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God’s Word for You

Susanna 1:15-21 The big lie

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Sunday, July 9, 2023

15 Once, while they were carefully watching for the right day, she went in as usual with only two maids, and wished to bathe in the garden because it was very hot. 16 No one else was there except the two elders, who had hidden themselves and were spying on her. 17 She said to her maids, “Bring me oil and soap,  and shut the garden doors so that I may bathe.” 18 They did as she ordered and shut the garden gates, going out by the side doors to bring the things she asked for. They did not see the elders, because they were hidden. 19 As soon as the maids left, the two elders stood up and ran to her, saying: 20 “Look, the garden gates are shut, no one can see us, and we desire you! So give in to us 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.”

In the story, Susanna was dirty and in need of a bath, and then as we read the details we’re so offended by the revolting assault of the elders of Israel that we feel like we need to bathe, too. There is the beautiful innocence of the scene, marred by the lurid spying of the two men. We easily imagine them covered by robes, a sharp contrast to Susanna’s potential nakedness, although we are never told that she was undressed. The storyteller does not say whether there was a portable tub, or whether there was a fountain or little pool that would have served? These seem more likely, but since the whole account is a fiction, there is no point even in wondering.

Sin had already entered the garden as the elders concealed themselves. The natural request to the maids by Susanna made them disappear for a while, but the unreasonableness of the sin has the elders trapped into revealing themselves before the maids returned, as verse 19 says, getting up “as soon as the maids left.” This limited their time with the woman. Didn’t they think of that? Even in a fiction? The keen observation of our storyteller is that this is one of the things sin does to men and women. It blinds us; causes us to make mistakes.

Now their pressure on Susanna was also strange. If they meant to seduce her, their threats were not the way. If they meant to rape her, why reason with her at all? They can’t figure out if they want to be her attackers or her lovers. Being a mere story, we can’t really wonder with success about their intentions. Perhaps one of the elders coveted her differently than the other. Sinners bent on the same sin usually have different motives. One thief might be out for profit, another thief might be out for a thrill, but yet another thief might only be out for revenge, or to try to replace something he lost earlier in life.

Regarding this specific sin, their covetous desire uncovers a frequent problem that was present among the Jews and their way of taking the commandments by the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law. It also uncovers a dangerous precedent among people today who want to re-interpret the Holy Scriptures, including the divine Law, to mean whatever they wish.

Luther explains a point in the Large Catechism that may surprise some readers. Let’s listen to the great doctor:

“These two commandments are given quite exclusively to the Jews; nevertheless, in part they also concern us. For they do not interpret them as referring to unchastity or theft, because these are sufficiently forbidden above (in the earlier commandments). They also thought that they had kept all those when they had done or not done the external act. Therefore God has added these two commandments in order that it be esteemed as sin and forbidden to desire or in any way to aim at getting our neighbor’s wife or possessions; and especially because under the Jewish government man-servants and maid-servants were not free as now to serve for wages as long as they pleased, but were their master’s property with their body and all they had, as cattle and other possessions. Moreover, every man had power over his wife to put her away publicly by giving her a bill of divorce, and to take another. Therefore they were in constant danger among each other that if one took a fancy to another’s wife, he might allege any reason both to dismiss his own wife and to estrange the other’s wife from him, that he might obtain her under pretext of right. That was not considered a sin nor disgrace with them; as little as now with hired help, when a proprietor dismisses his man-servant or maid-servant, or takes another’s servants from him in any way.”

Se we see that the Ninth and Tenth Commandments were not given so much to the rogues and thieves of the world, but to the pious and the self-righteous, to hold up the mirror of God’s Law in a clear light, to point the long index finger that Nathan used on David and proclaim in a loud voice: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7).

Then we are left, like David, with our guilt exposed and our sins in full view. Then we pray, “Have mercy on me, O God,” as David did (Psalm 51:1), for we are shown in no uncertain terms that the sinner who sins so “Lacks judgment; whoever does so destroys himself” (Proverbs 6:32), and that “one sinner destroys much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18).

Where the law with its full force has condemned us, we have no place left to turn but to Christ. But let the sinner remember that whatever the sin, whatever the damage we have done to the law and to ourselves and to our families and friends or others, there is forgiveness from Christ even if the world will sneer and boo and hiss until it sees us finally in the grave. But the forgiveness we have from Christ is the only forgiveness that truly matters, for his forgiveness is what carries us on the wings of angels into eternal life (Luke 16:22). “For we have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ” (Galatians 2:16), and “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand” (Romans 5:1-2). So you see how God may bless our lives with a story like this one, with creeps creeping around for their creepy and disgusting lusts. But by dipping our toes into the scum of this stagnant pond, we see God’s bright, clear and refreshing grace, and we taste his gospel more sweetly than ever.

The two creeps, if I may continue to call them that, left Susanna with a seemingly impossible choice. Sin and be condemned by God, or resist and be condemned by everyone. What kind of a choice was that to make? The devil is a dark enemy; he is never your friend. But what a friend we have in Jesus!

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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