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God’s Word for You

Susanna 1:30-34 They laid their hands upon her head

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, July 22, 2023

30 So they sent for her. Then she came, along with her parents, her children, and all her relatives. 31 Now Susanna was a woman of great refinement, and she was very beautiful. 32 As she was veiled, the wicked men ordered her to be uncovered (for she was wearing a veil) that they might at least satisfy their desire for her beauty. 33 But her family and friends and all who saw her wept. 34 Then the two elders stood up in the middle of all the people, and laid their hands upon her head.

Here the apocryphal story takes on many of the hallmarks of an event as it might have been witnessed. The accused woman is not arrested, but is sent for. She comes, but she brings her whole family: parents, children, and the extended family as well (one version says that there were as many as five hundred who came with her). The author pauses to describe her beauty, which should not be a part of the case at all, except that everyone knows that a beautiful woman caught in adultery will be all the more hated for it, because it is the fallen human nature to despise what is not one’s own but which one desires or covets.

There is also a glimpse into the hearts of these young “elders of Israel,” who still lust after her, and even now, before they get ready to stone her to death. They still want a glimpse of her beauty. Their behavior is clarified by Ezekiel 16, where the Lord says of a prostitute: “They will strip you of your clothes and take your fine jewelry, and leave you naked and bare. They will bring a mob against you, who will stone you and hack you to pieces with their swords” (Ezekiel 16:39-40). The Mishnah adds to this the way the Mishnah almost always adds to the Scriptures by including directions for a priest to “dishevel her hair” and the specifics about which parts of her body were to be exposed. This is not relevant even to our apocryphal story, so we will not comment further about it.

They laid their hands on her head, to lay her sins on her head, as was done with some of the sacrifices and the scapegoat: “The high priest is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head” (Leviticus 16:21). But this was all twisted around, since the wicked sinners were confessing a lie over this innocent woman. They compounded their sins with more sins, false witness, and the intention to have the woman killed, and now an abuse of the word of God. What sins were they not committing in this terrible miscarriage of justice? They didn’t care what they did, as long as they didn’t get caught. But they were digging a very deep hole for themselves.

But this is always the case with men and women who think that they have faith or belong to the church but are too proud to admit that they themselves have sinned. They won’t confess their sins. They will do anything else. They will lash out about something else, or change the subject. They can’t be pinned down about their sins because they can’t face their sins. “If you speak to them about an apple,” Luther says, “they reply with a remark about a Turkish penny. No one can hold them to the discussion at hand. This is proof that we hit them at a tender spot. This is why they resort to subterfuge, pretexts, and all sorts of schemes, to avoid disgrace for themselves and to shift it on us” who make them uncomfortable (LW 23:305).

In the case of real, living sinners and their sins, there would still be hope for forgiveness even now. There is no sin, once confessed, that cannot be forgiven by our compassionate God. These elders of Israel are here in the story to bring us to our knees, because just as we want to shout at them, “Stop it! Stop your lies and stop all of your other sins that are piling up like a huge bonfire all around you!” so also the Lord shouts the same thing at us through his law. “Stop your sinning,” he commands us by describing our sins so perfectly everywhere in his word. “There is still time to repent, to turn away from all of those wretched things, and to be forgiven.” And he offers forgiveness in such a strange way! “Only put yourself in the hands of Jesus! Trust him, believe in him, and forget about your own good deeds. Forget about whatever righteousness you think you possess. Jesus our high priest did not place his hands on your head, but he shocked the world and sent the devil’s head spinning when he placed his hands on his own head, spoke the sins of the world onto his own account, and laid his life down to atone for it all. That is how you stand forgiven even now. So thank Jesus! Believe in his sacrifice and his righteousness, and know that his blood covers over all your sins.

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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