By Shelley Neese

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Only four months after Ezra’s arrival (458 BCE), Judean officials reported to him that the returnees had violated God’s marriage laws by intermarrying with their pagan neighbors. These informants were most likely the new judges Ezra had appointed soon after his arrival to help him with matters of concern that required judication (7:25). Their investigation into the community’s Torah compliance revealed that a subset of returnees “had not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations” (9:1).

Because Ezra had been in the land for only a brief time, the problem preceded him. Those who had intermarried with the locals were among the first wave of returnees. As the original remnant, they were the group who responded to the divine stirring of their spirit to immigrate to Judah after the edict of Cyrus. They were the founders of the restored nation who had endured drought, inflation, and the hardships of rebuilding. Despite all the obstacles, they completed the temple and renewed the Jewish worship calendar. Soon enough, however, members of the remnant gave into the temptation of marrying the locals. Based on Ezra’s reaction to the news, their integration of paganism into the heart of the family unit threatened to bring down the whole restoration project. Worse yet, according to the informants, “in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way” (9:2). Priests and Levites were as guilty as the laity.

Biblical literacy

After Ezra’s arrival, his main goal was to educate the people on the laws of Moses and the foundations of their faith (Neh. 10:3). The officials, in their reports to Ezra, demonstrated their attentiveness to his teachings. They drew parallels between their contemporary situation and the challenges faced by the ancient Israelites upon entering Canaan eight centuries earlier. According to the officials, the returnees had married pagans like “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites” (9:1). They did not mean that they were marrying those exact people groups, because many of them no longer existed in the postexilic age. Instead, the mention of these nations served as a callback to the Torah’s prohibition against marriage to idolators.

With their newfound biblical literacy, they understood the parallels in their current situation with the threats presented to the Israelites in the days of Moses and Joshua. When the Israelites conquered Canaan, under the leadership of Joshua, God warned them to separate themselves from the nations residing in the land, which included the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Amorites (Deut. 7:1; Ex. 36:12). A ban on intermarriage protected them from assimilation.

Intermarriage with unbelievers was the surest way to take Yahweh out of the family unit, replacing proper worship with syncretism. Idolatrous mothers could easily turn the hearts of their children and husband from Yahweh. Before the Israelites entered the promised land, Moses warned them of the consequences of intermarriage on the next generation:

Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. (Deut. 7:4).

To their list of prohibited peoples, they added other names of Israel’s historic enemies: the Moabites, the Ammonites and the Egyptians. Because the Moabites and Ammonites were hostile to the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings, God forbid intermarriage with them forever (Deut. 23:3). They survived as Israel’s neighbors into the Second Temple period. The officials added Egyptians to the list of banned outsiders because at the time they had a large influential presence in Judah that was likely threatening.

Holy Seed

According to the officials’ report, “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the land” (9:2). The “people of the lands” was their generic umbrella term for the locals in the land of Judah before the return of the remnant. Included among the peoples of the land were those non-exiled Judeans who retained their belief in Yahweh but also adapted the beliefs and practices of their neighbors. The peoples of the land were also those foreign captives that Assyria forcefully deported to Israel centuries before.

“Holy seed” is an unusual term. Ezra and Isaiah are the only books in the Bible to use the phrase. Isaiah described the prophesied remnant of Israel as “the holy seed” (Isa. 6:13). By Ezra’s time, the Judean officials applied Isaiah’s moniker to their compatriots.

“Holy seed” is likely a combination of two earlier biblical titles for the chosen people: “seed of Abraham” (Gen. 12:7) and “holy people” (Deut. 7:6). In Genesis, the biological descendants of Abraham were the “seed of Abraham.” In Deuteronomy, God called Israel to be a “holy people,” a nation set apart to carry the name of Yahweh (Num. 6:27). Apparently, the definition of what being a full member of Israel required in the time of Ezra had gotten stricter since the days of Abraham and Moses. In the First Temple period, people pursued holiness by being obedient to the law. In the postexilic period, the definition of holiness added a genealogical component.

To our modern sensibilities, talk of holy seed is off-putting, like Ezra cared more about pure pedigree than spirituality. However, put in context, the informants’ alarm over the holy seed’s contamination was not so much ethnic bias as it was moral bias. Also in antiquity, there was no separation between race and religion, no separation between church and state, no distinction between national identity and national religion. To absorb pagan spouses into the Israelite community meant making a place for their pagan gods. The problem Ezra had with mixed marriages was not that they led to mixed bloodlines but rather mixed religions.

Even though Christian faith actively proselytizes to all nations, the New Testament has its own version of Ezra’s cautionary ban against intermarriage. Using Ezra’s same line of logic, the apostle Paul discouraged marriages between believers and unbelievers. Marriage to pagans made spiritual growth difficult and family life divided. Paul instructed, “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and lawlessness have in common? Or what partnership is there between light and darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14).


Although Ezra was astonished when he heard the news of the marriage crisis in the community, he did not immediately set out in a flurry of active reforms. In his distress, Ezra tore his clothes and pulled his own hair from his head and beard (9:3), imitating the traditional ritual of mourning a death, such was the severity of his grief.

Ezra’s horror over their unbelief was not an overreaction. For Ezra, the stakes were as high as possible. Idolatry and covenant violation got them into the first mess of exile. Ezra believed the community was on the brink of ruining the covenant relationship again. They could not play fast and loose with who they worshiped in addition to Yahweh. The people were to separate themselves and follow the one true God or risk undermining the entire return movement.

Ezra’s reaction drew a crowd: “all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel” gathered around the scribe (9:4). On his knees with his hands extended in submission to God, Ezra prayed publicly in the temple courts. Though he was communing with God, he meant for all those within earshot to hear his words, especially the guilty temple officials. Ezra hoped all those gathered would feel convicted by his appeal to God and join with him in the confession.

Ezra’s prayer was confessional, listing all the sins and guilt of the people (9:6-7). As their spiritual leader, he took personal responsibility for the sins of the community even though he was innocent of the specific sin of intermarriage. His prayer pronouns are I, we and our, never they or them. Ezra served as the people’s representative before God, putting the words of lament in their mouths through his own confession. He prayed, “I am too ashamed and disgraced…to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads” (9:6). He confessed, “Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this” (9:15).

Ezra’s prayer chronicled the long history of Jewish rebellion against God that eventually left them “subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hands of foreign kings” (9:7). He admitted that the sin of their ancestors provoked the penalty of exile. What concerned Ezra was that the remnant displayed the same instinct to rebel as their ancestors, as if the lesson of exile was lost on them.

Ezra contrasted the faithfulness of God with the unfaithfulness of the people (9:8-9). He listed God’s gracious and merciful acts to get them back. By giving the remnant favor in the eyes of the empire and the political and financial support of the three Persian kings, they had space to succeed in all God had purposed for them, including their chance “to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins” (9:9).  However, the remnant existed in a liminal space. Ezra called their time of transition a “brief moment,” “a firm place,” and “a little relief in our bondage” (9:8). They could go the way of their ancestors, or they could forge a new path. If they chose to continue in their sin, they would not survive. If they recognized their survival as a testimony of God’s mercy, they could capitalize on their second chance and begin again.

The question on Ezra’s mind was if the remnant had already pressed the self-destruct button. Ezra asked God, “Would you not be angry with us until you destroy us without remnant or survivor?” (9:14). Ezra’s prayer ended with a question, reminding the reader that the reformer was not a prophet. He did not claim to know if people had exhausted God’s mercy and would suffer another exile (9:15). He did not know how close they had come again to provoking his judgement. What Ezra could promise, however, was that he would do everything in his power to restore God’s people to full and right worship of Yahweh.