Ezra is about the return from exile. However, as the book repeatedly indicates, the return is in many ways only partial. Many of the prophecies of return looked forward to the establishment of the new covenant in which God’s Spirit transformed God’s people to live according to God’s law.
Ezra 9-10 reveals that these prophesies had not yet come to pass. “Chapter 9 is central to the whole book because of the sharp contrast which it draws between the people of God as it ought to be as it actually is” (McConville 1985: 60).
More than four months after Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, some of the Jewish leaders made Ezra aware that the Israelites had broken the Mosaic law by intermarrying with the peoples of the lands (on the timing, see Steinmann 2010: 325). Since Ezra was sent to teach the law, it may be that the leaders came to him as a result of his teaching (Smith 2010: 89; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 40).
Ezra’s duties involved the whole providence, so it is also possible that he was not in Jerusalem all four months. This absence could have contributed to his lack of awareness of this problem until it was brought to his attention (Steinmann 2010: 325; Smith 2010: 88).
The problem was that “the people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands.” (9:1). The nations that follow are not necessarily the nations that the people of Israel were currently failing to separate from. The point is that they had not separated themselves form the peoples of the land “whose detestable practices are like those of the Canaanites,” etc. (CSB; cf. NIV; Brown 2005c: 447).
By listing the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites” Ezra alluded to the Mosaic law. Exodus 34:11, Deuteronomy 7:1; 20:17 each contain lists with five of these eight names.
Exodus 34:11-16 occurs as part of the covenant renewal that took place after the golden calf incident. In the wake of having reverted to Egyptian idolatry while Moses was on Mount Sinai, God warned the Israelites against becoming ensnared in the idolatry of the “inhabitants of the land” (note the similarity to “peoples of the lands in Ezra). At stake was obedience to the first commandment (Garrett 2014: 659). To protect the first commandment, the Israelites were not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land. This would include a marriage covenant. Indeed, this passage “portrays the intermarriage of Israelites and pagans as illicit, on a level with going to a prostitute” (Garrett 2014: 660).
Deuteronomy 7:1-6 makes explicit what was implicit in Exodus 34:12’s prohibition on making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land. It not only repeats the ban on covenants but it specifies: “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons” (7:2-3). At the root of forbidding intermarriage with pagans is the concern that the Israelites not follow the gods of these nations. Verse 6 also indicates that the Israelites were not to intermarry with pagans because God chose Israel to be a holy people to the Lord (cf. Ezra 9:2). The rest of Deuteronomy 7 links obedience to the Mosaic covenant with blessing. The implication is that disobedience will, at best, deprive Israel of the blessing.
Deuteronomy 20:16-18 teaches that all the inhabitants of these nations were to be put to death lest they “teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods.” Clearly the concern in the Mosaic law was that intermarriage with pagans would lead the Israelites into false worship. The people of the land were to be driven out or killed; they were not to be married.
These instructions clearly did not apply to people who converted to become followers of Israel’s God. For instance, Rahab was rightly spared execution, married an Israelite, and became part of the line of the Messiah. Moses had married a Cushite (Num. 12:1; though this marriage may have been prior to the giving of these laws, the concern about inter-marriage was present even among Abraham and Isaac; cf. Gen 24:3-4; 28:1-2), and God rejected criticism of this marriage. The book of Ruth presents positively Boaz’s marriage to Ruth, the Moabitess.
The Bible does have ethnic categories, and it sees nations as a significant part of the created order. But it does have a pours view, rather than a strictly genetic view, of how someone from one nation can become included in another. Any foreigner could proselytize and become an Israelite by submitting to the Mosaic covenant and to circumcision.
Thus the problem with these marriages is religious, not ethnic.
Not included in Exodus 34:11, Deuteronomy 7:1; 20:17, but included in the list in Ezra are the Ammonites, Moabites, and Egyptians. Ezra’s inclusion of these three nations might be an allusion to Solomon. 1 Kings 11:1 notes that he “loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharoah,” and lists Moabite and Ammonite at the end of the list. The Amonites and Moabites were also prohibited from entering the assembly (Deut. 23:2-4). The assembly is typically taken to refer to the people of Israel at worship (Block 2012: 534), though Aquinas takes it to refer to citizenship since Exodus 12:48 “excluded the men of no nation from the worship of God” (ST I-II q.105 a.3 resp.; ad. 1).
Notably, those excluded from the assembly were those “born of a forbidden union,” which would have included the intermarriages proscribed in Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 7. In addition, the Ammonites and Moabites were forbidden from entering because they sought Balaam to curse Israel. Notably, though Balaam found he could only speak blessing on Israel, he did try to bring God’s judgment on Israel by having Moabite women seduce the Israelites.
Ezra 9:2 specifies that this failure to separate from the peoples of the land specifically involved taking “wives from their daughters for themselves and for their sons” (loosely quoting Deut. 7:3; Steinmann 2010: 327). The result is that “the holy seed is mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (LEB).
God had set Israel apart to be “a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6; 19:2; Deut. 7:6; cf. McConville 1985: 60; Brenneman 1993: 149). To mix with other nations was to violate this calling. Notably Psalm 106 speaks of Israel mixing with the nations in the pre-exilic period (Breneman 1993: 149). The Psalmist writes, “They did not destroy the peoples as Yhwh commanded them” (106:34). These commands were given in the passages where God forbade them to intermarry with the inhabitants of the land (Deut. 7:2; 20:16-17). But instead of destroying the peoples, “they mixed with the nations” (Ps. 106:35), which certainly includes the forbidden intermarriages. God warned that intermarrying would lead to idolatry (Dt. 7:4; 20:18), and Psalm 106 reveals that this is exactly what happened: they “learned to do as they did. They served their idols, which became a snare to them” (106:35-36). As a result, Yhwh was angry with his people and sent them into exile (106: 47; cf. vv. 40-46).
By committing the same sin as their forebears, the Israelites who returned from exile were setting the nation back on the path toward exile.
The dire situation is emphasized by Ezra 9:2’s allusion to Isaiah 6:13 (McConville 1985: 60; Steinmann 2010: 328-29). In the preceding verses God revealed to Isaiah that the people will remain hardened until the land is destroyed and they are sent into exile (Isa. 6:11-12). But there was hope. In the stump that remains is the holy seed. It may well be that the returned remnant saw themselves as the holy seed. And if the holy seed became corrupt, what remaining hope would there be?
There may be something ultimately eschatological in the reference to the holy seed (Rom. 11:16).
The intermarriages and the mixing of the holy seed with the peoples of the lands is characterized by the Jewish leaders as “faithlessness.” This is ominous, because Brown notes that “[t]he term used most frequently in explaining why the Exile took place” is this term (Brown 2005c: 452; cf. Steinmann 2010: 324 for the observation the Israel’s faithfulness tended to “result in corporate guilt and sometimes corporate punishment”). To make matters worse, it was the leading men who had taken the lead in this unfaithfulness.
If much of Ezra has been modeled on the exodus and the people’s entrance into the promised land, chapter 9 plunges the reader into the days of the judges and the wicked kings who led the nation into exile. It is difficult to over-emphasize the dire turn the book has taken.
Ezra responded by tearing his clothes and pulling hair from his head and beard (9:3). Steinmann observes, “Pulling out tufts of his hair and beard was a way of showing deepest grief while still adhering to God’s Word, since the next step—shaving one’s head or beard to grieve a death—was forbidden” (Steinmann 2010: 330, referencing Lev 19:27–28; Deut 14:1; cf. Is 22:12; Jer 16:6; 41:5; 48:37; Ezek 7:18; 27:31; Amos 8:10; Micah 1:16; Job 1:20).
Some interpreters have suggested that Ezra already knew of this problem, that he was making a demonstration to make a point. But the text indicates points to Ezra being shocked at this news. His actions of grief are genuine (Steinmann 2010: 325; Smith 2010: 88). Indeed, the text says that he was “appalled.” The CSB translates this as “devastated.” The word has been defined as “reduced to shuddering” (CHALOT, s.v. שׁמם).
There remained a remnant of those who “trembled at the words of the God of Israel.” These would be people who feared Yhwh. But in this particular case they tremble because they know the faithlessness of their fellow citizens leaves them open to God’s judgment.
Ezra sat appalled with his torn clothes until the evening sacrifice, which was offered at around 3:00 pm (Steinmann 2010: 330). At that time he offered up a prayer of confession to God.
Once again Ezra’s actions should remind readers of Moses, who interceded for the people of Israel when they sinned by creating the golden calf (Fensham 1982: 125; McConville 1985 63; Levering 2007: 103). And yet, Ezra did not actually intercede in this prayer. Rather he confessed the people’s sin and confessed God’s grace to the people (Smith 2010: 90; Steinmann 2010: 334).
Ezra began the prayer by confessing the enormity of the people’s sin and guilt: “higher than our heads,” “mounted up to the heavens.” Though the natural human tendency is to minimize our guilt by comparing ourselves among ourselves, the spiritually-minded man recognizes that we never can recognize the enormity of our sin and guilt the way God sees it.
Notice also that Ezra acknowledged the sin and guilt as is own—even though he has not committed this sin and is appalled by it (Steinmann 2010: 335). Ezra was part of a nation in covenant with God. He stands in the temple praying as a priest, a representative of that nation before God.
Finally, notice that Ezra’s awareness of this sin led to shame. Sin should always lead to shame before God. Pride is the sin of the antichrist that keeps the sinner for God. Shame for sin is one of the first steps in repentance.
In verse 7, Ezra looked into Israel’s past. Israel has “been in great guilt” since “the days of our fathers to this day.” That is, from the time of the exodus when the nation was founded, the people were continually guilty of sin. Even while God was establishing the covenant with them, Israel was turning away from him to worship the golden calf. After God brought Israel into the land, the people turned away from God in the days of the judges. After God gave them a king, they turned to worship false gods. Truly, from the days of their fathers until Ezra’s own day they were in great guilt.
As a result God gave the people over to “sword” (Jer. 9:16; 15:2; 21:7; Eze. 5:12; 7:15; Amos 4:10), “captivity” (Jer. 9:16; 15:2; 20:5; Lam. 1:5; Eze. 12:11), “plundering” (Judges 2:14; 2 Kings 17:20; Jer. 20:5; Lam. 1:4) and “utter shame (Jer. 2:26; Lam. 1:4; Eze. 7:18)” (references gleaned from Goldingay 2003: 705-6; Steinmann 2010: 335-36).
In verses 8-9, however, Ezra turned to consider the grace that God had given to Israel under the Persian rule: “But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by Yhwh our God.” First, God left a remnant. In the midst of prophecies about judgment, the prophets also promised that Yhwh would preserve for himself a remnant that he would return to the land (Isa. 10:20-22; 11:16; Jer. 23:3; 31:7; 42:2; Zech. 8:6, 11-12; Breneman 1993: 152-53). Though some of these passages are eschatological, Ezra would not have known how far off the eschaton was an whether or not the remnant that returned to the land his day would be the beginning of the fulfillment of those eschatological promises or not.
Second, Ezra said that God gave them “a peg in his holy place.” The peg in God’s holy place draws on tabernacle imagery. The peg, or tent stakes, were used in the tabernacle. This imagery is drawn on by two passages from Isaiah (33:20; 54:1-4) which look toward the eschatological restoration of Israel. But Ezra saw at least a preliminary fulfillment in his day (Steinmann 2010: 336-37).
Third, even though the Israelites are still slaves—they were still under the rule of Persia—God showed his steadfast love to Israel by having those kings allow them to rebuild the temple and by protecting them in Jerusalem. Ezra saw here a little resurrection of Israel (perhaps an allusion to Ezekiel 37) (cf. Steinmann 2010: 333).
And yet after all this grace after judgment, Israel has turned again to sin. So Ezra can only ask, “what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments” (9:10).
Ezra then described what God commanded Israel through God’s “servants the prophets.” In verses 11-12 Ezra had Deuteronomy 7:1-5 primarily in mind. That passage forbids intermarriage with the peoples of the land lest they turn Israel to idolatry and Yhwh in his anger destroy Israel. But Ezra drew on a wealth of Scripture passages as he summarizes God’s commands (see Fensham 1982: 131; Williamson 1985: 137; Breneman 1993: 154; Brown 2005c: 451; Steinmann 2010: 340-41).
When he spoke of “the land that your are entering to take possession of it,” Ezra was clearly alluding to Deuteronomy 7:1 which begins, “When the Yhwh your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” But that phrase is also common throughout Deuteronomy (4:5; 11:10, 29; 23:20; 28:21; 28:63; 30:16, 18). In a number of these passages the message is that if Israel is to remain in the land, they must obey God’s law.
When Ezra spoke of the land as “a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the land,” he was alluding primarily to Leviticus 18:24-30. This passage indicates that the “people of the land” (an important phrase in Ezra) were driven out of the land because of the abominations that defiled/made the land unclean. That these people were driven out of the land relates Leviticus 18:25 to Exodus 23:31-33 and 34:11-16, which command the Israelites not to marry those whom God was going to drive from the land. The implication is that by marrying the people of the land, the Israelites will allow the uncleanness to spread and will be exiled as a result. This is exactly what the prophets revealed happened. God therefore contends with Israel for defiling the good land that he brought his people to (Jer. 2:7). The result of Israel’s defilement of the land, Ezekiel observed, was judgment and exile (Eze. 36:17-19).
When Ezra referred to the “abominations that have filled the land from end to end,” he is still referring to Leviticus 18, which speaks of the abominations of the people of the land (18:26, 27, 29). Sadly both the former and the latter prophets repeatedly refer to Israel also perpetuating these abominations (1 Kings 14:24; 2 Kings 16:3; 21:2, 11; Jer. 7:10; 16:18; 44:22; Eze. 7:20). But Israel was worse than the nations: “Not only did you walk in their ways and do according to their abominations within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways.” Indeed, Israel too filled the land, “from end to end” with abominations (2 Kings 10:21; 21:16).
It was for this very reason that God commanded the Israelites to “not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons” (Ezra 9:12, quoting Deut. 7:3).
Ezra then alluded to Deuteronomy 23:6 when he said, “never seek their peace or prosperity.” This is the passage that excludes the Ammonites and Moabites from the assembly of Israel. Of course, if one married into these nations, one would seek their peace and prosperity. That was one of the reasons leaders contracted marriages with people of other nations in ancient times.
Ezra then observed in his prayer that obedience to this command will result in the Israelites “being strong and eating the good of the land.” This is an allusion to Deuteronomy 11:8 and Isaiah 1:19. In Deuteronomy, Moses said, “You shall therefore keep the whole commandment that I command you today, that you may be strong and go in and take possession of the land that you are going over to possess, and that you may live long in the land” (Deut. 11:8-9). In Isaiah 1:19, Yhwh said, “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”
When David charged Israel before his death, he commanded them to “observe and seek out all the commandments of Yhwh your God, that you may possess this good land and leave it for an inheritance to your children after you forever” (1 Chron. 28:8).
Ezra 9:11-12 reveals Ezra to be a Bible-saturated man. When he prayed, applicable words and phrases from all over the Old Testament Scriptures, came to his lips, and he was able to pray them in the sight of all the people. These verses, however, also imply that if Israel was going to go down the path of disobedience once again, they would once again face exile from the land.
Ezra’s recitation of what God commanded, contained allusions to Israel’s past disobedience, as recorded in Scripture. With this in mind, he confessed that, even considering all of judgments Israel had received, the punishment was less than was deserved (9:13). Given God’s grace, how can Israel then turn and “break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations?” (9:14). He could only ask, “Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape?” (9:14).
At this point Ezra could only confess that God is just and that they cannot stand before him in their guilt (9:15). There was no plea for mercy. How could there be? The people had not yet repented. Ezra left them standing before a just God in their guilt. They must repent or face the wrath of God. The grace that God has shown in the past now made their sin worse than ever. But it also implied that there may be hope for the future.