The Mass readings for today (https://universalis.com/mass.htm) bring two remarkable stories about women who were saved from death. The perhaps more familiar story about the stoning of the adulteress is depicted in the illustration by our parishioner Jan Hearn.
We will, however, have a closer look at the first story:
The story of Susannah and Daniel is, again, one of the passages that will not be found in Protestant Bibles for not having been included in the original Jewish canon. Yet, Article VI of the 39 Articles of the Church of England lists it among the books which are read "for example of life and instruction of manners".
Daniel is as a young exile from Judah who became an important advisor to the Babylonian and Persian kings in the 6th century before Christ, and was distinguished by his ability to interpret dreams. In spite of his exile, he remained steadfastly loyal to his faith, and was respected and admired by Jews and gentiles alike. His recalled the success of the biblical hero Joseph in the land of Egypt, who was also an advisor in the court of a foreign
king, and the wisdom of the great king of old, king Solomon.
In our story, Susannah bathes in her garden, and two lustful men secretly observe her. They blackmail her that if she does not surrender to them, they will claim that she was meeting a young lover. She refuses them and is arrested. The proceedings are interrupted by Daniel who proposes that the men be questioned about the details of what they saw. They name two vastly different trees which makes clear that they made the story up. Virtue triumphs and the false accusers are put to death.
The story of Susannah has been used from the 15th century as an opportunity to depict a nude female body. Once we are allowed to leave our homes, we do not have to travel too far to see some stunning examples; the National Gallery in London contains exquisite canvases by Ludovico Carracci (https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/ludovico-carracci-susannah-and-the-elders), Guido Reni (https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/guido-reni-susannah-and-the-elders) and Francesco Hayez (https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/francesco-hayez-susanna-at-her-bath).
Susannah innocence was a stamp on her conduct and lifestyle before all people, who through witnessing her trial and outcome may have repented from their ways. She remains an example of a life of purity and as a righteous example and model. However, although the story is named after Susannah, Daniel is the other hero, clever enough to use his knowledge of the Jewish law to effect her salvation. While she is resigned to her fate, Daniel listens to the spirit awoken inside of him by God and his behaviour shifts the focus of the story from Susannah’s condemnation and rescue to his remarkable wisdom.
It should be also noted that from very early on, Susannah has been perceived as a symbol of the persecuted Church.
The first full commentary on the Book of Daniel was written by Hippolytus of Rome in the early 3rd century:
“It is within our ability to understand the true meaning of all that befell Susannah, for you can find all these things fulfilled in the present condition of the Church. Susannah prefigured the Church; and her husband Joachim, Christ; and the garden, the summoning of the saints, who are planted in the Church like trees laden with fruit.”
Indeed, both Jesus and Susannah were betrayed in a garden. The unjustly accused Susannah, then, also becomes a “type” of the Lord in His saving passion. St. Jerome compared of the resounding clamour raised for the execution of Susannah with the of the loud “Crucify him” uttered against Our Lord on Good Friday.
This helps us to understand even better why we need to read the story of Susannah and Daniel this week.
By Fr Tomas