In Ezekiel 14:13-20, God says that he will not deliver the land from famine and destruction. To emphasize this point, God says that, even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in the land, they would only deliver their own lives by their righteousness, not the lives of their family or others.
Why does Ezekiel mention these three? Exegetes have struggled with this question. Dr. Jacob Klein of Bar-Ilan University gave a homily in which he mentioned the views of Rashi and Radak, who were medieval Jewish commentators. For example, Rashi notes that all three survived the destruction of an old world (or state) and the creation of a new. Radak says that they delivered only themselves by their righteousness.
I have problems with these explanations because they miss a crucial point: Ezekiel’s audience assumes that these three figures would deliver them if they were alive and in the land. That is why God goes out of his way to stress the opposite. The audience already knows that the three men would deliver themselves by their righteousness. What Ezekiel wants to refute is the idea that they could deliver others as well.
Are there other explanations for referring to these three men? One possibility is that the three figures were intercessors, explaining why Ezekiel stresses that they could not deliver others. Noah did not intercede for the flood generation, but he did save his children, including the depraved Ham. Job prayed for his friends in Job 42:7-9. Daniel is a hard one to fit into this scheme. The biblical Daniel prayed for his people in Daniel 9, but that was in the time of Darius, long after Ezekiel wrote. Daniel probably did not have a reputation as an intercessor during Ezekiel’s time.
If Daniel in Ezekiel 14 is actually the ancient Near Eastern king Danel (as many scholars argue), then the scheme may work, depending on how the Danel story ended. Unfortunately, the ending is lost. In the Aqhat epic, Danel is a righteous king who defends the fatherless and the widow. The chief god, El, grants him a son at his request, and the son is later killed, resulting in a famine. Both my HarperCollins Study Bible and my Jewish Study Bible assume that Danel succeeds in reviving his dead son, presumably through his influence on El. That would make Danel a successful intercessor. Plus, the Aqhat epic and Ezekiel 14 both mention famine, so Ezekiel may have had the story in mind. But would Ezekiel appeal to a legend that had pagan gods?
Another possibility is that Ezekiel’s audience held that the three men would deliver the entire land through their presence, the same way that God would have delivered Sodom if he found ten righteous people there (Genesis 18). Perhaps, but why pick these men for that point? Noah’s presence on the earth did not move God to save every person. So why would Ezekiel’s audience expect God to save all of Judah for Noah’s sake?
Here is another anomaly: Assuming that Daniel is Danel, all three of these men are Gentiles. Ezekiel could have appealed to Abraham or Moses, but he did not. Is this significant? Dr. Klein tries to see some meaning in this detail, but I do not understand his point. Klein says that God wants to show that individual retribution for sin and righteousness is a universal law, but it does not apply to Jerusalem, since even wicked people survived (at least I think that is his argument). The problem is that Ezekiel 18 defends individual retribution with respect to Judah. I will not throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. Maybe Ezekiel 14 does foreshadow Ezekiel 18 by showing that everyone in the world is rewarding and punished for his own personal behavior. Perhaps the reference to righteous Gentiles is also meant to shame the wicked Judeans, who prided themselves as God’s chosen people.