The Bible on Rape (1): Susanna’s Story

Katie Edwards and Emma Nagouse of the University of Sheffield recently published an article on The Conversation titled “How the Bible Shapes Contemporary Attitudes to Rape and Sexual Assault.”  In it, Edwards and Nagouse discuss the victim-blaming attitude about rape demonstrated by a retiring UK judge, and then go on to provide some examples of sexual assaults in the Bible. The central point of their thesis is this: “one way or another, women are constantly implicitly blamed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, for their rape.” Is their understanding of the Bible’s view of rape accurate, or is there something more to discover?

Edwards and Nagouse trot out a number of Old Testament examples to support their thesis. Despite their academic credentials, they demonstrate a surprising lack of competence in handling ancient texts. They attempt to project modern understanding back onto texts which were written in a very different cultural situation and misunderstand the purpose of the texts. They further fail to make any sort of case for a link between biblical texts on rape and current attitudes in Britain or other secular Western countries.

This post will look at their handling of the apocryphal story of Susanna, and will be followed by a second post considering various Old Testament stories about rape.

Introducing the Apocryphal Story of Susanna

A significant portion of the article focusses on the story of Susanna – a young wife who is the victim of an attempted rape. It’s a fair guess that if you are not a Catholic or Orthodox believer, this story is as unfamiliar to you as it was to me until recently. The book of Susanna (which is sometimes a separate book, and in other instances, forms the thirteenth chapter of Daniel) is not accepted as Scripture by Jews or most Protestants.[1] Stranger than Edwards and Nagouse’s use of an apocryphal text as the major plank in the raft of their argument to prove that the Bible is complicit with rapists is the fact that they chose this particular text for that purpose. Let’s take a look at the story presented in the book of Susanna and how it compares to the claims made by Edwards and Nagouse.

Susanna is a young married woman of impeccable reputation who has a strong personal faith in God and comes from a line of faithful Jews. Joakim, her husband, is a man of wealth and of high standing in the community – he is “the most honoured of them all” (1:4). His home is used as a court for the Jewish community, but unfortunately for Joakim, the two elders who are appointed as judges are evil men who will bring shame on his household. They have a responsibility to uphold the law of God and dispense his justice; instead, their private actions make a mockery of their public office and the faith it represents. The frequent presence of these two elders in Joakim’s home brings them into contact with Susanna. Despite her righteousness, an unrighteous lust grows in the hearts of the two elders.

Lustful Thoughts Meet Abuse of Power

Although this lust is originally a secret in the heart of each man, the elders discover each other’s thoughts toward Susanna. Together, they hatch a plan. They bide their time until a suitable opportunity arises when Susanna is alone and ready to take a bath.  They approach and say to her,

20 …“Look, the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. 21 If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away.”

The impact of the threat made by the two elders was fully understood by Susanna:

22 Susanna groaned and said, “I am completely trapped. For if I do this, it will mean death for me; if I do not, I cannot escape your hands. 23 I choose not to do it; I will fall into your hands, rather than sin in the sight of the Lord.” 24 Then Susanna cried out with a loud voice, and the two elders shouted against her.

Susanna knew to consequence of refusing to submit to being raped was almost certainly that she would receive the death sentence as an adulteress if the elders’ lie was believed (Deut 22:22Lev 20:10). Her decision to resist the rape is a choice to retain her own personal honour and integrity, even though she knows it will result in her losing honour in the eyes of her community. She and God will know that she remained faithful to her husband, but who else will? Her situation seems impossibly bleak.

Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610),_Artemisia_Gentileschi
Susanna and the Elders (Susanna e i Vecchioni), Artemisia Gentileschi, 1610, painted when she was just 17. Gentileschi’s themes focus on biblical and mythological stories depicting women’s strength and suffering. This is one of few paintings depicting Susanna’s treatment by the elders as traumatic. Gentileschi was the first woman admitted to membership of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.

Family Shame and Sorrow

The false revelation that Susanna is an adulteress brings shame on her family that extends even to the servants (Susanna 1:27). An impromptu trial follows, in which she is further humiliated as she is subjected to additional mistreatment by those who are supposed to be investigating the case –

32 As she was veiled, the scoundrels ordered her to be unveiled, so that they might feast their eyes on her beauty. 33 Those who were with her and all who saw her were weeping.

Why are her family and friends weeping? It is possible that it’s for shame at what she is supposed to have done and how it might be seen to reflect on them. But their joy when Susanna is proven innocent suggests that their sympathies had remained with her throughout. I think it probable that they are weeping for the hurt and injustice done to her by the two elders, and their own perceived inability to do anything to change a course of events which will lead to their loved one’s death. This suggests that they believe her, even though they have no proof that could save her from the consequences of this lie.

Condemned by the Law

Although women could act as witnesses in Jewish courts at this time,[2] the odds were stacked firmly against Susanna. Here were two male witnesses – respected elders and judges with a position of authority in the community – who were willing to testify that Susanna was an adulteress. Despite Susanna’s husband’s wealth and prestige, the balance of power here lay with the two elders.

As elders and judges, the two men had expertise in the law of God. Unfortunately, they knew not just what it commanded, but how to manipulate it to their own advantage. They had knowledge, but lacked the righteousness that is the goal of the law, an understanding of the compassion and love of God and any concept of the dignity that is owed to women as image-bearers of the living God.

The trial is brief, and results in Susanna being sentenced to death. The unfair advantage of men of powerful influence in this case is explicitly understood by the author – “Because they were elders of the people and judges, the assembly believed them and condemned her to death” (1:41).

These two men committed criminal acts, and other powerful men – whether through indifference, fear, bias or the lack of clear evidence to the contrary – failed to stand against them to protect an innocent young woman. This is a story that plays out in many times and places, even in our own supposedly enlightened times. Patriarchal societies claim that a social structure with men in charge is necessary for the protection of women. The reality is that patriarchy protects men and their reputations at the expense of women, shames women even when the entirety of the blame lies with the man and usually has no paradigm for the restoration and healing in the community of women who are harmed by men of power.

A Matter of Life and Death

But Susanna’s deep personal faith in God is not mislaid. There is a plot twist to come – Daniel (yes, of the lion’s den fame) is stirred by God to action. He stands up and refuses to participate in Susanna’s execution. In the past, Daniel has boldly demonstrated his moral courage in refusal to worship an idol and his persistence in praying to the God of Israel in defiance of the laws of Babylon. On this occasion, Daniel – who was no stranger to risk-taking for righteousness’ sake – showed that his compassion for Susanna and commitment to righteousness gave him the courage to stand against men of his own faith to ensure genuine justice was done.

Daniel points out how the trial of Susanna has not followed proper procedures for the examination of evidence and insists on further investigation before any irreversible action is taken. By use of techniques still familiar to us today, such as separately interviewing the witnesses, Daniel reveals their lies. The two perpetrators are put to death and the innocent young woman goes free.

The glory for the rescue of Susanna is given to God, “Then the whole assembly raised a great shout and blessed God, who saves those who hope in him” (Susanna 1:60). She and her reputation are restored. The blame is attributed wholly to those who first attempted the rape and then compounded their first crime with perjury and defamation of character.

It appears that Edwards and Nagouse look down their noses at the fact that Susanna’s advocate and rescuer is Daniel, a man. The facts of the legal situation of that time and place ensured that only a man could take this role. Disappointingly, Edwards and Nagouse choose not to commend the fact that Daniel does not elect to side with other men in upholding abuse of women through the misuse of male power. Daniel – one of the most consistently righteous men of Scripture – uses his status and authority to bring about justice, ensure the punishment of the abusers and to release the victim from shame.

Was Susanna’s Attractiveness to Blame?

Edwards and Nagouse claim that, “Here, as so often in contemporary society, rape and sexual assault are linked to the attractiveness of women rather than a violent crime of power and control.” They further state that “in the biblical text, Susanna’s beauty is to blame for attracting the attentions of the elders.” But are these claims justified?

A careful reading of the text shows that Susanna’s beauty is treated a fact, not a cause, and no blame is placed on her whatsoever. The uprightness of her own and her family’s life is carefully painted. Susanna’s dependence on and faith in God is repeatedly attested to. The two elders’ lust for Susanna is not an indication that she dressed or behaved provocatively. Indeed, it seems it was her habit to present herself in company wearing a veil (1:32).[3] In contrast with beliefs that exist even today that place the blame for rape on the victim (“she was drunk,” “her behaviour was provocative – what’s a man supposed to do when he’s led on like that?”, “dressed like that, she was asking for it”), the text emphasises Susanna’s complete innocence to the point that we are left with no possible cause except the sin of the men themselves.

The lasciviousness of the two elders stands in stark contrast to Susanna’s behaviour. From early on in the story, the author has made it clear the fault lies completely in the sinful thoughts and actions of these two men. When they first began to objectify Susanna with their lust, the author states that, “they suppressed their consciences and turned away their eyes from looking to Heaven or remembering their duty to administer justice.” Their religious and moral duty is thrown aside as they allow sin against both Susanna and the law of God to be their guide. They clearly know that even their contemplation of desire for this married woman is sinful, let alone threatening to act on it and blackmailing their victim. Their use of strong threats to back their victim into a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation (1:20-21) is a classic technique of sexual abusers.

The men’s use of their powerful positions to abuse their victim and avoid consequences is one of the major themes of the text. The two elders – presiding over the case in their role as judges – are designated as “scoundrels.” Their further manipulation of other men is an example of how toxic patriarchy protects its own and harms women.

The text is clear that it is the moral failure of the two men which is the sole cause of the events of this story. Like Jesus’ teaching on adultery, the Book of Susanna shows that sexual sin begins in the heart of the perpetrator, not in the appearance or actions of the victim.

Although the concept of rape as a crime of power and control is a modern one, this is one ancient text where it is strongly evident that misuse of male power leads to this attempted rape. There would be few other texts from the ancient world which so strongly place the blame for rape or attempted rape on male sinfulness and abuse of power.


[1] There are significant doubts to whether the text of Susanna’s story originates from the same time as Daniel’s story.

Some might object to the story of Susanna being the focus in a post about “The Bible and Rape,” given that it is not accepted as Scripture by some Protestant denominations. However, this text is accepted as scriptural by a greater percentage of the world’s Christians than reject it.

[2] https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/post-biblical-and-rabbinic-women

[3] I am not suggesting that dressing in a way that some may perceive as immodest is a cause of rape. It is, however, frequently given as an excuse for rape. Many of the common excuses given as to why a man (purportedly) “cannot help himself” to stop from raping a woman are specifically excluded in this text, making it absolutely clear that the only cause is the sinful thoughts and actions of the men involved.

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