Ezra 9–10. Resolving a Scandal.

Key Notes: Marriage to non-believers. Divorce as a solution? A hierarchy of laws. Do what you must to save your soul.

Ezra was not long in Jerusalem before he was faced with a crisis, a scandal that included many in leadership. The way he handled it was unusual, and instructive. There is also a complex ethical question to be answered in this lesson. You may not agree with my argument.

Ezra 9:1–2 Ezra was informed that there was intermarriage of the exiles with the pagan peoples of the land. Officials and chiefs were involved.

9:3–6 He reacted very strongly, with grief and remorse. He tore his clothes and hair, and collapsed into a seat. At 3PM, the time of the evening sacrifice, he fell on his knees in prayer. A company of people had gathered around him, those who trembled at the word of God. (“Trembling" is twice in this passage. 9:3, 9)

9:6–15 When Ezra at last spoke, he did not denounce the faithless. He voiced his concerns in prayer to God.
He confessed the sin of his people that had led to their present circumstances. He was pleading. They had been given up to the sword, to captivity, to plunder and to utter shame. In spite of their unfaithfulness, God had given them a “a brief moment of favor”, “a remnant”, ” a tent peg in His holy place, “a little reviving in our bondage”, “ a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem”.
Yet in spite of this, the ancient warning not to intermarry with the people of the land, Israel had broken the commandment again. (Deut.7:3). How could they escape? No one could stand before God now.

10:1–5 While Ezra was weeping and throwing himself down before the temple, a great crowd gathered around him, weeping as well. Shecaniah spoke for them: we have broken faith with God and married pagan women. But there is hope for us. We will make a covenant to renounce these pagan marriages.
The task was Ezra’s to lead. He must get up and do it.

10:6–6–8 Ezra continued fasting overnight. A proclamation went out commanding all to assemble in Jerusalem in three days.

10:9–17 The people stood in the open square in front of the temple in heavy rain. Ezra called on them to confess their sin and separate from their pagan wives. The people agreed. But it was raining hard  and they could not do the work in a day. The guilty would have to make  appointments with officials and judges from the various cities and settle their affairs legally.

It took two months to process 111 husbands of pagan wives (2–3/day). Some of these were priests and levites.


Ezra’s handling of the crisis was unusual. He did not act like an executive. He did not appoint a meeting or hold an inquiry. No committee was formed and no memos were written. He acted like a holy man. He did not need to confront. That work had already been done in the hearts of the people.

Ezra had a body of support; people came to him in distress about the faithless ones. He addressed his concern to God. He took on the problem as if it were his own, confessing sin as a mediator. The people repented, made the arrangements and apparently there was universal cooperation in spite of minor disagreement. 10:15

Why did intermarriage occur? It may be that there was a shortage of Jewish women. It is common in frontier settings for women to come later than men. However 70 years have gone by since the original settlers had come back. The other explanation is that the consequences of intermarriage were not thought through. Eros is indifferent to consequences.

What accommodations were made to the divorced? We know that Abraham let Hagar and her son Ishmael go into the wilderness with nothing but a bottle of water and some bread, even though Sarah and not he had called for divorce. (Gen.21:9–14). We hope that the process at least returned the dowry to these women. We would hope that some of the women decided to follow the Lord. We hope that the women who were returned to their families were not left to fall into prostitution.

How can we rationalize the decision for divorce when we know that the Bible forbids it and the fall-out has been amply demonstrated in our country in the last 40 years?

Divorce is a bad thing.
Leaving women and children without support is cruel.
Going back into paganism is a tragedy, too.

How would we have set the priorities?We are inclined to write off Ezra 9–10 as the impulse of a primitive people. (They were anything but primitive.) How can we defend their actions in our society that already accuses us of prejudice, bigotry, racism and intolerance? What would Jesus do?

Our first task is to assemble the data on marriage and divorce in Scripture.
Israelites were not to marry the Canaanites. (Deut.7:3). They would inevitably leave the worship of God and worship idols. Solomon is a perfect example. (IK.11). Wise as he was, he could not resist wheedling and begging and at last gave in to pagan women.

However. the history of Israel has several examples of marriage outside the community. Judah married Shua of Canaan. (Gen.38:1–6). Moses married a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman although it is not clear that she was a pagan. (Num.12:1-). Rahab and Ruth were both foreigners, but believers. Jezebel, wife of Ahab (IK.16:311), was a pagan queen who worshiped Baal and had a corrupting influence on the whole country.

*God joins man and woman in marriage. Gen.2:18–25
* Remariage of divorced people is adultery. Matt.19:3–12
*God hates “divorce and covering one’s garments with violence" (Mal.2:11). Men divorced their Jewish wives and “married the daughter of a foreign god”. Malachi 2:10–16
*God cares for widows, orphans and stranger. (Deut.10:1

*Moses permitted divorce (Deut.24:1–4) because of the hardness of their hearts. Matt.19:8
*Paul counseled patience for couples when one came to Christ and the other did not. ICor.7:12–16
*Paul warned against the unequal yoke, believers marrying unbelievers. IICor.6:14–17

To help us resolve the issue of divorcing godly men from heathen wives, let us think of the second table of the law involving murder, adultery (from remarriage), stealing, false witness and coveting as a hierarchy. The first law is most serious, the last is least serious. In morals this is necessarily true. This does not mean that before God one sin is less than another. God’s standard for righteousness is absolute. Breaking any commandment makes one guilty of all. (Jm.2:10).

If we think of ethics as a hierarchy of rules, which rule carries the most weight? An example of hierarchy in practice:
A US patrol boat strayed into N. Korean water and was captured. The crew would be executed unless the captain confessed that they were spying. They were not spying. It was an accidental incursion. The captain lied and saved the lives of his crew. They were all later released. Lying is wrong. Murder is more wrong. There are ethicists who take a strong stand against lying (Lying. S. Bok; Vintage,’79) but most ethicists would justify lying to prevent murder and all the more when numerous lives are at stake. Rahab lied to save the spies. Josh.2:4

In this case, Deut.7:3 is the defining text: On entering Canaan, Israel was ordered to destroy the Canaanites to prevent intermarriage. Instead, Israel had lost her soul and her national identity because of idols and had been driven into exile. Now she was doing it again, after the exile, and in part by the same means, intermarriage. Intermarriage of a Jewish man and a pagan woman would set the stage for the children, nurtured by the mother, to be pagans. The soul of that family, and eventually of the nation, was at stake. The exiles were in a precarious state as it was.

The command not to intermarry trumps the command not to divorce because the souls of godly children are more important than the marriages. The implicit instruction is “Do what you must to save your soul and the souls of your children." Was the precedent set here followed later? We will see that it was not. Neh.13:23-

What would Jesus do? He would be kind. He loved children and lifted women to new status. He forbade divorce. But Jesus said,

“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; is it better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away; it is better than you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matt.5:29–30)

He affirms the priority of the soul. We are inclined to dismiss Jesus’ words as hyperbole. He did not literally expect us to cut of a right hand or pluck out a right eye? And these words belong to the time before full salvation came in—the time of Law, not Grace?

Jesus certainly meant us to know that we must do whatever it takes to protect our souls.
The trouble is that we think we are invulnerable….

“…let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” (ICor.10:12)