Lessons of the Day

I always feel sad when reading the story of Susanna, since many of our Protestant friends do not include it in their version of the Old Testament, considering it apocrypha and non-canonical.

Sad, because it is one of the most exceptional stories in the bible, one that trumpets extraordinary faith.

Susanna is the wife of a very rich man who meets regularly with elders of the people who sit in judgment on the people in various disputes.

Secretly, the two are smitten with Susanna and secret themselves in her garden often to lustfully spy on her. The conspire to have their way with her.

One day, they confront her, and offer her this choice: Either lay with them or they will accuse her of having a young man as a lover, one they caught her with in the garden.

Susanna realizes she cannot win, but she decides to retain her virtue before God. She let’s go with a mighty scream, and the elders begin yelling too. As people assemble, they tell the story that they, walking  by observed a young man enter the garden. Going in to investigate they see the two lay together in the garden. As they move in to stop the tryst, the young man runs away.

Susanna is condemned to be stoned to death. Susanna accepts her fate, but prays to God who knows of her innocence. God sends his Spirit upon Daniel who is still a young lad. He stops the procession to the place of stoning and calls for a new hearing. He separates the two elders and questions them separately, thereby bringing forth discrepancies in their testimony. Susanna is vindicated and the elders suffer the fate they would have imposed upon Susanna.

As a lawyer, two things immediately struck me. One, today we practice sequestration of witnesses precisely so that they cannot listen to  others testimony and conform their own to it. Secondly, perjury, of which the elders were guilty, today carries the same penalty as that of the crime for which they offered the perjured testimony. This is unique in all of jurisprudence.

As a more learned amateur biblical scholar, I realize that the story was written during some period when the united monarchy was not in place and also when there was tension between the two. For Daniel relates to the two guilty elders:

“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.” [Dn 13: 57]

The elders have practiced this deceit before and it has worked on the daughters of Israel, the women of the Northern Kingdom, but not a daughter of Judah of the Southern Kingdom.

This story is juxtaposed with the story from John of the adulterous woman. Here the woman is in fact guilty of the charged adultery. No claim is made that she is not. Yet Jesus does not allow that condemnation to result in her stoning, as was the custom. No, he challenges her accusers, telling them, “let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her.” (We might reflect on what this means for capital punishment adherents.)

Of course, being good Jews, they realize that all are sinful before God, and they, one by one, walk away, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Shockingly, or so it seems, Jesus says he will not condemn her either, EVEN THOUGH he is without sin, and has been appointed, though perhaps not yet, to be our judge.

We don’t place enough emphasis on this I don’t think. Jesus, even though he was the only one who had the absolute right to condemn her, did not. He did not require her to beg for forgiveness, in fact there is no suggestion that she did so, or felt a desire to do so. Grateful no doubt that her life was spared, no words of penance or promise of future conduct issue from her mouth.

In the MUCH quoted phrase, Jesus tells her to “go away, and from this moment sin no more.” This phrase is misused so very often to justify Christian judgment against people, especially those who are “status sinners.” By that I mean people who merely by being who they are, are considered unrepentant sinners. Gays and divorced and remarried individuals for instance.

Yet, if there ever was a case when we cannot take a text literally, this would be it. Jesus tells the woman to go forth and sin NO more. How can this be? Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and throughout frankly the New Testament we are told again and again, that we are ALL sinners. We are sinners from birth if you believe the doctrine of original sin. Jesus was sent to us because it was impossible, according to Paul for any Jew to adhere perfectly to the Torah.

We are all sinners no matter how much we try to be otherwise. We all fall short, we all fail, in myriads of ways, in myriads of circumstances. So Jesus cannot have meant this literally. He probably meant more like, “do your very best to at all times be the best person you can be. Remember that God intervened to save you, and do your best to help others, and thank God a lot for what he has done on your behalf.

Surely the rigid among us will split hairs and say that well, Jesus was talking about actively choosing to do wrong, and then replay their litany of what is wrong behavior. But that is by an account a very subjective list. Better to not judge ourselves as our Lord did not, trust that God takes care of his children as is deemed right, and mind our own business!

Two women, one a woman of great faith, one the recipient of great pardon. Both beloved by God.



4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Apr 11, 2011 @ 17:18:52

    Wow. You heap our plate with riches today, Sherry!

    You’re right–we Protestants are worse off for excluding the Apocrypha and stand guilty of (if nothing else) a lack of curiosity. To my shame, I’ve never opened it, don’t own a copy of it, and thus know absolutely nothing about it. That will change immediately! And the first passage I’ll seek out is this wonderful story you relate here. Thank you.

    Your assessment of the adulterous woman’s story through the lens of “Go and sin no more” brings to mind a nuance I recently discovered further confirms your reading. In ancient Judaism, “sin” was defined as categorically unintentional and mitigated by sacrificial worship. Premeditated or consciously committed violations were classified as crimes that were legally tried and punished. The distinction here is vital, because the Jews bring the woman to Christ to tempt Him to judge her on legal–rather than religious–grounds, which would have exceeded His authority in addition to bringing about the woman’s death.

    With “sin” as the crux of His response, He ingeniously turns the tables by showing He’s wise to their ploy, impugning the woman’s behavior as flawed and forgivable rather than corrupt and criminal, and indicting her accusers of not knowing the difference–or, more likely, preferring not to know it. His advice to the woman, then, is counsel (as you point out), not command. Inevitably she will sin again, given the definition of “sin” and the fact she’s no different than any human. Jesus hands her an impossibility that makes possible alertness to temptation and weaknesses that might otherwise lead her to stumble. It’s sound advice we should all follow.

    Another day, another treasure! Thank you!



    • Sherry
      Apr 12, 2011 @ 13:50:41

      Wow Tim, thanks for the information about sin versus crime…I was not aware of that and it surely makes the passage even more impressive…. As to the story of Susanna, it is the 13th chapter of Daniel. Protestant bibles stop at 12. There are a couple of others, Bel and the dragon I think and maybe another.



  2. Michelle
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 12:30:20

    I recently started reading the apocrypha for the first time. I found it inspiring! My library copy was quickly replaced with my own copy.


    • Sherry
      Apr 12, 2011 @ 13:55:45

      There are some wonderful stories in it aren’t there? I make little of the canon/not canon distinction. All writings which speak about God are fruitful for instruction is how I look at it.


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