Ezra and Ruth – a rebuttal

This was given following a message on Ezra 9-10 on repentance which assumed that Ezra was following God’s will perfectly and was an example of good leadership.  As the passage is unclear on this matter I gave the rebuttal.

Reading:  Ezra 9-10, Ruth 4

For the past year, I’ve been, with very few exceptions, following the passage that was used in Sunday School class — or a related passage. I personally think that it is important to have multiple perspectives. Even on those points where I disagreed with the author, the disagreements have been largely unimportant: such as a matter of style, or disagreement on what date the book was written. I have been overall pleased with these studies, both for how they give an overview of the scripture and how they encourage the class to connect with it.

Last week we started a new section, and as you might guess, I’m not satisfied with the work of the current author. Last week, this was largely bristling against an attitude that authority figures are right because they are authority figures along with a feeling that the writer might have had a different opinion if she read Haggai, Zechariah, or Malachi while working on this lesson.

As you read this lesson, it should be obvious why I feel it is necessary to offer a rebuttal to the author for last week and this week. If it is not obvious, I will point out that the staunchest defenders of the idea that Ezra was doing God’s will when forcing people to divorce, and exiling the wives and children are white supremacists. When I searched the internet for commentary and sermons on Ezra 9-10, I found a number of “Christian identity” websites. I will also point out that all of you have met my wife, and it should be obvious that I’m not very comfortable with a tacit acceptance that God is fundamentally opposed to miscegenation.

The author’s argument is dependent upon the following:

  1. Ezra was appointed leader by God
  2. Because Ezra was appointed by God, he is an example of good leadership.
  3. The people who resettled Judah married pagan women who worshiped false gods
  4. The Holy Seed of Israel must not be mixed, therefore mixed race people must also be expelled

The leader is appointed by God

The book of Ezra hardly mentions God. Specifically absent is any mention of God taking part in the process of appointing leaders or guiding their leadership. Ezra, specifically was appointed by Artaxerxes who was a pagan ruler. Any authority he had was subordinate to the authority of the Persian empire.

The problems that this causes appear in Nehemiah and Malachi; the governor of Persian Judah is not only responsible to the people of this province, but also to the Persian empire. This double-loyalty makes it so that it is hard to decide what needs to be done. One example, taken from Malachi and Nehemiah forces people to ask the question whether it is better to raise taxes, or to use the temple treasury to pay tribute to the Persians. The Persian appointed leaders chose to use the Temple treasury and this decision apparently resulted in widespread corruption as there were people who needed to go unpaid due to this decision.

Leaders appointed by God are examples of good leadership

Even if circumstances were different — and instead of a foreign king, one of God’s prophets would have anointed Ezra to govern the people of Judah, this would not assure that his leadership would be a model for us to follow. Scripture tells of two leaders who prophets anointed with oil, and announced that they were the one that God appointed as king of Israel: Saul and David.

The first, Saul, is generally not considered a great example of leadership because part of his story is where he lost favor with God. As you might remember, he did not wait for Samuel to offer sacrifice, but instead took it upon himself to do so.

After this encroachment on another person’s authority, Saul became jealous, and developed a personal vendetta against one of his successful and popular generals — David.

David, who was anointed as Saul’s successor, was only a little better. While I don’t have time to make a laundry list of mistakes, David’s big one was huge. David had an inner circle of about 30 people who were with him, and loyal to him when he fell out of favor in Saul’s court — these people became important leaders in his administration when he was king. One day, he noticed a girl — when he asked about her he was told she was the wife of Uriah and the daughter of Eliam. Uriah and Eliam were both member of this inner circle — so, David has her brought to him and rapes her. When she gets pregnant, David tries to keep away suspicion by making sure her husband gets some leave from the military, and some time at home. After he returns, he asks Joab, another person in this inner circle to make sure that Uriah dies in battle.

Such a betrayal seems to have destroyed David’s ability to lead the nation. Soon after this, David is no longer in control of what happens and the nation falls into civil war. David and his forces manage to win the war, but at a very heavy personal cost. David never again becomes an effective leader.

While a divine appointment is clearly significant, it is not enough to show that the leader’s actions are the correct ones, nor that the particular leader should be emulated.

These foreigners worshiped false gods

Back before the Babylonian captivity, the Northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Like Babylon, the best of the people were carried off, and the elite of other nations were moved into their place. Records tell us that about 22 thousand were taken away from the Northern Kingdom, and a similar number were brought back in.

2 Kings 17 tells us that the foreigners who were brought in place of the elite of Israel asked the king of Assyria to send them some of the priests who were taken away, so that the organized worship of God could resume. This happened before 700 BC, and Ezra’s rule was after 500 AD. The foreigners had lived in this land, and worshiped God for 200 years. It would be fair to say that by any measure, they were no longer foreigners — and, if one insists that they were, it would be difficult to separate them by ethnicity. By this time, the most foreign of them would be more Hebrew than foreign.

What stands out when I read the book of Ezra is that there is not a single mention of idolatry. When foreigners are mentioned, they self-identify as worshipers of the same God the Jews worship — at the beginning of the passage, these people who’ve lived in the region, and worshiped God for well over a century were told they can have no part of the temple. When the women are expelled, there is no mention of idol worship — and, if the cause were idol worship then there is no reason why the children must be expelled also except the reason given in Ezra 9:2 — that they mixed the Holy Seed of Israel with foreigners.

Mixed raced children must be expelled to protect blood purity

I never understood the idea of blood purity. It does not seem reasonable to me, because I am not convinced that it exists. In the United States, there are places where race is determined through so called `one drop laws.’ I had heard of such things, but I did not really know what they implied until I worked as an enumerator for the United States census. My supervisor asked everybody under her what race she was — and here was a woman who had blond hair, very pale skin, and blue eyes — you could tell by looking at her that her ancestors came from Northern Europe. It turns out that her birth certificate said: “Black”, because she was born in a one drop state, and one of her 19th century ancestors was black. If she would have been a generation older, there would have been a number of states where she would be unable to obtain a marriage license due to the crime of miscegenation. She also told us that when she served in the Army, the response was: “We can’t put black on your record. If you are ever missing in action, nobody who was looking for a black woman would be able to find you.”

The policy that was established from the time the Samaritans were excluded from helping build the temple was one of preserving blood purity, and this policy was one that treats the population that was there to welcome those who came back as foreigners — even if one could not see the foreignness. There were multiple actions like this that created grievances between the Jews and the Samaritans. The problem is that this policy does not represent the history of Judah, nor is it necessary.

Leviticus 19:33-34 reads:

33 When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

In addition, the story of Ruth should be familiar to everybody. Ruth was a Moabite woman married to a Jewish man who he met while living in Moab. Her husband died in Moab, and she returned to Judah with her mother-in-Law Naomi. When she returned she claimed her rights as a widow, and married her husband’s cousin Boaz. Ruth was treated as family, and not as a foreigner. It did not matter that she was a Moabite — and, her descendants were not treated any worse for her pollution to the bloodline.

Ruth tells us that Boaz and Ruth are King David’s great grandparents. If Obed and Ruth were exiled, then there would be no Jesse nor would there be a David. By the standard that excludes the people who were still in Israel, because their bloodline was polluted, those who returned were also polluted — including the most prominent family that returned.

There is much debate about when Ruth was written; but many scholars notice that it uses some idiom that is associated with the second temple period. No matter when it was written, it appears that this story was retold fresh during this period — and it is a story about how a completely foreign woman who entered Israel as a foreign woman was fully accepted. It is a story how her husband’s family recognized her rights, just like if she were a Hebrew woman, and how her decedents were not only fully accepted, but became a dynasty that would reign for over 400 years, who would continue to have a pretender waiting for their throne to be re-established for another 1500 years following that.

When the story of Ruth was told during this period, I have no doubt that these details stood out as a criticism to Ezra’s policy of expulsion of women and children. The story of Ezra is one of turning people out, even people who are fully innocent and who should have every right to belong to the community. Ezra is the story of injustice. The story of Ruth is one of embracing somebody who’s claim to any rights are tenuous at best. It is the story of mercy and justice that goes beyond what is required by law. We must always remember that there is more than one story that needs told.


One comment on “Ezra and Ruth – a rebuttal

  1. […] prophets condemn them for their behavior. Ezra then is sent to rebuild Jerusalem, and he engages in an ethnic purity purge, increasing and strengthening Judah’s enemies. The Persians show so much confidence in […]

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