by Bob Lupton “We have a problem,” a sober delegation of Ezra’s appointed leaders reported to him. Illegal aliens 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, and one that the Jewish returnees from Babylonian captivity would respect and follow. There was a lot of reconstruction to do after 75 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 public display of distress he dropped to his knees and tore at his robe and beard. Such flagrant disobedience could bring on the severe judgment of Yahweh, he bellowed. The Law clearly stated that the children of Israel were not to take foreign brides. Idol worship and other abominations introduced by alien women would pollute the monotheistic Jewish religion. The Law was full of warnings, threats of God’s judgment, if the people did not obey. There were other commands, of course, like slaying all their pagan enemies. And certain allowances to marry slave women from conquered countries. But these were “conquest laws” applied to an earlier time in history when Israel was in a conquering mode. The Law that applied to Ezra’s time was “restorative law”, the law that was needed to restore the faithful practice of Yahweh-worship by a captive people returning to their homeland. It was Ezra’s sacred duty to interpret and apply the Law. And getting rid of the corrupting influence of foreign wives seemed essential if the judgment of God was to be averted and the purity of the religion reestablished.
So that’s exactly what he did. With blind, nationalistic zeal, Ezra ordered the break-up 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 their native 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 opts for purity of doctrine over compassion, ignoring passages of the Law that admonish Israel to love foreigners as themselves, to judge them fairly, to invite them into worship. Somehow he overlooks Yahweh’s threat to curse those who deal unjustly with foreigners.
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 want 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 interpret whether God is more interested in the law or grace.