By Shelley Neese

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In the last chapter of Ezra, his emotional reaction to the community’s guilt continued until they could finally resolve the remnant’s intermarriage crisis. In the words of the narrator, “Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God” (10:1). The narrative switches back to the third person. The reasoning is unclear, but perhaps Ezra’s memoirs were too lengthy, and the narrator wanted to summarize the story.
Ezra’s public display of repentance must have 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, agonizing over their own sin.

The word of God and Ezra’s commitment to upholding the covenant 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 led with humility, not fiery preaching. He genuinely grieved the corrosive effect of idolatry on the community and shared in their guilt, despite his personal innocence. As a result, the people followed his example and longed for transformation.

Shecaniah’s proposal

The narrator highlighted the role of one layperson, Shecaniah. Impacted by Ezra’s public lament, Shecaniah interrupted Ezra’s grieving and encouraged him to lead the people in righting their wrongs. He said that 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. Shecaniah was the first to suggest the necessary penalty for their sin: sending away the wives and children to cleanse the remnant of contamination (10:3). Notably, the idea of divorce originated from a community member, not Ezra.

Though Shecaniah formulated the tough reforms, 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, encouraging 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.
Ezra considered Shecaniah’s input along with that of other elders and officials. Given that the Torah prescribed capital punishment for spreading idolatry, divorce appeared as the preferable option to the community (Deut. 13:9). However, for the reforms to take root across the Judean province, Ezra required the cooperation of priests, Levites, and lay leaders. He urged them to reaffirm their covenant with God and swear an oath to oversee the dissolution of the corrupt marriages. This oath committed them to a detailed plan of action, aligning with Shecaniah’s proposed solution: the expulsion of the foreign wives and children (10:5).

Mandatory divorce

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 provided an 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 announced, “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.

The tribal judges banished the spouses of only 113 men after the hearings. 86 were lay people and 27 were priests and temple workers. Although all four priestly clans had convicted members, topping the guilty list were descendants of Jeshua the high priest. Jeshua was the priest in Zechariah’s visions and the trusted confidant of Haggai (Zech. 3:1-10; Hag. 1:1; 2:2). His descendants had clearly fallen away from the example of Jeshua. Ezra’s informants had been right that the temple leaders accounted for a substantial proportion of the problem (9:1).

Ezra dramatically reacted to a small percentage of guilty Israelites who intermarried. 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 issue. One possible explanation is that there were hundreds more intermarriages, but during the three months of local hearings, many of the foreign spouses declared their loyalty to Yahweh, thus being welcomed into the community as proselytes. Thirteen years later, in the days of Nehemiah, the same problem of intermarriage resurfaced (Neh. 13), suggesting a quick backsliding and perhaps indicating that the local representatives were too lenient in their final decisions and the conversions not entirely sincere. Another theory is that the problem always involved a numerically small number of intermarriages, but for Ezra, defending the remnant’s unique peoplehood was paramount, regardless of whether intermarriage was a minor or major issue.

The narrator didn’t detail the arrangements of family breakups or what became of the exiled women and children, leaving their experience unexplored. It’s plausible they returned to relatives in nearby lands. The divorced men reentered the community and made their sin offerings at the Jerusalem temple (10:19). While separating families was a significant sacrifice, with the community’s restoration at stake, Ezra saw no alternative.

The prophet Malachi confessed God hated divorce (Mal. 2:16). But God could only accomplish his plan for the remnant if they 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 held an unwavering commitment to God’s laws. However, a pertinent question arises: why did he deem intermarriage illegal for all of Israel? The Torah only prohibited priests from marrying outsiders to safeguard the priestly line genealogically (Lev. 21:7). So, why did Ezra, and later Nehemiah, impose the priestly standard of holiness on the entire community?

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.

Allowing for speculation, another element fueling Ezra’s concern regarding intermarriage may have been his insights gained from the survival strategies learned during exile. The legitimate apprehension felt by the Israelites about assimilation in captivity likely persisted within the restored community. In exile, isolationism played a crucial role in preserving their distinct identity despite being a religious and ethnic minority. Separation emerged as a proven strategy for delineating a clear boundary 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).

Indeed, a prevailing trend in Second Temple Judaism was the increasingly stringent reinterpretation of all biblical purity laws. By the first century, Judaism became fixated on ritual purity. Archaeologists focusing on first-century Jerusalem have unearthed a wealth of material evidence indicating rigorous purity standards. Stone vessels and ritual baths from that era found across the country underscored the community’s deep-seated fear of contamination.

Proselytes in early Israel

During the Persian period, the remnant lacked control over crucial aspects such as having a king, military power, managing relationships with hostile neighbors, and dealing with the heavy-handedness of imperial overlords. However, they found agency in safeguarding their peoplehood through stringent marriage laws. It’s noteworthy that in the First Temple period—when Judah enjoyed kingship, military prowess, and independence—they embraced proselytes into their community. Although a formal conversion process didn’t exist at the time, Hebrew scriptures depicted the incorporation of foreigners who worshiped Yahweh and followed his laws, just like 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 (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 depictions of Godly foreign spouses align with Ezra’s prohibition on mixed marriage? Firstly, it’s important to note that Ezra didn’t expel all foreign spouses, as evidenced by the final count of 113 exiles. Local representatives likely granted exceptions for foreign spouses who pledged allegiance to Yahweh, although Ezra didn’t divulge the specifics of these arrangements. Secondly, the shift in attitude toward proselytes was temporary. Ezra’s primary concern was the potential corruption of the returnees by idolatrous women with their abhorrent beliefs and idols. Like all survivors of captivity, Ezra recognized that the restored community was in an especially vulnerable position.

The prophetic writings taught 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 welcomed into Israel. Zechariah envisioned the nations joining themselves to Israel and dwelling 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 would expand out from Jerusalem to encompass all who believed.

The grand vision for the world still applies, even if Ezra retracted the covenant community instead of expanding 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 reminds 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).