by Bob Lupton
“We have a problem,” a sober delegation of Ezra’s appointed leaders reported to him. Illegal foreigners had infiltrated Israel’s borders. Not like enemy saboteurs. Worse! They had slipped right into the homes, the bedrooms, of some of the most prominent leadership of the society – even the priesthood!
Yes, it was true. There were disturbing numbers of Jewish men who had taken wives from several of the surrounding pagan countries, had children by them, and were allowing foreign influences to contaminate the Jewish culture. Some were even permitting their wives and children to speak the languages and practice the religion of their foreign homelands. This was clearly a violation of the Law.
No one had to tell Ezra about the Law. He was the leading expert – theologian laureate of the Hebrew faith. That was the main reason King Artaxerxes had named him governor of Israel. Ezra was deeply devoted to the Law of Yahweh, which made him an honorable and trustworthy appointee, one that the Jewish returnees from Babylonian captivity would respect and follow. There was a lot of reconstruction to do after seventy-five years of exile, and Ezra’s first priority was reestablishing temple worship and adherence to the Word of God. He had not anticipated that returnees would be intermarrying with the women of foreign cultures.
Ezra was distraught. In a public display of distress, he fell to his knees, tore at his robe and beard, and cried out to the people: “This flagrant disobedience will surely bring upon us the severe judgment of Yahweh.” The Law clearly stated that Jewish men were not to take foreign brides. Idol worship and other abominations introduced by alien women would corrupt the worship of the one true God. The Law was full of warnings and threats of God’s punishment if the people did not obey.
No one was about to challenge Ezra’s interpretation of the Law. Even though it was complex and sometimes confusing (like the allowance it gave for marrying slave women from countries Israel had conquered), it had to be applied to the realities of the day. Some scriptures, Ezra explained, were for a different time in history when Israel was taking possession of the promised land. “Conquest laws” he called them.
But this was a very different time in their history, a time to re-establish their scattered nation. This was a time for “restorative law.” Certain portions of the Law needed to be emphasized in order to restore orderly governance to the state and orthodoxy to the faith. It was Ezra’s sacred duty to interpret and apply this Law. And getting rid of the corrupting influence of foreign wives seemed essential if the purity of Israel's monotheistic religion was to be reinstated.
So that’s exactly what he did. With blind, nationalistic zeal, Ezra ordered the breakup of every mixed-race family and sent all the traumatized women and children away to survive as best they could as widows and orphans in far-away lands. His memoirs conclude with a public listing of the names of all the offenders – devastated men forced to divorce their wives and forsake their children. Israel had been purged. But at what a cruel price!
I suppose we cannot be too harsh in our criticism of Ezra. He did what most religious leaders do – selectively read the scriptures and extract those verses they believe fit the situation. Ezra opted for purity of doctrine over compassion, ignoring passages of the Law that admonish Israel to extend hospitality to foreigners, to treat them fairly, to care for widows and orphans. Somehow he overlooked Yahweh’s threat to curse those who deal unjustly with the defenseless.
Strange, isn’t it, how this issue of illegal immigration repeats itself over and over again throughout history? And how the law is invoked to expel the innocent. One would think that breaking up families would be the last thing a family-oriented culture like Israel (and like ours) would agree to do. Some, it seems, would prefer the Ezra-style purging approach, separating marriages and sending children back to lands they have never known.
Admittedly, there is something very clean and decisive about the law and order approach. It certainly worked for Ezra. For a while. And the sacred text never does disclose how Yahweh felt about Ezra’s deportation decision. I guess it’s up to us to decipher whether God is more interested in enforcing the law or extending grace.