Daniel 13:1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62 (NRSVCE)
There was a man living in Babylon whose name was Joakim. He married the daughter of Hilkiah, named Susanna, 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. Joakim was very rich, and had a fine garden adjoining his house; the Jews used to come to him because he was the most honored of them all.
That year two elders from the people were appointed as judges. Concerning them the Lord had said: “Wickedness came forth from Babylon, from elders who were judges, who were supposed to govern the people.” These men were frequently at Joakim’s house, and all who had a case to be tried came to them there.
When the people left at noon, Susanna would go into her husband’s garden to walk. Every day the two elders used to see her, going in and walking about, and they began to lust for her. They suppressed their consciences and turned away their eyes from looking to Heaven or remembering their duty to administer justice.
Once, while they were watching for an opportune day, she went in as before with only two maids, and wished to bathe in the garden, for it was a hot day. No one was there except the two elders, who had hidden themselves and were watching her. She said to her maids, “Bring me olive oil and ointments, and shut the garden doors so that I can bathe.”
When the maids had gone out, the two elders got up and ran to her. They said, “Look, the garden doors are shut, and no one can see us. We are burning with desire for you; so give your consent, and lie with us. If you refuse, we will testify against you that a young man was with you, and this was why you sent your maids away.”
Susanna groaned and said, “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.”
Then Susanna cried out with a loud voice, and the two elders shouted against her. And one of them ran and opened the garden doors. When the people in the house heard the shouting in the garden, they rushed in at the side door to see what had happened to her. And when the elders told their story, the servants felt very much ashamed, for nothing like this had ever been said about Susanna.
The next day, when the people gathered at the house of her husband Joakim, the two elders came, full of their wicked plot to have Susanna put to death. In the presence of the people they said, “Send for Susanna daughter of Hilkiah, the wife of Joakim.” So they sent for her. And she came with her parents, her children, and all her relatives.
Those who were with her and all who saw her were weeping.
Then the two elders stood up before the people and laid their hands on her head. Through her tears she looked up toward Heaven, for her heart trusted in the Lord. The elders said, “While we were walking in the garden alone, this woman came in with two maids, shut the garden doors, and dismissed the maids. Then a young man, who was hiding there, came to her and lay with her. We were in a corner of the garden, and when we saw this wickedness we ran to them. Although we saw them embracing, we could not hold the man, because he was stronger than we, and he opened the doors and got away. We did, however, seize this woman and asked who the young man was, but she would not tell us. These things we testify.”
Because they were elders of the people and judges, the assembly believed them and condemned her to death.
Then Susanna cried out with a loud voice, and said, “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!”
The Lord heard her cry. Just as she was being led off to execution, God stirred up the holy spirit of a young lad named Daniel, and he shouted with a loud voice, “I want no part in shedding this woman’s blood!”
All the people turned to him and asked, “What is this you are saying?” Taking his stand among them he said, “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.”
So all the people hurried back. And the rest of the elders said to him, “Come, sit among us and inform us, for God has given you the standing of an elder.” Daniel said to them, “Separate them far from each other, and I will examine them.”
When they were separated from each other, he summoned one of them and said to him, “You old relic of wicked days, your sins have now come home, which you have committed in the past, pronouncing unjust judgments, condemning the innocent and acquitting the guilty, though the Lord said, ‘You shall not put an innocent and righteous person to death.’ Now then, if you really saw this woman, tell me this: Under what tree did you see them being intimate with each other?” He answered, “Under a mastic tree.” And Daniel said, “Very well! This lie has cost you your head, for the angel of God has received the sentence from God and will immediately cut you in two.”
Then, putting him to one side, he ordered them to bring the other. And he said to him, “You offspring of Canaan and not of Judah, beauty has beguiled you and lust has perverted your heart. This is how you have been treating the daughters of Israel, and they were intimate with you through fear; but a daughter of Judah would not tolerate your wickedness. Now then, tell me: Under what tree did you catch them being intimate with each other?” He answered, “Under an evergreen oak.” Daniel said to him, “Very well! This lie has cost you also your head, for the angel of God is waiting with his sword to split you in two, so as to destroy you both.”
Then the whole assembly raised a great shout and blessed God, who saves those who hope in him. And 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 neighbor. Acting in accordance with the law of Moses, they put them to death. Thus innocent blood was spared that day.
This is quite the tale! Susanna is a beautiful woman, who is lusted after by the elders, the men who were supposed to be authorities amongst the people. They catch her alone, and demand she lie with them or they will make up lies about her in order to have her killed. After all, who will the people believe? A woman accused of grave sin, or two highly respected elders? Susanna refuses, and chooses to face death from their lies rather than commit sin herself. They follow through on their promise, and have her condemned to death.
But, at the last possible moment, Daniel stands up and declares that she is innocent! He is allowed to question the two elders separately, and he finds that their stories do not match. He has caught them in their lie! Susanna’s prayer for God to save her is answered through Daniel, and the two elders are revealed for the lustful, murderous men they truly are. The people took what was to be Susanna’s sentence and instead enacted it upon the two elders—certainly an ironic twist of justice.
Now, if you’re unfamiliar with this story, it’s because it may not be in your Bible. The story of Susanna appears in the Greek version of the Old Testament, but does not appear in the Hebrew texts. More than likely, the story was originally written in Greek. For example, though you can’t tell in the translation I’ve chosen here, the trees the elders name and the sentences Daniel proclaims are actually puns in the Greek. Think “yew” and “hew,” or “clove” and “cleave,” which is what several translations go with in order to preserve the pun. There’s obviously some disagreement amongst scholars on that, but I’m not nearly qualified enough to even explain the two sides, let alone choose one to side with.
The interesting thing about the story is how Susanna comes out being an icon of faithfulness, while the Jewish elders, the ones who are supposed to be beacons of righteousness, are the ones who are portrayed as the most wicked. Even knowing she would die, save some miracle coming to rescue her, Susanna did not hesitate to remain faithful to God. She refused to sin, even though sinning would have saved her life. By Jewish law, two witnesses condemning you was a certain conviction, let alone when those two witnesses were the judges themselves.
Also take note of the context of the story. This is Israel living in exile in Babylon. The faithful live in constant persecution, in constant threat of either having to sin against their God or be killed by their persecutors. This story is extending the role of persecutor from simply the Babylonian rulers to the very leaders they have set up amongst themselves. The message is that persecution comes from all sides, even the sides you thought most fortified. It is only in remaining faithful to God and God alone, as Susanna did, that you will find salvation.