7.51 Ezra-Nehemiah -- Intermarriage
The most serious problem Ezra faced was the age-old practice of intermarriage between Jews and their neighbors:
"They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness" (Ezra 9:2).
This verse is a summary of the sins of the past 50 years, indeed of the last 500! Exile had changed nothing, old patterns reasserted themselves. What is the root problem here: aren't there any good-looking women in Israel? The situation was that there was frequent and close contact among the mixed-together remnants of nations left by successive wars and empires, and the non-Jews encouraged assimilation. In other words, all external factors favored intermarriage. But intermarriage inevitably meant the dissolution of the nation of Israel and therefore of the covenant people. National existence depended on the ability of the (leading) men of Judah to build a social wall around themselves, more than on constructing a physical wall around Jerusalem. Prior to Ezra and Nehemiah, the returned exiles were unable to do either one of these tasks.
Ezra was "appalled" at the state of things, at the "faithlessness" of the exiles (Ezra 9:4). He prayed a prayer of confession, and took the position of mediator between the people and God, like Moses at the time of the golden calf (Ex 32:31-32, NIC p. 125): "For generations Israel sinned, God punished us with plundering and captivity, but at last He has shown us favor and left us a remnant....and we have sinned again!" (paraphrase Ezra 9:6-15).
"Shall we again break your commands and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? O Lord, God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence" (Ezra 9:14-15).
A solemn assembly was called to deal with the situation, and a radical solution was adopted: "put away" the foreign women and the mixed-blood children. It is not clear exactly what this entailed: divorce and disinheritance? expulsion from the home and return to the woman’s parents? These measures -- breaking up homes, sundering the closest relationships, denying wives and children their legal rights of property and inheritance -- inevitably increased social disorder and hostility to Israel. All social classes were affected: even the family of the high priest (NIC, p. 143). Yet one group is not mentioned: the Jewish women who married foreign men. We must assume that they and their offspring were cut off from Israel, and now belonged to the nations that they had married into.
This internal wall-building preceded the erection of the defensive wall that soon occurred under Nehemiah. In fact, it may very well have precipitated the need for such a physical defense. Before this policy of disruption and purging, what need was there for a protective wall? There were no nearby enemies of any strength. But after the breakup of the mixed families, the people of the land knew that the returned exiles would not assimilate, but had come among them as a nation apart, a people that viewed themselves as superior to all other men on earth, a people who would not cooperate on projects of common welfare or "be reasonable" regarding social conventions of marriage, worship and government.