In this chapter, Ezra discovers that the people are intermarrying with other peoples and prays to confess his guilt before the LORD.
We are nearing the conclusion of the book of Ezra. In fact, this particular story arc (relating to intermarriage with foreigners) constitutes the subject of both this chapter and the next chapter, which is the last chapter in the book.
As with every book in the bible, I think it is helpful for us to understand the author’s bias and intentions when reading it. For many books (like Kings and Chronicles) we do not know who is the author, but with Ezra we do, and I think that can help guide our interpretation. As I previously discussed, Ezra is a scribe with a special focus on guiding Judah to do “the right thing”, i.e. living in obedience to the Law of Moses and the commands of David.
The majority of this book is Ezra’s descriptions of what happened during the restoration before he personally returned to Jerusalem. We see Ezra place a special focus on the reconstruction of the temple and the Passover. Now that Ezra has arrived in Jerusalem, we see him continue in the same pattern where I believe he is still focused on ensuring that Judah obeys the Law, but now he’s in a position to influence events. Intermarriage with foreigners might seem like a much more mundane detail than the rest of the book, but I think it’s included for two reasons. First, while it may be subtle, I think intermarriage with foreigners is an existential threat to Judah. Second, I think it’s included because it is a meaningful example of Ezra’s responsibilities in the nascent community. Ezra does not have a firm conclusion at the end of the book, which suggests that it may not have been intended to end here. It’s possible that Ezra planned to continue appending to his journal but for whatever reason he was unable to do so. Either way, I think the book of Ezra is still an excellent (if short) account of the early transitional period when Judah was returning to the promised land and some of the challenges they faced during that time.
There are a few questions I want to ask, and then subsequently answer.
First, why did the elders approach Ezra to tell him about this? I think from this passage we can infer that Ezra was considered an authority figure in the community. Besides having a letter from the king himself, he is also leading an expedition of nearly 1,000 men to Jerusalem. It would appear that Ezra is one of the elders of the community.
Second, why is it such an important issue for Judeans to be intermarrying with foreigners, that it is the first thing brought up to Ezra when he settles in the land? Previously I described this as an existential threat, which is pretty strong language but I think it’s deserved in this case. In essence, if they intermarry with non-Judeans, it threatens to undermine the cohesion and culture of the Jewish community. Since they are outnumbered, they risk being absorbed into the larger Middle eastern society in which they exist. I think this is a real threat. We have already seen the almost gravitational pull of idolatry from the surrounding peoples luring both Israel and Judah into sin, and intermarriage with foreigners is a simple continuation of that same threat.
It’s a strange thing, because in modern society intermarriage can often be positioned as a good thing. Interracial marriage, inter-cultural marriage, are considered positive values by many people. Nobody dies, nobody is hurt, in fact these are voluntary marriages so nobody is being forced into it. I think it’s a subtle thing; if you want to keep people alive, then sure, intermarriage is completely fine. However, if you want to keep a culture alive, then there are real reasons why you would seek to keep your culture as isolated as possible from the surrounding forces, especially when your culture is a minority in the region, which is the case here. Since we can see that Ezra’s driving purpose is to maintain the purity of Judah’s faith and devotion to the LORD, his abhorrence of intermarriage with foreigners is a natural result of that attitude.
Lastly, Ezra’s prayer constitutes the majority of this chapter, and I don’t have too much to say about it. I think the language is striking, particularly Ezra’s focus on Judah’s sin and God’s mercy to them through the restoration. In fact, it’s not even a prayer as many people regard prayers, because Ezra does not ask the LORD for anything, it is simply a confession of God’s great mercy and their guilt and sin both before and after that mercy. I think Ezra’s prayer is a concise statement of what he personally thinks about this entire period of their history. After passing through the great trauma of the exile, Judah is now entering a period of tremendous hope; to them, the blessing and favor of God is evident through the kind treatment they are receiving from their Persian rulers. Ezra does not see this as variance in Judah’s relationship with the Persians, he clearly sees events in their history as a reflection of Judah’s relationship with the LORD, and it is the ups and downs of their relationship with the LORD that governs the political reality faced by Judah. Ezra sees great hope in the restoration, and he is legitimately afraid that Judah is going to mess it up by continuing to sin against the LORD.
In the next chapter, we see Ezra’s response to this great sin.