The Word Made Fresh
1After these things were done the officials came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the people of the land and all their disgusting practices – the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammorites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. 2They have taken some of their women as wives for themselves and their sons. The sacred race has been mixed with the people of the land, and the officials and leaders have led the way.”
3When I heard this I tore my robe and my stole and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat stunned. 4Others who feared the God of Israel, when they learned of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me where I sat in shock until the time of the evening sacrifice.
5Then I rose with my torn robe and stole and fell to my knees with my hands outspread to the LORD. 6I said, “My God, I am too ashamed to raise my eyes to you, for our sins have towered over us and our guilt rises to the heavens. 7From the time of our ancestors until this day we have been deep in wrongdoing, and because of it we and our kings and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the land and to the sword, and into captivity and plundering and the utter shame we are now under. 8But now, for a brief moment, our God has shown us favor and left us a remnant and has restored us to this place so that our God may give us hope and a little sustenance even in slavery. 9Yes, we are slaves, but our God has not completely forsaken us, and has extended steadfast love to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a new life to restore the house of our God and repair the damage, and give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.
10“But now, our God, what can we say? We have turned away from the commandments 11which you gave us through your prophets. You have told us that the land we are entering to possess is unclean with the sins of the people and their abominations. They have polluted it with their uncleanliness. 12Therefore we must not give our daughters to their sons, nor take their daughters for our sons, and we must not seek their peace or prosperity. In that way we will be strong and partake of the good of the land and pass it on as an inheritance to your children forever. 13After all that we have suffered because of our wickedness and our guilt, you, our God, have punished us less than we deserved and have given us all this that remains. 14But now, shall we disobey you again and intermarry with the people who carry out these disgusting practices? Will you not be angry and destroy us without a remnant left? 15O LORD God of Israel, you are fair, and here now we have escaped as a remnant. And here we are guilty in your presence. None of us can bare our faces before you because of this.”
1-4: Ezra is informed that the leaders of the people have intermarried with the indigenous Canaanites as well as with other foreigners. He is appalled. His reaction seems at first look to be overly dramatic but remember that he is trying to resurrect a nation and a people who just a few generations before had all but disappeared from the face of the earth. The intermarriages represent a threat to their very existence as a unique people, and thus to their claim to be God’s chosen people.
5-9: Ezra goes to the temple at the time of the evening sacrifices and prostrates himself before the altar. He confesses that the things Israel has suffered have been deserved because of their sin and acknowledges that allowing them to return to Jerusalem is a special favor God has granted them.
10-15: Their exile and punishment, he reasons, is largely because God’s people intermarried with other groups, resulting in their worship being corrupted by pagan practices. A remnant has been saved, he says, and allowed to return, but now they have fallen into the same errors that plagued their ancestors. Ezra is deeply, deeply ashamed.
Before the Babylonian exile, Israel and Judah were ruled by secular kings who were part of warlike dynasties. That failed, and now that they are returning from exile they are being led by priests and religious leaders. Will their situation be more tenable as a result? Read on.