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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.