Marriage reforms under Ezra—no ‘foreigners’

October 16, 2010

The Samson saga seems to come from late in the period of the Judges, not long before the tribes of Yahweh raised up first Saul and then David as kings over all Israel to deal with the threat of increasing Philistine domination, sometime around 1000 BCE. David retained much of the traditional social and political framework that had held the tribes together as a confederacy of equals, under pressure from the tribal leadership. Solomon, however, vigorously adopted the statist model of the Egyptians and the Canaanites and he buildt a little empire in Palestine through conquest and political marriage. Upon his death, however, civil war broke out and the united Israel divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah.

The Assyrian empire destroyed Israel in 722 BCE and forcibly relocated its ten tribes, as per Assyrian imperial policy, and they disappeared from history; the Assyrians correspondingly relocated peoples from other lands into northern Israel. The Babylonian empire conquered Judah in a series of campaigns in the first quarter of the 6th century BCE, relocating first the ruling classes and priests, and then virtually all landholders to Babylon by 687.

During the intervening four hundred years of Israelite monarchy, the Israelites increasingly adopted the laws, customs, economy, social system and even religion of the Canaanite city-states in the plains, which they had absorbed under David and Solomon. Presumably, their marriage traditions may also have changed, but my knowledge is not deep enough to know what those changes might have been. This is the period of the great prophets, who rail against the people’s sins but do not seem to have singled out marriage practice for their condemnation.

So the next sign of conflict over marriage occurs in the book of Ezra, who was a member of the priestly class who was sent by the Persian crown to reorganize the Jews who had returned to Israel after the Exile. The Persians had conquered Babylon and Cyrus (the only non-Israelite ever called ‘messiah’, or anointed one, in Hebrew scripture) agreed to let the Jews return to their homeland and he subsidized the rebuilding of the temple and reestablishment of a Jewish state as a Persian satrapy. The first group of returnees arrived around 525 BCE. The temple was rededicated in 515. Ezra is dated between 450 and 400. In the interim, Nehemiah had been sent as governor twice in the middle of the 5th century to oversee rebuilding of the city wall and other political reforms.

At the center of Ezra’s ‘reorganization’ was a reading of a new edition of Torah, clarifying the law of the land as revised under Persian oversight. The last couple of chapters of Ezra record how he found the returnees intermarrying with “foreigners,” the “people of the land,” and how, after gaining the community’s reconsecration to Yahweh under the new covenant, he forced them to divorce their “foreign” wives and decisively renounce the practice of intermarriage.

The reason was that intermarriage inevitably led to compromise and idolatry. These “foreigners’ and “people of the land” were people from neighboring regions and those who had been forcibly settled in Palestine by the Assyrians, who had moved into Israelite territory in the vacuum created by the Exile. They had had seventy years to establish themselves and were relatively prosperous, compared to the Israelite immigrants, and they technically owned all the land. I’m not clear about how the Persians had dealt with land reform on behalf of these returnees, but this kind of project never goes well—witness Zimbabwe today. The returnees, especially the leaders, had married into local settled, landholding families as a matter of economic survival, political advantage and social opportunity.

Ezra put an end to this, forcing them to divorce their foreign wives. In doing so, he introduced an innovation in the ‘theology of marriage’—the idea of a “holy race,” an insistence on the purity of Israel as the people of Yahweh, as essential to maintaining a true relationship with their God. Interestingly, the account of these events do not even hint at the possibility of conversion. Henceforth, Jews would only marry Jews.

Paul reiterates this injunction, and for the same reasons: “Yoke not yourself to unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common?  . . What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God.” (2 Corinthianss 6:14). But here, Paul has reinterpreted the commandment to apply, not to your spouse’s ethnicity, but to her or his faith. For his multi-national Gentile converts—all of them “foreigners” in the eyes of his fellow Jews—Paul shifts the focus from racial purity to religious/ideological purity.

2 Responses to “Marriage reforms under Ezra—no ‘foreigners’”

  1. vendingowe Says:

    I usually do not leave many comments, but I browsed a few of the remarks here Marriage reforms under
    Ezra—no foreigners | BibleMonster. I do
    have 2 questions for you if you don’t mind.

    Is it just me or does it appear like a few of these comments
    look as if they are coming from brain dead folks? 😛 And, if you are posting on other online social sites, I would like to follow everything new you have to
    post. Could you post a list of every one of your shared pages like your twitter feed,
    Facebook page or linkedin profile?

    • I don’t know about brain dead. I try to respect the people who comment on my blogs. If someone crosses a line with bad taste or something nasty, I just don’t approve their comment.

      I took a while to respond to your comment because I have suspended activity on this blog. And that’s because I’m very active an another blog and I find I can’t maintain two blogs at once very faithfully. The other blog is about Quakers (I am a Quaker); it’s

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