The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Prof. Jacob Klein
Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Department of Bible
Aside from the flood story, the righteous man Noah is mentioned in the Bible another five times, twice in the book of Ezekiel. Ezekiel mentions Noah as one of three exceptionally righteous people who in their way of life set an example for future generations. Identifying who these people were and what they had in common provides the key to understanding the idea conveyed in Ezekiel's prophecy.
In this prophecy of doom (Ez.14:12-23), which foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and the few who would survive, G-d describes four hypothetical situations to Ezekiel: suppose a country committed a sin against G-d so grievous that it has no atonement, and G-d were to send heavy famine in retribution, wiping out all the people and animals. And suppose three exemplary righteous men lived in that land: Noah, Daniel, and Job. The sinful country would not be saved by virtue of these righteous men, nor even would their own children be delivered by the merits of the fathers. Only they themselves would be saved from the disaster. The same would happen if G-d were to punish the sinful land by wild beasts, the sword, or the plague. In other words, there is an absolute universal rule that the parent's merits do not stand against any sin. "By one's own sin shall one die," and "only by one's own righteousness shall one live."
This universal rule, however, does not apply to Jerusalem. Even if G-d were to bring all four catastrophes listed above on the sinful city of Jerusalem, and even if there were not a single righteous person left there, when the city is destroyed a remnant of the population will survive, and the enemy will send sons and daughters forth from the city. Why? So that the previous generation dwelling in Babylon will witness the evil of the survivors with their own eyes and will realize that the destruction G-d wrought on Jerusalem was not for naught. The ancestors living in Babylon will find some consolation in this, and it will help them come to terms with G-d's terrible edict that Jerusalem and the Temple be destroyed.
Who are the three paragons of righteousness mentioned by Ezekiel? The rabbis of the Talmud and medieval exegetes believed that the reference was obviously to Noah, the hero of the flood story in Genesis; the Jew, Daniel, hero of the Book of Daniel; and Job, the righteous hero of the Book of Job. Indeed, until the 1930's, this was the view of all commentators. However, the traditional commentators all had difficulty explaining what these three heroes had in common and why precisely these three figures were mentioned in this context. Rashi and Radak offer several explanations:
1) "These three righteous men are mentioned because each one saw three worlds: a world that had been built, a world destroyed, and a world rebuilt." In other words, they experienced holocaust and rebirth, and by their righteousness they alone were delivered from the total destruction that came upon them and their surroundings.
2) "They are mentioned in this context ... because their righteousness did not save anyone but themselves. Noah and his sons were the only righteous people of his generation... Daniel's righteousness saved only himself (Radak had to stretch the concept of "sons and daughters" to apply to the entire community, because Daniel had no children when he was saved.) Job also saved himself alone from death, and did not save his sons and daughters because they were not righteous."
3) "These three figures are mentioned also because all three faced a trial and were delivered." The trials that Job and Daniel faced are well-known, but what trial did Noah face? Radak answers that according to the Midrash, Noah built the ark as the rest of his generation looked on with disapproval, yet Noah trusted in the Lord and was not afraid of being killed by them.
4) Rashi mentions a fourth theme they had in common: each of these figures was delivered from the three judgments mentioned in Ezekiel's prophecy: wild beasts, famine, and the sword.
Nevertheless, the exegetical assumption that Ezekiel was referring to Daniel the Jew, the hero of the Book of Daniel, raises several problems:
1) What relevance does this Daniel, a contemporary of Ezekiel's, have to the context? What is he doing in the company of Noah and Job, two gentile paragons of virtue who lived long before Ezekiel?
2) Daniel was known primarily for his wisdom and his fear of heaven. In terms of righteousness, the Jewish people had more exemplary figures than he, such as Abraham, Moses, or the prophet Samuel, who also date back further than Daniel. Why did Ezekiel not mention them?
3) At the beginning of his commentary on this passage, Radak calls attention to the masoretic note on the name Danel: "yod is missing." While in the Book of Daniel this name is always spelled with the letter yod, the three occurrences of the name in Ezekiel (also cf. 28:3: "Behold, thou art wiser than Dan(i)el") have no yod, and could also be pointed or vocalized "Dan-el."
In view of these difficulties, it has been suggested that the person referred to here is not Daniel the Jew, but an ancient gentile paragon of virtue who had the same or a similar name. The discovery and deciphering of Ugaritic texts [Ugarit, also known as Ras Shamra, was a port city on the Mediterranean, in present-day Syria. Its inhabitants wrote in a language close to Biblical Hebrew. The city was excavated in the 1930s.] has enabled scholars to reconstruct an ancient epic whose heroes are the Ugaritic king Danel (always spelled without a yod), and his son Aqhat. The story begins by describing this King Danel sitting "by the gate, under the mighty trees around the threshing floor, doing justice for the widow and hearing the case of the orphan." The reference is to a historical king, mentioned in the Ugaritic list of rulers and living circa the 16th century B.C.E., who won fame in the ancient world for his exceptional justice and wisdom.
With the discovery of the Ugaritic epic on King Danel, it becomes clear that Ezekiel's prophecy refers to this king and not to Daniel the Jew. It must be born in mind that Ezekiel lived in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E., the most important international cultural center of the time. He and the community of exiles to whom he spoke were exposed to the influence of this culture and surely knew the legends current there concerning ancient heroes and paragons like Noah, Danel the Ugarit, and Job the Aramean or Edumean. It is natural to assume that in his parables Ezekiel occasionally drew on folk traditions current in the ancient world and well-known also to the simple people, not to speak of the more educated strata among the Jewish exiles.
This theory enables us to achieve a better understanding of Ezekiel's point. At the outset of his prophecy, he establishes a universal Divine law, not tied specifically to Jewish tradition: everyone is accountable, and dies, for his own sins, and everyone by his own righteousness, and his alone, can merit life. To illustrate this principle, he adds that even if the three paragons of righteousness, Noah, Danel, and Job -- none of whom were Jews-- were living in that sinful land, only they would be delivered. This universal and absolute statement, which concerns all the other nations of the world, and only them, leaves no room for specifically mentioning a Jew along with the other righteous figures of the world. For the prophet's aim is to show that this rule applies only to gentile nations, but does not hold for Jerusalem. In contrast to what might be expected, Jerusalem will have a surviving remnant who are spared the full measure of justice. This, however, is not because of G-d's mercy for them, but so that the exiles will see the wickedness of those who are saved and will understand that G-d did not bring destruction on Jerusalem for naught.
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