In search for a different kind of gaze

In search for a different kind of gaze

The mystery revealed/19 - A new ending to the Book of Daniel tells us that justice is possible

Published in Avvenire 07/08/2022

"I remember as those childhood days in the village if it were now, when a wandering blind man arrived. That wandering blind man remains in my imagination as the most singular surprise, the most unexpected apparition, the happiest interpreter of daily childhood, of the most useless and hidden hours, of the most empty and lonely places. He could leave the country whenever he wanted: he always remained with me, all for me, in my heart."

Giuseppe de Luca, Memories and testimonies (Ricordi e testimonianze, 1998)

The story of the beautiful Susanna is a great teaching on the good use of ones’ eyes and on the vocation of young people to sincerity and gratuitousness, essential resources in every moment of crisis.

It has never been easy to grow old. It is not easy to look carefully at others and at the world when the years pass by quickly, death approaches and the ability to «never feel any care that does not belong to everyone» (David Maria Turoldo) fades away. We often end up looking down on young beauty by deluding ourselves that that shining life outside of us can replace the life that is dying out on the inside. People wish others ill because they are afraid of dying; hence, they look down on other living bodies because they find themselves unable to look the angel of death in the eyes. Our civilization has increased the looking down of the old on the young to a considerable extent because we no longer know how to greet it as "sister death".

«In Babylon there lived a man named Joakim, who married a very beautiful and God-fearing woman, Susanna, the daughter of Hilkiah... Joakim was very rich and he had a garden near his house» (Daniel 13,1-4). The Latin and Orthodox Church have also included Daniel chapter 13, written in Greek, in their Bible, which contains the beautiful story of Susanna. Perhaps (Origen already thought of this) its origin can be traced back to a sapiential commentary (Haggadah) on the passage from Jeremiah (29,20-23) that speaks of two Jews who abused women in Babylon.

In essence, we follow the beautiful story of Susanna, who also has increased the beauty on earth thanks to the countless works of art she has inspired: «That year, two elders of the people were appointed judges… These men, to whom all brought their cases, frequented the house of Joakim… Susanna used to enter her husband’s garden for a walk. When the elders saw her enter every day for her walk, they began to lust for her. They perverted their thinking; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments» (Daniel 13,5-9). As in all good stories, the first details of the story are essential: Susanna is married, she is a mother (she has four children, v. 30), she is a God fearing woman, and she is very beautiful. The two judges are elderly. The first narrative turn of events is generated by a wrongful use of the eyes, by a distraction of their gaze: they no longer looked towards the heavens, but they lowered their gazes, looking down on Susanna. Many sins are connected to the person’s gaze. We find their biblical root in the first wrongful look of Adam and Eve towards the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then in Cain’s envious and in that of Jezebel on the field of Naboth. Evil looks all converge in the last two commandments of the Decalogue on the "things" and on the "wife" of others, which are not to be looked at and desired in a wrongful way (the eyes are the mother of all desire). There are also good wishes on the goods of others and on people, called esteem, emulation, benevolence - "and while looking at him, he loved him".

As we follow the malevolent glances directed at Susanna, we must not forget that young and old males also know how to use their eyes in a good way. We have been doing it every day for millennia, when we look at a beautiful person and keep our eyeline high, without twisting them narcissistically towards ourselves, a chaste and free "how beautiful!" is born inside of us. If we were not also capable of these looks, women and girls would only be surrounded by the evil eyes of Cain. In reality, they often are, but not always, and they would lack those essential eyes that know how to observe their beauty without wanting to devour it, who are able to look at a flower in its beautiful freedom without grasping it to make it die in an always too small vase at home. Susanna, by the way, means "lily".

«One day, while they were waiting for the right moment, she entered as usual, with two maids only, wanting to bathe in the garden, for the weather was warm. Nobody else was there except the two elders, who had hidden themselves and were watching her» (Daniel, 13,15-16). Here, a biblical reader would immediately turn to the second Book of Samuel (chapter 11), and encounter David's wrongful look at Bathsheba, perhaps the most famous evil look in the Bible, a powerful man who first misused his eyes and then was captured by his own gaze. And then, arrive at the bed of Prince Amnon, and review his perverse eyes and the rape of his own sister, Tamar (2 Samuel, 13). Furthermore, he or she would relive, but with this time with reversed roles, Joseph's loyalty to Potiphar's wife (Genesis, 39). Unlike us, the Bible does not like to idealize and therefore often surprises us by showing us, among so many wrongful male eyes, the villainous eyes of a woman as well. «As soon as the maids had left, the two old men got up and ran to her. “Look,” they said, “the garden doors are shut, no one can see us, and we want you. So give in to our desire, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was here with you and that is why you sent your maids away”» (Daniel 13,19-21). Here we find ourselves at the second narrative turn of events. The text reveals the perverse nature of the two men. They blackmail Susanna and try to frame her using their reputation as males, elders and above all judges. Perverse logic cannot manage rejection and draws a vicarious pleasure in eliminating the object of desire: once the possibility of physical pleasure has vanished, they purely enjoy destroying the victim.

Many people, many women, find themselves trapped within blackmailing pincers like these every day. « “I am completely trapped,” Susanna groaned. “If I yield, it will be my death; if I refuse, I cannot escape your power"» (Daniel 13,22). Many Susannas around the world no longer see a way out and despair to the point of wanting to exit life not being able to exit the garden. Here the Book of Daniel tells us what the only wise action is in such situations: get out of the blackmailing trap, blow up the bubble created by the blackmailers, and shout out loudly. And that is precisely what Susanna did: «"Yet it is better for me not to do it and to fall into your power than to sin before the Lord.” Then Susanna screamed, and the two old men also shouted at her, as one of them ran to open the garden gates» (Daniel 13,23-25). The crisis thus becomes public and we find ourselves in the midst of an adultery trial. The two elders tell their lying version in front of the assembly and Susanna replies: «“Eternal God, you know what is hidden and are aware of all things before they come to be: you know that they have testified falsely against me. Here I am about to die, though I have done none of the things for which these men have condemned me”"» (Daniel 13,42-43). Another oath of innocence, another Job. And once again, another higher justice that suddenly makes an entrance: «The Lord heard her prayer» (Daniel 13,44). A breath of help of last resort arrived from the very heavens, from which the two men had averted their gaze. The heavens in the Bible are not empty because every so often they open up to reach out to the victims - prayers are true because God is true, and God is true because the prayers of the victims are, sometimes, heard.

Thus, we find ourselves at the third turn of events: «As she was being led to execution, God stirred up the holy spirit of a young boy named Daniel, and he cried aloud: “I am innocent of this woman’s blood!”» (Daniel 13,45-46). Daniel makes a return, as a young man, here. He intervenes along the road that leads from the court to the place of execution, and asks to reopen the trial: «Then all the people returned in haste and… he replied, “Separate these two far from one another, and I will examine them”» (Daniel 13,50-51). Daniel questions the two witnesses separately, and says to the first one: «“How you have grown evil with age!... Now, then, if you were a witness, tell me under what tree you saw them together.” “Under a mastic tree,”* he answered"» (Daniel 13, 52-54). How you have grown evil with age… Then Daniel asked the same question to the other man: «“Beauty has seduced you, lust has perverted your heart!… Now, then, tell me under what tree you surprised them together?”». To which he replied: «Under an oak» (Daniel 13,56-58). The lie had been revealed «The whole assembly cried aloud, blessing God who saves those who hope in him» (Daniel 13,62). Thus ends the story of Susanna, Joakim's wife. Nevertheless, this is not how the stories of many Susannas who do not find a Daniel along their path between the court and the gallows, end. Too many Susannas do not even arrive to a courtroom, because they are killed first, because they succumb to blackmail, because they are unable to cry out due to too much pain. However, until the last Bible is wiped off the face of the earth, these female victims will be able to use Susanna's words to raise their own cries. Even if they are unaware of it, the Bible cries out every day, for them and with them. Together with the many female victims of the Bible who did not get Susanna’s happy ending: Hagar, Dina, the two Tamar, Ezekiel’s wife, Jeroboam’s wife, the ten concubines of Absalom, all the sisters of Naboth and Hosea.

The version of Susanna's story in the Greek translation of the LXX, which is not the one followed by the canonical Catholic bibles which are based on the more recent version by Theodotion (1st-2nd century AD), has a different ending, and it is a real pity that it is not found in our Bibles: «This is why young people are Jacob's beloved for their simplicity. We must take care of our young people because they are capable children: young people will be religious and in them there will always be a spirit of science and intelligence» (63). In some ancient editions (Vatican) the Old Testament concluded with these words: people waited for the Messiah with this blessing on young people: «For to us a son is given» (Isaiah 9,6). The Bible has great esteem for the elderly, because it knows that certain aspects of wisdom are only learned over the years, through love and pain. Nevertheless, here, the Bible subverts itself and criticizing two elders and offering wonderful words about the young. They are praised for their "simplicity", haplotes in ancient Greek, and in the Bible, it is a very beautiful word indeed, it refers to having no ulterior motives, to the sincerity of the heart. It is therefore a synonym of gratuity.

Young people, boys and girls, are beautiful for many reasons, especially for this gratuitousness of theirs, which does not arise from virtue but from their natural grace. They are simple and sincere without knowing it - when we start wanting or knowing it, youth is over. The Bible does not say that young people are only sincere: they have skills and they are bearers of a spirit of science and intelligence. Without the different abilities and intelligence of young people, we would be trapped within our own crises. It is up to us to safeguard them. And by safeguarding them, they will safeguard both us and the planet.

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