Ezra 10 continues the narrative begun in chapter 9. Chapter 9 concluded with Ezra’s prayer of confession. Chapter 10 opens by telling us that Ezra was “weeping and casting himself down before the house of God” while he was praying. This shows the emotional depth of Ezra’s confession. It also may link Ezra back to Moses. The verb translated “casting himself down” occurs in this form four other times in the Old Testament (Gen. 43:18; Deut. 9:18, 25[twice]). The three occurrences in Deuteronomy 9 are part of Deuteronomy’s account of the golden calf incident. Moses “lay prostrate” before Yhwh for forty days and forty nights to intercede for the people. Here Ezra is taking the same position before Yhwh because of the people’s sin (Steinmann 2010: 344).
This parallel also places the people in the position of idolatrous Israel in the exodus. Notably, the golden calf incident put the construction of the tabernacle in doubt. Here the temple is built, but whether it will be a place of true worship where the people will meet with God or any empty symbol as it became in the days before the exile is now an open question.
The people responded to Ezra’s prayer as they ought. Many people—men, women, and children—gathered in the temple, and they wept because of their sin. Sorrow for sin is a key component of repentance.
But sorrow alone is not sufficient for true repentance. True repentance involves confession and turning from sin. This is what begins to happen in verses 2-3. Shecaniah the son of Jehiel speaks for the people. Notably, it possible that his own father may have been party to one of the sinful marriages (10:26). Shecaniah could have been the fruit of this marriage, but one who fully embraced Israel and Israel’s God. Or his father may have left his Jewish mother to marry a foreign wife (cf. Mal. 3:14-16)(Williamson 1985: 150; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 44).
Shecaniah echoes the report of the officials in 9:2 that these mixed marriages constituted unfaithfulness. Again, this is a term that indicates a covenant breach, and it is a term used to describe why Israel went into exile (Brown 2005c: 452). The breach of faith, Shecaniah says, consists in marriage to foreign women.
However, the term translated married is not the normal term for marriage. It could be translated “given dwelling to” (NASB margin), “give[n] a home to” (Williamson 1985: 150), or “have established households (with)” (Steinmann 2010: 345). In addition, the identification of the women as foreign may have evoked Proverbs depiction of the adulterous woman as a foreign woman.
Proverbs 2:16 says that the purpose of wisdom is “to deliver thee from the strange woman, even from the stranger which flattereth with her words” (KJV). Strange and stranger in this verse translate two different words for foreigner, the latter of which is the same word used in Ezra 10:2. Modern translations render the first as “forbidden woman” (ESV, CSB) or “adulterous woman” (NIV) and the second as “adulteress” (ESV, NASB, NRSV) or “wayward woman” (NIV CSB). The translations recognize that Solomon is speaking figuratively here, rather than literally of foreign women (Prov. 2:17 indicates that an Israelite woman is in view since she broke a covenant with God; Steveson 2001: 30; Longman 2006: 124). “[H]e is indicating that the woman is not his son’s wife and so is ‘foreign’ to his son” (Steinmann 2009: 97). She may also be described as a “foreigner” because she “stands outside the community of the wise” (Waltke 2004: 122) or because she “lives like a heathen even though she dwells among the people of God” (Steveson 2001: 30).
Even though the strange woman in Proverbs is not literally a foreigner, she may be alluded to in Ezra 10:2 as a way of highlighting the illegitimacy of the marriages the Israelites had made with foreign women.
The prophet Malachi pronounces judgment on the people because they divorced Jewish wives in order to marry pagan wives (Petterson 2015: 346, 350-51, 354-55). Malachi may be dated to the time of Ezra, which might strengthen the case that these marriages Ezra is dealing with were adulterous (cf. Steinmann 2010: 358-59). However, Malachi could also be dated to during or after Nehemiah’s ministry (Brown 2005c: 454, n. 57).
Shecaniah still offers hope to the people. He proposes a covenant renewal in which the people “put away all these wives and their children.” Brown observes, “Shecaniah’s proposal is essentially one of repentance. The people must turn from their wrongdoing and renew their covenant to be wholly separated to Yahweh” (Brown 2005c: 453).
Shecaniah’s proposal raises the question of whether it was right for Shecaniah to propose, and later for Ezra to order the Jewish men to divorce their foreign wives. The answer to this question should be shaped by the book’s presentation of Ezra: “This Ezra … was a scribe skilled in the law of Moses that Yhwh, the God of Israel, had given” (Ezra 7:6). In addition, this section of Ezra is focused on bringing the returned Israelites into obedience to the Law. With this orientation in place, Shecaniah’s proposal and Ezra’s subsequent actions can be evaluated in ten points. The first five show the gravity of this sin. Points 6-8 show the biblical basis for the actions taken. Points 9 and 10 address potential objections.
1. The sin of the people is reported in 9:1-2 as a violation of the Mosaic law. The peoples of the lands with whom the Israelites intermarried committed the same abominations as the nations the Israelites were forbidden to marry (Ex. 34:11-16; Deut. 7:1; 20:17) (Brown 2005c: 447). The Ammonites, Moabites, and Egyptians are not mentioned in the original lists, but are mentioned in Deuteronomy 23:3-8, and the combination indicates that the list is representative, not exhaustive. Deuteronomy 7:4 warned that if the Israelites turned to idolatry the Lord would destroy them.
(Importantly, the problem is not with the ethnicity of the wives but with their religion. Rahab and Ruth are examples of acceptable marriages to foreign wives [Brown 2005c: 449; Steinmann 2010: 348-49] and also are demonstrations that foreign wives are honored by being placed in the Messianic line.)
2. The concern that “the holy seed has intermingled with the peoples of the lands” (9:2, NASB, margin) alludes to Isaiah 6:13 and the hope that even in exile the holy seed was in the stump that remained. The returned remnant probably saw themselves as the holy seed in that prophecy. If they as the holy seed became corrupt, what remaining hope would there be for the nation?
3. The intermarriage is characterized throughout these chapters as “unfaithfulness” (9:2, 4; 10:2, 6, 10). In the Old Testament, “[t]he term used most frequently in explaining why the Exile took place” is this term (Brown 2005c: 452). In other words, the intermarriage threatens to place the people back under the curses of the Mosaic covenant, including the judgment of exile.
4. Ezra’s prayer of confession alludes to many earlier Scripture passages, especially Deuteronomy 7 and Leviticus 18:26-30. Leviticus 18 indicates that the “men of the land” (cf. the similar “peoples of the lands” in Ezra) were driven out of the land because their abominations defiled the land. The implication is that by marrying the peoples of the lands, the Israelites were allowing the uncleanness to spread. Exile would be the result (cf. Isa 1:19-20; Eze. 36:17-18). Ezra seems to have been concerned that the sin of intermarriage with pagan wives would lead to the destruction of the remnant (Ezra 9:14-15).
5. The description of the wives as “foreign women/wives” (10:2, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 44) is an allusion back to 1 Kings 11:1 (Brown 2005c: 449). The book of Kings presents Solomon’s violation of Deuteronomy 7 and its parallels as placing Israel on the path to exile.
6. The action of divorcing the foreign wives is said to be according to the counsel of Yhwh (10:2, NASB, mg.; KD 4:79) or according to the counsel of Ezra, referred to by Shecaniah as “my lord” (Williamson 1985: 143; Smith 2010: 96; Steinmann 2010: 346). (The difference has to do with how the vowel points are understood.) Clearly, however, the divorce was to be done according to the law (10:2). Ezra said the divorces were God’s will (10:11). Given that intermarriage with pagans placed the covenant community was in grave danger of judgment, Ezra and the leaders may have discerned that divorce was the proper way to repent and turn from this sin. The divorce was the means of turning from the sin in repentance (Brown 2005c: 453).
7. The legitimacy of divorce in this situation could have been discerned by linking together several OT passages. Deuteronomy 13:6-11, a passage about freeing the land from those who would lead the people into idolatry, taught that family members, including wives, who tempt their husbands toward idolatry were to be executed. Divorce may have been an alternative to execution, especially at a time in which the Jews were under foreign rule (cf. Matt. 1:19; Brown 2005c: 456-58, though Brown observes that Ezra was authorized to carry out the death penalty [cf. 7:26] and that he opted for divorce as a merciful alternative). The Mosaic law did allow for a husband to divorce his wife if he found “some indecency in her” (Deut. 24:1), and “indecency” could include idolatry (Howard 1993: 296; Kidner 1979: 80; Steveson 2011: 86; cf. Williamson 1985: 151).
8. Nehemiah followed Ezra’s example in this matter. Nehemiah, when faced with the same problem in subsequent years, says, “I purified them from everything foreign” (13:30), which seems to be an indication that Nehemiah followed Ezra’s example of separating the men from their foreign wives (Schultz: 58).
9. Some object that since God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16) and since Jesus said that man should not separate what God has joined (Matt. 19:6), Ezra was wrong for requiring divorce. Apart from debate over the translation of Micah 2:16 (“‘Indeed, [He] hates divorce!’ Yahweh the God of Israel, has said” [Hill 2008: 221, 250; cf. NKJV] vs. “‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord the God of Israel [NIV 2011; Petterson 2015: 354]; the NASB reading relies on a textual emendation), the divorce in view in Malachi is the divorce of Jewish wives in order to marry pagan foreign wives—something that Malachi says should result in their excommunication (Mic. 2:13) (Petterson 2015: 346, 350-51, 354-55). The possibility that Malachi 2 is about the same situation that Ezra was dealing with at best casts doubt on whether the separation that Ezra effected was separating people that God had joined. These doubts are strengthened by the way Ezra 10:2 uses terminology that raises questions about the legitimacy of these marriages.
10. Ezra’s actions seem at variance with the apostle Paul’s teaching that in the case of a believer married to an unbeliever, divorce should only occur if the unbelieving spouse leaves the marriage (1 Cor. 7:15). However, Paul was addressing people who were under the new covenant, rather than the Mosaic covenant. Since the new covenant community is no longer organized as mixed multitude of regenerate and unregenerate people, and since it no longer functions according to a genealogical principle (that is, people no longer enter the covenant community by birth), the dangers faced by the new covenant community are different. Nor does the new covenant people face the same requirements regarding foreign peoples in the land. Finally, the permission for divorce given in the Mosaic covenant due to hardness of the people’s hearts, is greatly restricted in the new covenant (on any reading of the exception clause).
Shecaniah then encourages Ezra in terms that were reminiscent of God’s words to Joshua: “be strong and do it” (Ezra 10:4; cf. Josh. 1:7; Breneman 1993: 158). Since Yhwh commanded Joshua to “be strong” in order to “do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you,” implied in Shecaniah’s statement is that Ezra’s leadership of the community will be for them to do according to all that the law of Moses commanded. Ezra’s first step was to have “the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take an oath” that they would act according to Shecaniah’s proposal.
Ezra then went into a temple chamber. There in private he fasted and mourned over the exiles’ faithlessness. This private mourning shows the genuineness of Ezra’s distress (Williamson 1985: 151). Steinman observes:
Ezra’s fast was total—he did not eat or drink. Such stringent fasting is rare in the OT and is only mentioned in a few cases. Moses twice fasted this way (Ex 34:28; Deut 9:18). The people of Nineveh fasted this way when repenting (Jonah 3:7). And Esther, Mordecai, and the Jews of Susa fasted this way for three days before Esther approached Xerxes (Esth 4:15–16). That Ezra went to this extreme with his fast underscores the seriousness with which he regarded the Judeans’ sin. (Steinmann 2010: 354)
The passage most in view may be Deuteronomy 9:18. It was alluded to in Ezra 10:1, and it (along with Ex. 34:28) refers to Moses’s intercession after the golden calf incident, which intercession Ezra’s own seems modeled upon.
After his fast, Ezra made use of the authority given to him by the Persian king to summon the Jews to Jerusalem on pain of loosing his property or being banished (see Ezra 7:26; Steinmann 2010: 351). The verb “should be forfeited” (Ezra 10:8) is used repeatedly in Deuteronomy and Joshua for devoting the Canaanites (and, at times, their property) to destruction (cf. Deut. 20:17; Josh. 6:18, 21; 10:40, etc.) (Steveson 2011: 87). If this is an allusion back to the exodus and conquest, it is no longer an allusion to the hope the prophets had of a second exodus. Now the exiles are in the place of the Canaanites.
Within the three specified days, the people assembled before the temple, the house of God. They came in the right spirit, for they “trembled because of this matter” (10:10). Ezra restated their sin, and he called on them to “make confession” (lit. “to give praise”) and to repent of it by separating from the peoples of the land, including from their foreign wives. The verb “to give praise,” in the sense of making confession to God alludes to Joshua 7:19, where Joshua tells Achan to make confession using the same phrase. Shepherd observes:
This further resonance with the exodus/settlement/conquest tradition foregrounds the conviction that the returnees’ sin, like Achan’s, has the potential not only to compromise the divine intention to install his people in the land, but also, as Ezra’s prayer indicates, to undermine the very existence of the community. (Shepherd and Wright 2018: 45)
The people responded well. They agreed with all that Ezra proposed, though they proposed a process for how to proceed since they are standing in the rain and to do what needed to be done would take many days. The proposal was accepted with opposition from only four men.
Commentators are unsure of whether these men wanted a stricter proceeding or a more lenient one (Williamson 1985: 156-57; Steinmann 2010: 360).
Ezra selected men to handle this issue, and over the course of three months 113 men were found to have married foreign women. Given the number of people that Ezra 2 reported as returning, this is not a large percentage of the population (Steinmann 2010: 365). This observation should not be used to minimize the problem. Steinmann comments:
the problem was not the number or percentage of the marriages that were exogamous. Instead the problem was that this sin caused the corporate people to be “unfaithful” to God (Ezra 10:2). They had failed to keep themselves separate from the pagans with their detestable practices, and they “thereby mixed the holy seed with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:1–2). Moreover, “the leaders and officials have taken the lead in this unfaithfulness!” (Ezra 9:2). (Steinmann 2010: 367)
Much of the book of Ezra is hopeful. The exiles returned according to the prophetic word. The temple was rebuilt despite opposition. Ezra taught the people the Law of Yhwh and led them to repentance. But the final verse of the book does not end on this hopeful note. At the end of the list of those who had been unfaithful, we read, “All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children” (10:44).
Ezra closed his book to reinforce the idea, present throughout, that the return from exile was only partial in his day. The prophets had predicted the new covenant along with the second exodus. But the new covenant had not been established. Instead of living in the land with hearts that had been made new, the people had returned to the same sins they had committed before the exile. They still needed to look forward to the new covenant.