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Ezra 9:1-10:44 – Ezra Works to Reconstruct the Community

Summary

The final chapters of Ezra deal with the problem of mixed marriages. Disturbed by this behavior, Ezra offers a long penitential prayer on their behalf (9:1-15), which moves the people to repent and empowers Ezra to rectify the situation (10:1-44).

Analysis

In addition to condoning, even prescribing, divorce, this troubling passage has been used to support varying degrees of intolerance and exclusivism by forbidding mixed marriages of any type. Contemporary readers are especially scandalized by the lack of provision made for the divorced women and their children.

These serious objections may be unanswerable, but the following considerations should at least be noted: Divorce was a serious matter and one which God "hated" (Malachi 2:16), though it was permitted in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1). Here, the issue is theological in that it concerns extensive marriage with foreign women. There is, however, precedent for marriage outside the tribe as opposed to Israel's normal position of endogamous marriage: Esau's marriage to two Hittites (Genesis 26:34); Joseph's marriage to an Egyptian (Genesis 41:45); Moses' marriage to a Midianite (Exodus 2:21) and a Cushite (Numbers 12:1); David's marriage to a Calebite and an Aramean (2 Samuel 3:3); and the several foreign marriages of Solomon, to name the most flagrant.

The book of Ruth's portrayal of David as a descendant of a mixed marriage is often set against Ezra's reforms. Yet Boaz, her "next-of-kin," does not use her foreignness as a reason for not marrying her (Ruth 4:6). Old Testament proscriptions of intermarriage do exist (especially Deuteronomy 7:3-6), but they all seem to come after the fall of the north to Assyria in 722 B.C.E. to counter the political and religious crisis in the south.

This last observation seems to fit with Ezra's implementation of Artaxerxes' edict to reconstitute Israel as a religious community under the political rule of Persia. This redefinition of Israel's identity on religious grounds helps to explain, if not condone, Ezra's opposition to foreign wives, not for their racial or national ties, but for the effects their religious practices would have on the newly constituted community. If the people were to continue marrying outside their faith and adopting those beliefs, there soon would be no distinctively Jewish community in Jerusalem.

The reforms must be seen as a purification of the people according to a priestly ideal of separation from all that was (ritually) unclean to preserve the identity of the community. That this seems impossibly narrow-minded to us is clear. It was also absolutely necessary for the survival of the community. Furthermore, many of the returnees had divorced their Jewish wives to marry women from the indigenous population (Malachi 2:10-16). Thus, Ezra's reforms may be seen as a correction of an earlier problem of divorce and the lesser of two evils.

As regards the alleged, callous lack of provision for the divorced women and their children, the text, concerned about other matters, actually says nothing about their fate. Most modern translations (for example, NRSV) substitute the Greek parallel of 1 Esdras 9:36, "and they put them away together with their children," for Ezra 10:44, which is notoriously difficult to translate. The Hebrew text probably read something like "but there were among them wives (with whom) they had had children."

Ezra 9:1-10:44

Denunciation of Mixed Marriages

9After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, ‘The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 2For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way.’ 3When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled. 4Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.

Ezra’s Prayer

5 At the evening sacrifice I got up from my fasting, with my garments and my mantle torn, and fell on my knees, spread out my hands to the Lord my God, 6and said,

‘O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. 7From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as is now the case. 8But now for a brief moment favour has been shown by the Lord our God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a stake in his holy place, in order that he* may brighten our eyes and grant us a little sustenance in our slavery. 9For we are slaves; yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to give us new life to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judea and Jerusalem.

10 ‘And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, 11which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, “The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. 12Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, so that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever.” 13After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, 14shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practise these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you destroy us without remnant or survivor? 15Lord, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this.’

The People’s Response

10While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel; the people also wept bitterly. 2Shecaniah son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra, saying, ‘We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it.’ 5Then Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said. So they swore.

Foreign Wives and Their Children Rejected

6 Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God, and went to the chamber of Jehohanan son of Eliashib, where he spent the night.* He did not eat bread or drink water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles. 7They made a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the returned exiles that they should assemble at Jerusalem, 8and that if any did not come within three days, by order of the officials and the elders all their property should be forfeited, and they themselves banned from the congregation of the exiles.

9 Then all the people of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days; it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. All the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. 10Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. 11Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ 12Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, ‘It is so; we must do as you have said. 13But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for many of us have transgressed in this matter. 14Let our officials represent the whole assembly, and let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every town, until the fierce wrath of our God on this account is averted from us.’ 15Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them.

16 Then the returned exiles did so. Ezra the priest selected men,* heads of families, according to their families, each of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter. 17By the first day of the first month they had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women.

18 There were found of the descendants of the priests who had married foreign women, of the descendants of Jeshua son of Jozadak and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib, and Gedaliah. 19They pledged themselves to send away their wives, and their guilt-offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt. 20Of the descendants of Immer: Hanani and Zebadiah. 21Of the descendants of Harim: Maaseiah, Elijah, Shemaiah, Jehiel, and Uzziah. 22Of the descendants of Pashhur: Elioenai, Maaseiah, Ishmael, Nethanel, Jozabad, and Elasah.

23 Of the Levites: Jozabad, Shimei, Kelaiah (that is, Kelita), Pethahiah, Judah, and Eliezer. 24Of the singers: Eliashib. Of the gatekeepers: Shallum, Telem, and Uri.

25 And of Israel: of the descendants of Parosh: Ramiah, Izziah, Malchijah, Mijamin, Eleazar, Hashabiah,* and Benaiah. 26Of the descendants of Elam: Mattaniah, Zechariah, Jehiel, Abdi, Jeremoth, and Elijah. 27Of the descendants of Zattu: Elioenai, Eliashib, Mattaniah, Jeremoth, Zabad, and Aziza. 28Of the descendants of Bebai: Jehohanan, Hananiah, Zabbai, and Athlai. 29Of the descendants of Bani: Meshullam, Malluch, Adaiah, Jashub, Sheal, and Jeremoth. 30Of the descendants of Pahath-moab: Adna, Chelal, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattaniah, Bezalel, Binnui, and Manasseh. 31Of the descendants of Harim: Eliezer, Isshijah, Malchijah, Shemaiah, Shimeon, 32Benjamin, Malluch, and Shemariah. 33Of the descendants of Hashum: Mattenai, Mattattah, Zabad, Eliphelet, Jeremai, Manasseh, and Shimei. 34Of the descendants of Bani: Maadai, Amram, Uel, 35Benaiah, Bedeiah, Cheluhi, 36Vaniah, Meremoth, Eliashib, 37Mattaniah, Mattenai, and Jaasu. 38Of the descendants of Binnui:* Shimei, 39Shelemiah, Nathan, Adaiah, 40Machnadebai, Shashai, Sharai, 41Azarel, Shelemiah, Shemariah, 42Shallum, Amariah, and Joseph. 43Of the descendants of Nebo: Jeiel, Mattithiah, Zabad, Zebina, Jaddai, Joel, and Benaiah. 44All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children.*

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10 February 2011

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