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28 March 2018. Daniel chapter 13
This chapter is the story of “Susannah and the elders”. It is unrelated to the rest of the book of Daniel and is only included because Daniel features as a witness. The chapter is omitted in Protestant Bibles as “apocryphal”. It does, however, make some very important points about natural justice and the legal system.
This story was written about 2200 years ago, about the Babylonian culture of about 2500 years ago. Bearing in mind that there was neither written language nor (as far as we know) any official system of justice in what we now call England at that time, it is remarkable that Babylon was known for having a detailed legal system. If verse 5 is historically accurate, two elders were appointed as judges each year. That’s no bad thing – most societies regard respected older people as suitable to act in that capacity, and a decision by two people rather than one is generally safer. But there are other good principles that should be observed, and which failed in Susannah’s case.
Firstly, to summarise the story: the two judges both become infatuated by this beautiful, young but married woman, and plot together to sleep with her when they find her alone (i.e. commit rape). A trial is held at which they preside, and their evidence that she had been committing adultery with another man is held to be sufficient to condemn her to death. Daniel then comes on the scene, not having been at the trial, but knowing by a message from God that she is innocent. He is then invited to preside at a re-trial at which he finds the men’s evidence contradictory, and they are then condemned to death instead.
How many faults can we find? Firstly, the two elders acted as both witnesses and judges. That should never happen even in the most informal of disciplinary hearings! Secondly, there was no evidence given as to who the mystery adulterer might be. Thirdly, the elders gave their evidence together. When Daniel interviewed them he heard them separately and was able to expose their evidence as false, for one said they saw the adultery being committed under a mastic tree, and the other said under a holm-oak. Witnesses should be interrogated separately for just that reason. And finally, Susannah was not given the chance to put her defence, until Daniel’s re-trial. We might think that was “the way things were” in a patriarchal society, but as Daniel points out, Jewish law did admit women as witnesses and provide for a defence to be made (verses 48-49).
To add to all that, although not a matter of breaking the civil law (then or now) the very lustful desire they had for her is condemned as sinful. “They threw reason aside, making no effort to turn their eyes to heaven” (v.9). It is neither surprising or sinful in itself for men of any age to find a young woman attractive, but any mature man, and certainly anyone following one of the major religions, should see there is a clear distinction between a passing look and lusting for someone so badly that he seriously contemplates raping her.
The story of Susannah, then, apart from the spiritual element of Daniel’s word of knowledge by the Holy Spirit, tells us more about principles of justice, law and what we would now call safeguarding, than about religion. But then, religion is about real life.