Recently I read — well, I’m not sure what it’s called. Let’s back up.
Traditionally the book I read would be called 4 Esdras, or the Fourth Book of Ezra. But Protestant, and then English-language Catholic translations, renumbered a series of books, 1 Esdras became Ezra, 2 Esdras became Nehemiah, 3 Esdras became 1 Esdras, and 4 Esdras became 2 Esdras. So 2 Esdras may either mean this book, or the Book of Nehemiah. Further, this book is so obviously a triptych that its parts are sometimes broken up, with the middle called 4 Esdras or 4 Ezras the first two chapters called 5 Esdras, and the last two called 6 Esdras. The part called 4 Esdras in that naming scheme corresponds to Ezra Salathiel in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Some churches call it 3 Ezras.
But the Revised Standard Version and the 1611 King James Bible both call it 2 Esdras. So that’s what I’m going with. The Second Book of Esdras.
The Second Book of Esdras is supposedly narrated by Ezra, whose inter-office memos with the Emperor of Babylon are recorded in the Book of Ezra and who is often considered to be the final editor of the Five Books of Moses. Most churches consider 2 Esdras to be Apocryphal. 2 Esdras even less accepted than the Prayer of Manasseh, though the core of bulk of 2 Esdras is at least more widely adopted than the Ethiopian-Orthodox-only Book of Enoch. There’s disputes over what portions were written by Christians under Roman rules, and what portions were written under Pharisees under Roman rule. Considering that many Pharisees, like Saul of Tarsus, considered themselves Christians, there may not be much of a difference.
There are three sections, each of which deals with God’s judgment on Israel. The first and last are apocalypses. The middle section — longest of the three — is a dialogue on the presence of suffering and the vision of a woman.
Now, from the end, the beginning. First, the last:
Many images in 2 Esdras are shared with the New Testament, such as the seeds in the field
Woe to those who are choked by their sins and overwhelmed by their iniquities, as a field is choked with underbrush and its path overwhelmed with thorns, so that no one can pass through
2 Esdras 16:77
Which recalls the parable of the sower
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
But not all the parables are passables. Images of the Holocaust — the burnt offering — of the mid 20th century come to mind
As in an olive orchard three or four olives may be left on every tree, or as when a vineyard is gathered some clusters may be left by those who search carefully through the vineyard, so in those days three or four shall be left by those who search their houses with the sword…. They shall be like mad men, sparing no one, but plundering and destroying those who continue to fear the Lord. For they shall destroy and plunder their goods, and drive them out of their houses.
2 Esdras 16:29-31, 71-72
The author was not the first to use holocaust imagery in this way:
The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu (1928)
Within this context, the command not to be anxious of physical things
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
Puts on the airs of an escape from a burning city
Hear my words, O my people; prepare for battle, and in the midst of the calamities be like strangers on the earth. Let him that sells be like one who will flee; let him that buys be like one who will lose; let him that does business be like one who will not make a profit; and let him that builds a house be like one who will not live in it; let him that sows be like one who will not reap; so also him that prunes the vines, like one who will not gather the grapes;
2 Esdras 16:40-43
There’s one line that I want to highlight. I’ll return to the theme later.
Just as a respectable and virtuous woman abhors a harlot, so righteousness shall abhor iniquity, when she decks herself out, and shall accuse her to her face, when he comes who will defend him who searches out every sin on earth.
2 Esdras 16:49-50
Next, the first:
The physical nightmare at the end of 2 Esdras is matched by promises of a nightmare at the beginning. God condemns Israel and announces a blood price will be due
Thus says the Lord Almighty: Have I not entreated you as a father entreats his sons or a mother her daughters or a nurse her children, that you should be my people and I should be your God, and that you should be my sons and I should be your father? I gathered you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. But now, what shall I do to you? I will cast you out from my presence. When you offer oblations to me, I will turn my face from you; for I have rejected your feast days, and new moons, and circumcisions of the flesh. I sent to you my servants the prophets, but you have taken and slain them and torn their bodies in pieces; their blood I will require of you, says the Lord.
2 Esdras 1:28-32
But (in a hint at what the last section is missing), there is still time of repentance
Rise and stand, and see at the feast of the Lord the number of those who have been sealed. Those who have departed from the shadow of this age have received glorious garments from the Lord. Take again your full number, O Zion, and conclude the list of your people who are clothed in white, who have fulfilled the law of the Lord. The number of your children, whom you desired, is full; beseech the Lord’s power that your people, who have been called from the beginning, may be made holy.”
2 Esdras 2:38-41
And the Son of God himself will be coming with palms.
I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude, which I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, “Who are these, my lord?” He answered and said to me, “These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and they have confessed the name of God; now they are being crowned, and receive palms.” Then I said to the angel, “Who is that young man who places crowns on them and puts palms in their hands?” He answered and said to me, “He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.” So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord. Then the angel said to me, “Go, tell my people how great and many are the wonders of the Lord God which you have seen.”
2 Esdras 2:42-48
The Messiah, when he comes, will not change a single letter of the law, but apply it to all people
What shall I do to you, O Jacob? You would not obey me, O Judah. I will turn to other nations and will give them my name, that they may keep my statutes.
2 Esdras 1:24
Though perhaps not all promises are kept. The Father condemns…
Because you have forsaken me, I also will forsake you. When you beg mercy of me, I will show you no mercy. When you call upon me, I will not listen to you; for you have defiled your hands with blood, and your feet are swift to commit murder.
2 Esdras 1:25-26
… but the Son will intercede.
And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. And the people stood by, watching; but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!”
The heart of the story:
The heart of 2 Esdras begins with Ezra complaining to God about cruelty and injustice. If God hates Israel enough to destroy Jerusalem (poetically by the Babylonians, and against by the Romans), He really just should torture her directly and stop using intermediaries:
If thou dost really hate thy people, they should be punished at thy own hands.”
2 Esdras 5:30
And in the darkest moments, as with Job, the “original” horror of Thomas Ligotti…
“No other life forms know they are alive, and neither do they know they will die. This is our curse alone. Without this hex upon our heads, we would never have withdrawn as far as we have from the natural—so far and for such a time that it is a relief to say what we have been trying with our all not to say: We have long since been denizens of the natural world. Everywhere around us are natural habitats, but within us is the shiver of startling and dreadful things. Simply put: We are not from here. If we vanished tomorrow, no organism on this planet would miss us. Nothing in nature needs us.”
Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (2012)
I replied and said, “O earth, what have you brought forth, if the mind is made out of the dust like the other created things! For it would have been better if the dust itself had not been born, so that the mind might not have been made from it. But now the mind grows with us, and therefore we are tormented, because we perish and know it. Let the human race lament, but let the beasts of the field be glad; let all who have been born lament, but let the four-footed beasts and the flocks rejoice! For it is much better with them than with us; for they do not look for a judgment, nor do they know of any torment or salvation promised to them after death. For what does it profit us that we shall be preserved alive but cruelly tormented? For all who have been born are involved in iniquities, and are full of sins and burdened with transgressions. And if we were not to come into judgment after death, perhaps it would have been better for us.”
2 Esdras 7:62-69
(Ligotti’s seconday claim in the above passage, that “We are not from here,” may also plagiarized, c.f. Philippians 3:20)
As in the Book of Job the question is not addressed: God emphasizes that Ezra does not understand all the facts.
And he said to me, “If I had asked you, ‘How many dwellings are in the heart of the sea, or how many streams are at the source of the deep, or how many streams are above the firmament, or which are the exits of hell, or which are the entrances of paradise?’ Perhaps you would have said to me, ‘I never went down into the deep, nor as yet into hell, neither did I ever ascend into heaven.’ But now I have asked you only about fire and wind and the day, things through which you have passed and without which you cannot exist, and you have given me no answer about them!”
2 Esdras 4:4-9
Just as angels do not understand all the facts
He answered me and said, “Concerning the signs about which you ask me, I can tell you in part; but I was not sent to tell you concerning your life, for I do not know.
2 Esdras 4:52
Though even here, Ezra’s reply is subversive
And he said to me, “You cannot understand the things with which you have grown up; how then can your mind comprehend the way of the Most High? And how can one who is already worn out by the corrupt world understand incorruption?” When I heard this, I fell on my face and said to him, “It would be better for us not to be here than to come here and live in ungodliness, and to suffer and not understand why.”
2 Esdras 4:10-12
It is through this question of whether it was better never to have been, that we see the heart of the Second Book of Esdras. For the persecution fo all Israel prefigures the persecution fo the King of Israel, the nation of the Only Begotten Son
And now, O Lord, behold, these nations, which are reputed as nothing, domineer over us and devour us. But we thy people, whom thou hast called thy first-born, only begotten, zealous for thee, and most dear, have been given into their hands. If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance? How long will this be so?”
2 Esdras 6:57-59
And it is this, the persecution of Israel as prefiguring the suffering of Christ, that makes one think: who else was there
Here I return to that line from earlier, that a virtuous woman despise a harlot. For Ezra encounters a woman in a vision. Ezra sees her weeping over her son, who died on his wedding day. After praying for “30 years,” which are later explained to mean 30 centuries, the woman says:
And I brought him up with much care. So when he grew up and I came to take a wife for him, I set a day for the marriage feast.
“But it happened that when my son entered his wedding chamber, he fell down and died. Then we all put out the lamps, and all my neighbors attempted to console me; and I remained quiet until evening of the second day. But when they all had stopped consoling me, that I might be quiet, I got up in the night and fled, and came to this field, as you see. And now I intend not to return to the city, but to stay here, and I will neither eat nor drink, but without ceasing mourn and fast until I die.”
2 Esdras 9:46-47, 10:1-4
The preceding passage describing “my son” is not from the weeping woman, but from the Father
For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath. And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall be left. And after seven days the world, which is not yet awake, shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish. And the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it; and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them.
2 Esdras 7:28-32
To us the Second Book of Esdras is literature, not scripture, an ancient CS Lewis tale. So we don’t need to wonder if there’s an inversion going on, if the 3,000 years of prayer of the woman mean the 3,000 daylight hours of pregnancy, or if the 40 decades of the Messiah being revealed are the 40 months of Christ’s public ministry. (Though as most authorities believe 2 Esdras was written after the crucifixion, such an accounting does not require a supernatural intervention.)
Rather, we see that what appears to be a couplet (the mother of the Messiah, and the Father of the Messiah), is in fact interrupted by an explanation of an angel of what the image means. According to the angel, the woman is Zion, Israel, the mother of Jerusalem
This woman whom you saw, whom you now behold as an established city, is Zion. And as for her telling you that she was barren for thirty years, it is because there were three thousand years in the world before any offering was offered in it. And after three thousand years Solomon built the city, and offered offerings; then it was that the barren woman bore a son. And as for her telling you that she brought him up with much care, that was the period of residence in Jerusalem. And as for her saying to you, ‘When my son entered his wedding chamber he died,’ and that misfortune had overtaken her, that was the destruction which befell Jerusalem
2 Esdras 10:44-48
Israel is not ever-virgin. She’s a harlot. She’s whored after idols. Israel was sued for divorce by God in Jeremiah! There was a deposition!
“Lift up your eyes to the desolate heights and see:
Where have you not lain with men?
By the road you have sat for them
Like an Arabian in the wilderness;
And you have polluted the land
With your harlotries and your wickedness.
The Messiah is associated with two women, Mary and Israel
One ever-virgin. The other a whore.
One Queen of Angels. The other beaten by angels.
One taken up to heaven. The other still dwelling on earth.
One saved from sin before time. The others sins paid for with blood.
But both women awaited the Messiah, Israel and Mary. Both were present at his death. The foreign men required the groaning of the earth to recognize the Son of the Man. The women knew it already
When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Mary and Israel, Christianity and Judaism. Two sides of the triptych of the Second Book of Esdras, beginning and ending with Christianity imagery, but centered on the hope of the Son of David. The Lion will guide them both home
“And as for the lion whom you saw rousing up out of the forest and roaring and speaking to the eagle and reproving him for his unrighteousness, and as for all his words that you have heard, this is the Messiah whom the Most High has kept until the end of days, who will arise from the posterity of David, and will come and speak to them; he will denounce them for their ungodliness and for their wickedness, and will cast up before them their contemptuous dealings. For first he will set them living before his judgment seat, and when he has reproved them, then he will destroy them. But he will deliver in mercy the remnant of my people, those who have been saved throughout my borders, and he will make them joyful until the end comes, the day of judgment, of which I spoke to you at the beginning
2 Esdras 12:31-34
As the Lord says
He said to me, “I shall liken my judgment to a circle; just as for those who are last there is no slowness, so for those who are first there is no haste.”
2 Esdras 5:42
Which is to say
So the last will be first, and the first last.”