The Apocalypse of Ezra: The Almighty

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			So what is this Apocalypse of Ezra anyway? By the title alone it sounds pretty interesting. ‎Anything with ‘Apocalypse’ in it has to be a little on the bizarre side. It turns out it’s one of ‎the later Apocrypha books that is rarely included even in that dubious category. It was ‎written about 100 CE. The original language was probably Hebrew but we no longer have any ‎of the original text. The book describes the ‘vision’ as having taken place 30 years after the ‎destruction of the first temple. Scholars, however, are unanimous in labeling this a classic ‎example of dating something back in time and attributing it to some glorious figure from the ‎past to embellish the point and perhaps gain a little prestige. ‎
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There is a section in middle of this Apocalypse that deals with the visions of a man ‎named Shaltiel. Shaltiel’s vision is actually a series of encounters with an angel. Sometimes ‎the angel communicates with him directly, sometimes it talks in the voice of God, and ‎sometimes Shaltiel seems to communicate directly with God. The subject matter concerns ‎how it could be that the Jews, who were chosen by God and promised so many things, were ‎left essentially to the wolves. Shaltiel just cannot understand how such a thing fits with ‎God’s justice and with God’s purpose with the Jews. The questions and answers are nothing ‎less than fascinating. ‎
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He addresses his questions to the ‘Almighty’, probably a translation of a combination of the ‎Hebrew words El, Elyon, and Shaddai. These words are all found in the Bible at various ‎places. The first is probably the most ancient Semitic word for ‘God’; the second means ‎‎‘upper’ or ‘highest’; the third has no definitive translation but is usually translated as ‎‎‘Almighty’. El and Elyon are found all over the Dead Sea Scrolls to refer to God and were ‎probably still in use at the time this book was written. Shaddai is an ancient name for God ‎that began falling out of use some time in the second temple period.   ‎
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Shaltiel’s first question, which is really his only question, is why things turned out the way ‎they did. He asks why the Jews were punished while the Babylonians (meaning Romans) are ‎living on easy street. An angel gives him the ‘answer’: ‘Your mind is so confused about this ‎world: do you want to understand the way of the Almighty?’ ‘My Lord, I do’, I answered. ‘I ‎have been sent,’ he (the angel) said, ‘to ask three things of you. If you can explain any one of ‎them to me, I shall teach you what you want to know and show you why evil exists…weigh ‎me some fire, measure me some wind, or call me back a day that has passed’. ‎
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Shaltiel replies that of course he cannot do any of those things. The angel then replies: ‘Since ‎you know nothing about things you have grown up with, how can your limited mind ‎comprehend the way of the Almighty? It has been created incomprehensible: the way of the ‎Eternal cannot be grasped by a mortal man living in a transient world.’ Shaltiel’s reaction to ‎this is to fall prostrate and cry out: ‘We would have been better off never to have been born ‎than to be born for a life of suffering and not to understand why we suffer’. The angel’s ‎response to this compliant is: ‘Those who live on earth can only understand earthly things, ‎and only He who lives in heaven can understand heavenly things.’ ‎
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The session ends on an ambivalent note. The angel tells him that he should ‘pray again and ‎fast for seven days, and you will hear more’. This goes on for two more sessions. At the end ‎of each Shaltiel is promised that if he prepares himself spiritually, he will be granted more ‎visions. After the last one he is told to go out to a ‘flowery field where no house has ever ‎been built’. At this field he encounters a weeping woman who tells that she lost her son who ‎was born after 30 years of barren marriage. The woman says that she came out to this field to ‎die in her grief. Shaltiel tells the woman that her own private grief is nothing compared to the ‎mourning of the Jews for their lost temple and homeland. After trying unsuccessfully to ‎console her along these lines, she suddenly transforms into flash of lightening and vanishes. ‎Where she was has now become a massive city. ‎
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Analysis ‎
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The Apocalypse of Ezra looks at the ruins of the temple and asks how God can do such a ‎thing. The person asking the questions receives only the barest hints of answers. It is true that ‎at the end he is shown a vision of the rebuilt city, but it remains only a dream in his mind. ‎When he walks away, he must live his life in the ruin and not in the dream. The reader cannot ‎avoid feeling the frustration of the questioner as he asks one question after another and is ‎only told that these are matters that only God understands. One must wonder: what is the ‎point of a book that presents such crushing questions and doesn’t answer them? These ‎questions must have been in the minds of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the time. Did it ‎really do them any good to tell them that only God could fathom the ways of the world and ‎they were mere players on a divine stage? ‎
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The third dialogue focuses on the God’s purpose in making the world. Shaltiel repeats the ‎Torah’s description of the world being created for man and the Jewish nation being the ‎chosen nation of God. He demands an answer to why the Jews are subject to the rule of other ‎nations who ‘count for nothing’. The angel gives him the standard answer of the reward in ‎the world to come – a place reserved only for those who successfully pass through the ‎difficult and cursed confines of this world. Shaltiel then asks about all those who cannot ‎make this successful passage. Why were they created if all they get is suffering in this world ‎and nothing in the next? The angels answer is: ‘Do not try to be cleverer than God. Many men ‎must perish because they have ignored my law. God has given clear instruction for all men ‎what they must do if they wish to live and not be punished. But they reacted ‎disobediently…The result – emptiness for the empty, fullness for the full.’ ‎
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This is the tone of almost the entire text. Who exactly did this inspire? What image of God ‎did it convey? What is so wonderful about an ‘Almighty’ who created a world of injustice ‎and suffering and a next world that only a few can enjoy the fruits of? How is the answer ‎that we cannot fathom the ways of the Almighty worth anything to those who want to know ‎why things are the way they are?  Shaltiel is asking Job’s question on a national scale and ‎ultimately being forced to accept the same answer – you cannot see things from God’s ‎perspective. How does this console the sufferer? ‎
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There is a reason that books like Job and the Apocalypse of Ezra were not popular. Job made ‎it into the canon, but it remained a fairly obscure book. It is never read in any public ‎recitation. The Apocalypse of Ezra didn’t make it in and was completely lost to the Jews. ‎Books that didn’t give answers were not what the Jews needed in the exile. Perhaps only ‎those writings that gave answers or inspired hope were deemed worthy of Jewish attention. ‎
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But there is something that books like these provide. Answers are not always answers. Telling ‎people that the redemption is around the corner when the redemption may not be around the ‎corner may make people feel better, but it doesn’t bring the redemption. Maybe there are no ‎answers. Maybe the easy answers are deceptive and misleading. Maybe the temple was ‎destroyed because that’s just the way things happen. Maybe the Jewish people were ‎subjugated and exiled because that’s what victorious conquerors do with the peoples they ‎conquer. ‎
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Thoughts like these had to enter the minds of Jews during the decades following the ‎destruction. It seems like it entered the mind of author of this Apocalypse. It sure entered the ‎mind of the author of Job. Why does God allow these things to happen? Why does God ‎make these things happen? ‎
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The answer, if ‘answer’ is really what it is, is that we are not God. God is the Almighty. ‎Whatever the original Hebrew term – El, Elyon, Shaddai, or some combination of them – ‎the translation ‘Almighty’ means that God does what God does. God does not need our ‎approval for anything. We are not the Almighty. God is the Almighty. ‘Do not try to be ‎cleverer than the Almighty’. ‘How can your limited mind comprehend the way of the ‎Almighty? It has been created incomprehensible: the way of the Eternal cannot be grasped by ‎a mortal man living in a transient world.’ ‘Those who live on earth can only understand ‎earthly things, and only He who lives in heaven can understand heavenly things.’ These are ‎not inspiring statements. But they do something else. They speak the truth. ‎
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Sometimes we just have to hear it spoken as it is. Sometimes we need an image of God that ‎simply lays out the facts with no sugar coating. The Almighty is such an image. It may churn ‎out some good stuff, but it also churns out bad stuff. It isn’t an image that is running for the ‎election of ‘most popular image of God’. It simply is what it is. It is the image of the ‎Almighty. ‎
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Perceiving the Image ‎
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This is not a popular image. It doesn’t answer any of the classic questions. It basically tells ‎people to stop asking the questions because they won’t necessarily find any answers. But ‎sometimes that is exactly what we have to hear. The old religious answers that evil happens ‎because of x, y, and z have limited value. They work until they no longer work. At some point ‎they no longer suffice, either because people have grown more sophisticated, or more cynical, ‎or they’ve just grown tired of hearing the same old nonsense. ‎
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We’ve heard them all. Sometimes what is needed is not an answer, but a sincere reality check. ‎Sometimes that reality check gives the message that we will never understand these things ‎because we simply cannot. There are things that are beyond us. Whether that means that God ‎is managing things behind the scenes and not telling us what is really going on, or whether it ‎means that things are just going along on their own, is immaterial. The important thing is that ‎we are not privy to the answer. We have to recognize that, as brilliant as we may think we are, ‎we really understand very little. It is an important lesson, and it is one that human beings have ‎major problems accepting. ‎
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The Almighty is the take-it-or-leave-it image of God. It is the image that doesn’t even bother ‎attempting to make itself clear. It just does what it does regardless of human approval. We ‎perceive this image all the time, even if we don’t want to perceive it. It is always there, ‎lurking in the back of the conscience, misting all of our optimistic dreams and hopes, ‎weakening the religious straws we grasp and undermining the righteous indignation we feel, ‎with a sense that behind it all there is just an overwhelming Power that makes it all happen ‎regardless of our needs and beliefs. This Power is the Almighty. It is El Elyon or El Shaddai – ‎the most ancient of God’s many names that was always there and always will be there, no ‎matter how much we shed our belief. The Almighty is almighty. ‎
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Reflections ‎
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We don’t like this image. We either want a God who answers our questions or does things ‎right to begin with, or no God at all. But sometimes this is all we get. Why is it so difficult for ‎people to accept the image of the Almighty? ‎


		


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