(26) Returning Home, Part 4: The Second Return (final post)
The Chinese proverb, “Talk doesn’t cook rice,” refers to what happens when one makes plans to do something but doesn’t follow through. Ezra was active in motivating the people to separate themselves from lawless marriages, but what about the men who were wrapped up in these marriages? The nation needed a system to sort through all these unlawful unions.
Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahaziah the son of Tikvah were employed about this matter: and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite helped them. – Ezra 10:15KJV
Bible versions that record the participation of Jonathan and Jahaziah vary regarding their part in Ezra’s request for taskworkers. Currently, I believe their names were recorded by Ezra to indicate their role as civil servants overseeing this work. If you come to a different conclusion after studying this, please share your thoughts.
And the children of the captivity did so. And Ezra the priest, with certain heads of fathers’ houses, after their fathers’ houses, and all of them by their names, were set apart; and they sat down in the first day of the tenth month to examine the matter. And they made an end with all the men that had married foreign women by the first day of the first month. – Ezra 10:16-17
It took three months to sit down with the individual fathers’ houses and sort out the ties that were breaking the civil laws of Israel. In the last verses of chapter ten, Ezra records the tribes and names of the men who separated from their unbelieving wives. This list is extensive, and it is more about cleansing the genealogical lines of the Hebrew race than it is about shaming these men. Ezra could have called them out before they’d agreed to this separation, but he records them in God’s book as they are reconciled with God. This documentation was necessary to prove the pure-blood lineage of the descendants of these men in the years ahead.
When speaking of keeping the genealogical line untainted by non-Hebrew blood, it is good to address the confusion about Jesus’ lineage. Namely, how could Rahab and Ruth be part of Jesus’ lineage when the men of Ezra’s time had to divorce their non-Hebrew wives? Both Rahab and Ruth were not of Hebrew descent, but both made personal declarations of their faith in Jehovah (Rahab’s declaration and Ruth’s declaration). Their genealogies also prove they taught their children to follow Him. Their marriages were not political alliances because they separated themselves from their people and their religious beliefs to obey God. Further, the commandment to the Israelites not to marry “strange” women in Deuteronomy 7 includes context that implies that these non-Hebrews married with the intent to continue in their opposing religious ways and beliefs. So, the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7 are viewed as turning away from God’s guidance to seek out an alliance with godless nations. This didn’t happen with Rahab or Ruth; they were proselytes. Lastly, when Ezra writes Nehemiah’s account, making alliances with other nations through intermarriage rears its ugly head again, and its result is clearly a godless future.
In those days also saw I the Jews that had married women of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: and their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people. – Nehemiah 13:23-24
The Law of Moses was written in the Jew’s language of Hebrew, and the children coming from these marriage alliance had not been exposed to the language. Being unfamiliar with the Hebrew language meant these children had no hope of following God or His covenant.
And among the sons of the priests there were found that had married foreign women: namely, of the sons of Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, and his brethren, Maaseiah, and Eliezer, and Jarib, and Gedaliah. And they gave their hand that they would put away their wives; and being guilty, they offered a ram of the flock for their guilt. – Ezra 10:18-19
Ezra first lists the men of the priestly line. These priestly sons, in repentance and obedience to the law, complete their reconciliation with God in a way specific to the priesthood: they sacrifice a ram to atone for their guilt. Had this situation continued, the service of the priesthood by these men would have been rendered useless to God. Their worship would have been empty for the whole nation.
The rest of the men who returned to God are recorded in Ezra 10:20-43.
Readers of the last chapter of Ezra sometimes come away with the wrong impression of God’s command to separate from these unlawful marriages. Some try to apply this practice to current-day situations, superimposing this command on Christian relationships. It’s clear that the practical intention of this command was to retain the bloodline of Abraham. Christians don’t retain physical bloodlines for any religious purpose and are at liberty to marry from any nation. Furthermore, the guidelines of marriage given by God are revisited in the New Testament. I Corinthians 7 speaks of marriage to an unbeliever as a sanctified union. God recognizes this marriage; it is valid and it is sacred in His eyes. It’s true there are many dangers and little support in a marriage where one is trying to live for God and the other isn’t. A marriage like this has risks and battles beyond that of a relationship where both spouses are devoted to keeping personal relationships with God. The Israelite man of Ezra’s time, on the other hand, could not keep his relationship with God at all and still remain in that law-breaking marriage.
Concluding his account of his return to Jerusalem and that of the first expedition, Ezra writes one last telling statement.
All these had taken foreign wives; and some of them had wives by whom they had children. – Ezra 10:44
Ezra ends his account by speaking to broken families and the suffering of children with no choice in the situation. I hurt every time I read this statement. These are people who had to live with consequences that brought a great shadow over their lives. I hear the solemnity of both the scribe who wrote it and the God who created him. God knows what His child suffers in order to return to Him. And He doesn’t nag the sorrow-worn with statements like, “Well, you made that bad decision. What did you expect?” He is not callous to pain; He stands beside you, grieving with you. He is the father in Luke 15. Your return means so much to Him.
Returning home is about recommitting to healthy relationship. The book of Ezra outlines this relationship process, beginning with commitment to the one you love. It continues by reigniting that love when outside forces try to tear down the relationship. It undertakes the third step, a renewal of one’s heart to build and grow. Lastly, it invites a second journey, challenging us to face and deal with the hidden motives and intentions that work to infect the relationship. All of us mess up in our relationships–that includes the covenant relationship we begin with God. Sometimes we aren’t given the chance to start over, but Ezra illustrates that everyone is given the chance to return home to Jehovah.