One of the main issues that pops up in both of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is intermarrying. Christians are told not to be unequally yoked, meaning it is not in our best interests to marry a non-Christian. This same principle applied to the Israelites in the Old Testament.
Ezra and Nehemiah take place after the Jews have returned from their exile in Babylon. While the main focus of the two books is rebuilding the temple and the walls of Jerusalem, respectively, both men enact some spiritual reforms as well.
Ezra responds to the news of intermarriage in Ezra 9:1-4 by pulling out his hair – literally.
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. 2 They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”
3 When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 4 Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.
Nehemiah comes to Jerusalem and deals with the same problem that Ezra addressed about two decades earlier. But rather than take it out on himself, he takes it out on the offenders. Nehemiah 13:23-25 tells Nehemiah’s violent reaction.
23 Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. 24 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. 25 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.
Why were these intermarriages such a big deal? It is not because God does not love anyone but the Israelites. In fact, God would use Ruth, a Moabite, to become the great grandmother of King David and ultimately an ancestor of Jesus. The real problem was that foreigners didn’t worship the Lord and ultimately had a corrupting influence on those who did follow the Lord. Even though nationality is the surface issue, the real issue is the love of God. Foreigners didn’t worship the Lord while the Jews were supposed to.
Even though those guilty of intermarriage likely don’t see the corrupting influence that exists in their spouses, it is always there. Not even Solomon, the world’s wisest man, was immune to its influence. Nehemiah points this out in 13:26-27.
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. 27 Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”
Israel was surrounded by idolatrous nations throughout its history. Solomon was the man who constructed the magnificent temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. But he also ended up building temples to other gods to satisfy his wives’ desires. He was guilty of bringing idolatry into Israel or at least made it more prevalent. And it was because of the influence of his foreign wives.
The idolatry of Israel was much of the cause of its falling. When the southern kingdom of Judah was carried away to Babylon, God gave them what they thought they wanted. He all but told the Israelites, “You want to worship idols, let me put you in a place where you’ll have plenty of idols.” In Babylon, the Israelites would be so surrounded by idol worship that they would become sick of it and never fall into it again.
But that doesn’t mean that the intermarrying of Ezra and Nehemiah’s days is harmless. There is no mention of idolatry but the men realize that the guilty Israelites have placed themselves right back on the slippery slope that Solomon originally perched them upon. Only this time Ezra and Nehemiah know their lesson from history and they are determined to not let the people fall into the trap once again.
For this reason both Ezra and Nehemiah react strongly to the news of intermarrying and do all that they can to prevent it from taking place under their watches. It is not the act of intermarrying that causes the problem but rather the corrupting influence that came with it. Ezra and Nehemiah are determined to prevent the people of Israel from falling into idolatry again.