By Shelley Neese
Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern. This week we are finishing the book of Ezra which ends with a resolution to the remnant’s intermarriage crisis. In chapter 10, the narrative switches back to third person, perhaps Ezra’s memoirs were too lengthy and the narrator decided to jump back in and summarize the story.
Ezra’s emotional reaction: the guilt of sin
Ezra’s emotional reaction to the community’s guilt continued. The narrator wrote, “Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God” (10:1). Most likely, Ezra’s public repentance occurred in the temple courtyard because “a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him” (10:1). Touchingly, the people did not react to Ezra’s display with cynicism or self-defense. Instead, they wept bitterly alongside him.
The word of God and Ezra’s commitment to its laws had the piercing effect of conviction on the community. The remnant was not like the hard-hearted Judeans of Jeremiah’s day who assumed their divine election secured their good fortune, even if they were unfaithful to the covenant. As a collective, the remnant acknowledged their guilt in marrying idolatrous neighbors (10:2).
Ezra’s leadership style was not that of a hell and brimstone preacher but more of a humble intercessor. He genuinely grieved the effect of sin on the community and shared in their guilt, despite his personal innocence. As a result, the people followed his example and longed for transformation. The narrator highlighted the role of one layperson, Shecaniah. Impacted by Ezra’s public lament, Shechaniah interrupted Ezra’s grieving. He encouraged Ezra to lead the people in righting their wrongs. He said despite Israel’s falling away, “even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this” (10:2).
Taking charge, Shecaniah suggested to Ezra that the people assemble and publicly renew their covenant relationship with God. Not only that, Shecaniah was the first to suggest the necessary penalty for their sin. The only way to cleanse the remnant of the contaminating effect of their sin was to “send away all these wives and their children” (10:3).
Though Shecaniah offered Ezra the support of the people, King Artaxerxes had commissioned Ezra with the job of bringing the people into alignment with the Torah. Only Ezra had the king’s permission to enforce punishments on law breakers. Shecaniah spoke plainly in his imperative to Ezra, telling him to “take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it” (10:4). Shecaniah was clearly a solutions guy with no aversion to conflict. It is interesting to note that the suggestion of divorce came first from a community member, not Ezra.
Ezra took Shecaniah’s input and the input of other elders and officials. Considering that the Torah’s consequence for spreading idolatry was capital punishment, forced divorce seemed the lesser evil in the eyes of the community (Deut. 13:9). Still, to implement the reforms throughout the Judean province, Ezra needed the involvement of the priests, Levites, and laity. He asked them to renew their covenant with God and take an oath that they would see through the entire process of dissolving the corruptive marriages. The oath committed them to a plan of action to resolve the crisis, the solution to which Shecaniah had already provided: expulsion of the foreign wives and children (10:5).
Ezra was not flippant about the severity of the reparation or eager to dissolve family units. Once he arose with his torn tunic and plucked beard (9:3), he withdrew to a priestly chamber on the temple complex to fast and pray alone (10:6). Afterward, he announced to the community that a mandatory assembly would convene in Jerusalem in three days. Ezra expected all those in the Judean countryside to attend, despite it being December and the middle of the rainy season. Non-attendees risked confiscation of their property and excommunication (10:8).
When the people gathered in the plaza, they were “trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain” (10:9). The gloomy weather was a nice editorial flourish that painted a picture of the national mood. Their shivering could have been from the weather, their fear of punishment, or both. Ezra told them in a speech, “you have trespassed and married foreign women and so increased the guilt of Israel” (10:10). Ezra issued an order of divorce: “separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (10:11). Shockingly, everyone in the assembly, except for four in opposition, accepted Ezra’s action plan (10:15).
While they assented to Ezra’s proposal, they wisely asked for more time. Plus, the text says they were tired of standing in the rain. Ezra appointed local judges to investigate each intermarriage case in their towns. Understanding that the matter could not be judged in a brief time, he gave the representatives three months to hold hearings (10:13). If this had been a simple matter of expelling every foreign spouse in their midst, they would not have bothered with investigations. They would have issued an order from the top and let it filter down. Ezra showed his wisdom and fairness as a leader in not acting rashly with so much at stake. Ezra put the role of judge and enforcer in the hands of local leaders because they were closer to each case.
All total, after the hearings, the tribal judges banished the spouses of only 113 men. Eighty-six were lay people and twenty-seven were priests and temple workers. Topping the list of the guilty were descendants of Jeshua the high priest. Jeshua was the priest in Zechariah’s visions and the trusted confidant of Haggai. His descendants had clearly fallen away from the example of Jeshua. To be sure, all four priestly clans had guilty members. Ezra’s informants had been right that the temple leaders accounted for a substantial proportion of the problem (9:1).
Most people are surprised Ezra had such a dramatic reaction to a small percentage of Israelites found guilty of intermarriage. In the end, after hearing all the cases, the scale of the problem was not so significant. 113 pagan spouses hardly qualify as a pervasive problem. One possibility is that there were hundreds more intermarriages but in the three months of local hearings, many of the foreign spouses declared their loyalty to Yahweh. As such, they were welcomed to the community as proselytes. Thirteen years later, in the days of Nehemiah, the same problem of intermarriage will resurface (Neh. 13). Such a quick backsliding suggests that the local representatives were too lenient in their final decisions and should have exiled more of the foreign wives.
The other theory is that the problem was always a numerically small number of intermarriages, but for Ezra, the remnant’s unique peoplehood was worth defending, whether intermarriage was a minor or major problem.
The narrator did not describe the arrangements of family breakups or what happened to the exiled women and children. There is no narrative expressing their experience. Most likely, they returned to their relatives in nearby lands. The divorced men returned to the community and presented their sin offerings at the Jerusalem temple (10:19). Separation of families was a huge sacrifice, but with the community at risk of jeopardizing their restoration, Ezra saw no other way out.
The prophet Malachi confessed God hated divorce (Mal. 2:16). But God could only accomplish his plan for the remnant if she returned to the land, temple worship, and the Torah. The trembling assembly who met Ezra in the temple courtyards was quick to act, even if the reparation required sacrifice that cut them to their core.
Priestly standard of purity
Ezra had an uncompromising commitment to God’s laws. However, one question worth asking is why did Ezra insist that intermarriage was illegal for all of Israel? The Torah banned only priests from marrying outsiders because they had to protect the priestly line genealogically (Lev. 21:7). Why did Ezra, and later Nehemiah, hold the whole community up to the priestly standard of holiness?
Throughout Judah and Israel’s history, God permitted non-priests to marry outsiders if they declared allegiance to Yahweh and kept the laws of Moses. Sure, the Israelites could not marry certain people groups in the earliest days of the conquest of Canaan, but no such biblical directive against marrying other ethnicities existed (Deut. 7, 23). Ezra and Nehemiah were the first leaders in the Bible to view intermarriage as apostasy. The most likely answer is that in the postexilic community, Israel’s leaders thought it best to put up guardrails around the covenant laws. They might not have had those guardrails in First Temple times but look what happened! In modern Jewish parlance, the idea is called building a fence around the Torah.
Giving myself license to speculate, another factor contributing to Ezra’s alarm over intermarriage was that he had learned keys to national survival in exile. The paranoia the Israelites rightly felt about assimilation in captivity carried over to the restored community. In exile, isolationism was a key ingredient to their preservation as a unique people despite being a religious and ethnic minority. Separation was a tried-and-true policy for drawing a fine line between the outsiders and the remnant.
Because the same risks of assimilation threatened the returnees after returning to Judah, Ezra perhaps thought it best to reinterpret the biblical marriage laws for priests as incumbent on all Israel. We saw the same instinct toward separation back in chapter 4 when the remnant refused help from the locals in rebuilding the Second Temple (Ez. 4:4)
In fact, a trend throughout Second Temple Judaism was to reinterpret all the biblical purity laws more strictly. By the first century, Judaism was purity obsessed. Archaeologists specializing in first century Jerusalem have found an abundance of material remains that all point to strenuous standards of purity. The first century stone vessels and ritual baths found throughout the country reflect the community’s fear of contamination.
In the Persian period, the remnant had no control over their lack of a king or military, the relationship with their hostile neighbors, or the heavy handedness of their imperial overlords. But they could protect their peoplehood through strict laws around marriage. It is worth remembering that in the First Temple period—when Judah had a king, a military, and independence—they permitted proselytes into the community. Though there was not a formal conversion process at the time, the Hebrew scriptures described the incorporation of foreigners who worshipped Yahweh and followed his laws just as the native-born Israelites (Num. 15:14-16).
The biblical narrative is careful to include the God-fearing foreign women who made their mark in Israel’s story.
For example, Tzippora, the wife of Moses, was a Midianite. But she loved and feared Yahweh, even bringing Moses into compliance with the law of circumcision that he had forsaken with their son (Ex. 4:24-26). Rahab was Canaanite but her bravery in hiding the Israelite spies earned her adoption into the chosen community and protection in the battle at Jericho (Josh. 2-3). Ruth the Moabite uttered the Bible’s most lovely profession of faith in Yahweh and covenant loyalty to the people of Israel (Ruth 1:16-17). Certainly, foreign spouses like Tzippora, Rahab and Ruth did not contaminate the community, but rather enriched it with their faith in the one true God.
King David came from the line of Rahab and Ruth, as did Jesus which the gospel writer intentionally pointed out (Matt. 1:5)
How do these biblical portrayals of Godly foreigner spouses square with Ezra’s ban on mixed marriage? First, Ezra did not banish all foreign spouses as the final list of 113 exiles makes clear. The local representatives must have made concessions for the foreign spouses who professed loyalty to Yahweh, but Ezra did not reveal the details of the proceedings. Second, the change in attitude toward proselytes was temporary. Ezra’s biggest concern was that idolatrous women would corrupt the returnees with their abominable beliefs and idols. Like all the survivors of captivity, Ezra understood the restored community was in an especially vulnerable position.
We know from the prophets that the nations were not meant to stay outside of God’s plan of redemption forever. In God’s ultimate rescue plan for the world, the nations were meant to come alongside Israel and not be separated from her. Zechariah envisioned the nations joining themselves to Israel as God claimed them and dwelled in their midst (Zech. 2:11). For the prophet Isaiah, extending the covenant to the nations was the ultimate sign that the messianic age was set into action (Isa. 45:23, 66:23). Joel promised salvation to all gentiles who called on the name of the Lord (Joel 2:32). The prophet Micah described the nations not only worshiping Yahweh but following his teaching and obeying his laws (Micah 4:2). One overarching theme of the prophets is the promise that God’s compassion, love, and covenant will expand out from Jerusalem to encompass all who believe.
That grand vision for the world still applies even if at the time of Ezra, he retracted the covenant community rather than expanded it. The solution for Ezra’s postexilic age was not the solution for all time.
In the long story of salvation, gentiles were always part of God’s plan. In the epistles, Peter reminded new gentile believers in Jesus, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
Thank you for listening. This episode concludes our study of Ezra, the agent of restoration in the postexilic community. Next week we start reading the first chapter of Nehemiah, the loud reformer. The story of the restored community will continue but there is a new sheriff in town.
For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at www.thejerusalemconnection.us/
I do not say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.
Send me a message. I will respond. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.