I've been reading 4 Ezra.
To be honest, it wasn't easy to track down. In some bibles it's called 2 Esdras, but in most bibles it's missing altogether. Even Catholic bibles, which contain ripsnorting potboilers like the first two books of Maccabees and Tobit. But be warned, the 2 Esdras in the LXX isn't the 2 Esdras we're talking about... just the book of Nehemiah in drag.
Actually it's more complicated than that. 4 Ezra is the major part of 2 Esdras, which is a composite work. Chapters 1 & 2 – a Christian addition – were taped on later, as were the nightmare-like chapters 15 and 16. 4 Ezra is, properly speaking, the big chunk in the middle.
A comprehensive edition of the NRSV will however include 2 Esdras (the HarperCollins Study Bible, for instance) along with the much underrated Revised English Bible (with apocrypha.)
Is everybody clear so far? There will be a test at the end.
I went searching for 4 Ezra because it's a component in a paper I'm taking this semester on theodicy in the Hebrew Bible. Theodicy (sounds like theoddity, only different) is the difficult art of explaining God's goodness in a less than perfect world. Apart from theodicy it's also full of what many people call “prophecy.” In fact at times it seems to echo the Little Apocalypse of Matthew 24, at others Daniel. Trivia item: 4 Ezra is widely quoted in Mormon circles as evidence for their beliefs on the Ten Lost Tribes (the relevant passage is 13:39-47 – nobody tell Craig White or Dankenbring!) James White, husband of Seventh-day Adventism's Ellen G. White, also mined it for prophetic proof texts, but that's a digression.
But let's set aside the apocalyptic stuff and return to the oddity of theodicy. Here's Ezra. Not the real Ezra of course, but a literary Ezra cut from whole cloth, who after pouring out a troubled prayer is provided with the personal ministrations of an angel called Uriel to clear things up. Ezra is a sensitive, compassionate guy, deeply disturbed by the suffering of his nation and the apparent harshness of God in consigning the vast bulk of humankind to a terrible fate after death. The angel Uriel is, in contrast, a priggish unbending toad – and you get the impression that he's also as thick as a plank – who is quite content to see the vast majority of humanity consigned to the eternal concentration camps of the damned.
Uriel basically says, don't worry your silly little head about this Ezra, one of the joys of the saved is to look across on to the torment of the wicked. Grab some popcorn and enjoy the screams.
Slight license there, but it's not too far off. Quote: “Their second joy is to see the souls of the wicked wandering ceaselessly, and the punishment in store for them.” (7:93)
Here's the thing: Ezra doesn't give any ground at all. He politely agrees with the snooty know-all Uriel, then comes back again (and again) for another crack at challenging Uriel's Hitlerian idea of justice.
Think of Abraham bargaining with Yahweh over the fate of Sodom, or Job protesting his fate as Satan's (and Yahweh's) plaything. Like these canonical kin, 2 Esdras can be considered subversive literature.
If you feel like a little bit of a change from the usual biblical fare, you could do worse than dip into 4 Ezra, which is interesting on the level of literature, even if you're skeptical about the scripture part. Sure, it didn't make it into either the Hebrew or Septuagint canons, and it is believed to date from the same time period as Revelation, but among those who drew particular inspiration from it were such luminaries as Christopher Columbus (who quoted 6:42 to Ferdinand and Isabella in campaigning for financial support for his New World expeditions) and Paradise Lost's John Milton. You can read it (in the RSV) here.