Casting Off of Foreign Wives and Children

Mark McDowell
Ezra-Nehemiah and the Casting Off of Foreign Wives and Children: How Should We Preach It?

The book of Ezra concludes with one of the sadder themes in redemptive history. After the priest Ezra takes the leadership of the post-exilic Jewish community, hard at work rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, he leads the people in recommitting themselves to fidelity to the law. He then receives disturbing news. He is told that the returnees "have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites." Rather, the people have intermarried: "the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands" (Ezra 9:1-2).
Horrified, Ezra leads the people in a process of repentance. One of the Jewish leaders, Shecaniah, comes to Ezra with a plan:
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. Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my Lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law. (Ezra 10:2-3)
And that is exactly what happens. The book concludes with a depressing list of people who married foreign women and pledged to divorce them, driving the women and their children out of the community (Ezra 10:18-44).
That's not the end of the issue, however. The book of Nehemiah concludes with Nehemiah's admission that the problem persisted. And Nehemiah's response is all the more vitriolic (if less clear in its practical outworking). Nehemiah declares that many Jews had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab, and their children were even speaking foreign languages. Therefore
I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair. And I made them take oath in the name of God, saying, 'You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves...' Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign. (Nehemiah 13:23-31)
So what is the lesson here? Does Ezra 9-10 represent genuine revival, an example of what the church so desperately needs today, as is so often preached? Is divorcing foreign women and banishing their children from the community really the measure of genuine piety? 
Most evangelical interpreters are quick to claim that the primary problem with the "foreign women" in Ezra-Nehemiah was their fidelity to foreign gods, not their foreign ethnicity. But we should be clear that the text itself does not say this, and numerous scholars contest it. (Indeed, Ezra-Nehemiah was sometimes invoked by southern defenders of racial segregation.) After all, every indication from the text itself suggests that Ezra and Nehemiah were devoted to securing for the post-exilic community a radical new measure of purity. "Everything foreign," as Nehemiah puts it, was to be cleansed out of the people. 
(In fact, there is no consensus about just who these foreign women were. Some argue that they were gentile women who had moved into the land or lived into the surrounding regions. Others argue that they were actually the Jews who had remained in the land rather than go into the exile in Babylon.) 
I have no doubt that Ezra and Nehemiah believed they were acting in accord with the Law. But were they correct? Did the law actually prohibit the marrying of foreign women? Clearly it did not. Rahab and Ruth are famous examples of Canaanite and Moabite women who not only married into the people of Israel, but became ancestors of David and Jesus. The Law did prohibit intermarrying with the idolatrous Canaanites, but it actually made provisions for Israelites who captured other foreign women and forced them into marriage (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). Presumably these foreign wives were to be forced to adopt the Israelite religion.
But what if such a foreign woman became an idolater? The prescribed penalty here was not divorce, let alone the banishment of any children who might have come from such a marriage, but death for the offending individual (Deuteronomy 13:6-11). True, the Law declared that if an Israelite lost interest in his wife who had been a foreign woman captured in war, he could "let her go where she wants" (Deuteronomy 21:14). This seems to go hand in hand with the Law's stipulation that if a wife lost favor in her husband's eyes "because he has found some indecency in her" he could divorce her (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). It was a law that, according to Jesus, ignored God's purpose for marriage from creation because of the hardness of human hearts. In short, as John Calvin argued, Jesus clarified that Moses merely tolerated divorce; the Law did not approve it. Thus "whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery" (Matthew 19:1-9). 
All of this looks very different from what Shecaniah, Ezra, and Nehemiah assumed the Law required from Israelites who were guilty of marrying foreign women. Let's think through the scenario. If the problem with the foreign women was that they refused to give up their idolatry and were actively seducing Israelites into idolatry, then according to the Law they should have been put to death on a case by case basis, per Deuteronomy 13. But their children should have been secured and raised as people of God, just as were other descendants of foreign women like King David himself. (Lest we imagine that the post-exilic community had no authority to execute such a sentence, note what Artaxerxes, emperor of Persia, had authorized Ezra to do: "Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment" [Ezra 7:26].)
Why, given the Law's clear guidelines for this situation, did Ezra and the exiles choose to banish all foreign women with their children? Was it mercy, as one scholar has suggested? That may make sense for the idolatrous women, but it hardly applies to the children. How is it merciful to banish one's own child, casting him or her out as an unprotected orphan in a pagan world, rather than to raise the child as the sort of "godly seed" the Lord requires (Malachi 2:15)? And what of the prophet Malachi's warning to the people of Israel in the very days of Ezra and Nehemiah, "let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. For the man who hates and divorces, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts" (Malachi 2:15-16)?
The only way to make sense of Ezra's actions, and those of the post-exilic community, is to accept the premise, strongly implied in the text, that it was the foreignness of the women, a foreignness that contaminated even their children, that was deemed to be a contradiction to the Law. The Jews who had maintained their ethnic purity in Babylon and returned to the land of Israel now believed that the only thing that would protect them from the same sort of contamination and corruption that led to the exile in the first place was a regime of radical, uncompromising ethnic and religious purity. This, they believed, was what the Law itself demanded.
So what are we to make of this text? Was Ezra right? Does the presence of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Old Testament canon require us to assume that they were right? And most practically, how should a pastor preach this text? 
Let me suggest first of all that the presence of Ezra and Nehemiah in Scripture by no means requires us to affirm that all the conduct of the protagonists of these books was demanded, let alone approved, by God. Just as the Torah and the historical books often pass over the unjust conduct of otherwise faithful Israelites without comment (think Abraham's and David's many wives, for instance), so the same is true of Ezra and Nehemiah. Our task is not to assume the Old Testament saints did everything right, and then call our hearers to be like them, but to interpret the texts in light of how they point forward to Christ. 
I'm not saying we should allegorize them. I'm saying that we should interpret them in light of the structures of interpretation given to us by Scripture itself. In this case, we should allow the Law to function as the paradigm from which we evaluate the conduct of Ezra and his fellow post-exilic Jews. Having determined whether or not their conduct was faithful to the Law, we should then consider what the New Testament says about the Law and how it has been fulfilled by Christ and transcended by the Gospel of Christ. 
Let me explain. The primary theme of Ezra and Nehemiah is that God has been faithful to his promises in bringing his people back from exile, reestablishing them in the land, and enabling them to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. The exile is not the last word. Redemption is proceeding apace. And yet, that is not the only point of Ezra and Nehemiah, as judged from the New Testament's perspective. A second major theme must be that no matter how determined the people were to obey the Law and maintain their purity, they could not do so. The Law was simply too great a burden for them as sinful people (as the Apostle Peter points out in Acts 15). Their sinful proclivities (i.e., focus on ethnicity) clouded their interpretation of the Law and led them to seek their salvation through horrific practices (divorce and the abandonment of children). In the end, the exile did not solve the problem of sin. Given a sinful people needing a savior, the Law would continue to function as a curse, a ministry of judgment and death (2 Corinthians 3).
Perhaps that's why the Old Testament ends the way it does, with these words of Malachi:
Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 4:4-6)
Ezra 9-10, then, functions not as an example for Christians of godly revival ("Be like the Israelites!") but as another teaching moment for a childlike people who need a pedagogue to point them to Christ (Galatians 3). It highlights the continued need for repentance, to be sure, but insofar as it offers the Law as the paradigm for such repentance it can only speak the words of separation and curse. It is the pastor's job to highlight this dimension of the passage, and then to present Christ as the one who has suffered the curse of the law for us, in order that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:10-14), and so walk in the new obedience of a faith that works through love (Galatians 5:6). 
Indeed, here a pastor's job is easy, because Paul works out the implications of the Gospel for relations between Jews and Gentiles with a clarity and thoroughness he doesn't apply to any other issue. Consider these words, proclaimed by Paul some years after the pouring of the Spirit on human beings of all nations at Pentecost:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh ... were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from t he commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:11-16)
It is not difficult to see how one might use this as a lens through which to interpret Ezra-Nehemiah. But lest we remain confused, Paul actually addresses the question of marriage between believers and nonbelievers in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. To be sure, Paul continues to teach that a Christian should not knowingly marry a nonbeliever. But what should happen if such a marriage already exists? Paul teaches that the Christian should not divorce such an unbelieving spouse, let alone banish his or her children from the church. 
For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (7:14)
True, the unbelieving spouse might divorce the Christian spouse unilaterally, and in that case the Christian spouse is not enslaved. But even then, the goal is reconciliation. "Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?" (7:16)
Where does this leave us with respect to Ezra 9-10? Jesus' and Paul's statements regarding marriage and the relation between Jews and Gentiles, taken in the context of the relationship between the Law and the Gospel, ought to be our guide. Ezra-Nehemiah are not given to us in order that we might preach them as examples for our emulation. They are given to us in order, like the Law as a whole, to point us to Christ, through whom we have forgiveness of sins, righteousness in the Spirit, and fellowship with the Father. That's how we need to preach them.