Here is an expanded version of the Sunday morning Bible study I lead on the ninth and tenth chapters of The Book of Ezra. Since we have a rotation of teachers, I only taught these two chapters. Thus, a bit of a recap is in order.
Around the time of 597 to 586 BC, Babylon conquered the Southern Kingdom Judah. It was the last holdout of the Israeli people, the Northern Kingdom having been destroyed much earlier. The Babylonians destroyed the Temple and took their pick of Judeans for enslavement. Anyone not carted off to Babylon remained in the land to work the fields. In 538 BC Babylon itself was conquered by the Persians, led by Cyrus. Cyrus was more sympathetic toward the Judeans. The next year, he issued a decree that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. The return actually occurred in three different waves. Ezra returned with the second group. The first group had already worked on the restoration of the temple. Here we shall see Ezra working toward re-establishing the people to God.
9:1-4. Some time after the second wave of Jews returned to Jerusalem, leaders approached Ezra to inform him that some of the people of Israel, priests, and Levites had intermarried with people from the surrounding land. It would seem that this included those who had either just returned or those who returned in the first wave. Ezra was most distressed at this new, tearing his robe and plucking out some of his hair. Quite the visual display. When I was very young, I imagined passages like this, the tearing of the robes, to be done in anger and frustration, much like The Incredible Hulk. In actuality, while frustration was probably present, the action is a sign of mourning. The people had committed a grave sin.
Now it seems, on the surface, to be a lot of stress over nothing. Is it really such a big deal to intermarry? Indeed, some people use passages such as this to forbid interracial marriage. Others cite it as an example of racism in The Bible. In truth, neither of these is an accurate interpretation, after all the marriage of Ruth and Boaz was a mixed marriage. It isn’t so much that the Jews married foreigners that caused the problem, but that they married practicing pagans, a direct violation of God’s commands. Deuteronomy 7:1-4 says
“Now if the Lord your God brings you into the land you go to inherit, and casts out great nations before your face, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands, you shall strike and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show them mercy. Nor shall you make marriage with them. You shall not give your daughter to his son, nor take his daughter for your son. For she will turn your son away from Me, and he will serve other god; so the Lord will be very angry with you and destroy you suddenly.”
Thus we see that the concern in Deuteronomy and here in Ezra is that God’s people, should they marry those who practice other religions, could be led away. Since the Jews were God’s chosen people, to intermarry with practicing pagans was to equate God with these other beliefs, to give the impression that He is One among many, not The One True God.
Why did they intermarry? The text doesn’t quite say, but put yourself into the mindset of a group of exiles who are now returning to your home. Many decades have passed since the destruction of your homeland and, in the attempt to gain a foothold in the reconstruction of society, the temptation to align yourself with the people who remained in the land, people with strong economic or political ties, would be great. Or maybe they were tired of seeing the same group of Jewish girls. We don’t really know. All we know is that it happened.
Does this idea still have relevance to us today? Yes. When choosing who to marry, we must always be mindful of our beliefs. When someone shares a different religious belief, there can be conflicts. In which faith do you raise your children or do you let them choose between conflicting faiths? What about those areas where the two religions differ on moral issues? If you are in debt, there will be tensions about spending money? The Christian will feel called to tithe, but the unbeliever would not have such a compulsion. The unbelieving spouse may respect the beliefs in times of peace, but in times of stress, this may not always happen. In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul tells Christians to not be yoked with unbelievers. In practicality, this is a caution against such intermarriage. Two people of different faiths will have areas of conflict.
9:5-15. Ezra spent the day until the evening sacrifice in shock and fasting. He would have been noticed by the people. When the time came to pray, he took on the role of mediator. We have seen this with Moses and other prophets in the Old Testament. Essentially, Ezra equates himself with the people and takes their sin upon himself. He doesn’t speak of them as “those sinners over there”, but speaks of the sin as if it were his own. It is the Christian belief that this still occurs, that Jesus is our mediator, pleading our case to God as we confess and pursue holiness.
What is also striking about Ezra’s prayer is that he doesn’t ask for anything, not even forgiveness. He takes the position that the Jews knew better and didn’t follow God. Because they knew better, God has shown extreme grace by holding off the destruction of the Jews, although he does see their constant enslavement as punishment for refusing to follow God’s commands. And on this note, he uses the prayer as a type of sermon, reminding the people of their identity as God’s chosen. He re-establishes their narrative, something that may have been needed when re-inhabiting the land from which they had been taken. A conquered people always need to remember who they are. Thus, this was a prayer of confession, but it was also more than a little theatrical. It was meant to be heard and convict those who heard, just as the tearing of the cloak and plucking of the hair was a public sign of mourning. And this seems to have worked, for in chapter 10 verse 1 we see that a large assembly gathered around him and wept.
10:1-44. Thus, the people felt shame and grief and Shechaniah spoke for the people, owning the sin and proclaiming that they should renew their end of the covenant with God and put away the wives and children born in the intermarriages. To our modern ears, this seems a bit inspiring, but also a bit troubling. Basically, they are sending away their women and children. Again, critics would say that this seems extremely harsh, but what do we really know about the situation. All the text says is that they sent them away, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they were abandoned. It conjures images of husbands walking out on wives and leaving children, and image that has a specific connotation to our society that may not have been the case in a tribal culture. Again, we don’t have details, but it is possible that these unfaithful men still had to provide for the women and children. It is possible that the Jewish leaders gave them provisions for them to return to their original people. To assume that these women and children were cast off as unwanted trash probably says more about the person interpreting the text than the text itself. We should be careful about projecting our modern sensibilities on passages where the Bible itself doesn’t speak in detail. We must also remember that Ezra is seen as a pseudo-history, but it’s main importance was as a theological lesson. Ancient concepts of recording history are quite different from how we record and analyze history today. Ancient historians chronicled based on patterns and connections, often trying to make a point of some sort. Look at many of the Roman histories where the purpose was to be accurate while at the same time elevating the patron who funded the history to be a reincarnation of any number of great Roman leaders. All this to say that there is no reason to assume that sending these people away is necessarily a bad thing just because it conjures images of dead-beat dads and absentee fathers to us. There is every reason to believe the Jews made provisions for this new segment of society or that God Himself placed his Hand of protection and provision over them. In the former case, there are many specific laws about the treatment of the poor or of prisoners of war. There may have been provisions in the interpretation of The Law that provided for these women and children. In the latter case, just because you were a result of someone breaking God’s command, does not mean God will forsake you. He still protected and provided for Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16:7-14, 21:9-20). Thus, knowing what happened to these women and children is less important than the fact that the Jews married them and how the Jews responded when confronted with their sin.
So, the response was to send the women away. This is also one of the few times in the Old Testament where, when presented with the words of the prophet, the Jews responded with “yeah, okay.” Most of the time, their response was not quite so accepting.
An obvious question at this point. If a Christian is married to an unbeliever, does this mean that the correct response is divorce? Paul is actually quite clear on this. The answer is no. In 1 Corinthians 7:12-15, Paul says that the believer is not to break the marriage because God hates divorce. It is the responsibility of the unbeliever to leave and if the unbeliever wishes to maintain the marriage, then the marriage must not be broken. But if the unbeliever wishes to leave, he or she must be allowed to leave. Paul also qualifies this by saying it is his personal opinion. We should live at peace with our unbelieving spouses for we may win them to Christ with our love and service. We should not provoke them to anger or lord our faith over them.
The chapter ends with a sort of Old Testament version of WikiLeaks. The women and children were sent away, but the men who broke the commands of God were shamed by having their names recorded for all of posterity. How horrible to be known not for your accomplishments or successes, but to be forever known for breaking God’s commands.
Primary Resources Used: Fensham, F. Charles. New International Commentary on the Old Testament : The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah Eerdmans. 1982.
Scripture taken from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint. Copyright 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. Used by permission. All rights reserved.