Does Ezra Deserve Criticism?
A Bible class recently was engaged in a discussion regarding Ezra’s command that the men of Israel, in the post-Captivity period, put away their foreign wives (Ezra 10). The text reads:
“And the priest stood up, and said unto them, ‘You have trespassed, and have married foreign women, to increase the guilt of Israel. Now therefore make confession unto Jehovah, the God of your fathers, and do his pleasure; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the foreign women’” (vv. 10-11).
The teacher, who is a professor in a Christian university, argued that Ezra’s command (v. 11) was issued on his own initiative. He further contended that this man of God created a problem more serious than what existed already, because it placed these women in positions of hardship, forcing them into immoral lifestyles.
He also cited Malachi 2:16 where God said that he “hated” divorce. Supposedly, this nullified Ezra’s rash action. Was the gentleman correct in his analysis? Consider the following factors.
The professor is quite mistaken in his view of this situation, and he is presumptuous in his attitude toward one of God’s magnificent servants.
The inspired narrative says regarding this remarkable priest/scribe. “For Ezra had set his heart to seek the law of Jehovah, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances” (7:10). Absent any explicit information in this document that casts a shadow upon Ezra, there is no justification for making the charge described above.
The Mosaic Prohibition
As Israel prepared to enter Canaan, the people were strictly forbidden to join in marriage with the pagans in “the land” (Deuteronomy 7:1ff). The explicit prohibition was this: they were to make no covenants with the heathen, nor show them mercy. These tribes “in the land” were a wicked, idolatrous people, whose “cup of iniquity” was overflowing (Genesis 15:16). And so Moses declared:
“[N]either shall you make marriages with them; your daughter shall not be given unto [the foreigner’s] son, and his daughter you shall not take for your son” (Deuteronomy 7:3).
The prophet went on to explain that such unions would corrupt the Israelites (cf. 1 Kings 11:3-4). Jehovah was attempting to protect his people from their own weaknesses in view of their sacred role in preparing the way for the coming Messiah.
The Historical Situation
When the Hebrews were released from Babylonian captivity, they came home to their native land in three waves — under the leadership of Zerubbabel, then Ezra, and finally Nehemiah.
When Ezra arrived, he discovered that some (a few more than 100 men, out of approximately 29,000) had married foreign women “of the people of the land” (Ezra 10:2). This was a direct violation of Moses’ injunction.
Hence, the great leader was not acting on his own; he had behind him the force of law (cf. Ezra 10:2-3). This action was a necessary “surgery” for the welfare of the nation at large. In some cases there are heart-breaking temporal consequences associated with wrongdoing, to say nothing of the potential eternal penalty.
Is it not significant that the people themselves, when they heard the decree, did not rise up against Ezra, charging him with a presumptive, autocratic disposition (as alleged by his “professor” critic)? Rather, they humbly said: “we have greatly transgressed in this matter” (cf. 10:2,13), and “so must we do” (vv. 3,12).
When the prophet Malachi represented the Lord as hating “divorce” (2:16), he was reflecting the divine ideal as set forth in the marriage covenant initiated in Eden. That this did not prohibit all divorce is quite evident from the fact that divorce was authorized under the law (Deuteronomy 24:1).
When one violates the law of God by entering into a relationship that may not be maintained, repentance demands that the union be severed. To suggest otherwise reveals that one does not understand the nature of repentance (cf. Mark 4:18; Matthew 12:41; Jonah 3:10).
A Concluding Note
In conclusion, one must add that this situation was unique to ancient Israel, and has no bearing on Christian/non-Christian marriages today (see 1 Corinthians 7:13-14; 1 Peter 3:1-2). Yet see: “Should a Christian Marry Outside the Faith?” elsewhere on our web site.
Scripture references: Ezra 10; Malachi 2:16; Deuteronomy 7:1; Genesis 15:16; Deuteronomy 7:3; 1 Kings 11:3-4; Ezra 10:2; Ezra 10:2-3; Deuteronomy 24:1; Mark 4:18; Matthew 12:41; Jonah 3:10; 1 Corinthians 7:13-14; 1 Peter 3:1-2