When Qoheleth famously wrote more than 2,000 years ago that “there is nothing new under the sun,” he couldn’t have known how prophetic those words would be.
For around the time, give or take a century or two, that Qoheleth was writing the book of Ecclesiastes, an unknown writer was composing a portion of the Old Testament book of Daniel that sounds as if it could have been taken from today’s headlines or social media.
Daniel 13 — the chapter is included in Catholic Bibles, presumably like the ones that were used at Brett Kavanaugh’s Catholic high school, but not Protestant ones, which rely on a different ancient text — tells one of the oldest stories we have of a woman who became the victim of sexual aggression but couldn’t find anyone who believed her.
As the story begins, Susanna — we don’t know much about her except that she was the wife of Joakim, the daughter of Hilkiah, and an educated woman of great beauty — attracted the eyes of two judges, also known as the elders:
The two elders, who used to watch her every day as she came in to take her walk, gradually began to desire her.
So what are guys supposed to do when they desire a beautiful woman? The ancient text suggests they had control over what happened next, but they made the wrong choice:
They threw reason aside, making no effort to turn their eyes to Heaven, and forgetting the demands of virtue.
Already we know that the story isn’t going to end well.
Eventually, the two men hatched a plot, which they put in effect one day while spying on Susanna as she came into her garden to bathe and sent her maidservants away to get some bath supplies:
Hardly were the maids gone than the two elders sprang up and rushed upon her. “Look,” they said, “the garden door is shut so no one can see us. We want to have you, so give in and let us! Refuse, and we both shall give evidence that a young man was with you and this was why you sent your maids away.”
Susanna’s screamed to get attention. Then the elders did what men like them do:
The two elders began shouting too, putting the blame on her.
The judges were true to their promise, claiming they saw Susannah having sex with a young man, and that they tried to catch him but couldn’t. That wasn’t good for Susannah, since the penalty for adultery was death.
Susannah, we are told, had a sterling reputation. But that wasn’t enough:
Since they were elders of the people and judges, the assembly accepted their word: Susanna was condemned to death.
So the words of powerful men were believed over those of an innocent woman. Two millennia later story still rings true. There is nothing new under the sun. Powerful men still exploit women, and all too often, the women aren’t believed.
And sometimes that’s end of the story. But it’s not the end of this story:
Susanna prayed, and God “roused the holy spirit residing in a young boy named Daniel.” (Daniel’s name, it must be noted, means “God is my judge.”) Daniel got the crowd’s attention and told the crowd what he thought:
“Are you so stupid, children of Israel, as to condemn a daughter of Israel unheard, and without troubling to find out the truth?”
And so the young boy devised a plan to find out the truth. With Solomonic wisdom, he separated the two elders, and had them independently tell what kind of a tree the woman and her supposed lover were under. One said it was an acacia tree; the other said it was an aspen tree. Thus the men were caught in their lie, and they were put to death.
There at least two morals to the story:
First, we’re foolish not to listen to the Susannas of our day, the women who claim to have been victimized by the powerful.
Second, the prophets among us may be those we least expect. In this story, the prophet was a young boy; last week the prophets were the two women who accosted a senator near an elevator and demanded that he think about what he was doing and what effect it would have on real people. That’s what true prophets do.
Of course, no ancient story can tell us everything about how to respond to today’s political controversies. But as I read the Bible, I see story after story such as this one that sides with the marginalized over those in power. And as I look at the way too many men have treated too many women over too many centuries, I don’t think that being on the side of the marginalized is a bad place to be.
All Biblical excerpts are from the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) published by Darton, Longman and Todd.
Painting: “Susanna and the Elders” by Gerard van Honthorst.