2nd Return of the Jews to Judah & the Reformation of the People Ezra 7-10
Ezra 9:1-10:44 The Revival in Jerusalem
Ezra 9:1-4-Ezra has been back for about 4½ months. The people now tell him about the mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews. The princes and rulers have been the ones who have followed this practice the most (456 B.C.). This is in direct conflict with God’s command for the Jewish people to marry only within their own people. To understand the nature of this problem better it will be helpful to read the following comments…
IT is common both for individuals and Churches to appear hopeful before men, when a nearer acquaintance with them would furnish us with abundant cause of grief and shame. At Ezra’s coming to Jerusalem, about fourscore years after the Babylonish captivity, he found the temple built, and the ordinances of religion statedly performed. But on inquiring more particularly into the state of those who now inhabited the Holy Land, he received such information as filled him with the deepest anguish.
We propose to consider,
- The reason of his sorrow—
Many of the people had connected themselves in marriage both with the Canaanites and other heathens around them. This he justly regarded as a most heinous evil,
- As being a violation of an express command—
- As having an evident tendency to bring the people back to idolatry—
Simeon, C. (1836). Horae Homileticae: Chronicles to Job (Vol. 4, pp. 257–258). London: Samuel Holdsworth, Logos Bible Software
9:1 T. Eskenazi has noted that one strong characteristic of Ezra was that he taught Scripture and worked with leaders instead of trying to do everything himself. Although Ezra was a strong leader, he delegated work and authority to other leaders. Here the effect of Ezra’s teaching and influence is seen in these leaders with whom he worked closely. They became concerned about wrong practices in the community.
The list of foreign peoples given in v. 1 is similar to the list of peoples in Canaan that appears several times in the Pentateuch; but here the Ammonites, Moabites, and Egyptians are added. Throughout the Bible, God calls his people to separate themselves from the world (1 John 2:15–17). Of course some, like the Essenes of Jesus’ time, were extremists who isolated themselves from the rest of society, which in New Testament terms negates the mandate to disciple all peoples. At the same time, Christians must take seriously ethical and cultural factors that result in disobedience to God’s will. The correct interpretation and the application of Scripture’s ethical teaching is a constant challenge. Being a disciple of Jesus implies a distinctive lifestyle because one’s values are different from those of the world. The neighbors of Israel had a different lifestyle. “A covenant community that allows its leaders to adopt a lifestyle that threatens the central covenant torah traditions is sacrificing its future.”
The Old Testament did not completely forbid intermarriage with foreigners. Indeed several important “men of faith” had non-Israelite wives (Gen 16:3; 41:45; Exod 2:21; Num 12:1; 2 Sam 3:3). The most striking example is in the Book of Ruth, which shows that David was a descendant from such a relationship. But when it would involve a compromise of faith or practice, intermarriage with the pagan peoples of Canaan was forbidden. The phrase “with their detestable practices” suggests that more was involved than simply sexual intercourse. Deuteronomy 7:3–4 makes it clear: “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.” This passage and others (e.g., Exod 34:11–16; Deut 20:10–18) must have been included in Ezra’s teaching of the Law.
9:2 “The holy race” is literally “the holy seed.” “The term ‘holy’ shows that the term ‘seed’ has nothing to do with racial prejudice.… It was a question of the living relation between the Lord and his people, and not of who one’s ancestors might be.” The same expression is used in Isa 6:13. God chose Israel to be a holy nation (Exod 19:6; Lev 19:2; Deut 7:6). They were to be different because their relation to God was different. The same word, “mingled,” is used in Ps 106:35: “They mingled with the nations and adopted their customs.” This is why Ezra was so upset. The intermarriage would result in adopting customs (the lifestyle) of those who did not know God. Righteousness and purity of religion were in question. The term translated “unfaithfulness” (maʿal) refers to a breach of trust and is used elsewhere only of persons violating their covenant relationship with God (cf. Lev 5:15; 26:40; Num 5:6, 12, 27; Josh 7:1; 22:16, 20, 22; 1 Chr 10:13).
The New Testament also commands believers not to intermarry with those who do not have faith in Jesus Christ. The same problems that faced the Israelites face the community of faith today, in a culture that is increasingly given to an anti-Christian worldview. Paul’s warning is of utmost importance: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14). Any commitment we make that competes with our commitment to Christ amounts to unfaithfulness.
Leadership is a serious responsibility. Leaders are accountable for what they do and what they teach because they affect many people. Here the “leaders and officials” had led the people wrongly. Williamson suggests that these officials were leaders who were in the land before and not those who came with Ezra. The prophet Malachi likely preached to the people around the time of Ezra or perhaps a little earlier. Malachi 2:10–16 indicates that some of the people had divorced their Jewish wives in order to marry the foreigners.
9:3 Ezra must have known something of this before, but here he responded to the extent and seriousness of the problem. He tore his tunic and cloak and pulled out hair from his head. These are signs of great consternation and mourning. The tunic was the undergarment, and the cloak was a long, flowing robe used over other garments. Clines points out that it was customary in times of distress to rend one’s garment, but Ezra’s response showed extreme grief. Such “stylized stripping oneself naked” was a “token of humiliation and death.” It is revealing to compare Ezra’s action with that of Nehemiah (Neh 13:25). Nehemiah pulled the hair of the offenders but out of indignation; Ezra pulled his own hair in sorrow.
Breneman, M. (1993). Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (electronic ed., Vol. 10, pp. 148–150). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, Logos Bible Software
A spiritual, not racial, problem
Ezra was devastated when he was told of the people’s unfaithfulness, especially to learn that the priests and Levites had led the way in this act of spiritual betrayal. We are back here to the matter of failure in leadership, which we dealt with in our last chapter. Ezra was beside himself with grief: ‘So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished’ (9:3).
He could hardly believe what he was hearing. But I can imagine there might be some who would describe his response in tearing his robe and plucking hair from his head and beard as being ‘a bit over the top’. ‘Why this overreaction?’ they would ask. But that is to totally misunderstand the nature and gravity of the offence. In the first place, Ezra was not upset because Jews had married those of another nation. The situation had nothing whatever to do with racial prejudice, since there is nothing in Scripture which prevented God’s people from marrying those of another race or nation, provided they were prepared to worship the true and living God.
Indeed, there are several instances of such marriages recorded in Scripture. We read in Numbers: ‘Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married’ (Num. 12:1). But the Scriptures themselves make no comment on this, since it would only have been wrong if the Ethiopian woman had continued to worship her own national gods. But clearly she was one with Moses in the worship of the Lord God of Israel, since as God’s spokesman Moses himself had said, ‘When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you … seven nations greater and mightier than you … you shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son’ (Deut. 7:1–3).
Another example of interracial marriage was that of Boaz and Ruth. He was a godly Jew and she was a Moabitess. But prior to the marriage taking place, Ruth had identified herself positively with God’s people. Her testimony of faith made to Naomi her mother-in-law is deeply moving:
Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there will I be buried.
The Lord do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me
What is of particular interest is the fact that, through her marriage to Boaz and the birth of her son Obed, Ruth the Moabitess would become an ancestress of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew records that detail in his genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).
The reason Ezra was so upset about the foreign marriages was because such pagan alliances meant that the people had broken faith with their covenant God, the God who had called them out from among all the nations of the earth to be his own special people, and to be a regenerating element in the world. Had these marriages with idolatrous wives been allowed to continue unchecked, the Jews would eventually have become absorbed in the surrounding mass of paganism, and God’s purpose would have been frustrated. Israel was meant to be a separated people. Ezra was right therefore to react in the way he did.
There is surely a lesson in all this for God’s people in the church today. For the same call to a life of separation applies to us as it did to the people of Ezra’s time. Writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul says, ‘do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?’ (2 Cor. 6:14–15).
Of course, we know that the kind of separation the New Testament talks about is of a spiritual and not a physical nature. Nowhere does the gospel urge upon us the monastic principle of turning our backs upon the world in order to live our Christian lives in isolation. In fact, in his high priestly prayer (John 17) the Lord Jesus, in praying for his disciples, distinctly says: ‘I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one’ (v. 15).
And when John wrote in his letter, ‘Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him’ (1 John 2:15), he was not thinking of the created world as such, or even the people in the world. He was thinking of human society organized without reference to God, and based upon sinful principles and motivated by false values. That is the world from which Christians are to be separate, even though we have to work and live in it every day. We are to be in the world, but not part of it.
And when we reflect upon it, we can see the sense of that. For what can we believers in Christ have in common with a world like ours, which makes a god of its pleasures, is dominated by the senses, pays no regard to the commands and judgements of God, and acts in an arrogant manner that denies even the existence of God? To be overfamiliar with this world will mean that the corrosive of worldliness will quickly eat away the marks of God’s grace in our lives.
Yet the sad truth is that we see this worldly spirit and attitude creeping more and more into the church today, and there are those Christians, even pastors, who can, by some kind of mental gymnastics, convince themselves that worldliness is perfectly compatible with their spiritual calling. Their argument is that, if we are to attract people to church services, and to an acceptance of the Christian message, then we must get alongside them and show that we are not so very different after all. But the whole emphasis of the gospel, surely, is to show the world that we are different, very different from the attitudes and opinions prevailing in society. Granted, we may find it very difficult to live this separated life because there is a natural tendency in all of us to dislike being different from the accepted norms (in any case it is always easier to conform); but the teaching of Scripture is quite clear: ‘And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God’ (Rom. 12:2).
May God give us a healthy detestation of that flabby, laid-back kind of Christianity that carries with it little conviction, and wants to embrace everybody. Let us instead be strong and faithful to biblical principles, whatever the cost, for there is no doubt that the worldly, lukewarm, ineffective Christian is the bane of the modern church.Williams, P. (2006). Opening up Ezra (pp. 98–102). Leominster: Day One Publications, Logos Bible Software
Ezra 9:5-15-Ezra shows extreme remorse and prays to God. He confesses that the people have sinned by intermarrying with the non-Jews. He says that the guilt of those who have done so has an affect upon the entire nation.
- To give us a peg in His holy place: The idea is that Israel once again had a safe position, a standing in God's favor and in His temple. In those days, houses didn't really have cupboards or storage closets as we think of them. Things were stored on pegs set up all around the room. If something was on its peg, it was safe and secure, stored properly and ready for use at the appropriate time.
Ezra 10:1-8-Shecaniah suggests that they make a covenant with God to put away their foreign spouses and children. They called for a gathering of all the people to Jerusalem. This meeting took place on December 8, 457 B.C.
Ezra 10:9-44-They decided to have a gradual plan for the Jewish men to put away their foreign spouses. Four men opposed the plan (:15). Over the next 3 months they investigated all of the people and identified 113 individuals who had married foreigners. Though Meshullam had disagreed with the plan (:15), he accepted the decision (:29) and put away his wife.
Surely, this was an extremely difficult situation to deal with. On the one hand, there is the command of God to be followed. Ezra knew the extreme negative consequences of not doing so...that was the reason why the nation was in the predicament that it was in at that very time. And yet, on the other hand, there was a moral obligation to not just abandon these women and children. While the details of how this was handled are not explicitly stated…there are some guiding Biblical principles that would have been appropriately applied. Consider the following explanation…
10:18–44 In all there were 110 or 111 (depending on the understanding of the text in v. 40) men who had taken foreign women: there were seventeen priests, ten Levites, and eighty-three or eighty-four lay Israelites.
Correction of a community problem must start with the leaders. Even some of the priestly families were guilty. The family of “Jeshua” (v. 18) was an important family; Jeshua was coleader with Zerubbabel in the time of Zechariah, shortly after the first return under Cyrus.
Fensham mentions that there are no families of temple servants in the list (there are also only one of the singers in v. 24 and three gatekeepers found guilty). Although we do not have much information concerning the social stratification of the community, the impression is that the people of the land were better off economically than the exiles; thus Fensham suggests that the upper classes of exiles would have been the ones most tempted to take foreign women.
The symbolic use of the handshake (“hands in pledge” in v. 19) is seen in 2 Kgs 10:15 and Ezek 17:18. These priests also offered “a guilt offering.” Some think that only the priestly families had to present an offering for their sin since the same is not mentioned again in this chapter. However, Lev 5:14–16 shows that this sacrifice was required of anyone who was unfaithful.
There seems to be a textual difficulty at v. 40. “Macnadebai” may not be a proper name but may mark the division of another family.
The Hebrew text at v. 44 reads “Some of them had children by these wives.” Here, the Greek text of 1 Esdr 9:36 says, “They sent them and the children away.” This seems to be implied by the Hebrew text, even though it appears harsh; however, we are not familiar with the arrangements that might have been made for these women and children. In the ancient world a woman had a guardian (usually her father or brother) who was responsible to see that the woman’s husband fulfilled the marriage contract. Perhaps in this case arrangements were made with the women’s families.
Ezra knew that marriage was instituted by God and considered a permanent and exclusive relationship (Gen 2:24, quoted in Matt 19:5; Eph 5:31). If Malachi preached about Ezra’s time or just before, Ezra was surely familiar with his teaching on divorce in 2:16 (“ ‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel”). Much of biblical ethics has to do with the sanctity of the marriage relationship. In fact, God even uses marriage to illustrate his own relationship to his people (Hos 1–3; Eph 5). Since the family is the basis of society, any offense against the family is an offense against God.
The moral dilemma Ezra faced, however, was caused by the pagan influence these foreign women would have on the children of these mixed marriages and on the newly reestablished community of faith. Ezra knew the story of Solomon and his foreign wives and the devastating effect this had had on Israel (1 Kgs 11:1–11; cf. Neh 13:26–27). The family and the convictions of the whole religious community were at stake. Ezra’s action was drastic, but he chose the path most likely to protect the covenant community from pagan syncretism (cf. Gal 3:23; 1 Cor 5). There is wisdom in Holmgren’s statement: “Sometimes preservation of a way of life dictates a policy which disappoints the democratic, ecumenical spirit.”
Nevertheless, if Ezra emphasized God’s law, how could he support the decision to divorce these foreign wives? Deuteronomy 24:1–4 indicates that sometimes divorce was permitted in the Old Testament (also 22:19, 29; Isa 50:1; Jer 3:8). Also, the situation in Ezra was different from that envisioned elsewhere, for in Ezra pagan wives were involved. These marriages were wrong from the outset. Malachi’s statement that God hates divorce, although true in an absolute sense, is given in response to Jews who had divorced their Jewish wives in order to take foreign women. In this historically unique case, Ezra and the Jewish leaders considered that the importance of maintaining the purity of the religious community superceded that of these marital relationships.43
In the New Testament, Jesus plainly teaches that divorce is not God’s will: “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 19:6). Especially in our times when irresponsibility and selfishness are often renamed “individual freedom,” the sanctity and permanence of marriage must be emphasized. Yet Matt 19:9 and 1 Cor 7:11, 15 recognize that in certain cases divorce will occur. Churches have differed concerning the toleration of divorce and remarriage. The Catholic Church has consistently prohibited it, as have some Protestant groups. It has become an ever-increasing moral issue. The teaching of the Old and New Testaments has led many Christians to accept that in some circumstances divorce may be accepted as a tragic last resort when the marriage has completely broken down and no possibility of restoration exists. These chapters in Ezra, however, are descriptive, not prescriptive. They cannot be taken as authorization for divorcing an unbelieving spouse. In 1 Cor 7:12–16 Paul exhorts one who has an unbelieving partner not to divorce; but if the unbelieving partner leaves, the believer is “not bound in such circumstances.” Most Christian leaders agree that each case must be studied carefully in light of Scripture and in light of its own particular situation.
This episode shows the danger of moral and spiritual apathy and the importance of maintaining the identity of the believing community in a pagan world. The commission of Artaxerxes to Ezra was to develop Judaism as a religious community. According to Malachi, some men already had divorced their Jewish wives to take foreign women, and the process of assimilation had already begun (Mal 2:10–17; 3:13–15). So the threat to the community was real. It also shows the seriousness with which the Bible treats marriage between believers and unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14–18). Furthermore, this episode also shows the wisdom of Ezra’s leadership. As vital as his leadership was, he did not force his decision on the people. Rather, he influenced the leaders and people, relying on the power of God’s Word and Spirit; and the decision was made by the community of believers. We can learn from his teaching, his patience, and his example. This shows how strong convictions, held deeply by one leader or a minority, can influence the future of the whole community’s life and thought. Just as in Ezra’s time, the believing community today often faces crises that demand strong leadership and decisive, united community action.
Breneman, M. (1993). Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (electronic ed., Vol. 10, pp. 162–165). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, Logos Bible Software
A Jewish commentary explains the seriousness of this issue…
Among his most dramatic reforms is his war against assimilation and inter-marriage.
Indeed, the Book of Ezra condemns all the men living in Israel who had married non-Jewish wives and gives their names ― all 112 of them. (Ezra 10:18-44.)
You might ask: Why the big deal? After all, only 112 men strayed. Today, millions of Jews are intermarrying ― the intermarriage rate in America over 50%. The difference is that 2,500 years ago, even one Jew intermarrying was an outrage. Now society accepts it as normal. So-called "progressive" congregations in America are even shopping for rabbis who will officiate at mixed marriages ― to lend legitimacy to something the Bible repeatedly condemns, and which spells the death of the Jewish people.
Through Ezra's efforts, these mixed marriages are dissolved. All the people are then gathered in Jerusalem ― men and women from all over the country ― and the Torah is read out loud to all. At the end, all present pledge not to intermarry, uphold the Torah and strengthen themselves spiritually.(3)…
Despite Ezra's efforts (and those of the other leaders) the Temple is spiritually a shadow of its former self.
The returnees from Babylon are not in a position to rebuild the Temple as splendid as Solomon's. Eventually (circa 30 BCE) it will be rebuilt again by Herod the Great, and made into a spectacular structure, but even though it is going to be physically beautiful, it will be spiritually empty when compared with the First Temple. And even though there are going to be High Priests, the institution will become corrupt.
According to the Talmud, during the First Temple period of about 410 years, there were only 18 High Priests. During the Second Temple period of 420 years, there were more than 300 High Priests! We know (from the Talmud, Yoma 9a) that Yochanan was High Priest for 80 years, Shimon was High Priest for 40 years, and Yishmael ben Pabi was High Priest for 10 years. That means in the remaining 290 years there were at least 300 priests ― one every year or so. What accounts for that?
The Talmud tells us that the Holy of Holies was forbidden ground, except for Yom Kippur. On that one day only, the High Priests entered to perform special rites before God. But if he himself was not spiritually pure and unable to focus, he would not be able to stand the intense encounter with God and would die on the spot. We know that during the Second Temple Period a rope had to be tied to the High Priest, so that in case he died, he could be pulled out of the Holy of Holies.
Because the whole High Priesthood was a corrupted institution for most of the Second Temple period, the High Priests died or were replaced every year. (4) And yet people clamored for the job, which went to the highest bidder. So the question has to be asked: If he was going to die on Yom Kippur, who would want the position? One possible answer is that many of the candidates strongly believed that their incorrect Temple service was actually the correct way to do it.(5) That is how bad things gotten.
:44 For the moment the nation was purified, though the sin returned 12 years later [Nehemiah 10:30], and again 30 years later [Nehemiah 13:23].
The Ryrie Study Bible, footnote on Ezra 10:44, p. 709
Prayer: Lord, sometimes I have to make difficult decisions that affect not only my own life…but the lives of others as well. I pray that You will give me wisdom and discernment in those matters. Help me to know how to do so in a manner that is both in keeping with Your righteous and holy nature…and is an expression of Your loving and graceful nature.