Ezra/Nehemiah: Does God Want Us to Build Walls or Bridges?

 

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.” Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building. They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia. (from Ezra 4)

Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah.  I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves. Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”One of the sons of Joiada son of Eliashib the high priest was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite. And I drove him away from me. Remember them, my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites.So I purified the priests and the Levites of everything foreign, and assigned them duties, each to his own task.  I also made provision for contributions of wood at designated times, and for the firstfruits. Remember me with favor, my God.  (from Nehemiah 13)

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are set in the immediate postexilic period. As I mentioned in my post on Chronicles, the exile was really quite significant in the development of ethical monotheism. There was one God and he expected his people not only to believe, but to behave in certain ways. The people had been unfaithful in both belief and practice, and therefore God allowed the destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and the forced removal of its people to Babylon. I imagine that they had a fair amount of time think during this divine time-out, to ponder on what they might have done wrong and what they ought to do differently if given the chance.

Now, with the fall of Babylon to the Persians and the edict of Cyrus in 538 BC, those who wanted to do so were allowed to return to their ancestral homelands. In large part through the leadership of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the layman, they worked to rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. The rebuilding projects did not go smoothly, partly because of lack of money, but also because of opposition from the people who were already living there.  Personally, I think the exclusionary demands of Ezra, Nehemiah, Jerubbabel, and other leaders served to exacerbate that opposition.

The people Ezra calls “enemies of Judah and Benjamin” were apparently Assyrians who had moved in at the time the Israelites were evicted, and were converts to Yahweh-worship. (This is where the Samaritans of Jesus’s time originated.) They weren’t Baal-worshiping pagans; they sincerely sought to worship the God of Israel, but for all intents and purposes, weren’t allowed to do so because they lacked the proper bloodlines. Israelite men who had married non-Israelite women were also required to send their wives and children away. Ezra and Nehemiah believed such harsh measures were needed in order to ensure that there would be no temptation to worship other gods.

I can understand where they were coming from; I really can. They didn’t want the people to fall under judgement for idolatry again. Their motives were right, but I think their methods were wrong. They thought the way to please God was to separate themselves from the rest of the world and thereby avoid contamination by it. I think  God prefers it when the people of God engage with the world in order to transform it. What would have happened, I wonder, if the God-fearing Assyrians who offered to help build the temple been allowed to do so, and the Hebrews used that as a teaching opportunity? What might have happened if the Hebrew men had remained with their families, and followed the Mosaic admonition that  “these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

I like to think of the Bible as a great choir or orchestra composed of many voices, and we choose the voices to which we listen. Ezra and Nehemiah are two of those voices, but the melody is Jesus.  I cannot look at the life and teachings of Jesus and think that God wants us to build walls of separation between ourselves and those who are different from us. Jesus was the supreme bridge-builder in bridging the gap between God and humankind, but he also broke down  barriers separating people groups, and the early church seems to have taken that thought to heart. Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If the Bible were a Harry Potter novel, Ezra and Nehemiah would want to exclude all the “mudbloods” from participation in the kingdom of God. God, however, is more Hufflepuff than Slytherin. He wants to include everybody. And that’s good news.

Ruth: Intimations of Inclusivity

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?  Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—  would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

The lovely little story of Ruth comes as a breath of fresh air, placed as it is in the Christian Bible following the bloody holy wars of Joshua and the cyclical anarchy of Judges. In the Hebrew Bible, it is placed in the Ketuvim, or Writings, a very varied collection which also includes Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

Set “in the time of the judges”, the story tells of a famine which causes an Israelite family living near Bethlehem to cross the border into Moab and live there “for a while”, which turns out to be about ten years. During that time, the two sons grow up, marry Moabite women, and die, along with their father. The three widowed women must now decide what to do to survive. Naomi, the Israelite mother in the story, advises her daughters-in-law to return to their own people and start a new life. Ruth refuses to leave Naomi and insists on returning to Bethlehem with her. When they arrive, she supports Naomi by gleaning, which was a physically demanding and possibly dangerous job for a single, young, female foreigner. After a few plot twists and turns worthy of a Jane Austen novel or BBC drama series, there is a happy ending. Ruth marries a good man; they live happily ever after; and she winds up being the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, David.

What’s most interesting to me about this story is that the heroine in this story, Ruth, is an outsider, a Moabite. To say that Moabites were not well-tolerated by observantly religious Israelites would be an understatement. They were thought to be the descendants of the incestuous liaison between a drunken Lot and his older daughter. They were not helpful or hospitable to the Israelites in the time of their wilderness wanderings, and their religious practices included child sacrifice, among other bad things. There are a number of places in the Bible which explicitly command Israelites to avoid interaction and relationship with Moabites. For example. Deuteronomy states that “no Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation.” Nehemiah relates proudly that  “Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.” In the book of Ezra, Israelites vow to divorce their foreign-born wives and send them away, along with their children as a sign of their faithfulness to God. “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. 3 Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law.” 

And then we have this story of Ruth, which seems to run completely counter to that kind of thinking. Ruth’s marriage to Boaz is not only okay; but seems to be given a stamp of approval from God himself. She becomes the ancestress of the entire Davidic line of kings, and eventually of Jesus, the Son of God. Perhaps God is more inclusive than we think.  And that’s good news to me.