Political rhetoric this election cycle has called attention to the undercurrent of exclusionary sentiment flowing throughout the U.S. population. Events abroad surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis attest to the universal character of this sentiment. Everyone, even believers, it seems, wants to exclude someone from access to something and somewhere.
Talk of building walls, banning refugees, and economic protectionism reminds me of an episode in the career of the priest-reformer Ezra that I have always found troubling because of its cold, ruthless exclusivism. After Ezra had fulfilled King Artaxerxes commission to return to Jerusalem with any of the exiles who wished to accompany him and with the precious metals and implements the Persians had chosen to return to the Temple, several of the leaders in Jerusalem complained to Ezra that “The people of Israel and 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” (Ezra 9:1 RSV). In fact, Ezra learned, these people had taken wives from the foreigners listed (9:2). Ezra reacted vehemently by mourning, praying for forgiveness on the people’s behalf, and ordering that the guilty parties divorce their wives and disown any children produced by these marriages.
The list of “nations” cited in Ezra 9:1 is a variant of a list familiar in the Torah. Although the order varies, the first four and the last of Ezra’s eight all appear in lists of six nations (Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites) whom Israel was instructed to wipe out or drive out of the land when they took possession of it in the days of Joshua and thereafter (Exod 3:8; Judg 3:5; Exod 23:23; 1 Kgs 9:0 = 2 Chr 8:7; Exod 33:2; Exod 34:11; Deut 20:17; Josh 3:10; 9:1; 12:8; Josh 11:3). Deuteronomy 7:1 and Josh 24:11 expands the list to seven with the addition of the Girgashites; Deut 7:1 and Exod 34:15-16 prohibit Israel from making covenants with these nations or intermarrying with them. All of the instructions in the Torah identify the threat of syncretism presented by the presence of these “idolatrous” nations in Israel.
Ezra’s list includes three groups of people not found in the Torah lists: Ammonites, Moabites, and Egyptians. The first two of these come from a prohibition Ammonites and Moabites against entering the congregation of Israel for the first ten generations because these two peoples failed to extend hospitality to Israel on its way to the Promised Land (Deut 23:3-7).
That leaves the Egyptians. Ezra seems to have overlooked the continuation of the Deuteronomy 23 texts – “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land. The children of the third generation that are born to them may enter the assembly of the LORD” (Deut 23:7-8 RSV) – and to have included the Egyptians for the sake of completeness.
If Ezra, or the leaders who raised the question, added the Egyptians to the biblical prohibition, could they have also taken other creative steps in their interpretation of scripture. Closer reading of the passage reveals that Ezra may, in fact, have misinterpreted, or at least over-interpreted. The list represents a picture of the population of the Promised Land during Israel’s earliest history in the Promised Land. Ezra lived and worked at least six centuries later. It is difficult to imagine that any true Jebusites or Hivites were to be found. In effect, Ezra and the leaders labeled some group of people, probably descendants of those left behind in the land during the Exile, “heathen” and applied to them an ancient text meant for other circumstances.
Most significantly, while Ezra did pray to God confessing guilt on behalf of the husbands of these “heathen” wives and informing God of the plan to correct the “problem,” the text does not record God’s opinion of the matter at all. God did not instruct Ezra to require that these men divorce their wives and disown their children. God did not respond to Ezra’s prayer. Ezra seems to have acted on his own, expressing his zeal for Israelite purity.
Granted, Ezra led a people who faced many challenges to their religious and ethnic identity. Groups are identifiable by their distinctives; to lose these distinctives is to cease to be an identifiable group. There is a fine line, however, between maintaining one’s identity and becoming exclusivist. The people of God, called to be the means for bringing blessing to all the families of the earth and a light to the Gentiles, cannot, however, exclude for exclusion’s sake, or so I think.
I am not alone. Ezra’s attitude seems to have troubled contemporaries, too. Linguistic features of the books of Ruth and Jonah indicate that, while the stories they tell were set in much earlier times, the books date to sometime near Ezra’s day. Ruth tells the story of David’s great-grandmother. She was, of course, a Moabite; Ezra would have required Boaz to divorce her and disown David’s grandfather. Jonah tells the story of the prophet who first sought to flee God rather than preach to the hated Ninevites. When he did fulfill his commission, he became angry with God for forgiving the repentant Ninevites, arguing that he knew all along that God would be likely to forgive because God had long since proven to be quick to do so. The authors of these books responded to Ezra’s particularism with reminders from the past.
Isaiah 56:3-8, also written in the Persian period, promises foreigners and eunuchs (another group that Deuteronomy prohibits from joining the congregation of Israel; Deut 23:1) special places of honor in God’s “house of prayer for all peoples” (v 8; ital added). Similarly, the post-exilic prophet Malachi responds to the people’s complaint that God does not accept their offerings with the statement that God had been witness to their marital covenants, which they have broken. “For I hate divorce,” God said (Mal 2:16). Was Malachi talking about Ezra?
The idea of divine election, while central to the biblical witness, can be dangerous if misunderstood. God chooses people, but God does not choose them to be privileged. God chooses people for responsibilities. Purity and holiness are central expectations of God’s people, but they are not achieved by drawing boundaries and building walls, by defining people as not-quite-Israelite enough or not-quite-American enough, or by protecting one’s self rather than meeting the needs of others. Ezra got it wrong. The nations of the Western world, who have apparently forgotten ships full with Jewish refugees turned away, Japanese internment camps, and Idi Amin’s reign of terror, run the risk of getting it wrong again. Believers must respond to the call of Christ, the call to help whoever needs helping, not to the fear peddled in the marketplace.