The Apocalypse of Ezra: The Almighty
What is God?
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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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.’
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.
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?
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.’
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Perceiving the Image
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.
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.
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.
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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