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No. 92: The Allegory of Susanna

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 92
February, 1997
Copyright 1997 Biblical Horizons

Years ago, when I was at the briefly-existing Geneva Divinity School, I taught a course in the Apocrypha. One thing that struck me at that time is that two of the stories are almost certainly religious allegories (as well as moral tales): Judith and Susanna. Since "Susanna" means "Lily," this issue of Biblical Horizons seems a good place to share my thoughts.

At the outset, I should say that I have not found any commentator who takes the story of Susanna as a Biblical allegory. Thus, what follows are my own suggestions, based solely on my own reading of the text.

The story of Susanna is one of the apocryphal Additions to Daniel, found as Daniel chapter 13 in Roman Catholic Bibles. It exists only in Greek, though there was likely a Semitic original in either Hebrew or Aramaic, or both. There are two Greek versions, one in the original Septuagint translation, and the other in the Greek version of Theodotion. It is the latter that is translated in Catholic Bibles and in various editions of the Apocrypha. A full discussion of all this is found in Carey A. Moore, Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions. Anchor Bible 44 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977).

While the story of Judith is clearly written as an allegory, the story of Susanna may have an historical root. What we now have, however, has been worked over, apparently more than once, and stands as a fictional story.

Susanna is the beautiful and virtuous wife of Joakim ("Yahweh Will Establish"). Her father, Hilkiah ("Yahweh Is My Portion"), brought her up in the law of Moses. Her husband Joakim is very rich and has a beautiful garden next to his fine house.

Two wicked Jewish elders, who have kept their sins secret for many years, frequently visit Joakim and become consumed with desire for the lovely lily of his garden, Susanna. One day, they both decide to hide in the garden to spy on Susanna, who, as it happens, decides to take a bath. Her maids bring her bath oils, and then leave her. As soon as she is alone, the two lustful elders run to her and demand she submit to them; otherwise, they will accuse her of having a secret lover.

She refuses them and cries out, at which point they also cry out and accuse her. They bring her to trial, and claim that they caught her in the very act of adultery, but that her youthful lover escaped. The people are persuaded by the testimony of these two witnesses, and take Susanna forth to be stoned. She prays to God for help.

At this point the young Daniel appears. The angel of Yahweh inspires him with wisdom (in the earlier version; in the later one, he is already wise). Daniel rebukes the people for not having looked farther into the matter. He gets permission to interview each of the elders separately. He asks each of them what tree Susanna and her lover were beneath when they were apprehended. One elder says a mastic tree; the other says an oak tree. Now it is clear that they are lying and that Susanna is innocent. The two elders are taken out and stoned, while everyone praises Daniel. (In the earlier version, Daniel is not as prominent, suggesting that perhaps the first version did not have Daniel as hero.)

One can readily see Biblical backgrounds for this narrative. A women being spied upon lustfully in the privacy of her bath reminds us of David and Bathsheba. A false accusation of adultery by a spurned admirer reminds us of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. But behind it all, as it appears to me, stands the story of the Garden of Eden, as seen through the Song of Solomon.

Solomon’s garden is replete with lilies: He and his wife are compared to lilies several times. Susanna is a lily in her husband’s garden. Her father has given her to her husband, as God gave Israel to Yahweh, or to Solomon. The elders, who were supposed to lead Israel into truth, invade the garden and attack the bride there. Similarly, Lucifer, as Chief Angel, was to lead Adam and Eve to truth, but instead sought to corrupt them, starting with the bride.

This time, however, the bride refuses to sin. She is falsely charged with sin anyway, and stands under sentence of death. Then the hero arrives, a prophet, Daniel. Like the prophets in the Bible, he condemns the wicked authorities, and defends the poor and helpless.

Thus, the character symbols in the story are:

Joakim – The King-Husband, a Good Adam, with palace and garden.

Susanna – The Bride: Israel.

The Elders – Enemy oppressors: hypocritical religious leaders.

Daniel – Deliverer: prophets.

The message of the story is clear: Follow the law of Moses and live righteously. If the wicked attack and accuse you falsely, God will defend you through His prophets. Finally, though the story takes place in the shadow of the Babylonian captivity, the primary danger to God’s people comes from hypocritical religious leaders, not from gentile powers.