Daniel and Susanna

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The story of Susanna is a classic "courtroom drama," without the courtroom. It takes place in Babylon. As the heroine of the story, Susanna is described as a beautiful and devout woman. She was the daughter of Hilkiah and raised according to the law of Moses. She was married to Joakim, a very wealthy Jew, who lived in a house with a fine garden. In fact, their house was so majestic that it was used as a meeting place for Jews. Indeed, two elders, who had been appointed as judges, used it as their courtroom. Each, independently, lusted after Susanna.

It was Susanna's practice to walk alone in the garden every day after the morning activities, and these two judges soon looked forward to spying on her there. One day, they both returned to the garden after their work had been finished and ran into each other. Finally, they confessed their true intentions and were delighted to find they shared the same desires. At that point, they hatched a plan to seduce her. Day after day, they hid in the garden biding their time. It all came together one particularly hot day when Susanna wanted to bathe in the garden. Her maids readied the bath and then shut the garden doors so no one could see her. As soon as the maids left, the two judges ran to her, told her how much they wanted her, and asked her to "yield" to them. They knew she had few choices. If she refused, they were quick to say they would accuse her of meeting a young man in the garden, which would explain why she had asked her maids to leave.

Susanna lamented her situation. Yielding to them would be sinning against God; not yielding would be tantamount to signing her death warrant. She chose the latter, hoping they would be merciful. They weren't.

Everyone was shocked to hear their accusations, but because her accusers were men and respected judges, no one questioned their motives. Susanna was immediately condemned to death. She cried out to God proclaiming her innocence, but no one listened to her – except God. God inspired Daniel to get involved, and he suggested they interrogate the two judges separately. They were each asked "Under which tree did you see them together?" The first man said it was a mastic ("clove") tree, which is a small evergreen. Daniel said God would "cleave" him in two. The other man said it was a "yew" tree, which is very large. Daniel said God would "hew" him down. Upon hearing this discrepancy, the people knew their witness was untrue. They shouted for joy and praised God for saving those who trust in him.

Susanna was released and the men were put to death for giving false evidence against their neighbor. Susanna's family (who had been shut out of the proceedings) rejoiced and gladly welcomed her home. Daniel was seen as a great man among all his people.

Based on this story, Theodotion put it at the beginning of Daniel's career as a way of introducing him. This is not without some problems, however. According to this story, Daniel would have been part of the community in Babylon, whereas chapter 1 of Daniel begins with his deportation to Babylon. It also changes the focus from Susanna being wrongly accused to the wisdom of Daniel. Perhaps for these reasons, the Vulgate, which is based on the LXX, includes this chapter at the end of the book of Daniel with an asterisk, saying it was not part of the original book. That allows it to remain independent from the Daniel stories. Since it is quite similar to other folk tales regarding Daniel, scholars have wondered why it was excluded from Jewish texts. The most obvious answer is that it never was a Jewish text; it originated in Greek. This is given credence by the use of puns between the trees and the sentence pronounced by Daniel – most translate the first tree as "clove…cleave." The second would be "yew…hew." This was the standard thought until recently. Now, scholars think there could have been a Semitic background for these words. Another answer seems to derive from the treatment of the false witnesses. True, some Deuteronomic texts (see Deut. 19:18-19) suggest false witnesses should be punished with the same fate as those who had been erroneously accused – in this case, adultery would have been punishable by death. By the third century, BCE, however, the standards for execution required a third party to step forward saying they had been with the accused in some other location and, thus, the accuser could not have witnessed whatever he had testified to seeing. This would ensure that the accuser had deliberately lied rather than making an honest mistake. Some think such subtleties of law are too advanced for this folk tale, but it does highlight the perils of having two witnesses conspire to give false testimony and thereby force the courts to condemn innocent people. Notwithstanding the contradictions between the information in this story and what is known from the canonical Daniel, maybe the best reason stems from the fact that in this story, elders are portrayed very badly. Bottom line: elders decide what is or is not canonical.

Even though the facts of the story are very plausible, few modern scholars think it is historical. Of course that hasn't prevented scholars from trying to attempt to identify the two judges. Some argue that the wicked judges are the adulterous prophets, Ahab and Zedekiah, named by Jeremiah in 29:21-23. There is no way to either prove or disprove this, so recently most scholars have dropped the idea.

It is easy to see, however, why this story has maintained its appeal through the ages. It follows the genre of "an innocent woman falsely accused" that is saved by "the wisdom and intelligence of a young judge." The name of this judge was Daniel, but it really could have been anyone. Daniel is not essential to the details of the story. It also gives a glimpse of Jewish life during the exile. Some scholars are surprised that a Jew could have risen to such wealth in so short a time, but admit that such a possibility exists. It is also noteworthy that the Jews were, to some extent, self-governing and adherents of the Law of Moses. The secular aspects of the story are compelling – judges gone bad, lusting after their neighbor's wife, speaking lies, and being caught and punished for them. Nonetheless, Susanna's prayer of lament, decision to remain chaste, and prayer for deliverance also speak to the hope and holiness of the Jewish people who embodied the wisdom tradition of Israel. The story highlights the importance of remaining loyal to God even when falsely accused by those entrusted as elders of the tradition. God's deliverance affirms that God will not allow injustice to have the last word against those who are faithful to him. Indeed, God will intervene on their behalf. Needless to say, the story of Susanna hemmed in by her accusers and threatened with death has often been used as a fitting image for the struggles of the early church hemmed in by their accusers and threatened with death by pagans and Jews alike.

These verses can be divided into five sections: 1:1-4 -- Introduction; 1:5-27 – Susanna is Falsely Accused; 1:28-43 – The Trial and Outcome; 1:44-62 – Conviction of the Judges; 1:63-64 -- Conclusion

I – 1:1-4 -- Introduction

  • 1:1-4
    • Background
    • Susanna is introduced as a Jewish woman who is virtuous and devout
    • She is both "daughter" and "wife"
    • As a daughter, she was instructed in the Law of Moses, i.e., she knew the commandments
    • Her husband is a wealthy Jewish exile living in Babylon
    • Scholars think it is possible that some Jews attained a high level in that society, but probably not in the time of Daniel
    • Noteworthy is the fact that among Joakim's property was a house with a large garden
    • The garden was used as a meeting place by other Jews

II -- 1:5-27 – Susanna is Falsely Accused

  • 1:5-6
    • The institution of elders
    • Perhaps the same year Joakim married Susanna, these two unnamed elders were appointed judges
    • The job of judges was to honor God by serving the people
    • Of these judges, the Lord said "Wickedness comes from Babylon"
    • They began to use Joakim's garden as a courtroom
    • Anyone who had issues would come to them there for a verdict
    • This could even include people outside Babylon 
  • 1:7-12
    • The elders both lusted after Susanna
    • Court lasted all morning; then they broke for lunch
    • It was while the garden was empty and quiet that Susanna went for her noon walk
    • The elders both began to lust for Susanna
    • They "closed their eyes to Heaven"
    • "Heaven" is a euphemism for "God," so they are deliberately turning away from doing what was right
    • They knew their desires were wrong
    • They were "overwhelmed with passion for her" – i.e., they were lovesick
    • More than anything they desired to have sex with her
    • Each kept this information to himself, not wanting the other to know
    • Day after day, they lusted after Susanna
  • 1:13-14
    • The ruse is discovered
    • One day they both went their separate ways for lunch
    • Each returned to watch Susanna and bumped into each other
    • They shared their frustrations with each other and found a commonality
    • They conspired to "have" her
  • 1:15-27
    • Assault on Susanna
    • Day after day the judges waited for an opportunity
    • One day Susanna wanted to bathe in the garden
    • Her maids got everything ready and then left
    • The bath scene surely whetted their appetites even though it is unlikely they actually waited for her to undress
    • As soon as the maids left, the elders ran to Susanna
    • They couldn't wait to force themselves upon her
    • They pointed out that the gates had been shut (from the inside)
    • Not only were they unlikely to be interrupted, but no one would be able to hear her cries for help
    • She was completely helpless and at their mercy
    • If she refused them, they had the clout to accuse her of adultery
    • They would say that they had found her having sex with a young man
    • (Being alone with a young man would not have been considered adultery)
    • The penalty for adultery was death
    • They offered to trade her body for her life
    • Susanna knew she was trapped
    • Either way she was lost – either God would punish her if she complied or the Jewish community would stone her if she refused and they accused her
    • Her response is very similar to Joseph's response to Potiphar's wife
    • "How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?"
    • Susanna began crying with a loud voice
    • Her cries were drowned out by the shouts of the two elders
    • One rushed to open the gates
    • This was supposed to "prove" that a young man had escaped
    • All the commotion caused the people in the house to come running
    • True to their word, the elders accused Susanna of having sex with a young man
    • People were shocked; servants were ashamed
    • The irony is that Susanna remained virtuous but was now under suspicion by everyone

III -- 1:28-43 – The Trial and Outcome

  • 1:28-33
    • Trial at home
    • The next day the judges returned to Joakim's house to condemn her to death
    • They were filled with wicked intent
    • Their love for her had obviously turned to revenge/hate
    • By returning to the scene of the crime, they were again counting on the tide of public opinion to turn against Susanna
    • People listening could easily imagine the events that had taken place
    • The rumor mill was in full swing and surely the place was packed
    • The accused was called forth and was accompanied by her relatives and servants
    • She was discreetly veiled, as any refined woman would have been for a public appearance
    • The evilness of the elders knew no bounds, however, since they asked she be "uncovered"
    • Scholars think she might have been stripped naked to increase her humiliation before the crowd
    • Others think she might have only been stripped to the waist
    • All this was intended to maximize public outrage against her
    • The facts were simple: if a woman was exposed standing before them, she obviously had to be guilty as charged
    • This also afforded the judges one more lingering look
  • 1:34-41
    • The lies of the judges 
    • The judges rose up as witnesses
    • They placed their hands on her head as they accused her
    • Talk about a conflict of interest! They were acting as both adjudicators and witnesses
    • Unlike the judges who turned their eyes away from heaven, Susanna looked up toward heaven
    • Her only option was to trust in the Lord
    • The judges claimed they were simply strolling in the garden when Susanna came in with two maids
    • As soon as she dismissed the maids, the young man appeared and lay with her
    • The judges tried to grab him, but the young man was too strong for them and got away
    • They could not identify him and Susanna had refused to do so
    • This was their testimony
    • It is implied that it was spoken as an oath
    • Because of their position as trusted judges, no one thought to question their motives
    • Susanna was condemned to death
  • 1:42-43
    • Susanna's prayer to God
    • She lamented to God that she had been falsely accused
    • She was innocent of all charges – though she never had a chance to say that
    • (It is not known what her husband had been doing or thinking all this time)
    • God heard her cry and stirred up Daniel to act

IV -- 1:44-62 – Conviction of the Judges

  • 1:44-51
    • Daniel's intervention
    • Daniel was presumably a young man at this time
    • His young age is contrasted with the elders
    • Daniel means "God has judged"
    • According to tradition, someone could protest the execution up to the moment of stoning
    • Apparently as the procession went along, a herald announced the event proclaiming that if anyone could show their innocence, they should speak up or forever hold their peace
    • Prior to the stoning, the accused was given the right to confess
    • Absent a confession, the accused was usually pushed down into a ravine and stones were thrown upon the accused until he or she was dead
    • Generally, one of the witnesses had the privilege of throwing the first stone
    • So Daniel was well within his rights to argue on behalf of Susanna
    • Daniel asked if the people were fools – fools are those who turn away from or ignore God
    • This describes exactly the behavior of the two judges
    • Through inspiration Daniel knew that the judges had lied
    • The other elders invited him to join them despite his young age
    • Daniel insisted that the judges be questioned separately
  • 1:52-55
    • Cross examination of the first judge
    • Daniel didn't exactly follow tradition
    • He accused the judge before he had any evidence to support it
    • But he did get the chance to interrogate the witness
    • He asked which tree they were under If this is happening in Joakim's garden, the judge probably looked around and chose one
    • (Others, however, argue that neither tree was actually in the garden and this is how they knew without a doubt that the men were lying)
    • The pun on words is evident in all translations
      • 1:56-59 
        • Cross examination of the second judge
        • Daniel accused the second judge of being an "offspring of Canaan" who had surrendered to pagan ways
        • The second judge was asked the same question about the tree and gave a different answer
        • There is also a pun on these words in all translations
      • 1:60-62 
        • The response of the community
        • Since the judges could not agree on where it happened – one choosing the smallest of trees while the other claimed it was the largest, the people knew they had lied
        • The people completely approved of Daniel's tactics and discovery
        • The judges received the same sentence that had awaited Susanna

V -- 1:63-64 -- Conclusion

  • This is a doxology to God, offered by the parents and husband of Susanna
  • They rejoiced in her courage and innocence
  • Daniel's reputation also grew that day


deSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.  2002.

Harrington, Daniel. Invitation to the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm B Eerdmans. 1999.

Meeks, Wayne, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

Metzer, Bruce, Ed. The Oxford Annotated Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press. 1965.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson, eds. Mercer Commentary on the Bible.  Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 2002.

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Christian Apocrypha