" this sort of thing: the old cliché of "Boys will be boys."  

Commentator Cherie Booth observes that the barriers and discrimination against women "are not an accidental byproduct of gender. They exist simply because of it. They rest on the idea, spoken or unspoken, that women are somehow not the equal of men, that their rights, views and interests don't carry the same weight. It is this assumption that underpins and links the pay gap in developed countries, the denial in some developing countries of a woman's right to own property, the practice of abortion or infanticide because the child is a girl, and that allows rape or honour killings to go unpunished. It is the belief that women are worth less than men.There are those who, while appalled at such prejudice in our societies, attempt to excuse it elsewhere as a result of different cultures. They argue that it is wrong to impose our standards across the world, casting doubt on the concept of universal human rights in a world of diverse cultural and religious standards. I believe this is both wrong and patronising. As Rosalyn Higgins, the first female judge on the International Court of Justice, noted, it's an argument advanced by states or by liberal scholars but rarely by the oppressed groups themselves. It's often based, too, on a false belief that the idea of universal human rights, and the UN declaration that made them concrete, is a construct of a few Western democracies foisted on a reluctant world. The declaration was drafted, in fact, by experts from every background and improved by contributions from all the UN's founding members from across the world. It was an express statement that the same human rights belong to each and every one of us, whatever our race, gender, religion or background. They are a recognition of our essential dignity as human beings, something that, I would argue, has its roots deep in all our great faiths. As such, they can't be ignored or watered down..."


1 comment:

deangraziosi said...

It is something called divine purity. I like this very spiritual and wonderful divine thought.
dean graziosi