Well, since I’m diving into hard things on this blog, I might as well jump right into one of the hardest parts of the Bible to understand – let’s roll up our sleeves and delve into Ezra chapters 9-10, where the Israelites, en mass, send away their foreign wives.
(In an effort to write shorter posts, I’m breaking my thoughts on this passage into a series of four posts that I’ll post over the next two weeks or so. I hope you will follow.)
A little background:
The first six chapters of the book of Ezra tell how more than 40,000 exiles returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple after a decree from King Cyrus of Persia gave them permission to do so. The Israelites faced opposition from their neighbors, who schemed in various ways to prevent the rebuilding and eventually obtained a royal order to halt it.
But the Israelites eventually obtained another decree, this time from King Darius, who reestablished the rights Cyrus had given them to rebuild. They finally completed the temple and dedicated it to God. Then they celebrated the Passover at the temple for the first time since the exile.
The Story of Ezra:
In chapter 7-8, Ezra, a priest and a teacher, who had “devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord,” returns to Jerusalem. He comes bearing a letter from King Artaxerxes, giving him political authority over the region and authority to teach “The Law of the God of Heaven.” He brings with him over 1,000 men, including priests, Levites, singers, musicians, and temple servants, and their families.
When he arrives in Jerusalem, the elders there report to him that the Israelite men have intermarried with women from the neighboring people groups (9:1-2).
Ezra’s response is immediate and absolute. Shocked and appalled, he tears his clothes. He even tears his hair (possibly all his hair) out of his head and beard. He then sits in silence, “appalled,” until the evening sacrifice, while people gather around him. (9:3-10:44).
At the time of the evening sacrifice, he kneels before God, praying, confessing, weeping, and “casting himself before the house of God.” (9:5;10:1) His grief is apparent in his prayer. He’s especially grieved that Israel would do this after God had given them another chance. He includes himself in the communal guilt of Israel, though he had not participated or even been there when it happened. He ends his prayer by saying that no one can stand before God because of this. (9:6-15)
Then a great assembly of Israelites (men, women, and children) gather around him, weeping bitterly. Ezra and the elders decide together that the men should send away their foreign wives. Then Ezra withdraws to fast privately while a proclamation goes out to all Judah and Jerusalem to assemble in front of the temple within three days, or forfeit their property and be excommunicated. (10:6-8)
Within three days, the whole assembly of Judah and Jerusalem gathered in front of the temple, despite pouring rain, “trembling” because of the seriousness of the matter. Ezra commanded them to confess to God and to separate themselves from their foreign wives.
All the people agreed wholeheartedly. Then a plan is set up for every man to come before the elders of his city, at an appointed time, to deal with the matter, and this is carried through, until all the foreign wives, and their children, have been sent away.
Of course, for the modern reader, this raises some very tough questions: how could God be in favor of men divorcing their wives? And sending their children away with the wives?
For years, this question was a stumbling block for me. I understood that it was a different time and a different covenant, and that it was before Christ, but I still had trouble looking past what seems to be such an inhumane decision, to see any insight into God’s heart, or anything in this story that would be relevant to us today.
Recently, God has shown me some things that have completely changed my view of this story, and opened up my eyes to see it’s relevance for today – and also to see a beautiful truth about God’s heart.
In my next post (later this week), I will share with you the first “eye-opener” about this story. Please stay tuned …