Monday, August 22, 2022

Why did Ezra tell the Jews to send away their foreign wives and children?

The command by Ezra to divorce the foreign wives certainly sounds cruel and not inclusive by our modern values.  We're reading Ezra today in our Women's Bible Study at the Lakeside Women's Club.  I'm not sure I ever read it, but it was very interesting.  I even did some deep diving into Bible commentaries on the internet.  Would you believe there are some Christian authors who treat Ezra-Nehemiah as leadership guides or building programs for churches!  Whoa. But to our modern values, separating families sounds very harsh. Read what this commentator on the Hebrew Bible has to say:

"Ezra 9 blames the intermingling of the races as the cause for his people’s woe, and why it should be forbidden[2]. This “intermarriage crisis”, as Ezit is commonly referred to, is therefore very important. For Ezra, the problem with foreigners and other non-returnees is that they were associated with “abominations and uncleanliness”, and intermarrying with them threatened Israel’s stability and its prosperity, as represented by land ownership, since God required the people to be clean and free of abominations in order to possess it.

A code in Ezra specifies who could marry who. A Jew could only marry another Jew who had experienced the Exile. Those who had remained in the land during the Exile were unacceptable. Ezra provided a genealogy distinguishing between those who were considered acceptable and those who were not, but it is suspect. Those who had married “other” women were commanded to divorce them. This was motivated by a fear of pollution of the Holy Seed and uncleanliness.

A Holiness code is also described in Ezra Ch 17, holiness being the antithesis of impurity. Ezra’s command was not to mix the Holy Seed. This was a means of consolidating a new identity. On the other hand, Nehemiah offered other, potentially more concrete, reasons for the denunciation of mixed marriages: such marriages produced children who could not speak the Judean language (Neh.13:24), and Solomon’s experience showed that foreign wives can cause a man to sin (Neh. 13:26). Solomon tolerated the worship of gods other than Yahweh, and did so because his foreign wives gave him the opportunity to do so (1 Kings 11).

Related factors include concern about the influence women have on their families. Children would likely learn the language of a foreign mother, and within the household a woman’s religious practices could influence the beliefs and practices of her children and her husband. The culture and religion of the father and the family’s feelings of connection and deference to them could conceivably then be threatened. Marriage also affected property ownership and inheritance, geared as they were in order to protect land tenure. If the wife or the children had strong connections to a community other than that of the husband/father, the land could effectively leave the community’s sphere of influence. In certain circumstances, Jewish women could possess and inherit land[3] and this may also have been the case in Judah. During the post-Exilic period, there was an attempt to reconstitute a new tradition: that the land has been polluted by the intermarriage of those who stayed behind during the exile, so the returnees had to distance ourselves from that.

The consequence was that the local residents - Samaritans who thought of themselves as the direct descendants of the original Northern Kingdom - were without any right to the land, and those who had been deported and gone into Exile, or rather their descendants, those of pure blood, came back with the message that the land belongs to us and we are going to seize it and settle there[4]."

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