Susanna, Sex and the Senses of Scripture

The Fathers of the Church declared that any given Scriptural text had four senses:

  1. The Literal Sense - Just reading what the text says, taken at face value;
  2. The Allegorical Sense - Where physical things are used to analogously describe spiritual things;
  3. The Moral Sense - Where we learn something about the moral life, about how we should live;
  4. The Eschatological Sense - Where we glean some meaning that helps lead us to our final end: God.

Let’s give it a try, shall we? Let’s look at Daniel 13 – the story of Susanna. Read it yourself now.

The Literal Sense

It’s a good story. The protagonist is Susanna, a young, married, Jewish woman living during the Babylonian exile. She is described as both virtuous and beautiful. The antagonists are two older men, who are infatuated with Susanna and threaten her: have sex with them or else they will lie to the community that they witnessed her committing adultery. Susanna refuses and they follow through with their threat; on their word, Susanna is condemned to death for the crime of adultery. She puts her trust in God Who answers her prayer by sending the young prophet Daniel to her aid. He segregates the accusers, asking each one where they saw her commit her crime. The men give different stories, proving they were lying; they are executed for their false testimony, while Susanna’s good name is restored.

It’s a nice story about a woman who trusts in the Lord and refuses to sin, even though the consequence for such virtue is certain death. God, who is faithful, comes to her aid. We are edified by her faith.

The Allegorical Sense

Some Church Fathers saw Susanna as an Old Testament type of the Church. I wish to make a distinction here; in the NT, the Greek word ecclesia is translated into English as church. In some places in the NT, however, it is also translated into English as the word synagogue. The word, then, refers to God’s people, whether before Jesus or after Jesus. The Greek word literally means a gathering of people. Feminine symbols representing the ecclesia in the OT refer to both God’s then present people Israel/Judah, as well as God’s future people, the Church. Susanna is a symbol of Judah in the time of Daniel which also points to the future Church; in fact, this story is a prophecy of the future Church, as we shall see. Moving on, Susanna’s husband, Joakim, was a type of Christ. Note:

4 Joakim was very rich, and had a spacious garden adjoining his house; and the Jews used to come to him because he was the most honored of them all. (Dan 13:4)

Gardens in Sacred Scripture should always remind us of the Garden of Eden. It was there that humanity was to experience paradise before original sin changed everything. Gardens symbolize, then, paradise – our heavenly paradise. So, Jesus has a house (the Church) adjoining to a garden (heaven); the Church is indeed adjoining to heaven, particularly in the Liturgy. Joakim was honored among the Jews, just as the Jews honored/worshipped Yahweh, the true God.

There is further imagery here as Susanna desires to bathe in the garden, a symbol of baptism. It is through baptism that a soul first receives grace, that life of God that is paradise. A woman bathing in a garden is a perfect symbol for the Church and her sacraments. Her maids then go out of the garden to get oils, which are also sacramental symbols: the chrism oils used to anoint. Who are these two maids who serve Susanna? St. Hippolytus suggested they were Faith and Love, those virtues we receive in baptism.

Now enter the villains, two elders who are leaders in the Jewish community and are here described as iniquitous. In describing them as elders, the story takes on special meaning for Christians, where these elders are the Jews who came before us. But, before you get disturbed by my symbolism, we note that the Jews, as a whole, were not iniquitous, but were a righteous people; so these men are not “the Jews” in general, but certain Jews, who were leaders of the Jewish people and were iniquitous. Our Gospels make clear who the wicked elders were, who these men represented: the Temple priests, who by the time of Jesus had become corrupt and served themselves rather than God’s people; and likewise the false monarchy of the Herods, a puppet government set up by the Romans. If Susanna is God’s people married to God Himself, those corrupt priests attempted to possess God’s people as their own bride. They bore false witness against her and demanded her death, as the Temple priests did in Jesus’ day, first killing Him, then killing His bride, His followers. And they did this not because they loved Yahweh, but because they loved their position of power over Yahweh’s people.

Daniel describes the two elders individually:

52 You old relic of wicked days, your sins have now come home, which you have committed in the past, 53 pronouncing unjust judgments, condemning the innocent and letting the guilty go free, though the Lord said, 'Do not put to death an innocent and righteous person.' (Dan 13:52-53)

56 You offspring of Canaan and not of Judah, beauty has deceived you and lust has perverted your heart. 57 This is how you both have been dealing with the daughters of Israel, and they were intimate with you through fear; but a daughter of Judah would not endure your wickedness. (Dan 13:56-57)

The “old relic” were the Temple priests of Jesus’ day, practicing the old religion of the Mosaic Law; they condemned the innocent (Jesus) while they, the Pharisees, were free to go about in their hypocrisy. Jesus made all of this very clear in His conversations with the Pharisees. The “offspring of Canaan” refers to a non-Jew: King Herod, who was an Edomite; according to the genealogy in Genesis 36, Edomites descended from Esau’s sons who were born in Canaan. The Judean monarchy (Herod) and the Temple priesthood together worked to have Jesus put to death, and His followers as well. The story of Susanna becomes a rather accurate prophecy of the future Church and attempts by iniquitous men to destroy her. As the story of Susanna goes, it was the elders who were destroyed – as the old Temple religion is gone – and Susanna lived on, as does the Church to this day.

The Moral Sense

It's fairly obvious that this passage has a moral message regarding sexuality. Many non-Christians wonder why Christians are often so focused on sexual ethics. In fact, we are concerned with three different kinds of human failings, as explained elsewhere. But, of those three, none are so easily available to the average person as sex. Therefore, none are so often failed as in the area of human sexuality. But what, many ask, is so immoral about two consenting adults enjoying sex? This text from Daniel has the answer.

8 The two elders used to see her every day, going in and walking about, and they began to desire her. 9 And they perverted their minds and turned away their eyes from looking to Heaven or remembering righteous judgments. 10 Both were overwhelmed with passion for her, but they did not tell each other of their distress, 11 for they were ashamed to disclose their lustful desire to possess her. (Dn 13:8-11)

Ugly language; let’s start from basic principles. We Christians recognize that salvation comes from God alone; however, I must agree to accept God’s love. I recognize that I am not naturally inclined to accept God’s love, due to conflict with my own self-love – this is the basic conflict of Christianity. I need, therefore, to break down some barriers to open myself up to God’s love. This becomes the Spiritual Life, the path of every Christian. Part of that path is the moral life, where I try to remove those things – related to those three basic temptations – that guide me away from God and into myself. The villains in this story desire Susanna; that is, they objectify her – a daughter of God! – making her a thing to be desired for their own pleasure. In contrast, we ought to recognize each other as children of God, persons to be loved and respected because we receive dignity from our heavenly Father. The text goes on to explain that this desire turned the men away from heaven, from God and from the moral life. It was because they “were overwhelmed with passion for her,” leading to a “desire [to possess] her.” This is the well-known fruit of sexual desire; it is an animal passion that overwhelms, that turns us away from God. No one who desires Christ can want such a thing that so strongly turns hearts away from God. Every form of pleasure turns us away from God, but lust has a special trait in that it leads to ignoring another person’s dignity and turning them into an object to be desired and ultimately possessed. This is why Christians are cautious about sexuality; we recognize the bad effects pleasure-seeking so often has on the Spiritual Life.

But what of non-Christians? Why do we get involved with sexual ethics as a social issue, sticking our noses into other peoples’ bedrooms? Because it really is a social issue. As noted in this passage, lust is ultimately a desire to possess another. When people think of other people as possessions, social justice demands action. All forms of sexual desire that are not tied to the obvious purpose of sex – procreation – are merely attempts to possess. This simple description is the basic principle of sexual ethics. Social justice demands all people are treated with dignity, always. Rather than ask why Christians care about sexual ethics, we should ask why others do not care? I fear the answer is that the others are entrapped by this temptation; rather than free themselves from the sin of objectifying possession, they pretend it’s just a religious myth that they can ignore.

The Eschatological Sense

The eschatological sense of this text is derived from the other three senses. If we wish to find God as our final end, then we have some things to do.

First, we must be faithful and trust in God as Susanna did. Second, we should be members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the ecclesia, which is the bride of Christ. Third, we must lead a moral life, trying our best to avoid the temptations to sin against others. If we consider the ecclesia, the gathering of people, to be the form of our sacramental worship, then the eschatological conclusion is simplified: Faith, Sacraments, Morality – this is what leads us to God. So says Daniel, so says the catechism.