For a literal translation of Daniel 13, “Susanna” see USCCB – NAB – Daniel 13. This is not a translation or even a paraphrase. One might even call it a “transformation.” What I am attempting to do is to rewrite this short story into a modern form. I allow myself to alter the order of the telling, what is told and what is ignored, but not to alter the facts of the story as recorded. I also allow myself to add some details and to exchange telling the story for created conversations. I chose names for the unnamed players at random from Chronicles. For this story I assume that the Daniel of the story is the same as the main character in the book of Daniel, though not all interpreters would agree. You can judge the results.
The elders gather outside what would have been the city gates, if only they had been back in Judah, and this had been a city with gates. As it was, it was a quite prosperous little community for exiles from Judah living in Babylon. Those who lived here were the elders, people of importance in the community, and many who had good jobs working for Babylonians and thus had money to live relatively good lives in exile.
Daniel stood to the side of the group of elders, watching with interest. His position in the court of Babylon gave him entry to assemblies such as this, but he was still too young to be invited to participate. He felt his chest tighten, and anguish gripped him as he heard the elders call for Susanna. Susanna was the wife of the well-known businessman, the most prosperous member of the community, Joakim. Nothing had ever been even whipered against the character of Joakim and his wife. Behind her followed her father Hilkiah and his wife, along with other members of her family, all weeping.
Daniel struggled not to object. He felt deeply that this woman was innocent of any crime and that there could be no reason to have her put on trial here, but he also knew the respect he felt for those who had remained true to the law of God in this foreign land, and yet had managed to live and prosper. Joakim was such a man. He knew he must lay aside the prejudice he felt. “Don’t deal perversely in judgment,” he quoted to himself, “neither favor the poor, nor defer to the rich. Judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus 19:15).
Thus fortified with scripture, he followed the proceedings. Two elders, Ethan and Azariah, well known, though younger than average, gave testimony.
“While we were walking in Joakim’s garden, we saw this woman enter with two maids. She sent them away, and a young man came to her her husband’s garden. Once there, she sent away her two maids, and a young man came out of hiding and they embraced and had sex. We were shocked at this wickedness, and we ran to them to put a stop to it, but the young man was too strong for us, and he escaped. We didn’t get a good look at him, and we don’t know who he was.”
Each of the men swore to this testimony. “Remove her veil,” they said. “She is a disgrace to the people of Judah here in the exile!”
Daniel watched the men closely. Could that possibly have been a leer that passed across their faces as her veil was removed, and her beautiful face revealed to the company? Surely not! These were elders, men he had been taught to respect.
The maids were called, and they said that they had gone to the garden and that Susanna had decided she wanted to bathe. They had locked the gates and gone to get her oils and soap.
“Do you know what she did while you were gone?” asked one of the accusers.
“No, we don’t, but we’re sure she can’t have done anything wrong. She’s a good woman!”
Susanna herself was asked to speak. She told the elders that she truly had gone to the garden, and that she had dismissed her maids. She intended to bathe. Then she looked straight at the elders, almost arrogantly and said, “These men proposed to commit adultery with me, and threatened to accuse me of adultery myself if I didn’t go along with their wishes. Their accusations are false and self-serving. They regularly partook of my husband’s hospitality and of mine, and thus they repay it!”
The sound of voices that went through the crowd and even amongst the elders was something like the passing of wind through the trees. Daniel watched it happen. There had been those in the assembly who doubted Susanna’s guilt before this, but the respect for the elders was deep enough that it was easier to accuse Susanna of making a false accusation to save herself than to believe that two elders could agree to false testimony in the matter of a death sentence.
There was little discussion. The testimony was clear, and the elders made their choice. Susanna was guilty and would be removed from the city for execution.
As they began to lead her away, she cried out loud to God: “Eternal God, who knows hidden things and knows everything before it happens, you know that they have testified lies against me, and now I’m going to die even though I’m innocent of all the accusations against me.” And God heard her.
Daniel felt the movement of God’s spirit in his heart and mind, and his keen perceptions saw the pieces fall together. It was not logical, he knew to send the two maids on an errand that would take that little time if Susanna had been planning to spend any time with an illicit lover. Leaving the side gate open was certainly risky behavior as well. But Daniel knew that neither of these facts would be enough to change the mind of the crowd. He needed not only to make them question the accusers story, he needed to make them see it for the total fabrication that it was. He reviewed the picture of Joakim’s garden. It had a variety of trees, widely different types, no two of the same type together. It was a risk, but it was his best chance.
It was time to act. “I’m innocent of this woman’s blood!” he yelled. More than announcing simply that she was innocent, this said that he was dissociating himself from the action of the judges, that he could not go along with what he saw as a community sin. It was a bold and dangerous thing to do, but as soon as he had done it, he knew he had succeeded. Others also had doubts, and they had just needed a voice to give their doubts form.
“Come, join us,” said the chief elder of the city. “You have demonstrated wisdom. This does need to be reconsidered.”
“Please have the two witnesses removed,” said Daniel. “They should not be part of this discussion. Bring just one of them before us at a time, so I can question them.”
They were both removed, far enough so they couldn’t hear. They protested, but only a little. Fear was in their eyes.
Daniel took advantage of the fear. He would question them as though he knew the answer, and drive them to making an error in their planned testimony. Ethan was brought back first. “Look, you wicked and unjust judge! Your sins are catching up with you now. Eventually everyone goes too far! Under what sort of tree were they when they when they were having sex?”
Ethan hesitated for a moment. He really didn’t remember. But he had to be confident and hope his friend would come up with the same answer. What were the majority of the trees in the garden? Ah yes. “A mastic tree,” he said. (The mastic tree was a very small tree.)
“Your lie has caught you! The angel of the Lord is waiting to take your life. [Note: There is a word play in Greek which I have been unable to reproduce.]
Then Azariah was brought forward. “You thought you’d do to a daughter of Judah things such as those faithless northerners would do, but it won’t work! Your lies have caught you! What kind of tree were they under when you caught them in the act of sex?”
Azariah was not sure what to saw. There had been mastic trees, but what would Ethan have answered when asked what they were under? Probably not those little bushes. No, the overarching mighty oak! “It was an oak tree!” he sang out confidently.
“Your lies have caught you. God’s angel is here to take your life as well,” said Daniel.
There was great rejoicing in the community that day. Susanna had been saved. The community was not disgraced, and from that time forward Daniel was a respected member of the group of elders who met at what they wished was a city gate.
[Note: My version of the story is 1380 words, while the translation of the Greek in the NRSV is 1488 words.]