Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: Sts. Joel and Esdras, prophets

Heading the list of saints for this day in the traditional Roman Martyrology is the martyr Pope St. Anacletus, third Bishop of Rome and second Successor of St. Peter. Immediately following St. Anacletus in the Martyrology, however, are two Old Testament saints, holy men who were among those God sent to help prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah:

This Day, the Thirteenth Day of July

At Rome, St. Anacletus, Pope and martyr, who governed the Church of God after St. Clement, and shed luster on it by a glorious martyrdom. 

The same day, the holy prophets Joel and Esdras.

Before moving on to Sts. Joel and Esdras, we should briefly note in passing that, in spite of the confusion and contradictory testimony of the old papal chronicles and succession lists that mistakenly distinguished between two popes named Cletus and Anacletus, it is now understood that Cletus and Anacletus are the same man, and St. Anacletus was the immediate predecessor of St. Clement rather than his successor.

St. Joel

St. Joel, son of Phatuel (Pethuel), was the author of the second of the Twelve Minor Prophets, a book only three chapters in length. His name in Hebrew (Yo'el) means "The Lord is God."  Most unusually for an Old Testament prophet, we know nothing certain of him and his life, and even the period when he lived is in doubt. We probably won't go wrong to agree with St. Jerome and other early Catholic commentators, who said St. Joel prophesied in the 8th century B.C. around the time of his fellow prophets Sts. Osee and Amos. This was based on the Book of Joel's placement toward the beginning of the Minor Prophets, between Osee and Amos. The content of the Book of Joel indicates that he was probably from the Kingdom of Judah and may have lived in Jerusalem, and may even have been a priest (as many of the Old Testament prophets were). On the other hand, the extra-biblical tradition found in first century A.D. The Lives of the Prophets , which has little to say about St. Joel, nevertheless maintains that he was of the Tribe of Reuben:

"He was from the territory of Reuben, of the field of Beth-meon. He died in peace, and was buried there."

The prophetic visions of St. Joel primarily deal with "the Day of the Lord," that is, Judgment Day, the day of dark clouds and gloom, when the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give her light, when God intervenes dramatically to mete out justice upon the wicked and to bring redemption and salvation to His people. In his visions, St. Joel saw God's wrath pictured as a dreadful, unstoppable plague of locusts, devouring everything in their path and leaving a desolate country and plunging its people into famine. The locusts are compared to a vast army of cruel and savage soldiers and charioteers -- in this case, the army of Assyria or Chaldea, prepared by God as a scourge for the disobedience of Israel (cf. Naum 3:17). But the locust plague as an image of God's punishment of evildoers reappears in the Apocalypse of St. John, chapter 9:2-11, wherein St. John sees a horrifying army of monstrous locusts arise from hell and led by the demon Abaddon ("the Destroyer"), that slaughters non-Catholics while sparing those who have been signed with the Sign of the Cross. In a similar way, St. Joel foresaw a time when God would gather all nations together in the Valley of Josaphat ("Judgment of the Lord") at Jerusalem and give recompense to the Gentiles who had oppressed and persecuted Israel, a vision that looks ahead to Armageddon and Doomsday, the Final Judgment (cf. Apoc. 19:17-21).

But the Book of Joel is far more than judgment and "doom and gloom." The purpose of divine punishment, or the threat of impending judgment, is to encourage sinners to repent. Thus, St. Joel describes the devastation of a locust plague as an occasion for the nation to offer sincere penance to God (Joel 1:13-15; 2:15-17). This is why Joel 1:15 and 2:17 are sung during the Church's Lenten penitential season. From his exhortation to penance, St. Joel then moves on to a message of encouragement and hope, promising that God would deliver penitent Israel from the locust plague and remove every curse, mystically promising them "corn, and wine, and oil" -- "The floors shall be filled with wheat, and the presses shall overflow with wine and oil" (Joel 2:19, 24), the prophet writes, foreseeing the institution of the Eucharist and the gift of the Holy Spirit Who brings heavenly unction.  Most significantly, God through St. Joel renews His promise of the coming of the Messiah, the Teacher of Righteousness, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all men, both Jew and Gentile -- a prophecy that was fulfilled in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 33:

"And you, O children of Sion, rejoice, and be joyful in the Lord your God: because He hath given you the Teacher of Righteousness, and he will make the early and the latter rain to come down to you as in the beginning. . . . And you shall eat in plenty, and shall be filled: and you shall praise the name of the Lord your God, who hath done wonders with you, and my people shall not be confounded for ever. And you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel: and I am the Lord your God, and there is none besides: and my people shall not be confounded for ever. And it shall come to pass after this, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy: your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Moreover upon my servants and handmaids in those days I will pour forth my spirit. And I will shew wonders in heaven; and in earth, blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood: before the great and dreadful day of the Lord doth come. And it shall come to pass, that every one that shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved: for in Mount Sion, and in Jerusalem shall be salvation, as the Lord hath said, and in the residue whom the Lord shall call." (Joel 2:23, 26-32)

St. Joel's prophecies conclude with the confident prediction, "The Lord will dwell in Sion," foreseeing the Mystery of the Incarnation.

St. Esdras

The other Old Testament saint remembered on this day is St. Esdras the Scribe (Ezra), one of the most important leaders of the Jews who had returned to the Holy Land after the end of the Babylonian Captivity. A holy and faithful priest of the high priestly dynasty of Sadoc who lived during the 400s B.C., St. Esdras was a close kinsman of Josue (Jesus), first High Priest of the liberated Jewish exiles who came back to rebuild the Temple in 538 B.C. Because the returned exiles encountered several discouraging obstacles and setbacks, God sent the prophets Sts. Zacharias and Aggaeus in 520 B.C. to exhort the Jews to finish their stalled work on the new Temple, and in due course the Temple was completed and dedicated. It was not long, however, before the Jews once again were distracted by mundane and petty concerns and succumbed to lethargy, complacency, and spiritual tepidity. God then sent St. Esdras in 457 B.C. to initiate a much needed reform in Jerusalem. With the aid of St. Nehemias the Governor, who arrived from Babylon in 445 B.C., St. Esdras suppressed numerous religious abuses among the priests and laity of Judaea and successfully set the Temple functions in order.

The story of St. Esdras is told in the book of I Esdras, though he also appears in II Esdras (Nehemias). The books of I and II Esdras traditionally and most logically have been attributed to Esdras as author or compiler and editor (though it is clear as well that II Esdras is the personal memoir of Nehemias the Governor). The thematic and stylistic similarities of I & II Esdras and I & II Paralipomenon (Chronicles), along with the fact that the ending of II Paralipomenon is all but identical to the opening of I Esdras, make it very likely that St. Esdras the Scribe was responsible for much of the compilation and writing of all four books. On the other hand, the Davidic genealogy of Zerubbabel's family found in I Paralipomenon and the high priestly succession down to Jeddoa (Jaddua) in II Esdras 12 seem to extend to the 300s B.C., probably after the death of St. Esdras, so the compiling and editing of these books may have been completed after his death. Be all that as it may, Jewish tradition attributes to St. Esdras not only the writing and editing of I & II Paralipomenon and I & II Esdras, but also a wider project of editing and arranging the Pentateuch and most of the other Old Testament books that had been written by his time. An informal body of scribes and sages traditionally called "the Great Synagogue" is said to have been established by St. Esdras and to have continued its work down to the time of the High Priest Simon II the Just, traditionally said to have been the last member of the Great Synagogue. Simon the Just is praised by his contemporary, the sage Jesus Ben-Sirach, in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, which Ben-Sirach wrote circa 200 B.C. In addition to "the Great Synagogue" legends, Jewish tradition also says St. Esdras was responsible for the arrangement or fixing of various liturgical rites and customs. Based on the biblical data and these extra-biblical traditions, the Jewish people and the Church owe St. Esdras a great debt for his reforms and his scribal work of preserving and handing on the inspired written Word of God, the Old Testament books of Holy Scripture.

As a faithful priest who taught Israel the Law and summoned his people to faithfulness, St. Esdras in his own person anticipated and foreshadowed the Lord Jesus Christ and His priestly work of teaching and exhortation.  But St. Esdras' reputation as a "prophet" is apparently due chiefly to an apocryphal book of prophecy known as IV Esdras, which has long been held in high esteem in the Church, being frequently quoted by various Early Fathers and Doctors of the Church, such as Sts. Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo. Though not divinely inspired Scripture and therefore not approved as canonical, nevertheless because of its influence on the Fathers and on the liturgy, the Church directed that it must be retained as an appendix to the Latin Vulgate. (More recent Catholic Bibles exclude it even as an appendix, however.) In the past, it was piously believed that St. Esdras was indeed the book's author, as the book claims (there are also a few other spurious apocalypses attributed to Esdras), but the book -- or at least part of the book -- evidently was the work of a Jewish Christian who probably lived in the latter first century A.D., perhaps in imitation of or in part inspired by the Apocalypse of St. John. It is from IV Esdras that the Church has taken her beautiful prayer Requiem aeternam, and it is also from this book that the popular Catholic tradition of the fourth archangel, St. Uriel, is derived. IV Esdras also depicts St. Esdras miraculously, single-handedly reconstructing the entire Old Testament which purportedly had been completely lost during the Babylonian Exile -- an account perhaps related to the Jewish "Great Synagogue" legend.

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!