Virtue Signaling or Speaking Out: Ezekiel versus Jeremiah
Jeremiah lived among his people and desperately wished to save them from a grievous error. Ezekiel lived far away from Judah and communicated his message for the record.
During the final years of the First Temple, Judah’s King Zedekiah was stuck between two major powers, Egypt and Babylon, each demanding his loyalty. Naturally, the king consulted his court prophets. Most of them were enthusiastic about throwing off the yoke of Babylon, as were his courtiers. They hoped YHWH would pull off a miracle for them (Jeremiah 21:2) akin to the exodus from Egypt or Sennacherib’s failed siege of Jerusalem.
The prophet Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, however, issued a warning: YHWH would not save them; if Zedekiah rebels against Babylon, King Nebuchadnezzar would destroy Jerusalem and burn the Temple to the ground. This was not the message that people wanted to hear, and the book of Jeremiah is filled with the prophet’s reflections—often called by scholars “confessions”— on how he was persecuted for repeatedly delivering this message to the king and his courtiers:
ירמיה טו:י אוֹי לִי אִמִּי כִּי יְלִדְתִּנִי אִישׁ רִיב וְאִישׁ מָדוֹן לְכָל הָאָרֶץ לֹא נָשִׁיתִי וְלֹא נָשׁוּ בִי כֻּלֹּה מְקַלְלַונִי.
Jer 15:10 Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me—A man of conflict and strife with all the land! I have not lent, and I have not borrowed; yet everyone curses me.
Jeremiah lived in Judah among his people, and was trying all he could to save them from themselves and the bad judgment of their leaders. Jeremiah’s criticism, coming from a place of solidarity was hard to hear but served as an important moral corrective.
Another kind of criticism is less constructive.
After Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem the first time, in 597 B.C.E., he exiled King Johoiachin and the upper echelons of Jerusalem’s elite society to Babylon; the priest and scribe Ezekiel son of Buzi was among these exiles. Like Jeremiah, he too warned that Babylon would crush Judah and that YHWH would not save them.
Ezekiel is explicit about why he issues his warnings: he knows what is right and what is wrong and wishes to state all this “for the record.”
יחזקאל ג:יט וְאַתָּה כִּי הִזְהַרְתָּ רָשָׁע וְלֹא שָׁב מֵרִשְׁעוֹ וּמִדַּרְכּוֹ הָרְשָׁעָה הוּא בַּעֲוֹנוֹ יָמוּת וְאַתָּה אֶת נַפְשְׁךָ הִצַּלְתָּ.
Ezek 3:19 But if you do warn the wicked man, and he does not turn back from his wickedness and his wicked course, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have saved your own soul.
Unlike Jeremiah, Ezekiel has no prospect of his warnings having any effect. He was living in Babylon before the advent of efficient long-distance communication, so he had no access to Judah’s leadership. And, unlike Jeremiah, he was already living in the Diaspora and did not face the risk of a king’s displeasure or the fate of what would happen to the people if Zedekiah made the wrong decision.
In war, both types of critics can always be found. Even so, an important distinction must be made between criticizing with the distance of an Ezekiel, whose main concern is moralizing and saying the right thing just so that וְאַתָּה אֶת נַפְשְׁךָ הִצַּלְתָּ “you will save your own soul,” and speaking out like Jeremiah, as part of the people, or as an ally who cares deeply about the people’s safety and fate, who wishes to save them from a grave error.
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).