How can an alternative reading of Ezra-Nehemiah help us relate to the world in a way more in line with what God wants?

I read the last chapter of Ezra the other day & I must admit it’s stuck with me since then. This passage has always raised a lot of questions, the most important being its connection to missions. My seminary Old Testament professor, Dr. Vernon Steiner, taught us that when looking at the canonical structure of the OT, Ezra should be the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures. However, because it’s always better to end on a high note, the editors/compilers put Chronicles last. Having said that, how do we interpret the events that happened in Jerusalem so many years ago in light of the Great Commissioning? Are there limits to going into all the world?

If you are unfamiliar with the story, here is the basic outline. The people have returned to Jerusalem after many years of captivity in Babylon. When they return it becomes obvious that a lot of people have intermarried with surrounding nations – something that was seemingly forbidden under Mosaic Law. When this sin is realised, Ezra makes a call for repentance. Those who had married non-Jewish women divorced them and sent them away, including any kids born as a result of the union. The passage only mentions four people who opposed this action but provides no further commentary on the rightness or wrongness of this action.

Something seems right about this, doesn’t it? God hates sin and wants us to stay away from it as much as possible, doesn’t he? God wants us to maintain the purity of our faith, doesn’t he? God wants us to be separated from evil, doesn’t he? That’s why we have often just glossed over these parts as necessary evils as we keep on reading.

However, even though on some level this seems right, on another level what happens doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of Scripture. If it’s true that God “hates divorce,” how could Ezra’s actions be right? If it’s true that God loved “the world” how does can this mass rejection of the world — via both the wall in Nehemiah and the mass divorce in Ezra — be right?

Before we continue I need to clarify something. Divorce is one of those words that has a lot of baggage. One way to misunderstand this word is to apply our own 21st-century legal understandings of the concept to our discussion. We won’t get into all of those issues here and in fact this post isn’t as much about divorce per se as it is about automatically rejecting people from God’s kingdom merely because of their ethnic heritage.

Over the past couple of years, while stuck in Canada because of COVID-19 lockdowns, I have been privileged to join a men’s bible study at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Saskatoon, SK. One of the books we studied was Ezra-Nehemiah and as a result of our discussions I gained new insights into the book. In our discussions we tried to understand the book and came across a couple of resources that provided some alternative answers to what we were used to. The Bible Project has a great video overview of Ezra-Nehemiah. Tim Mackie, a key player at the Bible Project, has also done some other work on the books. Ray Lubeck, in his 2010 ETS presentationEzra-Nehemiah Reconsidered: Aiming the canon at Godly leaders,” makes some rather suprising comments about Ezra-Nehemiah that challenge the very foundation of what we like about the books. These books, and in particular Nehemiah, have been used as examples of Godly leadership in times of hardship. It’s certainly not hard to see that Nehemiah faced countless difficulties when building his wall.

However, Lubeck posits that Nehemiah’s intense focus on building the wall was in fact misplaced. He looks at how Zechariah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel all talk about the importance of the Gentiles in God’s Kingdom. He then says, “Since these passages precede Nehemiah and his ministry, he should have known that Yahweh’s plans for the gentiles did not exclude them, but offered them full participation into the worshipping community of faith. Indeed, walls meant to exclude are the antithesis to the Isaianic vision of Jerusalem following the captivity.” All of this is interesting, especially given our love for seeing the leadership skills that Nehemiah exhibits in the book.

What of the mass divorce that takes place at the end of Ezra? Is this action to be lauded or condemned? It’s commonly assumed that God’s command to not marry outside of Israel is behind the mass divorce. The problem is that God’s command not to intermarry is specific to those peoples found in the Promised Land when Joshua and the 12 tribes invaded. This is a list of seven specific peoples, namely Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (Deuteronomy 7:1-3). Later on (Deuteronomy 23:3) Ammonites and Moabites down to the tenth generation as well as Edomites and Egyptians for three generations are added to the list. What is interesting is that in Deuteronomy 20:10-18 Israel was allowed to take as wives the women of some of the cities they attacked and in Numbers 15 we read that aliens are allowed into the community and can relate to Yahweh. It’s clear that while some specific groups may, for a time, unsuitable marriage partners, the vast majority of foreigners are perfectly acceptable.

It’s also important to realise that marriages with outsiders — or foreigners — are key in the Bible. These include Joseph and the Egyptian Asenath, Moses and the Midianite Zipporah, Salmon and the Canaanite Rahab, Boaz and the Moabite Ruth, Bathsheba and the Hittite Uriah, and Esther and the Persian Xerxes.

When we get to Ezra and Nehemiah we see how these commands were modified by the people to include “all who were of foreign descent” (Nehemiah 13:1) who “mingled the holy race” (Ezra 9:1-2).

In the end, Lubeck makes six key points, a few of which are relevant to our discussion. Ezra-Nehemiah “exposes how very wrong it is when God’s people seek to hoard his grace as if they own it, refusing to share it with ‘outsiders;'” “teaches us that misguided religious fervor and zeal cannot compensate for misusing God’s Word;” and “teaches us to prioritize family commitment and fidelity;”

What I found interesting was Lubeck’s final comment:

“As a sobering reminder of the gravity of these lessons above, we should note that the Pharisees, whom we know so well from our New Testament, consider Ezra to be the founding father of their movement. Did they pray? Read Scripture? Fast? Take their faith seriously? Expect others to conform to their standards? Assiduously work at keeping every command? Exclude all outsiders? Deem themselves as better than others? Add their own rules to God’s commands? Were they sincere? The answer to all these questions is, of course, yes, just like we find in Ezra-Nehemiah. And rather than seeking to replicate this kind of “godly leadership,” we should seek our positive role models for spiritual leadership elsewhere.”

What are your thoughts on Ezra-Nehemiah? Do you think we need to change our interpretive focus when it comes to these books? Do you think that they represent poor examples of how to do ministry?

Please leave your comments in the box below.

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Image by Steve Johnson on Unsplash.