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Passage: Ezra 9:1-10:44

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."