*Good morning. Yesterday we sped through the Books of First and Second Chronicles. There is a lot of information in those two books (originally one book), but much of it is either found in other books that have been covered, or supplemental material. Today, we will take a quick look at the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. As we go forward, I will take quicker looks at some books than I have before. Sometimes I will just focus on the general idea behind the book. We will cover the important things.
"In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make proclamation throughout his realm and to put it in writing. 'This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: 'The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah...'" (Ezra 1:1-2)
If you are asking; "who is Cryus?" we haven't been properly introduced to him yet. In fact, more information concerning him is found later in the Old Testament. This is evidence that the books of the Bible were not written in chronological order. We will learn more about Cryus later. However, we must know that he was responsible for allowing the Judeans to return home to Jerusalem.
If you recall, the Judeans were led away by the Babylonians into exile. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are concerned about the return of this community from exile. Now, Cyrus not only helps with the return of the people to Jerusalem he also authorizes the rebuilding of the temple. The actual return of the people, the rebuilding of the city, and the restoration of Jewish community life takes place in four stages. So, I guess one can go back home again, but perhaps not over night. The first group of returning refugees was led by Sheshbazzar (governor of Judea). Along with the people he laid the foundation of the new temple. But, that was all he accomplished. The next group was led by Zerubbabel. He and his group of refugees finished the temple. This temple is the second temple in Jerusalem. (Solomon's Temple was destroyed)
Ezra and Nehemiah were then responsible for the next two stages, respectively. Ezra was a scribe. He led a group of Jews back to the land and reestablished adherence to Mosaic standards of law and religion. (we'll look at in a bit) Nehemiah organized the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and returned religious and civil authority to the Levites. O.K., let's look at a bit more from the book of Ezra.
"When Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women and children gathered to him out of Israel; the people also wept bitterly. Shecanaih...addressed Ezra, saying, 'We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children." (Ezra 10: 1-3 NRSV)
Not everything in the Bible is easy to digest. Now, one of our problems here is the fact that there is more information concerning the marriage of foreign women to be found in later books. Let's put things in perspective. When we do get to the Book of Jeremiah we will discover that the prophet Jeremiah instructed the exiles to build homes, raise crops and move on with their lives while in exile. This also includes, the raising of families. Now, keep in mind that they spent in the neighborhood of seventy years in exile. That's a long time. In fact, that is a typical lifespan. Who did some of these folks marry? Yep, foreign wives. The marriage to foreign women had not been a problem while they were away. Why now?
So, let's think for a minute. I don't know about you, but there are times when things go so wrong that I have to stop and ask; "Why is this happening? What have I been doing wrong?" Then after "figuring out the problem" (or I think I do) I then attempt to make things "right." The people have made it back home, and are doing some serious introspections. "Why did this happen to us?" is perhaps the question that has been haunting them. Well, what is the conclusion? Mixed marriage. During the exile many male Judeans had married Canaanite, Hittite, Ammonite, Moabite, and Egyptian women. Ezra concludes that this intermarriage was a threat to Yahwistic religion. Ezra required the men to divorce their non-Jewish wives and expel them along with any children from the marriage. (Yea, like that was the only problem)
Were the people "right" in sending away these women and their children? Was divorce merited? Was this the beginning of "radicalization?" Keep in mind that in the past the marriage to foreign women has been frowned upon, but there was no rule about what action should be taken once it occurred. Here, perhaps, is another example of "biblical interpretation": when the interpretation is not necessarily clear. The law does sanction divorce in the case of a man finding some "uncleanness" in his wife. "If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her..." (Deuteronomy 24:1) Of course, the question is: What is meant by displeasing? The word could for "displeasing" can also be translated "uncleanness." So, here in Ezra the law is being applied to the case of the ritual "uncleanness" of foreign birth. (even though it was never made clear what "displeasing/ an uncleanness" meant. Some have argued that it could simply mean, "she burnt supper.")
Keep in mind that this takes place in Jerusalem in Judea. This is southern Israel. The capital of the northern kingdom of Israel is Samaria. As time moves forward there is great hatred by the Jews of the Samaritans. Jews do not associate with Samaritans at all. One of the reasons? The Samaritans are half-breeds, the product of intermarriage. I wonder if some of that hatred is due to the Judeans having to give up their wives and children? Were they envious?
Did God demand that the men send away (divorce) their foreign wives and children? I would argue that God did not necessarily ask them to do this. This was their reaction to all that had befallen them. I believe that we will find further evidence supporting my claim later.
Tomorrow we will look at the Book of Nehemiah. I pray you have a great day. -Pastor Rick