I think a lot is at stake in how we read this text, honestly. I think that if we accept the moral wisdom and the God-ordained piety of the expulsion of the “foreign wives and those born to them,” which this text describes, we also have to accept the understanding of God that goes with that. I don’t accept that understanding of God. Were I to be translated into a man of the late fifth century Persian province of Yehud, I hope I would be out among the landless exiles and “the people of the land,” along with the God of the impure. This is probably not surprising coming from someone with my readerly vantage point. Which is no doubt what makes my vantage point intrinsically illegitimate, according to some. Knowing that’s where I stand with respect to orthodox boundaries, and how that’s likely to affect my reading of this text, here are my notes, for what they’re worth:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: When I was a little girl doing memory work, I learned that Ezra and Nehemiah were two of “the history books.” [Joshua-Judges-Ruth /1stand2ndSamuel-1stand2ndKings-1stand2ndChronicles / Ezra-Nehemiah-Esther] They have sometimes appeared to be a single text. Certainly, they are related in some ways. Some have thought they were a continuation of the narrative in Chronicles, maybe even written by the Chronicler. All of which tells us: they raise some complex questions about the author’s specific time and place and point of view.
We seem safe to think the text of Ezra, whether or not including Nehemiah, was composed sometime in the late fifth or early fourth century BCE. It describes events that take place in Judah and Jerusalem – the Persian province of Yehud – after 538 BCE and the return of some of the exiles from Babylonia.
Hindy Najman, in her introductory notes to Ezra in the Jewish Study Bible gives this helpful timeline, which is organized by the reigns of the Persian Kings:
- Cyrus II (559 – 530 BCE)
- Sheshbazzar is governor of Yehud/Judah
- 538 BCE exiles return under Zerubbabel’s leadership; 2nd Temple reconstruction begins
- Cambyses (530-522 BCE)
- Zerubbabel is now governor of Yehud / Judah
- 2nd Temple reconstruction work continues
- Darius I (522-486 BCE)
- Prophets Haggai, Zechariah are active
- 2nd Temple reconstruction completed 516 BCE
- Xerxes I (486-465 BCE)
- Artaxerxes I Longimanus (465-424 BCE)
- Ezra, scribe and priest, arrives in Jerusalem 458 BCE
- Nehemiah arrives, is governor of Yehud / Judah from 445 BCE
- Darius II (423-405 BCE)
The texts of Ezra and Nehemiah relate events at various parts of this period. Ezra 1-6 deals with the reconstruction of the Temple through to its dedication. Ezra 7-10 & Nehemiah 8-10 include Ezra’s memoir, and deal with events after 458 BCE, with an emphasis on re-establishing the observance of Torah, the 2nd Temple cultus, and the religious identity of a restored remnant. Nehemiah 1-7 contain Nehemiah’s memoir, and deal with events after 445 BCE, with an emphasis on the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem. Nehemiah 11-13 continue Nehemiah’s memoir, with an emphasis on administration, and the enforcement of sabbath observance.
[It might be simpler to watch the Bible Project’s animated video summary. Remembering that they, too, have a distinct readerly point of view. ]
According to Hindy Nejman, “The importance of Ezra for the creation and formation of what came to be known as rabbinic Judaism cannot be overestimated” (Ezra, 1669). Ezra may not technically be a prophet. The book that bears his name doesn’t read like a prophetic oracle. But he is clearly an authoritative figure: a learned scribe, with priestly lineage and standing. His actions, as depicted in the text, make him a second Moses – a lawgiver, who intercedes for his covenant community. His method of interpreting Torah and investing it with Mosaic authority sets a vital and continuing precedent.
The identified problem in our text is the presence of “foreign” peoples in the land of Judah, and specifically “foreign wives.” Ezra learns of the reality of intermarriage between returned exiles and “people of the land” in Ezra 9, and Ezra 9-10 deals exclusively with this matter. Chapter 9 begins with Ezra receiving a report of the lamentable state of affairs, and continues through his expressions of anguish and his long prayer of confession. Then comes our text, followed by the purifying community response, and the list of names of the men who divorced their wives.
The intermarriage problem is multi-dimensional, which makes it complicated. Katherine A. Southwood, at Bible Odyssey, summarizes this as an ethnic boundary issue; Arthur J. Wolak, in Jewish Bible Quarterly, discusses it carefully as a complex of “ethnic, religious, political, and purity concerns.” Pieter M. Venter in “The dissolving of marriages in Ezra 9-10 and Nehemiah 13 revisited,” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies gives a detailed discussion of the complex hermeneutical issues related to this specific issue in the text, concluding that the problem facing the community is itself a complex one, and that the text points beyond itself to a complex community response to the problem.
It also involves profound, intimate human relationships. Robert Alter’s comment on Ezra 10:3, in his translation of the Hebrew Bible, makes the clearest statement on this purely human dimension: “The banishment of wives and children was clearly a cruel and draconian measure, and it certainly must have triggered opposition.” (comment on Ezra 10:3)
It doesn’t just “seem” cruel. It is cruel.
We can get so wrapped up in thinking about this situation theologically and sociologically and politically that we forget to think about it humanly. If we do that, we incur a particular kind of guilt, I think. I had a lesson on this once, by a man who used to attend one of our church’s Sunday morning classes. I don’t remember how it came up, but I made the comment in his hearing that this episode, of the expulsion of the foreign wives, was an example of a text in the Bible that was “morally ambiguous.” [Because I can use big words and be all sophisticated.] And he said, “I don’t think it’s morally ambiguous. It was wrong.”
Maybe we do incur a different kind of guilt if we insist on putting the demands of the human dimension first. But I keep leaning towards the word that urges us to care about the humans, anyway. “There’s a lot in the Bible. We have to make a choice.”
It also occurs to me that Ezra’s action is an example of pursuing purity, as defined in a specific way, by “getting rid of” potential threats to that purity, in the form of “foreign women” and their children. When I put it that way, it reminds me of recent deadly headlines. I’m afraid that’s not a coincidence. I’m afraid the deadly headlines are the extreme, thankfully rare, but logical consequence of a certain kind of discourse around purity – the very kind represented by Ezra’s action in this text. That discourse that presents purity as a matter of separation of people, the pure ones from the impure ones. A matter of drawing the boundaries correctly, and then policing them rigorously, so that “we” stay clean and right with God. Whoever “we” are.
[I think I’m automatically disqualified from being one of those “us.” I have to hold out hope for those of us who always seem to be one of some “them.” Who are forced to lean heavily on the idea that sorting people that way doesn’t work, because the line between good and evil runs right through every human heart. Who are partial to that place in the funeral liturgy that praises God for “whatever in them was good and kind and faithful.” Because it looks like trusting the gracious mercy of God is as close to holiness as I will ever come.]
Nothing from the book of Ezra is in the lectionary. The whole book is one of those things you wouldn’t know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary.
CLOSER READING: Ezra begins in an intensely verbal posture of prayer: praying, confessing, weeping, and prostrating before “the house of God.” “The house of God” – the reconstructed Temple – is a focal point for the activity in the text.
The activity of prayer itself has the effect of gathering an assembly from Israel – so, we presume, from among the returnees – of men, women, and children specifically. Later, the text will tell us, men assemble (verse 9).
Shecaniah, whose name means something like “God dwells,” forwards the proposal to send away the “foreign” women and “those born to them,” in a long speech, which ends with him encouraging Ezra to “be strong.” The word for “foreign” here and the other times it appears is nokri; Ruth, by the way, of the book of Ruth, is a nokri, a foreigner.
Shecaniah proposes to follow the “counsel” of Ezra, and of “those who tremble at the mitzvot” – the Haredim – and the direction of Torah. (v3) Probably not coincidentally, “Haredim” is now a contemporary term describing rigorously halakhic orthodox Jews in the State of Israel.
Ezra’s withdrawal and fast in vv5-6, as well as his anguish in v1, echo Moses’s activity on behalf of Israel in the wilderness, particularly after the incident of the golden calf.
Ezra calls on all the “sons of the exile” to assemble in Jerusalem. Verse 8 lists the political consequences men will incur by failing to appear in Jerusalem: your land will be herem – “subject to the ban” literally (which we might remember from Joshua 6), though here it seems to mean it would be confiscated. And you will be “separated” from the assembly of the returnees. “Separate” is what God does between different kinds of things in Genesis 1, like light and darkness, for instance.
We can imagine, then, why all the men are trembling in the open court of the house of God. Also because of the rain. The ninth month would be Kislev, December. It would be cold enough to make a person shiver.
Ezra’s charge in vv10-11 expresses the understanding that the guilt from the individuals’ actions incurs collective guilt – they have added guilt to Israel, as a body. This collective guilt is part of what is at stake here.
In order not to be separated from that body, the relevant parties need to separate themselves from “the people of the land” and “the foreign women/wives.”
The assembly says yes, it’s on us to do this – and then they stall. [That’s how I read it.] This is going to take time, it’s the rainy season, we need to go back to the villages and sort this all out.
There’s an interpretation question at v15. NRSV reads “Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this,” which is how Rashi reads the text. JPS reads it as these two individuals “remained for this purpose” – the purpose of compiling a list of the offenders. Possibly of interest in this context, the name “Tikvah” links Jahzeiah, an arguably dissenting voice, back to Rahab (again, remember Joshua 6).
Image: “Ezra the scribe,” (detail), Folio 5r from the Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus 1), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons