When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, I took a class called “Classics of the Jewish Tradition,” and the first classic that we covered was the Bible. The professor said that the Bible represents the side that won out, namely, the “worship Yahweh only” position of the Deuteronomist, the prophets, some priests, and others. But we occasionally see the other side, the voice of the people whom the prophets criticized. The professor’s example was Jeremiah 44:17-19, where some Judeans assert that everything was going all right when they were worshipping the Queen of Heaven. Since that activity stopped, they say, there has been disaster. Here, we see the other side of the majority biblical position. The Deuteronomist presents kings who put a stop to idolatry as heroes; the people of Jeremiah 44:17-19, however, had a different perspective.
The other side also emerges with some frequency in Ezekiel, where the prophet responds to proverbs that were common in his day. What I mean by “the other side” is the voice of the people who are criticized in the biblical tradition. Interestingly, the people were responding to Ezekiel’s message (or their situation) in a variety of ways, some of them contradictory. For Ezekiel, of course, the proverbs had one thing in common: they were all wrong. Here are some of the proverbs or arguments that Ezekiel addresses:
1. “The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land” (Ezekiel 8:12). Some Judean officials were actually using this argument as an excuse to sin.
2. “The days are prolonged, and every vision comes to nothing” (Ezekiel 12:22). What the Judeans probably mean here is that life continues to go on normally, regardless of what the prophets of doom-and-gloom have said. They may also be saying that there have been many prophecies that have not come to pass, so why trust Ezekiel?
3. “The vision that he sees is for many years ahead; he prophesies for distant times” (Ezekiel 12:27). Here, they are like Hezekiah: “Who cares if my grandchildren will suffer? At least I will be safe. These bad things will not happen in my lifetime” (my loose paraphrase of Isaiah 39:8).
4. The most famous one: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Ezekiel 18:2). Here, the Judeans admit that bad things are happening, but they deny that they are at fault; they are suffering for their parents’ sins. And, surprisingly, they believe that children suffering for their parents’ sin is actually just (see v 19).
These proverbs contradict each other. In one breath, the people acknowledge that they are experiencing bad times and that the LORD is the one afflicting them. In another breath, they do not believe that God will punish Judah. A third position is that God will punish them but only in the distant future.
And then there is the position that Jeremiah tries to refute: that God will deliver Judah from Babylonian dominion (Jeremiah 14:13; 28). People were saying different things. Maybe their mood was based on whatever ups and downs they experienced; there were times when Babylon appeared to be a formidable threat, as when it took King Jehoiachin and others into exile. And there were times when the possibilities appeared more hopeful to Judah, as when Egypt had Babylon on the run (Jeremiah 37:5).
Another possibility is that the Judeans were grasping at whatever straws they could. Perhaps they thought, “Who cares if our excuses are consistent? They are all possibilities. And, in any case, why should we assume that Jeremiah and Ezekiel offer the only possible way to understand the situation?” Unfortunately for them, history sided with Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Judeans could tell themselves all sorts of things as they were falling, but reality sunk in once they hit the ground.