Can Ezra-Nehemiah be reclaimed?


July 8, 2014 by jmar198013

Confession: in my functional canon (and let’s admit, we all have them; I’ll show you mine if you show me yours), there’s been no room for many years for Ezra-Nehemiah. Which I’ve always found fitting; after all, they were responsible for the mass abandonment of wives and children in the days just after the exile, turning a chunk of the returning generation into deadbeat dads. Anybody tells me the Bible is all about family values, I say, “Oh yeah–read the final movements of the book of Ezra and tell me what you think of those values.” That’s right–I can be as ornery and cynical as any nonbeliever, which I count as a spiritual gift. God has burdened gifted the church with a fellow like me as loyal opposition, which is often not as fun a vocation as it sounds. But having a gadfly such as myself in the church is a healthy thing. If your apologetic doesn’t impress me, it certainly won’t work with most children of this present age, unless they be incredibly naive and insecure. But I have digressed far and wide, y’all. To make a long story short, I felt justified in excluding Ezra-Nehemiah from my functional canon because they had engineered the exclusion of many wives and children in the time just after the exile. But lately, the Spirit has been tapping me on the shoulder to remind me to be more generous with those with whom I disagree. To that end, I will practice on this section of Scripture, since Ezra is not here to hash it out in person, which takes some of the pressure off.

In the ramshackle narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures, aside from the account of the Canaanite genocide in Joshua, no story quite turns my stomach like the mass sendoff of mixed families in the book of Ezra. As the remnant of God’s people returned, chastened, from the exile in Babylon, their leader Ezra was rightly concerned about their holiness. In that respect, the exile had served its purpose. But we can be overzealous when it comes to holiness. When our pursuit of holiness begins to create victims–and eventually, a body count–probably something has gone amiss. When our pursuit of holiness leads to exclusion and abuse, we may have gone down the wrong alley of biblical interpretation, for the Advent of Christ makes clear that many roads his ancestors took were dead ends. More on that later. Personally, I dig Ellen Davis’ description of what constitutes a holy people: “a community capable of hosting the presence of God in its midst (cf. Lev. 9.6).” Holiness, for Davis, is “hospitality toward God, living in such a way that God may feel at home in our midst” (“Critical Traditioning,” in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, eds. The Art of Reading Scripture, 173 [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2003). I suspect that if we were to ask Ezra why he chased off all the foreign wives and children, he would have said it had something to do with hospitality toward God. He might say that there was simply no room for non-Israelite peoples at God’s homecoming. Ezra recounted the problem thus:

The officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites haven’t kept themselves separate from the peoples of the neighboring lands with their detestable practices; namely, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. They’ve taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and the holy descendants have become mixed with the neighboring peoples. Moreover, the officials and leaders have led the way in this unfaithfulness.” (Ezra 9.1-2 CEB)

Deuteronomy 7.1-4 had expressly forbidden intermarriage with the the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites. and Amorites. Ammonites and Moabites were forbidden a place in the people of God in Deut. 23.3-8, but interestingly enough, Egyptians were granted conditional entrance (as is often the case, tattlers don’t have all their facts straight). Realizing that they might be in deep doo-doo, some of the representatives of the people came to Ezra with a solution: Let’s now make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children (Ezra 10.3). So an assembly was called of all the people, and after a time of discernment, they did just that (Ezra 10.10-19). The book of Ezra ends on this note: a list of men who had married foreign wives, and a terse mention that there were children involved (Ezra 10.17-44).

Nehemiah continued to animate Ezra’s reform movement. Observing that the great sending-away of foreign wives hadn’t stuck, Nehemiah started to get a little violent (Neh. 13.1-3, 23-28). But what Nehemiah is probably best known for was rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3-4). If you know your biblical history, and compare the perimeters of Nehemiah’s wall to the Jerusalem before the exile, you’ll know that the Holy City had shrunk considerably.

You know what has always terrified me the most about the disposal of the foreign wives and children under Ezra-Nehemiah? They seem entirely unconcerned with the fate of actual vulnerable people. We are not told how they fared. Did they starve to death? Were they exploited or raped in their journey as refugees? How did the husbands and fathers explain this course of action? How would you feel if your spouse or parent told you, Sorry, you’re unclean. You have to go away and never come back? Brothers and sisters, if you can’t put yourself in their shoes, there’s something wrong with you. Those are the very sorts of people into whose sandals Jesus deliberately put himself. Ezra and Nehemiah don’t seem to be too concerned with the fact that they are essentially making widows and orphans of living men. If your holiness comes at the expense of someone else, you might want to rethink your holiness.

The legacy of the reforms of Ezra-Nehemiah are still with the church today: holiness for many means excluding the Other and building up walls around an ever-shrinking parcel of sacred ground. Now, I fully understand why Ezra and Nehemiah felt compelled to lead the people as they did. They were taking measures to make sure that God’s people were not lost among the nations. But I would also suggest that subsequent events aptly demonstrate that they established a dangerous precedent. Their spiritual heirs were the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. Their rightful concern for the holiness of God’s people led them not only to become insufferable jackasses, but–in the name of keeping God’s people holy–reject God’s Son Jesus and have him lynched.

And being a Christian means, at the very least, that we have learned to read these old stories anew in light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. This Jesus, through whom everything was created and is sustained (John 1.1-3; Col. 1.15-17; Heb. 1.1-3); this Jesus who proclaims, Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14.9), is the meaning of history. He not only embodies and fulfills this history of Israel (Matt. 5.17), his life also often judges that history by means of contrast. Case in point: Matt. 15.21-28. Jesus meets a Canaanite woman, which is itself something of a miracle, seeing as how his ancestors were supposed to eradicate them back in the day. This woman’s child was being tormented by a demon, and she begged Jesus to do something about it. What’s a Son of God to do? Say, Go get bent, woman. Of course your child has a demon–all you dirty Canaanites are devils. I’ll do something for your daughter: put her out of her misery, like Moses commanded. But of course, we all know that’s not what happened. His rescuing of that Canaanite girl from the demon who oppressed her stands as a judgment against the genocide of Deuteronomy and Joshua. And it also stands as a judgment against the racism and sexism that animated the reforms of Ezra-Nehemiah, for they used the very texts that justified the slaughter of the Canaanites to justify the desertion of the foreign wives and children. And I would assert that it also stands up against those spiritual heirs of Ezra-Nehemiah who preach a vision of holiness that compels us to expel the Other from our midst and build up barriers of exclusion.

I have long believed that Ezra-Nehemiah is just too ugly to be redeemed. That the only lesson the church can learn from these stories is not to repeat their wrong moves. But I must confess–Jesus is pleading with me to show them more grace than they showed the foreign wives and children. Which means not to exclude them entirely from the people of God, ignoring the gifts they might bring our way in their difference. So here are five things I found to like in Ezra-Nehemiah that might be helpful in keeping the church faithful in its vocation.

  1. At least they didn’t (directly) kill anyone. This stands in contrast to the genocide advocated in Deuteronomy and Joshua. It also stands in contrast to the actions of the priest Phinehas in Numbers 25, who, upon observing an interracial couple, stabbed them both through at once with a spear. Sending the foreign women and children away was still pretty dastardly, but at least Ezra and Nehemiah didn’t make kebabs out of them. The church can learn a lesson here: sometimes we will disagree amongst ourselves; let’s not skewer each other over it.
  2. Ezra, Nehemiah, and the people intentionally sought to locate themselves as a storied community. In Neh. 9.7-31, the people assembled and retold their history, even the nasty parts. We are told that they they stood to confess their sins and the terrible behavior of their ancestors (Neh. 9.2). What we see here is a people serious about maintaining a truthful account of their history, and God’s gracious care of them even though they have often been rotten. The church today stands in serious need of a truthful articulation of our history, and this is going to mean a lot of confession. We’ve got sins going back at least to Constantine we need to name; if only we had followed Nehemiah’s lead and built a wall around the church to keep imperial power out! This need for a truthful recollection of our history is particularly acute for white American Christians (of which I am one, so I am allowed to say this, and indeed, it is my responsibility and burden to say it). For instance, after the 9/11 attacks, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson got on national television and stated that God was angry at America for tolerance of gays and abortion. I just shook my head–seems like the place to begin would be the fact that we live on stolen land and have built our empire with the blood, sweat, and tears of black African slaves. And the church was historically complicit in those events. We might want to begin by confessing our own sins and the terrible behavior of our ancestors.
  3. Ezra-Nehemiah describe processes of democratic, communal discernment. The decision to send away the foreign wives and children was awful, but one thing I can say for it is that it was not an entirely top-down mandate. Ezra and Nehemiah felt strongly about these matters, but seem to have sought to build consensus (though Chomsky might accuse them of manufacturing consent) rather than just issue an edict from on high. It was important to them that the people take responsibility for discerning the foreign wives issue in community. So we read in Ezra 10.16 that: Ezra the priest chose certain men, heads of families, each representing their family houses. Each of them was designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter. Often in our churches today, leadership issues statements and positions from above, and expect compliance, telling us that the church is not a democracy. There’s too much nuance around the whole “church is not a democracy” jingo to unpack right now, but communal discernment seems to be the way God prefers throughout the Scriptures. That way, when the church makes a terrible decision, the church can take ownership of it and correct the wrong.
  4. During the discernment process, Ezra and the people didn’t rush things. One thing that impresses me about how the whole deal went down is that Ezra and company had an opportunity to use the fear and discomfort of the people as an occasion to manipulate a quick decision. But instead we read this: All of the people sat in the area in front of God’s house, trembling because of this order and because of the heavy rain . . . The whole assembly shouted in reply, “Yes. We must do as you have said. But there are many people, and it’s the rainy season; we can’t continue to stand outside. Nor can this task be completed in a day or two because many of us have sinned in this matter. Let our leaders represent the entire assembly. Let all in our towns who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, along with the elders and judges of every town, until God’s great anger at us on account of this matter be averted.” (Ezra 10.9, 12-14) Whatever else they thought, everyone involved understood that this matter was of too grave a consequence to rush a decision. I have to give Ezra props for not using fear-mongering and bad weather as an excuse for rushing the people to a decision; and to the people for taking the matter seriously enough to request adequate time to discuss it among themselves. Again, this is a good example for our churches and their leaderships.
  5. There was no penalty for dissent–only for refusing to participate in the process. In Ezra 10.7-8, we are told that those who should refuse to participate in the discernment process around the foreign wives issue would have their property confiscated and be excluded from the people. This is wild: dissent was not punished, just refusal to join the conversation. In fact, Ezra’s friend Meshullam disagreed with this course of action, and said so (Ezra 10.15; cf. Ezra 8.16). Churches today need to be safe places for loyal opposition. We need not get so worked up at dissenters; the people we should get on to are the ones who won’t contribute to the dialogue. 

I would suggest that the holiness of God’s people–being a people capable of hosting God in our midst–depends at least partly upon how we work through conflicts. In spite of a displeasing outcome, Ezra-Nehemiah can still teach us some valuable lessons about how we engage in moral discernment as holy people. The outcomes might not always be pretty, and will probably never be perfect. But just to the extent that we can work through disputes and differences without killing each other; in a truthful and confessing spirit; taking mutual responsibility for the consequences of our decisions; being patient with one another and the process; and making room for loyal opposition, we demonstrate to the world how a holy people manages conflict.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from Ezra-Nehemiah is, we don’t have to like or condone every aspect of our history in order to faithfully claim it as our own.



16 thoughts on “Can Ezra-Nehemiah be reclaimed?

  1. godeysgirl says:

    Thanks for writing, Jeremy. I heard a lesson on Ezra/Nehemiah a year or so ago, and it was bitter. It was a sad fellowship hall class that night. When the teacher got to the end of Ezra he paused so we could unpack it. His conclusion was much like yours: perhaps its purpose is to demonstrate an action (the marriage of foreign wives) that has no good ending. It was bad to marry them; it was bad to leave them. Nothing was going to change either thing. I was really, really angry after that. not at the minister but at the Israelites. I am glad you extend a broader ( or maybe just a more multi-faceted?) look at it. It keeps one from being crushed utterly.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    Erin, the best way I know to approach Ezra is to present Ruth as an alternative. In fact, that’s probably why Ruth was written–as a counterpoint to Ezra’s reform, to remind people that the blessing of David came through a Moabite woman who had taken refuge in Israel.

  3. Jack says:

    The Bible says that having a baby without being married is a sin. Conservatives say that there should be negative consequences for doing that. Liberals say that consequences are unkind, and that you and I should subsidize such behavior, even if it is sinful. The result is that generations continue to live better on welfare than if they worked hard for a good living.

  4. jmar198013 says:

    Jack: I’m a bit baffled. Are you trying to draw an analogy between the abandonment of the foreign wives and children as a consequence for disobedience and the phenomenon of welfare mothers? Personal experience time: I’ve been subsidized, and I’ve worked hard. I never have made what you’d call a good living working hard, but I’ve always fared better working than subsidized. Now, if my choice was between living subsidized and working a McJob, living subsidized is the way to go. The poor didn’t create that system. It seems to me that what a lot of the so-called conservatives are mad about is liberals want to soften the impact of what they see as karma. I can see both sides of both sides there. But I don’t see how this applies to the reforms of Ezra. Ruth seems to have been written quite deliberately in reaction to Ezra. Nowhere in Ezra does God say, “Way to go,” but Ezra and Nehemiah both do a lot of telling God what a fine job they have done. Just a thought.

  5. Frank B. says:

    A great post, Jeremy. I can’t remember now how I came to this one, but I’m glad that happened. Your discussion and observations are really astute and helpful. Thanks! You made me think, “The culture of doing right by the other person is more important than the culture I’d be willing to harm others in order to preserve.”

  6. jmar198013 says:

    Thanks, Frank. I’ve been quietly following your blog for a couple of years now. Glad you “discovered” mine. Welcome.

  7. Xyhelm says:

    Wow, amazing post that greatly challenges folks! You did a very, very, very excellent job pointing out the ugliness and the grace of this story in Ezra and Nehemiah.

    It was a very sticky situation for Ezra and Nehemiah. What would you have discerned in their situation and in light of Deut 7:1-4?

    You said that Jesus’ dealings with the Canaanite woman stand in judgment of the killings in Deuteronomy and Joshua. However, those killings were specifically commanded by God. (The putting away of wives and children as the right course of action was not specifically commanded by God.) “Stand in judgment” is a harsh phrase. It’s certainly in contrast, but do the actions of Jesus condemn the commands of God?

    You’re reference to Ezr 10:15 about a loyal opposition is incredible! Let this stand as an example for the churches that there can be a loyal opposition. Now that I know of Scripture that back up that concept, I plan to use it! (I, too, have found myself to be part of the loyal opposition many times.)

  8. jmar198013 says:

    Andrew: those are some good questions.

    As far as what “I” would have discerned, I think that’s part of the problem. One of the things we see developing in the early church is communities discerning together under the Spirit and the Scriptures. Paul and his Christian contemporaries were obviously reading the Hebrew Bible differently than many of their peers in light of Christ, for instance. That being said, I would suggest that even in light of Deut. 7.1-4, Ezra and Nehemiah had counter-examples in righteous Gentile women like Rahab. Ruth comes to mind as well, and may indeed have been written in the form we have it as a protest against Ezra’s reforms.

    Perhaps my language about standing in judgment was too strong, but I do affirm that Jesus’ exchange with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 raises some interesting questions. I’m also a big fan of Kenton Sparks’ suggestion that the text we call the Great Commission (Matt 28.16-20) is in fact a fulfillment-by-antithesis of the Canaanite genocide. Like Moses in Deuteronomy, Jesus addresses the tribes (represented by the disciples) from a mountain. Unlike Moses, he tells them not to go out and destroy the nations, but to disciple, baptize, and teach them. Also, unlike Moses, who explains that it is his time to go so that another can lead them, Jesus promises his guiding presence until the end of the age. Finally, I suspect that many in ancient Israel had some qualms about reporting genocide as God’s will, which is why you have counter-stories. For instance, in Gen. 34, when the sons of Jacob-Israel slaughter an entire Canaanite village. Jacob was not pleased. Then you have Rahab in Joshua, confessing God like a true Israelite while the real Israelites hide under flax on the roof of her bordello. What a contrast! The next story after the Rahab cycle is the Israelite Achan, who steals devoted items and is placed under the same “ban” as the Canaanites. So all throughout Deuteronomy, the Israelites are told how wicked Canaanites are. But the first Canaanite they meet turns out to be a virtuous heroine, while the next Israelite we see highlighted in the story is a thief and a coward. When I sense tension in the texts, I don’t rush to harmonize it. Sometimes living in the tension is what it means to be God’s faithful people.

  9. […] For my take on good, bad, and downright ugly in the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, see my Can Ezra-Nehemiah be Reclaimed? […]

  10. Xyhelm says:

    Each Sunday morning, I’m currently teaching “The Jews Under Persia” in chronological order. This month, we have been studying Ezra 9-10. Having read this post of yours, I have made sure to do my due diligence in researching the whole event and everything around it to properly analyze what Ezra and all the people did.

    I believe I have found the best way to redeem this passage. As you did, I would like to make a list of the things I have learned.

    1) There was probably no dissent among the people. As I began studying Ezra 9-10, I looked at 10:15 and understood it the same way you did: that these four men opposed Ezra’s and the people’s decision. However, this verse’s meaning is unclear. Amazingly, if the translation was before 1900, the verses says that these four men were APPOINTED over Ezra’s and the people’s decision. If the translation is after 1900, then the verse says these four men OPPOSED it. The Hebrew is incredibly unclear in its meaning. It can certainly be read both ways. The only evidence I found that shed any light on how this verse should be translated is in the Greek Septuagint. There, it reads that the four men “were with me concerning this.” In other words, these four men with Ezra THROUGH it. The Greek supports the translation that there was no dissent, but that these four men were appointed over the decision. (I could not share ALL the details I learned about this verse. I’ll just say that it is still open for debate, but the LXX is still the only evidence that gives us any clue.)

    2) The character and amount of support behind Ezra’s and the people’s decision is overwhelming. (A) When we read about the life of Ezra, beginning in chapter 7 and specifically in chapter 9, we see that Ezra was not an overzealous person who established a dangerous precedent. We see that Ezra is nothing short of humble. As I read, I see that his humility rivals that of Moses. And if it weren’t for what is said about Moses in Numbers 12:3, I would say that Ezra’s humility easily exceeded Moses’. And I think an argument could be made for Ezra’s humility exceeding Moses’. But, of course, it is not a contest. My point is that Ezra is shown to be an incredible man of righteousness and humility. We see that he was an expert in the Law (and we don’t have any indication of a legalistic nature). We see that he was wise as he gathered the people, secured their wealth, and prayed to God in chapter 8. We that his response at the beginning of chapter 9 to be like none other in all of the Old Testament. Like a madman, no other person ripped out their own hair! We see from his prayer that, though he is not guilty of marrying a foreign wife, he throws his lot in with the people and includes himself as being guilty. That is one of the beautiful prayers in all of Scripture! Throughout chapter 9 and clearly in chapter 10, we see that Ezra brings all the people together to discuss this problem. In a Persian province that was very, very far from democracy, Ezra treats this entire ordeal very democratically! (B) I’m amazed that out of all the people of Israel, they all agree to Ezra’s decision. If only four people opposed it, that’s an incredibly small number–if they even opposed it at all. From 9:4 to 10:1 to 10:5 to 10:12, we see that all of the people not only support Ezra but show their own grief also. If the decision was an overzealous mistake, then how could so many people (with such emotion) agree that this decision was wrong? From all the support that Ezra received through this whole ordeal, this shows that their decision was righteous.

    3) One thing I noticed was the the text never comes out and explicitly says that this was a mass divorce. Sure, the text says that they were “sending away” their foreign wives, but this is not a fully accurate translation. Both the Hebrew and the Greek say that they were causing their wives to “go away” which is the literal translation. Some literal translations get this correct in saying, “to cause [foreign wives] to go away.” Now, when you look at what they are doing in chapters 9-10, it is divorce practically speaking. They are separating themselves from those foreign wives. In short, it practically is divorce, but the text doesn’t not explicitly say it. I think this is explained in my last point.

    4) One of the things I found in my research is based on the list of names in 10:18-43 because this is such a short list. When you look at all the things that happen from 9:1 to 10:17, it is clearly seen that this problem of marrying foreign wives is HUGE and NATION-WIDE. Why else would Ezra respond the way he did? Why else would Ezra call all the people to Jerusalem, threating their possessions? There is just so much SERIOUSNESS in the whole ordeal until 10:18. When you get to 10:18-43, it comes as a surprise that the list of men who “sent away” their foreign wives only has 110 names. When you add up all the people who came to Jerusalem with Zerubbabel and Ezra, you get 55,000. This does not include those who came with Sheshbazzar and all the babies who were born there (and the Jews have been known for growing rapidly). 110 men out of 55,000+ people is only .2%. Turns out, this problem of marrying foreign wives wasn’t as huge as thought. I think this is explained in my last point.

    5) Most people, myself included, read Ezra 9-10 believing that the people put away their foreign wives simply because they were foreign. As I have studied these two chapters, I believe this is the case at all. There is another way to read “foreign wives” throughout chapters 9-10. When the problem is introduced in 9:1, it says that the foreign wives were committing detestable practices. As I have studied Ezra 9-10, I believe this is the key. When God gave his instruction not to marry foreign wives in Deut 7:1-6, it appears that God implied “foreign wives with detestable practices.” I don’t believe any Jews, Ezra and the people included, believed that it was wrong to marry a foreign wife just because they were foreign. Otherwise, Rahab (Salmon) and Ruth (Boaz) would have been written about very differently. In short, when Ezra 9-10 says “foreign wives” it is really implying “foreign wives who were committing detestable practices. Here are all the reasons I believe this is the correct way to redeem this passage.

    5a) Deut 7:1-6 was not interpreted legalistically. Instead of just divorcing their wives for being foreign, Ezra and the people divorced their wives because those are the wives who did detestable practices. This explains why Ezra 9-10 doesn’t say that they “sent away” their wives. Instead, they caused their wives to “go away.” It wasn’t the wives themselves who were guilty because they were foreign. The wives were guilty because they did destable practices. Ezra and the people’s decision was all about sending away detestable practices. And if a foreign wife would not give up their detestable practices, then their only choice was to go away from the Jews. In this way, the Jews did not send away their wives, but caused them to go away. In short, it was not about the foreign wives in Deut 7:3, it was about the tearing down their alters, smashing their pillars, burning their images in Deut 7:5. Ezra and the people did EXACTLY what Deut 7:1-6 said, again, not because the wives were foreign but because the wives did detestable practices. In other words, this is church discipline.

    5b) This explains why the list of the guilty in chapter 10 is so short. As people returns to Jerusalem (after the rainy season), they came to Jerusalem for judgment. If a wife had converted, I submit the idea that she was allowed to stay. The list of men were those cases when the women did not convert. This explains why this was made to be a big deal to Ezra and everyone. MANY people had married foreign wives, and they didn’t know which ones were doing detestable practices. Turns out, 110 families were separated because the wives chose their detestable practices over their husband, over their Jewish province, and over God.

    5c) How does this fit with Paul’s teachings? Paul said that if you are married to a nonbeliever and that nonbeliever wants to stay married, then stay married. On the surface, this seems to be at odds with Ezra’s and the people’s choices. But that is not the case. It appears that Paul’s instruction is about those who were married to a pagan before becoming a Christian. A few times, Paul stresses the importance of Christians marrying Christians (example: 1Cor 7:39). In Ezra’s day, you had Jews who willingly married foreign wives who did detestable practices. They are guilty because they knew better. Here is the analogy I’m trying to make: In the Old Testament, if the foreign wife had a detestable practice and would not convert, they were to be divorced. In this way, their solution was the right one because of Deut 7:1-6. In the New Testament, if the unbelieving person would not convert and even wanted to divorce his believing spouse, they were to be divorced (1Cor 7:15). In the Old Testament, if the foreign wife converted, then they were to stay married. In the New Testament, if the unbelieving spouse wanted to stay together, then they were to stay married. Therefore, there is a surprising parallel between Paul and Ezra.

    5d) Why didn’t Ezra kill the foreign wives as Phinehas had done? Because Ezra is actually on the side of mercy. Ezra is not focusing on the killing aspect given in Deut 7:1-6. Ezra is focusing on doing exactly what God said to do. Ezra is not going to take this out of foreign wives. Ezra is only focused on the detestable practices. He is smashing all these practices, making them illegal in the province. And if any foreign wives will not give those up, then they must practice their detestable practices somewhere else.

    5e) This view explains how Ruth and Rahab could be included in the Jewish people. It is because they converted!

    I have written much more detail; I have tried to be brief. I believe the answer to redeeming this passage is found in focusing on the “detestable practices” and not merely the “foreign wives.” Again, this was a matter of church discipline, not ethnicity. This view explains the strangeness of the text, the shortness of the list of the guilty, Rahab/Ruth, Deut 7:1-6, Phinehas, the likelihood that there was never an opposition, and Paul’s instructions in the NT–EVERYTHING!

    If you see any problems with what I have shared, please let me know.

  11. jmar198013 says:

    Thanks for your response after all this time.

    1. I tend to read the Hebrew Scriptures with a slight hermeneutic of suspicion. In part, this is because I know humans. I know our tendencies. We like to divide, to be exclusive, to draw us-and-them lines. One of the things I have seen in the Scriptures we call the Old Testament is that this inclination is there in God’s people. Which shouldn’t surprised anyone–people are people, God’s people or not. It also shouldn’t surprise us that they often use religion as the basis of their exclusivism. Pretty much that cuts across time and place and culture and faith tradition. But the other thing I see clearly is that, at various times; in various ways; through various people; and for a variety of reasons, there were also people who challenged that exclusivism. One example is Isaiah 56.3-8. The prophet welcomes eunuchs and foreigners into the temple assembly (Jesus incidentally quoted from Isa 56 during his temple demonstration), quite self-consciously in opposition to Deut. 23.1-4. We know that the prophet’s invitation was not fulfilled until Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. That makes sense–the Sadducees ran the Second Temple, and they had no regard for the prophets. My point is, I don’t think–and haven’t really ever thought–that you can read the Hebrew Scriptures flat. There’s deliberate tension–point and counterpoint, testimony and counter-testimony. Party lines and loyal opposition. All recorded and drawn up together into a veritable Noah’s ark. The tensions that obtain in the Hebrew Scriptures are only fully resolved, I argue, by the coming of Jesus. Since he is God’s first and final Word (John 1.1-14; Col. 1.15-20; Heb. 1.1-3), he is the only one capable of unlocking the Scriptures. I would strongly suggest that the only way to read the OT rightly for CHRISTIANS is through the hermeneutical lenses of Jesus.

    2. That speaks directly to your point about the stories of Rahab and Ruth. I’ve pretty much been convinced for the last decade or so that those stories are part of the counter-testimony to the party line I mentioned above. They’re part of that loyal opposition. Critical consensus of the last century or more has been that Ruth doesn’t reach its final canonical form UNTIL the time of Ezra-Nehemiah. The case for that is strengthened by Ruth’s presence in the Ketuvim (along with, incidentally, Ezra-Nehemiah). These books came later, and their authority was still being debated in Jesus’ time. Anyway, the gist of all this is that Ruth comes to us in the form it does AS A PROTEST AGAINST Ezra’s program. A counter-narrative. In other words, the only reason we can say, “Well, those laws weren’t meant to be applied legalistically” is simply BECAUSE you have the presence of Rahab and Ruth in the Scriptures to counterbalance a narrative like Ezra.

    3. As to the language issues between the MT and the LXX, I’m not prepared right now to do a deep study there. Let it be known that more than half the time, if there’s a disagreement between the MT and the LXX, I go with the LXX. This is primarily because the translators of the LXX had access to older manuscripts than the Masoretes. But I’m also careful about that, because there was a distinct tendency on the part of LXX translators toward straightening the curves and flattening the hills. i.e., presenting more palatable renderings.

    4. I’m not particularly swayed by drawing a distinction between “divorcing” their wives and “sending them away.” The practical consequences are the same. Abandoned women and children.

    5. Related to the last point: Well, at least no one heard God commanding them to slaughter the children this time.

    6. Piggy-backing on that: Your contrast of Ezra and Phinehas is revealing. Yes, you can say Ezra chose mercy. Compared to Phinehas, he sure did. You’re absolutely right there. Ezra had the benefit of living when the people had been civilized by the words of the prophets and humbled by exile. So while what he did was far better than what Phinehas had done, it is only with the Advent of Christ that we learn “a still more excellent way.”

    7. The detestable practices emphasis seems . . . well, too easy. It reads more like a justification than a reason. Ezra 9.1 says that some “officials” reported to Ezra that: “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites haven’t kept themselves separate from the peoples of the neighboring lands with their detestable practices.” They don’t name what the detestable practices are. Again, I’ve been around a few minutes. You know what this sounds like to me? Some “concerned citizens.” (Again, that hermeneutic of suspicion). I hear it like this: “Pssstttt . . . Ezra. Guess what? So-and-so and these other guys have married foreign women. Some Canaanites and Egyptians. You know what THOSE people do . . . ”

    8. Indeed, this whole portion of Ezra-Nehemiah reads like a textbook example of scapegoating a-la Rene Girard. Things are going poorly. Who can we blame it on? THOSE people.

    9. Re: Ezra’s hair pulling. After he hears about the foreign wives, Ezra recounts: “I tore my clothes and cloak, pulled out hair from my head and beard, and sat down in shock.” Again, I am not particularly moved by this. Public displays of mourning can be used to arouse sympathy for your cause. According to Ezra 9.4, his hair-pulling, garment-rending demonstration did just that. Don’t ignore that the hair-pulling is connected with garment-rending. And don’t forget that even the high priest tore his garment just before sentencing Jesus to death (Matt. 26.65). I’m always suspicious of powerful men engaged in conspicuous public grieving. What are they up to? Furthermore, I learned to be suspicious of that from Scripture. “Rend your hearts, and not your garments.”

    10. “From 9:4 to 10:1 to 10:5 to 10:12, we see that all of the people not only support Ezra but show their own grief also. If the decision was an overzealous mistake, then how could so many people (with such emotion) agree that this decision was wrong? [Sic, I’m assuming you meant something along the lines of, “How could so many people (with such emotion) go along with a wrong decision?”] If you’ve done research on authoritarian personality types, you’ll see this is quite easy. Authoritarian followers are typically people who are easily frightened and uncertain about their world. They can be easily manipulated to do bad things, or agree to have bad things done in their name. They don’t like it, they grieve over it, it offends their deeply-ingrained moral sensibilities, but in the end, they will go along with it and see the guy who can stomach doing the bad thing for their sake as a savior. I’ve got expert research on authoritarian personality types linked on the side of this blog. Under “Tolle Lege.” See the resources from Bob Altemeyer. He’s been studying authoritarian personalities for half a century.

    11. If you want to interpret Ezra-Nehemiah in light of Paul, here’s where I go. Ezra circled up the wagon. Nehemiah rebuilt the wall. But Jesus tore down the wall that Nehemiah rebuilt (Ephesians 2).

    Ultimately, that hermeneutic of suspicion is the primary reason, I think, for why we reach divergent interpretations of Ezra-Nehemiah.

  12. Xyhelm says:

    I like a whole lot of you said. But I have some questions.

    What evidence is there that Ruth’s story was a protest against Ezra’s decision? The evidence I see in the Sctiptures is contrary to this idea. I don’t see a counter-balance anywhere.

    About your #6 and #7, I think I need to clarify. You said that “concerned citizens” had suspicions. I can totally see that. I believe this is seen in how SERIOUS this problem appeared until the list of the guilty men in chapter 10. When the whole problem was resolved, how could so few people (110) be found guilty? I believe it was because they did not know how wide-spread this problem was. I think the reason for this was because so many Jews had married foreign wives. But in the end, why was it that so few foreign wives were sent away? I believe it is because this problem was not as serious as they first thought. That is, many foreign wives had converted and they were not sent away. When each couple was put on trial, only 110 families were separated because the wives continued their detestable practices. Again, another way of looking at this is church discipline. This is why I am not so condemning of Ezra. This is why I believe Christ would do the same thing. Actually, I think Christ did do the same thiing with the rich young ruler. Jesus “caused him to go away” because the man would not put the Son of God above his possessions. In the same way, Ezra “caused the foreign wives to go away” because they would not put the Jews and the one, true God above their detestable practices. So I do not believe Jesus had a more excellent way. If you really believe Jesus would do something different than Ezra, what do you think Jesus would have done?

    No, after studying Ezra in-depth, I do not believe it is a textbook example of scapegoating. What I do believe is that you are reading that into the text.

    I think you misjudge Ezra. Sure, he rent his garments. But look at the focus of chapter 9. The focus is on Ezra’s prayer: the rending of his own heart. You see, Ezra did both.

    About authoritarian personalities, everything Ezra says and does in chapters 7-10 appears to be the polar opposite of an authoritarian personality. As for all the people, perhaps they had that type of personality. But what is the chance that out of more than 55,000 people, only 4 men did not have this personality type?

    I completely disagree with your #11 except that Nehemiah built the Jerusalem wall.

    Sure, the interpretation of suspicion is where we disagree. I would like to point out that I digested this post of your before researching Ezra. I went into the text with your comments in mind. After researching all the details of chapters 9-10, I believe I have found what was really going on in Ezra’s day (in short): church discipline. I’m not saying that by moving away from your suspicions to my own conclusion means that I am right. But it does seem to make a point. Now, because of my view that the passage is really about detestable practices, to believe that Ezra and all the people made a mistake removes Deut 7:1-6 from your functional canon. That is, it is a view that tolerates the sins of pagan worship that God very clearly condemned.

    In the end, you and I are welcome to disagree. I only ask that you re-read Ezra 9-10 as an example of church discipline, not ethnic cleansing.

    • jmar198013 says:

      “What evidence is there that Ruth’s story was a protest against Ezra’s decision? The evidence I see in the Sctiptures is contrary to this idea. I don’t see a counter-balance anywhere.”

      The opinion that Ruth was written in response to Ezra is basically consensus, and has been for a couple hundred years. Not saying that makes it right, just that it’s not something I just pulled out of my hind quarters.

      I already mentioned one of the more important pieces of evidence for dating Ruth (relatively) late. It’s not Torah or Prophets. It’s Writings–the Ketuvim.

      There are good reasons from the text itself to assume that it did not reach its final form until long after the events it records. For one, Ruth 1.1 pictures the time of the Judges as long past. It would be odd for a document written during the time of David to portray something that he was only a generation removed from as ancient history.

      Second, Ruth contains Aramaisms. That in itself isn’t conclusive, because editorial revisions continued until late throughout the OT.

      I will level my own opinion here. You may note that I asserted that the book we know as Ruth probably didn’t reach its final form until the post-exilic era. I didn’t say that it originated then. My own hunch is that the Ruth tradition is from the time of David, and was meant to legitimate his ascension to the throne, in spite of his Moabite heritage. In other words, the argument embedded in the Ruth tradition is that David was a legitimate king for the people (remember, they weren’t supposed to allow a foreigner to rule over them, and Moabites were an enemy people) because while Ruth was a Moabite, she was also a convert brought into Israel lawfully (through levirate marriage in that case).

      I further suspect that during the days of Ezra, there were those who dissented from his policy (and he has every reason to minimize the dissent; just as the author of Chronicles has every reason to whitewash the sins of the Davidic line). And the story they rallied around was the story of David’s ancestor, Ruth. Hence, we have Ruth in the form we have it.

      That being said, even if I am wrong about this, canonically-speaking Ruth does serve as a corrective or mitigating force over and against Ezra-Nehemiah.

      And I would suggest that your point about Ezra ultimately being about “church discipline” may actually be bolstered by my read. Here’s why.

      I think you’re giving Ezra too much benefit of the doubt. My position stands: racism, xenophobia, yea verily all sorts of Othering are always ALWAYS ALWAYS legitimated with claims that the Other is engaging in “detestable practices.” So the Romans accused Christians of cannibalism. The Christians accused Jews of the same thing. Whites portray blacks as hyper-sexualized and intellectually deficient. Americans equate middle easterners with Islam, and Islam with terrorism. That’s how it’s always been. Most of the time, out and out Othering is seen for what it is. But if you can attach a scandal, some reason for your antipathy, then you can find an outlet the public will go along with.

      I don’t doubt that Ezra was in some regards sincere. I also don’t doubt that the people who snitched to him about the foreign wives were probably basically good people have a fear-induced moment.

      One of the things that strikes me about Ezra-Nehemiah is that when the people–including the priest Ezra–hear the law read aloud, they freak out and realize they’ve basically been disobeying it forever.

      I could see that–especially among a nation whose position was precarious–inducing a moral zeal. Circle up the wagons. “Back to the Bible.” Etc.

      I could also see it leading them to apply Deut. 23.1-4 indiscriminately.

      I can also see there being a loyal opposition that says: “Wait! What about Ruth?” A reminding voice.

      I can also hear a person bringing the Ruth story to bear on Ezra’s policies placing something they had perhaps heard one of the foreign say to their husband on Ruth’s tongue: Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

      I can also hear someone responding that such a wife is just play-acting. Just saying what she needs to say to stay where she’s comfortable.

      But you know what? That makes no sense.

      Because Israel in Ruth’s day and the Judean remnant in Ezra’s weren’t exactly exciting, promising places to be, were they?

      Wouldn’t it be a safe assumption that anyone who would willingly return to rebuild with a bunch of exiles loves her husband and family and wants to be there?

      Anyway–I ramble. I said all that to say this: Ruth’s contribution to the canon is to counterbalance Ezra. He makes a strong stand one way. She makes a strong stand in the other direction. Between the two, you have a balance. And I don’t know that you could arrive at the conclusions you ultimately do without that balance. You benefit from it whether you see it or not.

      Ultimately, I do engage the text with imagination as much as I engage critically (by critically I mean the nuts and bolts–language studies, cultural awareness, textual work, etc.). To me, interpretation is just as much–maybe more so–art as it is science. And I try to interject that human element in there whenever I encounter the text.

      I’m pretty sure that if I’d been around in Ezra’s time, I wouldn’t have been thrilled with his reforms. Knowing me, I may even have had a foreign wife.

      And I would probably have been right there with the people, tugging at his sleeve and demanding: “What about Ruth?”

      • Xyhelm says:

        Thanks for sharing that about the book of Ruth. That is a new theory to me. It has some interesting points. Thanks for explaining!

        Yes, Othering is a terrible problem. But can you find any explicit proof of Othering post-exile? (This can include someone who applied Deut 23:1-4 indiscriminately.) I might be able to see your approach to this text as an example of Othering if the Jews at that time were guilty of it. I’m looking for an explicit example. On the other side, after a couple generations of the Jews being dominated by Others, I wonder if the Jews were not guilty of Othering post-exile. Perhaps their time in Babylon and Persia cured their racism. Thanks for passing on anything you find.

        You said, “I can also see there being a loyal opposition that says: “Wait! What about Ruth?” A reminding voice.” I don’t doubt that there was one. But again, for there to be an opposition that says this, one must assume that they were divorcing foreign wives merely for being foreign. My argument is that they only divorced foreign wives who were committing detestable practices.

        Back to what you said about your reading, we are in agreement about the examples of Ruth and Rahab. The conservative reading of Ezra 9-10 (that they divorced their wives simply because they were foreign) cannot be right. I argue that this did not even happen.

        You said, “Wouldn’t it be a safe assumption that anyone who would willingly return to rebuild with a bunch of exiles loves her husband and family and wants to be there?” Yes, but around 90% of the men mentioned in Ezra 10 were those who returned with Zerubbabel–I assume they had married after returning to Judah. When I went through the list, I think I found only one possible person who is listed in Ezra 10 who had come back with Ezra.

        Also, if you think Jesus had “a still more excellent way,” what would that have been?

      • jmar198013 says:

        Okay, brother–not trying to cop out but I have a pretty full lid right now.

        My main thought about Othering in the postexilic Jewish community under Ezra-Nehemiah is that the banishment of the foreign wives and children is itself an act of Othering.

        Furthermore, it seems we are at an impasse regarding were they sent away because they were foreign, or because of “detestable practices”? My point remains that I don’t know that we can take Ezra at face value here, because for him–or at least the people who reported the marriages to him–the two were synonymous. That’s why I made the points about how accusing the Other of “detestable practices” is an essential component of Othering.

        Incidentally, I wrote this piece in the first place because the Spirit convicted me of “Othering” Ezra and Nehemiah over their “detestable practice.” I still don’t agree with their decision.

        What would a still more excellent way be? Well, Phinehas killed the Other. Ezra banished the Other. What would Jesus do? What’s the next logical step up?

        For further reading: Arthur J. Wolak, Ezra’s Radical Solution to Judean Assimilation. Jewish Bible Quarterly 40.2 (2012): 93-105. [ <–There's a link in that, I promise]

      • Xyhelm says:

        Fair enough. I find it interesting that through my research and digestion of the text, the Spirit led me to the opposite conclusion. Thanks for the insights.

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