Study Guide

Ezra and Nehemiah Identity

Identity

When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, "Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here." But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, "You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us." Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia. (NRSV Ezra 4:1-5)

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the Lord God of Israel; then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither. But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the Lord God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us. Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia. (KJV Ezra 4:1-5)

Here's the first indication of what's to come: the separation of the returned exiles from the other people living in Judea. It's like, "Hands off our temple." The adversaries start making trouble because they see what's happening and succeed in stalling the building project. They present themselves as worshippers of the Israelite god, but the newcomers won't have any part of them.

On the fourteenth day of the first month the returned exiles kept the passover. For both the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were clean. So they killed the passover lamb for all the returned exiles, for their fellow priests, and for themselves. It was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by all who had joined them and separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. (NRSV Ezra 6:19-21)

And the children of the captivity kept the passover upon the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites were purified together, all of them were pure, and killed the passover for all the children of the captivity, and for their brethren the priests, and for themselves. And the children of Israel, which were come again out of captivity, and all such as had separated themselves unto them from the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the Lord God of Israel, did eat […] (KJV Ezra 6:19-21)

What better way to affirm your religious and cultural identity than with matzah-ball soup? Celebrating Passover is one of the classic ways of rediscovering one's Jewish roots. Ethnic foods have enormous importance in cultural identity, whether it's corned beef and cabbage, buche de noel, lutefisk, or thin-crust pizza vs. deep-dish. Wars have been fought over this kind of stuff.

After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, "The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and in this faithlessness the officials and leaders have led the way." When I heard this, I tore my garment and my mantle, and pulled hair from my head and beard, and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. (NRSV Ezra 9:1-4)

Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonished. Then were assembled unto me every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the transgression of those that had been carried away; and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice. (KJV Ezra 9:1-4)

This idea of the "holy seed" is a new one introduced by Ezra: the only real Israelite is a person with two Jewish parents, no exceptions. You can't convert, you can't as a foreigner decide to follow God's laws. You either are or are not kosher by birth and nothing can change that. This wasn't an idea that was adopted by everybody. People willing to accept the God of Israel and follow the commandments were typically welcomed into the community. Even King David, God's anointed, was the grandson of Ruth, a Moabite convert to Judaism. Ezra was upping the ante here in an effort to maintain the ethnic purity of the community (source).

And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, "The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, so that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever." (NRSV Ezra 9:10-12)

And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? for we have forsaken thy commandments, Which thou hast commanded by thy servants the prophets, saying, The land, unto which ye go to possess it, is an unclean land with the filthiness of the people of the lands, with their abominations, which have filled it from one end to another with their uncleanness. Now therefore give not your daughters unto their sons, neither take their daughters unto your sons, nor seek their peace or their wealth for ever: that ye may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever. (KJV Ezra 9:10-12)

As with the last quote, this one further hits home the message: the practices of other people will lead you into sin, so don't marry them. The abominations probably refer to idolatry, but some scholars suggest that it was using pork instead of chicken in their matzah-ball soup.

While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel; the people also wept bitterly. Shecaniah son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra, saying, "We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Take action, for it is your duty, and we are with you; be strong, and do it." Then Ezra stood up and made the leading priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear that they would do as had been said. So they swore. (NRSV Ezra 10:1-5)

Now when Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept very sore. And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, answered and said unto Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land: yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Arise; for this matter belongeth unto thee: we also will be with thee: be of good courage, and do it. Then arose Ezra, and made the chief priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they should do according to this word. And they sware. (KJV Ezra 10:1-5)

It's not just Ezra—the majority of the people apparently feel guilty about this as well. They're eager not to screw things up straight out of the gate, so they go along with Ezra's purification plan, even if it means divorcing their wives and never seeing their kids again. Another troubling thing about this is that divorced women did not have an easy time of it in the ancient world. Being sent away likely consigned them to a live of poverty and suffering unless their families in their own lands were around to take them in. As happens often in times of political and cultural turmoil, women and children bear the brunt of the suffering.

Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives." Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, "It is so; we must do as you have said." (NRSV Ezra 10:10-12)

And Ezra the priest stood up, and said unto them, Ye have transgressed, and have taken strange wives, to increase the trespass of Israel. Now therefore make confession unto the Lord God of your fathers, and do his pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives. Then all the congregation answered and said with a loud voice, As thou hast said, so must we do. (KJV Ezra 10:10-12)

This is basically saying the same thing as the last quote. It makes it clear that the whole assembly agrees to this, as well. It's not just Ezra's pet project. Is it just us, or does all this seem too easy? Ezra's asking a lot of them, right? They seem to agree very quickly. This is unapologetic ethnic cleansing.

And there were those who said, "We are having to borrow money on our fields and vineyards to pay the king's tax. Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others." (NRSV Nehemiah 5:4-5)

There were also that said, We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards. (KJV Nehemiah 5:4-5)

Cooperation within the group is really important to Nehemiah—it's extremely dangerous for one part of the group (the nobles) to start preying on the less powerful. Nehemiah wants them to function as one cohesive community, and if you're ripping off your neighbors that's a problem.

These sought their registration among those enrolled in the genealogies, but it was not found there, so they were excluded from the priesthood as unclean; the governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until a priest with Urim and Thummim should come. (NRSV Nehemiah 7:64-65)

These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but it was not found: therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood. And the Tirshatha said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till there stood up a priest with Urim and Thummim. (KJV Nehemiah 7:64-65)

Even people who've identified with Israel for a long time aren't allowed to be in the priesthood if they can't provide the documentation to prove it. The new rules are really strict—they're aggressively trying to ensure that the society remains ethnically the same.

And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them; for from the days of Jeshua son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the festival seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance. (NRSV Nehemiah 8:17-18)

And all the congregation of them that were come again out of the captivity made booths, and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness. Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according unto the manner. (KJV Nehemiah 8:17-18)

Like Passover, the Festival of the Booths is another way of feeling a living connection with the past—in this case, with the journey through the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.

On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Israelites with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them—yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. When the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent. (NRSV Nehemiah 13:1-3)

On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever; because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing. Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude. (KJV Nehemiah 13:1-3)

It was true that the Law of Moses prohibited intermarriage with Ammonites and Moabites specifically, since they were especially nasty to Israel. But hey, even the patriarchs of the Bible and King Solomon had foreign wives. There was never a 100% prohibition against marrying someone outside the community. This was Ezra's interpretation, though, and he probably had his reasons. Sometimes an "us vs. them" mentality gives people a sense of solidarity.

In those days also I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but spoke the language of various peoples. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, "You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves." (NRSV Nehemiah 13:23-25)

In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves. (KJV Nehemiah 13:23-25)

Whoa. Nehemiah is really serious in his opposition to these mixed marriages. It's not just the wives who are the problem, but the kids too apparently—even if they're half-Israelite. They gotta go. They might start asking for Christmas presents and visits from the Easter Bunny.

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