...and some of the women had even borne children. Ezra 10:44 ESV
I’m conflicted with Ezra. On one hand, when the officials inform him that the men of Israel have taken foreign wives (a violation of Deuteronomy 7:3), he absolutely does the right thing. He tears his clothes, weeps and fasts, and falls on his face before the Lord.
What I love about this is that Ezra takes ownership for a sin he didn’t commit. Ezra didn’t take a foreign wife. And yet, look at his prayer of repentance:
“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. 7 From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. .. 10 “And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, 11 which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. 12 Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ 13 And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, 14 shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? 15 O Lord, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” Ezra 9:6-15
That is the heart of a priest, and the character of a leader. He identifies with the people, taking their failures as his own, and accepting punishment for their sin (side note: don’t miss how this points to Jesus, our great High Priest, who also bore the punishment for sins he did not commit!)
But in chapter 10, Ezra listens to the counsel of Shecaniah, one of the other leaders of the people:
3 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[a] and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law. 4 Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” 5 Then Ezra arose and made the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take an oath that they would do as had been said. So they took the oath. (Ezra 10:3-5)
Ezra had spent all night before the Lord, but this advice came from Shecaniah. So did this command come from God, or from Shecaniah? Had Shecaniah also spent all night in intercession? Not once in the text does God speak. So we are left to wonder if Shecaniah heard a clear word from God, which he then passed on to Ezra, or if they are just doing their best to bring the people back into obedience based on how they are reading the Law.
Notice that four times before this, (7:6, 7:28, 8:22, and 8:31), the text emphasized that the hand of the Lord was on the exiles. They had the favor of the king, protection from guards, and things were going really well. So where did Ezra suddenly get the idea that unless all these men put away their foreign wives, God wasn’t going to bless their efforts, when God had clearly blessed everything they had done up to that point?
I appreciate Tara-Leigh Cobble bringing out that scholars are not in agreement about whether this command was from God or whether Ezra was free-styling. And there is some comfort in the theory that they were not actually married, but were cohabitating outside the covenant of marriage.
But I also noticed that the very last line of the book of Ezra is “and some of the women had even borne children.” So, what was the impact on these children when their fathers put them away? The text doesn’t say. But for anyone that has been abandoned by a father, you know there’s a psychic wound there. And if the justification is that God commanded it, that’s just a double whammy. It would be hard to imagine any child developing a heart for God after this.
It made me think of something I heard in a study of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11. The Pharisees were absolutely correct in their interpretation of the law when they brought this woman to Jesus. But it is possible to be 100% right about the law of God and be 100% wrong about the character of God. They got the letter, but they missed the spirit. And maybe Ezra made the same mistake.
I’m not satisfied with the ending of Ezra. But maybe it ends that way in order to remind us that even though the exiles are rebuilding Jerusalem, the promise of a new Jerusalem is still to be fulfilled. When we come to our last day of Old Testament reading a few days from now, we will see that the last verse of Malachi is also about children:
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 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 4:5-6)
Beloved, the last word of Ezra is about separation. But the last word of the Old Testament is about restoration. This last word of Ezra just highlights that this is far from the last word.
For further reading, check out this blog post from Ligonier Ministries: Putting Away the Foreign Wives