Monday of week 5 of Lent – First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 13:1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62 or 13:41-62

The last two chapters of the Book of Daniel are not part of the Jewish canon of Scripture. The short stories in these two chapters may have originally been about some other Daniel or Daniels different from the hero of the main part of the book. The texts exist now only in Greek, but probably were first composed in Hebrew or Aramaic. They do not appear in non-Catholic bibles either. However, the Catholic Church has always included them among the inspired writings.

They contain two famous stories, one of Susanna, who was falsely accused of adultery, and the other of the events which led to Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den.

A certain prudery has often led to the Susanna story being dropped or substituted by a more innocuous text. (Or worse, being dropped because of its length by those celebrants who think that that the only good liturgy is a short one!) But, as Cardinal Newman once said, we cannot have a sinless literature and that applies very much to the Bible. It is only in the context of our sinful weakness that we can fully appreciate the greatness and the compassion of our God.

The story itself needs little explanation. It is about two lecherous men and an innocent married woman who is led into a clever trap from which there seems no escape. However, the woman defends her integrity at the risk of being falsely accused of being unfaithful to her husband in a society that was even less forgiving in these matters than our own. In fact, the whole community, after hearing the evidence from the two men, was ready to stone her for her adultery and indicated this by laying their hands on the woman’s head.

She would certainly have been executed by stoning if the “young boy Daniel” had not come on the scene. The rest of the story is a description of his integrity, his sense of justice and insight. Through his clever and separate examination of the woman’s accusers he proves them liars and the sharp contrast between the two trees mentioned – one being quite small and the other tall and majestic – only made clearer the inconsistency of the two men’s evidence. They end up receiving the punishment originally intended for the woman.

Really, the focus of this long and dramatic story is on Daniel and on his perception and wisdom and as a champion of justice. But, in today’s liturgy, it leads by way of contrast to another and very different case of adultery. A situation where the woman is clearly guilty and yet wins Jesus’ total forgiveness.

On reading both stories we might reflect on how often we stand in judgement of others, especially in terms of sexuality. Adultery is a very common theme that runs through bible stories and the fatal punishment that is attributed to it. We might do well, however, to remember that a woman never committed adultery without a man, and this, unfortunately, is often overlooked.

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