Women in Theology is happy to publish a guest post from Alexis James Waggoner. Alexis is a theologian and educator. She teaches at Belmont University and is the founder of The Acropolis Project (http://theacropolisproject.com), an organization dedicated to raising the bar of theological education in communities of faith. She also serves as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserves and is passionate about ministering to women in places where they are often marginalized. She has an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary in New York, a husband of 13 years, and a baby named Junia.
You’ve probably seen them: memes going around Facebook and other social networking sites highlighting silly laws that are still on the books but – let’s face it – laws that no one is ever going to uphold. I think this one’s my favorite: In Alaska, it’s illegal to give a moose a beer. Which makes me wonder – how many people had to try that to make a law necessary?
Ezra’s unpopular law
Scholars suggest that something similar is happening in Ezra, when he and other Israelites returning from exile resurrect a law that had likely fallen into disrepair. This law, though, isn’t silly or entertaining and it ends with dozens of women and children put out of their homes. In Ezra 9 and 10 it becomes evident that some of the returning exiles have married or are marrying outside the Israelite people group. Yes, there was prohibition against this early in Israel’s history, but for generations the people had been living in such diaspora that commentators think this law was no longer upheld.
Much of the Israelite population had been taken into exile by the conquering nations of Assyria and Babylon; some had managed to stay put in Israel but even they were infiltrated by neighboring and conquering people groups. They are very much interwoven in to the cultures around them. Which is perhaps why, when Persia conquers Babylon, the Persian king decides to let the Israelites return to their homeland and re-build their city and temple. After all, from a logistical standpoint, it was viewed as beneficial to have “surrogates” scattered throughout neighboring countries, and the Israelites have lived for generations among the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians – how much of a threat could they be?!
Purity in the face of danger
Ezra migrates from Babylon to Israel after the temple is completed. He is sanctioned by the new Persian king to return and supported with finances and other resources. But in many ways, Ezra and those who return with him are lacking true freedom. They know that if they act too independently or diverge too much from the Persian way of life, there will be consequences. Ezra responds to this situation by emphasizing purity. In many ways, his whole endeavor hands on it.
The people who end up coming back both initially and with Ezra can trace their lineage back to early Israelites. Similarly, the Levites – the priestly class – were “excluded as unclean” if they couldn’t show the necessary familial heritage. The altar has been re-built, the Israelites are observing proper sacrifices, and at this point the temple has been dedicated
Then – Ezra resurrects a law that likely fell into disregard: making sure the Israelites were only married to other Israelites. It’s ironic though – the exiles return … and exile more people. Looking at the situation from Ezra’s perspective, you can almost understand how he gets to this point. As he states earlier in the book, he believes the Israelites didn’t deserve to survive at all, but God saved a remnant, allowing them to return — and now here they were, screwing up again. So you can see how he would draw the conclusion that he should do anything, whatever cost, to “fix” the situation.
Humanity in the scriptures
The response to the “breaking” of these laws is one leader’s decision on the way to handle it – and one group’s agreement to return to the law (although only about half of the returned exiles followed through). It’s easy to read scripture and interpret what God’s people do as directive and flawless. But it’s important to remember these are human portrayals of how they understood their history. And they are people! They are making decisions about what they think is best.
We come up against stories like the one in Ezra 10 and want to skip over it because it (hopefully) makes us uncomfortable. But if we believe that scripture is profitable for teaching and reproof and transformation — we need to confront our discomfort. So what do we do with this story? I think it’s imperative to pull back and look at the overarching themes of scripture; to look at similar stories to see where God is moving; to better understand where God’s heart is and how we are to respond.
When we do that, we find that one of issues of biggest importance in israelite culture was care for the vulnerable: the widow, orphan, poor, immigrant. In fact, lack of care for these vulnerable groups is a large reason why Israel is exiled in the first place. The situation with the exiled wives and children in Ezra is certainly unique, but it’s helpful to look at other mothers and children in danger and see God’s reactions in these situations.
Mothers in Exile
Hagar is exiled with Ishmael after things fall apart with her and Sarah. There’s much to delve into here, but for our purposes, we can point out that God meets her in the wilderness, speaks to her, provides for her physical needs, covenants with her – making her the only woman God directly covenants with, and making her the only person outside of the direct Israelic line to receive such a covenant. God promises that she, too, will be the mother of a great nation which will come through her son.
Ruth and Naomi face an exile of a different kind. They are not divorced, but their husbands both die. Instead of staying in her homeland, Ruth is self-exiled as she decides to go back to Naomi’s people. And Naomi, although returning home is so changed that she asks her friends to call her Mara (“bitter”) – reflecting her own experience of exile. And yet in part because of the Israelite system of care for the vulnerable (and certainly not to downplay the role these women had in securing their own future through faith and cunning), Naomi and Ruth are able to survive. And not just survive but to end up in the line of Jesus!
Purity and compassion
So yes, there is a directive early in isralite history to be separate and holy as people of God. But it is coupled with these other directives to care for the vulnerable (stranger, orphan, widow, poor, immigrant, etc). If you’re like me, you might often think of Israel as its own little independent, insulated group of people. They certainly had a unique relationship with God, but in many other ways – though thousands of years removed – they were like us. They were one people group out of many, trying to figure out how to be good neighbors while being set apart.
I suggest that Ezra took this quest for purity too far – he’s not reflecting God’s heart for the vulnerable although he and his followers start at a good place. The questions he and the exiles are struggling with and asking are good ones: What does it mean to be neighbors? What does it mean to uphold our calling? What does it mean to be strangers in a strange land?
The answer is radical – the answer is not a withdrawal and separation as we often assume Israel existed. In many ways this would be the easier path: black-and-white; simpler. Rather, the answer is a deep dive into reflecting God’s heart for the world.
This is where I think Ezra got it wrong – he wasn’t leading the Israelites to be set apart and seek the good of the city. He wasn’t following examples of other exiles like Daniel who existed, emeshed in Babylonian culture, caring for the people around him, yet still following God’s priorities for his life. These stories are all over the Bible – and ultimately revealed in Jesus. Matthew 12:19-21 says: He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.
This is immense care for a world that we are called to join – not to separate ourselves from. If we follow this example of Jesus, it means not getting on our soap box, not crushing people’s spirits, but bringing justice to victory, giving hope a name. These are markers of our purity. So yes, of course, there is an element of set-apart-ness – but they’re markers that require care for our communities, our neighbors, our world.