The Tale of Susanna: A Story about Daniel
Daniel the Jewish Hero
In the Second Temple period, many oral and written accounts circulated about the great Jewish hero Daniel, who was depicted as a young exile from Judah who became an important advisor to the Babylonian and Persian kings (6th cent. B.C.E.), and was distinguished by his ability to interpret dreams. Daniel’s success in the Persian court suggested that he was the consummate diasporan Jew, someone who remained steadfastly loyal to his faith, and yet was respected and admired by Jews and gentiles alike. The figure of Daniel recalled the success of the biblical hero Joseph in the land of Egypt, who was also an advisor in the court of a foreign king, and the wisdom of the great king of old, king Solomon.
The Story of Susanna in the Apocrypha
The stories in the Hebrew Bible about Daniel preserved in Daniel 1–6 are only a portion of the tales that were circulating about Daniel in Second Temple times. Some of these stories were eventually included the Apocrypha, a name used to refer to books in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, which were not included in the Masoretic Text.
One such story about Daniel is the book of Susanna, which appears in two slightly different versions: the Old Greek version, the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and the version of Theodotion, who produced a slightly different Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in the second century C.E. In Theodotian’s version, Susanna served as the introduction to the book of Daniel. This is the version I will be using for this piece.
Susanna as the Ideal Woman: Trapped in a Wicked Snare
The opening of Susanna emphasizes the heroine’s qualities; she is presented as an ideal woman both in Jewish circles and in Hellenized ones. Susanna is the wife of Joakim, a wealthy man, and the daughter of pious man named Chilkiah. The text describes her as
[A] very beautiful woman and one who feared the Lord. Her parents were righteous, and had trained their daughter according to the law of Moses (vv. 2-3; NRSV).
The story opens with the appointment of two wicked elders as judges. They go to Joakim’s house, where court cases are adjudicated, and there see his wife Susanna taking walks. They are immediately overwhelmed with sexual desire for her. At first, they do not tell one another of their lust, but one day, the elders lie to one another that they are going home for lunch but instead each separately sneak into Joakim’s garden to catch a glimpse of Susanna (or perhaps to do more than simply catch a glimpse). While spying on Susanna, they see one another and admit their lust for her; they then hatch a plan to force her into sleeping with them.
Catching Susanna in the Bath
In the next scene, Susanna goes out to her garden to bathe. The image of Susanna bathing was meant to capture the (male) reader’s prurient interest without painting Susanna as blameworthy for igniting their interests. Susanna, in fact, bathes modestly; she instructs her maids to shut the garden doors so that no one will see her bathing. She is unaware, however, that the elders are already hiding inside the garden.
When Susanna’s maids leave to fetch her olive oil–a literary touch that is meant to ignite the reader’s imagination–the elders jump out and shock Susanna with their aggressive ultimatum: either Susanna lies with both of them, or they will testify that they witnessed Susanna committing adultery.
Susanna responds with distress, and her response articulates her inner conflict:
I am completely trapped. For if I do this, it will mean death for me; if I do not, I cannot escape your hands. I choose not to do it; I will fall into your hands, rather than sin in the sight of the Lord.’ (Susanna 22–23; NRSV)
Susanna then gives a loud cry, and the elders shout too.
The people in Joakim’s household run into the garden via a side door–the door that Susanna’s maids used to exit, and which they had not locked–and behold the spectacle. At this point, the elders make their accusation. The image of Susanna naked in her garden bath, surrounded by her accusers and other bystanders, would have been titillating to the male Jewish reader familiar with Greek literary traditions that emphasized the beauty of the naked human body. But at the same time, Susanna herself is not to blame for her indecent exposure.
The Maiden Screamed (צעקה הנערה)
The author’s presentation of Susanna crying out highlights her piety and knowledge of the Torah: Deuteronomy 22:24 states that if a woman who is raped does not cry out, her accusation of rape will not be believed. Perhaps, then, Susanna’s cry reflected a pragmatic choice on her part that would enable her to retroactively argue for her innocence.
Based on Two Witnesses (על פי שני עדים)
The following day, the elders convene a tribunal at Joakim’s house to try Susanna for the crime of adultery. In this second scene, Susanna seems resigned to her fate, only bemoaning her predicament. She is again physically exposed in public when the elders demand that she be unveiled at her trial, and again, the author emphasizes that the sexualizing of Susanna’s body is not her own fault: Once she is unveiled, the elders give their testimony.
This scene is a possible riff off of the image in Numbers 5:18, in which the sotah, the woman accused of adultery, has her head covering forcibly removed (ופרע את ראש האשה). In our story, of course, the reader knows that Susanna is innocent, which makes her exposure all the more sympathetic.
Susanna’s dire predicament is amplified by the fact that two witnesses partake in a well-established accusation: the writer is looking to Deuteronomy 19:15, which states that two witnesses are required to bring a defendant to court. The elders’ seemingly identical accusations and their position as valid witnesses seal Susanna’s fate; the court condemns her to death.
As she is being led out to her execution, Susanna cries out a prayer to God:
O eternal God, you know what is secret and are aware of all things before they come to be; you know that these men have given false evidence against me. And now I am to die, though I have done none of the wicked things that they have charged against me!’ (Susanna 42–43; NRSV)
Interestingly, in the Old Greek version of Susanna, Susanna is even more passive: she does not cry out at all, not even to God.
Our Hands Did Not Spill This Blood (ידינו לא שפכו את הדם הזה)
As Susanna utters her prayer, we are told (vv. 45-46) that God “stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel,” who shouts, “I want no part in shedding this woman’s blood!” Daniel’s proclamation is reminiscent of the requirement in Deuteronomy 21:7 for the elders of the city to declare that they (and their citizens) are not responsible for the shed blood of a person who was found murdered in the region between their cities. After Daniel makes this declaration, the narrative shifts, and the focus turns to–and remains on– Daniel.
Daniel as the Ideal Activist Intercessor
When Daniel utters his cry of protest, a cry that contrasts with Susanna’s defeated and powerless cry, all the people present at the tribunal turn to him. Daniel has harsh words for those who have neglected to investigate the accusation of the elders:
Are you such fools, O Israelites, as to condemn a daughter of Israel without examination and without learning the facts? Return to court, for these men have given false evidence against her.’ (Susanna 48–49; NRSV)
The Judges Shall Make a Thorough Inquiry (ודרשו השפטים היטב)
The author’s presentation of Daniel as knowing that witnesses must be investigated suggests that his knowledge is superior to his peers. According to Deuteronomy 19:18, the judges must thoroughly investigate witnesses’ accusations (וְדָרְשׁוּ הַשֹּׁפְטִים הֵיטֵב).
As opposed to Susanna’s cries, which pause the story’s action and lead the reader to believe that Susanna’s current predicament will remain unresolved, Daniel’s instructions move the narrative forward. He immediately separates the elders, and asks them the same question regarding the nature of Susanna’s infidelity that they had witnessed. Under what tree did Susanna and her lover meet? Once the separated elders offer different answers, Daniel conclusively proves Susanna’s innocence.
You shall do to him just as He Meant to Do to the Other (ועשיתם לו כאשר זמם לעשות לאחיו)”
According to the Torah, if witnesses lie, they will suffer the punishment that the accused would have suffered had their testimony been upheld (Deut 19:18-19).
דברים יט:יח וְדָרְשׁוּ הַשֹּׁפְטִים הֵיטֵב וְהִנֵּה עֵד שֶׁקֶר הָעֵד שֶׁקֶר עָנָה בְאָחִיו.יט:יט וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ.
Deut 19:18 And the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness, having testified falsely against another, 19:19 then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (NRSV).
Indeed, the fate of the elders in Susanna 61 exactly mirrors this fate, when we are told that,
They took action against the two elders, because out of their own mouths Daniel had convicted them of bearing false witness; they did to them as they had wickedly planned to do to their neighbour (NRSV).
The story ends with Susanna’s parents and husband praising her good behavior, and Daniel becoming great in the eyes of his people.
Contrasting Susanna with Daniel
The story of Susanna can be divided into two halves. The first half of the story follows a stereotypical literary template. The main characters are two-dimensional figures: the evil elders and the innocent damsel in distress. The second half of Susanna, however, upends these templates. Rather than the good protagonist defeating the evil antagonist, the author keeps Susanna vulnerable and helpless, and brings in a third entity who turns out the be the hero, or deus ex-machina: Daniel.
This story is named after Susanna, and it is clear that Susanna stands at the center of the story from start to finish. It is only Susanna, of course, who appears in each scene, and whose beauty galvanizes the entire story. Yet Daniel is the true hero of this story. While Susanna is resigned to her fate, Daniel defies social expectations, spurred on by the spirit awoken inside of him by God. Confident that he can change Susanna’s destiny, Daniel’s proactive behavior shifts the focus of the story from Susanna’s condemnation to Daniel’s unique wisdom.
The author of this story presents both Susanna and Daniel as knowledgeable of the laws of the Torah, but it is only Daniel who is clever enough to use his knowledge of Torah to effect Susanna’s salvation. Susanna’s piety is laudable and her helplessness to be pitied, but it is Daniel’s activism that the reader is meant to admire.
Fitting Susanna into the Genre of “Daniel Stories”
As noted above, Susanna is in some ways the protagonist of this story, but only Daniel is depicted as the hero whom the reader is meant to admire and emulate. The author repeatedly draws on laws in Numbers and Deuteronomy to underscore the fact that Daniel’s knowledge of the Torah outshines the knowledge of everyone around him.
Perhaps Susanna was not given a heroic role in this story because of the book’s social setting: in Susanna’s time, her household and peers would not have taken kindly to her boldly taking control of a delicate situation in order to save her own life. Nor would they have taken kindly to a woman who was a greater expert on Torah law than any of the men around her. It is more likely, however, that the author intended to write a tale that would have a place in the larger fabric of Daniel stories that were circulating during his lifetime.
Indeed, the author succeeded greatly in this regard, since the Susanna story becomes the introductory chapter of at least one version of the LXX’s book of Daniel. As a “Daniel story,” it made a place for supporting roles, but like any Daniel story, it was primarily meant to recall the fabulous adventures of the fabled hero Daniel.
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September 6, 2016
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Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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