15 January 2021

What We Can Learn From Ezra

The book of Ezra is mostly a dry read. It is largely a book of receipts which prove that the reestablishment of the nation of Israel after the Babylonian captivity was done in accordance with both the Law of Moses and with the express permission of the king of Persia who had granted the Israelites their freedom and ordered their former captors to pay for the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is because Ezra, who does not even show up in the book until chapter seven, is a well-respected teacher of the Law of Moses (7:1-7).

The book of Ezra takes place during the time of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (7:21, 5:1). However, Ezra is not a prophet, he is a priest and teacher of the Law. Ezra arrives in Jerusalem 36 years after the city and the Temple had already been rebuilt (7:7). The Temple had been rededicated to God and offerings had been made on behalf of all the people and even for the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes (6:16-18).

Ezra is given authority to rule Israel by King Artaxerxes of Persia (7:25). He is to oversee that the governor of Trans-Euphrates (Between Babylon and Egypt) gives generously to the Temple so that God's wrath may not befall the king of Persia (7:21-24). Ezra is also to appoint judges in Trans-Euphrates to administer the Law of Moses as well as the law of the king of Persia (7:25-26).

When Ezra returns to Jerusalem with the treasures that were stolen by Babylon from the Temple, he "is ashamed" to ask the king for soldiers to protect him and his family on their journey because he assured the king that God would protect them. After this statement he and his family fast and pray to find the courage of their convictions and only do so because God answered their prayer (8:21-23).

When he arrives, after the celebration of his return, the leaders of the people of Israel come to him with a problem. During the captivity, and although the book does not specify this, likely to the day of Ezra's return, the people of Israel, and even the very leaders bringing this to Ezra's attention, had married foreigners and had children with them. They call this an act of unfaithfulness to God (9:1-2).

Ezra is appalled and tears his clothes and the hair from his head; he sits and sulks until the evening sacrifice is ready (9:3-4). At the time of the sacrifice he begins to pray and he prays so loudly that a crowd gathers around him and weep with him (9:5-10:1). One of the men gathered cried out in response to Ezra's prayer, "We have sinned against our God, and have married foreign women. ... Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and children, according to the counsel of my lord [Ezra], and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; for the matter belongs to you, and we are with you. Be courageous, and do it (10:2-4)."

So that is what they do, and that is where the book ends. Ezra gives every man in Israel a choice, they can stay in Israel and send their wives and children back to Babylon, or they can go with them. The people of Israel had lived in captivity for 50 years and it had been at least 36 years since their return when Ezra made this decree. In all that time, no one had objected to the people of Israel marrying foreigners. They had returned to the Promised Land, and for 36 years there had been no objection.

There had been no objection because what they had done was not sinful. God had decreed that the people of Israel were to take the Promised Land from the people of Canaan, not because God hated Canaanites, but because of their wickedness and idolatry. He forbade the people of Israel from marrying foreigners who practiced idolatry, but not from marrying all foreigners. In fact, God commanded them to offer hospitality to foreigners and welcome them in Israel. That is the message of the entire book of Ruth.

Ruth was a foreign woman from Moab who married a man from Israel. When her husband died and left no heir, Ruth promises to take care of her mother-in-law Naomi and even takes on Jewish customs and worships God so as not to make trouble for her mother-in-law. Her faithfulness is rewarded when she married another man from Israel, a close relative of her late husband who honors his relative's widow by taking care of both her and Naomi.

The book of Ezra is a challenging read because it causes us to question the way we approach scripture. Ezra is not the hero of the story. He recognized the dangers of the road but chose to send thousands of women and children to live as refugees in Babylon, a land that was no longer their home and which many of them may have never even visited. He may as well have sent them to starve in the desert. Not every "man of God" in scripture is a hero, not every foreign king is a villain, and the Law is not black and white. One thing Ezra never does is consult God. There were two prophets in Israel, he called on neither one.

To Ezra, God is secondary to the rule of Law, but that isn't what God wants. God wants our hearts, not our obedience (Hosea 6:6). God's Law is meant to guide and inspire us, not constrain us. God wants children, not servants. The stumbling block of Ezra is assuming that the book represents God's will. It is a cautionary tale, showing how serving the Law without question can lead to atrocity. God wants your heart and mind. God wants a relationship with his children, and that means we are free to ask questions and even disagree, such is the grace of God.

May it be for you as Ezra says but cannot bring himself to believe, that the "gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him." May God's peace be with you.

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