I don’t know what God thought of Ezra’s instruction to the people of Istael to send away their wives and children who were not of pure Jewish blood (interestingly, there’s no mention of non-Jewish husbands.) Ezra was clearly a man of great learning and holy intent, but I’m not sure that he was right on this. In fact, I think he was wrong – and in the light of all the summary judgements of kings and prophets which we’ve seen through the histories so far, it’s interesting that we’re not actually told God’s opinion here.
I think I can understand something of why Ezra took the action he did. About fifty years had passed since the rededication of the Temple, and the people who’d returned from exile were becoming hard to tell apart from all the other nations around them. The calling of Israel to be a light to the nations was in danger of being lost in the grey areas of getting along with the neighbours. Marrying people of other nations and faiths may not have been the root cause or even the most important part of it, but it was probably one of the most obvious, and one about which Something Could Be Done.
Whether or not Ezra’s action was right, his motivation surely was. Israel was called to a distinctive life, as a nation under the LORD in a way that no other could be. Whether or not Ezra knew it, it would be from that nation that the Messiah would come to bring salvation to all nations – but if Israel had vanished from history, how would the Messiah be born? Israel’s distinctiveness mattered. I’m just not convinced that who you’d married was the biggest issue.
The Church still has a calling to be distinctive – but I can’t help feeling that we’ve too often looked for that distinctiveness in ways that are easier to spot precisely because they’re not the main ones. We’ve been careful about our language and our marriages (mostly), about ways of dressing and acceptable leisure activities – but not always about our willingness to serve and love as Jesus did.
Before I get too annoyed at Ezra, perhaps I need to look a little more closely at exactly how my own life differs from those of people around me who don’t claim a Christian faith. If it’s more in things on the surface than at any depth, I have no right to criticise an ancient priest doing his best – and getting it wrong.