Was Ezra xenophobic?

light_tunnelWe’ve completed our preliminary vision test and are now ready to begin our journey down into the murky and hidden underbelly of Scripture. But before we go, some disclaimers are in order.

As I said before, this trek is not for the faint of faith, nor for those who need their theology all wrapped up with a nice little bow, but for those not afraid to deepen their faith through faithful questioning.

I will also state upfront that I firmly believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture (but the question will be, in what way is it inspired?) I will try to keep us on good theological footing, but it’s not a well-traveled path so it may appear dangerous at times. Finally, the purpose of this adventure relates to the main thesis of my blog—that God is a good Father—although it may seem like we’re going down a rabbit trail at first (pun intended!) My hope is that the purpose will become more apparent as we go.

Flashlights ready…here we go!

We’re going to look into an incident recorded in the book of Ezra. As we do, here’s an admittedly provocative question I want us to ponder:

Was Ezra  following God’s directive or was he just xenophobic?

We pick up the story after Ezra returns to Jerusalem for the second time. Upon arriving, his cohorts approach him with some disturbing news (emphasis mine):

When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.” (Ezra 9:1-2 NKJV)

Okay, we need to pause here and talk about these “abominations” and “holy seed.”

From the text, the “abominations” appear to be the pagan wives themselves (vs. 2). And what about this “holy seed“? Here’s a couple heroes of the faith for test samples: Joseph took the daughter of an Egyptian priest for his wife; Moses’s second wife was Ethiopian. Then there’s Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, David’s great-great grandmother, and Ruth, a Moabite woman, his great-grandmother…which, by the way, makes them direct ancestors of Jesus!

Ezra’s pious response to the news is to tear his garment, pluck out his hair, and sit down in astonishment. He prays and fasts and cries out (emphasis mine):

O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens.” (Ezra 9:6 NKJV)

My quirky Baby-boomer mind goes straight to the old Hee Haw TV show song, “Gloom, Despair, And Agony On Me…”

I thought we might need some comic relief… 🙂

Back to Ezra’s lament…what guilt? What iniquities?

There’s nothing in the Law of Moses expressly forbidding intermarriage with foreigners (just don’t take up their idol worshiping ways). The only other possibility is Deuteronomy 7:3 (we’ll get to that story next time). But in Deuteronomy 20:14 and 21:10-13, God expressly permits the Israelites to intermarry with women from other regions and religions. In Numbers 31:18, 35, God orders Israel to take 32,000 Midianite virgins to be integrated into the tribes of Israel. By the way, these “innocent” virgins were brought up in Baal worship.

little_rock_integration_protestIt seems more likely that Ezra and the boys were whipping up some good ol’ time religious zeal and nationalistic fervor by kicking all those dangerous Canaanites out from their “holy” midst.

Of course, we’ve never done anything like that in our history. And we would never even dream of ostracizing any ethnic group, or try to keep those practicing “dangerous” religions out of our country, right?

But I digress…back to our story…

Funny thing is, according to the prophetic voice, God didn’t seem all that impressed with Israel’s “holy” genes…

Are you not like the people of Ethiopia to Me,
O children of Israel?” says the Lord.
“Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,
The Philistines from Caphtor,
And the Syrians from Kir? (Amos 9:7 NIV)

Jesus and Paul take this same argument up with the Judaizers of their day (John 8:37-47; Rom.2:28-29; Gal.3:16,28-29).

However, after praying, fasting, and interviewing all the leaders who had intermarried (and had children), it’s decided that breaking up these mixed families would be the best way to make amends and honor God:

Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them, according to the advice of my master and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law…. (Ezra 10:3 NKJV)

Okay, time out…this is the counsel? God will be pleased by your penance when you abandon your families? Huh?  Apparently, God forgot about all those other times He encouraged intermarriage with these same people!

Let’s summarize. Ezra is sent by the Persian government to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Upon his arrival, and much to his disgust and dismay, finds Jews married to foreigners. He prays and fasts and cries out to God, then decides he’s serving God by breaking up their presumably happy marriages and making their children homeless and fatherless. The end. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Amen.

But we should honestly ask ourselves, does this sound like what God would want…you must abandon your wife and kids so you don’t contaminate yourself and mix your holy seed with their naughty genes (genes that came from…Me).

And, for us, does this pass the “just like Jesus” test? Jesus Christ, who is the “exact representation” of God and Father? (John 14:7; Heb.1:3), the One who explains what God is really like to us? (Matt.11:27; John 1:18)

Two things I would like you to consider (and hopefully comment on!):

  1. What is your gut reaction to this incident? In other words, what would you honestly think if you turned on the evening news and heard about some religious cult leaders’ ethnic cleansing in the Levant, annulling marriages and forcing fathers to abandon their children?
  2. How would you respond to this theologically? Is this a case of religious xenophobic zeal, or were they truly following God’s perfect will on this? And, if the latter, how so? And what does that say about God as a Father?

I told you to bring your flashlight… 🙂

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About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 36 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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16 Responses to Was Ezra xenophobic?

  1. Lydia Thomas says:

    I’m grateful that you’re taking on faithful questions in your blog.

    Gut reaction? I would be absolutely disgusted if I turned on the evening news and this was a story being covered. I’d be bothered by the one group of people thinking they are better than another and that they would use the God who created us in His image and loves us to justify their actions.

    Theologically? In terms of the “just like Jesus” test, the only context in which I can think of Jesus discussing divorce was in the case of infidelity, so these mandates from Ezra don’t seem to match Jesus. In other areas of the OT, though, God talks about hating divorce “because it covers one’s garments with violence” and He even tells Hosea to be faithful to a woman who is unfaithful to him. It seems like God intends marriage to be a picture of faithful and steadfast love, so it seems like this might be a case of xenophobic zeal.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Lydia. You make some great points.

      I will make a general comment here. Obviously, a lot of what was done 2,500 years ago is anachronistic to us (evening news question). But if something is wrong, it’s wrong, no matter what century it happens in. We will look at that more thoroughly in future posts.

      But you’ve touched on the deeper issue, and that’s the true nature of our heavenly Father. And since God “does not change” (Mal. 3:6), and Jesus is the “same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8), we’ve got some digging to do here. 🙂
      Blessings.

  2. Lance says:

    Ezra needed some enlightenment or medication or psychotherapy… he was far from God’s heart and delusional to assert he was speaking for God. As for inspiration, the Bible is filled with examples of what not to do even when people we claiming to speak for God. So I am deeply inspired to not make Ezra my model. Yay for inspiration. Thanks Mel.

    • Mel Wild says:

      LOL! Thanks Lance for your “inspiring” comments. What you said reminds me of Paul, the former first century terrorist against the Church, when he talked about having zeal for God but without knowledge (Rom.10:2). Yes, yay for God-breathed inspiration that helps us see these things as we dig below the surface into the vast multi-layered richness of the text!
      Blessings.

  3. 1. Gut reaction? I would absolutely see it as ethnic cleansing. It was horrifying, and apparently the women and children were simply “sent away (banished, gotten rid of).”

    2. I read over the Scripture in my Bible and didn’t see any verses where God actually spoke to Ezra about this. It was the Jewish leaders who named it a “detestable practice,” and called it “polluting” their holy or pure race. Hmm – sounds familiar, doesn’t it? (Germany and Bosnia come to mind.)

    • Mel Wild says:

      Good points! We never seem to stop and think about what would actually happen to the wives and children in that ancient culture. It’s nothing like today! Pretty dismal, even nightmarish prospects, actually.

      And, yes, Nazi Germany and Bosnia do come to mind, among many others. I will talk more about that next time. Sadly, some of the worst atrocities in human history have been perpetrated in the name of someone’s religion or some ideology.

      And I agree, it’s reasonable to assume that they projected their agenda on to God because there isn’t anything explicitly in Scripture and nothing suggesting God spoke to them. (We won’t be able to use that answer on my next post, though!) Either way, it doesn’t sound like God to me either!

      Thanks for jumping in on this important conversation, Susan. Your input is always much appreciated. Blessings.

  4. bullroarin says:

    My gut reaction to question 1 is that he is (although well meaning and good intensioned I’m sure) a man who is following what he truly believes is God’s will…he is speaking with conviction which makes his plight seem (at least on the surface) urgent and necessary. He makes God sound like a reactionary character to a bad situation to which God has no control, therefore the problem must be eliminated.

    Theologically, Ezras words don’t line up with God’s nature and character. (these are usually hot points for atheisis to build their arguements against a duel natured hateful unforgiving god). I think this story, like many stories in the bible, have wonderful nuggets of truth under a crust of human sins and shortcomings. If one digs below the surface you will find the Father at work redeeming man to himself. But for those of less endurance the crusty surface seems to only reveal…crust!

    ~ Dave

    • bullroarin says:

      ops…I should have said that atheisis use these hot points to build an aguement for a duel natured, hateful, unforgiving god.
      ….my bad!

      • Mel Wild says:

        No prob on the typo. 🙂 I do that all the time with my comments. And this is a great point! Ironically, atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens use the SAME Biblicist (literalist) or Fundamentalist hermeneutics to pummel the veracity of Scripture and demean the face of God. This is why we need to discuss these things and have better answers. The fact is, the atheists aren’t going away and they’re winning the argument with a lot of Christians who are unprepared for this kind of onslaught. And the bottom line is, our heavenly Father is NOT a schizophrenic, hateful, and unforgiving god!

    • Mel Wild says:

      I’m glad you brought your first point up. I agree that Ezra’s intentions were good, and probably even considered appropriate 2,600 years ago, even though they were, in my estimation, coming from zeal without knowledge. But, in fairness to Ezra, I think we all misrepresent God at times with the best of intentions. So, I have tons of grace for him. I just want to make sure that WE look at what’s happening through the lens of Jesus. 🙂

      “If one digs below the surface you will find the Father at work redeeming man to himself. But for those of less endurance the crusty surface seems to only reveal…crust!”

      I love this point! That’s some deep theology right there, bro! I think you’re hitting the vein on how we should treat stories like this in the Bible narrative. The narrative invites us into the conversation, to wrestle with what’s being said, to dig deeper where the richer treasure is.

      As always, your comments add so much to the conversation, Dave. Blessings.

  5. AfroScot says:

    Hi Mel

    Thanks very much for this article. As a black person, this hits too close to home. I have listened to a preacher use this passage to advise against interracial marriage.

    Reading the bible with the right perspective is so important. The prophet Habakkuk in Habakkuk 1:13 said God’s eyes were too pure to look at evil and couldn’t tolerate wrongdoing but yet was asking God in the next verse why He tolerated the treacherous? He thought he had God all figured out.

    This is the same crime the Church has committed. We have interpreted the scriptures wrongly and have presented God as a slave loving Father who loves one race better than others but yet He sent his Son to die for all men even whilst we were yet sinners. He is such a good Father!

    • Mel Wild says:

      “This is the same crime the Church has committed. We have interpreted the scriptures wrongly and have presented God as a slave loving Father who loves one race better than others but yet He sent his Son to die for all men even whilst we were yet sinners. He is such a good Father!”

      AfroScot, you probably distilled down in one paragraph what I was trying to say with over 1,100 words! Yes and amen! And, unfortunately, it’s still going on. I think we can pretty easily point to the manipulation of Scripture for the reason for most atrocities and crimes against humankind in the name of Christ.

      My son is in his doctorate program now, but for his master’s final, he did a paper on the theology of slavery in the nineteenth century South. He researched all the arguments they made to justify enslaving another human being, and also that one race’s genes were superior to another’s, etc. It’s actually pretty demonic when you dig deep into it. But you’re right, these “theologians” pointed to passages like this to justify their position. This is why we MUST understand the Bible and God rightly, from Genesis to Revelation, because He never changes, and He IS such a good Father!

      Thanks so much for sharing this. Much appreciated. Blessings.

  6. Pingback: God said what?! – Part One | In My Father's House

  7. Pingback: God said what?! Part Two | In My Father's House

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  9. I just now read this after reading your God said What series. It makes total sense now.

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