Susanna (fl. 6th c. BCE)

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Susanna (fl. 6th c. bce)

Biblical woman. Name variations: Susannah. Flourished around the 6th century bce; daughter of Hikiah; married Joakim.

According to versions of the Book of Daniel, Susanna was the daughter of Hikiah, and the wife of Joakim. She was reputedly raised in Babylon during the period of the Hebrews' captivity, and is alleged to have been beautiful and devout according to the law of Moses. Her husband was said to have been rich and to have owned a fine home with a garden, in which it was customary for the Jews of Babylon to meet in order to dispense with community business, mostly of a legal nature. As our sources have it, it was customary for a court to meet in the coolness of Joakim's garden during the morning hours. These sessions were presided over by two elders (selected annually), who broke off their proceedings at noon so that the participants could return to their respective homes for their midday meals. Once the day's legal business had been completed, Susanna made it her habit to enjoy the privacy of this same garden.

One year, two lecherous elders are said to have taken note of Susanna's perambulations, which they began to follow regularly from hidden locations. Since Susanna believed herself to be alone, she made no effort to conceal her beauty while traversing her garden, although she otherwise would have done so in the presence of men who were not of her family. Having the opportunity to gaze upon Susanna's beauty, these elders came to be overcome with lust, but were for some time afraid to admit their desires because of their sense of shame. Eventually, one hot day each of the elderly voyeurs announced that he was going home to dine. On this day, however, neither had any intention of doing so, as each had resolved to return to the garden so as to assault Susanna. The two, however, confronted each other before encountering Susanna, and both were forced to confess to their lust. As they were doing so in their hidden outpost, Susanna emerged from her house with her maids. Announcing that it was her intention to bathe, Susanna required of her maids that they return to the house and fetch the soap and olive oil that would be required for her ablution.

This opportunity emboldened the elders to confront Susanna and to demand from her sexual favors, threatening that if she would not consent to do so they would accuse her of arranging a tryst with a handsome youth. They added they would testify to the fact that it was for that purpose that Susanna had dismissed her maids. Susanna was on the horns of a dilemma: the penalty for adultery was death, but could she afford to refuse their lewd advances, since it was unlikely that her testimony would outweigh those of two legal pillars of the community, even if, ironically, they were accusing her of crimes which they, and not she, longed to commit? Being pure of mind, Susanna could not consent to their blackmail, thinking it a far better thing to confront false testimony than to commit the reputed sin. She shouted out for help, only to have the two elders respond in kind. Their din quickly drew Susanna's household into the garden, where the elders made their false accusation. Thus confronted, Susanna was tried, unveiled, before her family. During the proceedings, the elders claimed that they had caught her and her lover in the act, but that her lover, being young and robust, had escaped. They then professed that they had been unable to obtain from Susanna the name of her paramour.

Appalled by the accusations of the elders, those present at the hearing hastily condemned Susanna to death. At that moment she is said to have prayed, with the result that God inspired the young prophet Daniel to protest the undo dispatch of the trial. After Daniel's intercession, it was agreed that the trial should be reopened. Daniel separated the two elders and interrogated them in isolation about their testimony. His one question to each was: under what tree did Susanna's tryst occur? The first replied, "under a clove tree," while the second stated, "under a yew tree." The discrepancy of their testimonies came to prove that the elders were lying, with the result that it was they, and not Susanna, who were put to death.

The historicity of the Book of Daniel is largely discounted today, with most scholars arguing that the work as we have it is a product of the 2nd century bce, rather than a 6th-century bce work written by a historical Daniel. Another problem with the historicity of the story as it stands is that it is not found in the Hebrew text of Daniel, although it is in both the Septuagint and Theodotion. Protestant Christians include this story among the Bible's Apocrypha, while Catholics officially attribute it the canonical Book of Daniel. Regardless of the narrative's historicity, it serves as an interesting morality tale, with a threat against the Hebrews arising not from some foreign source, but from within the community itself. Famous among the many paintings of Susanna are those rendered by Rembrandt and Artemisia Gentileschi , both called Susanna and the Elders.

William S. Greenwalt , Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California

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