Intermarriage after the exile

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. 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.”

When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 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.

Nehemiah: rebuilding the wall

The book of Nehemiah picks up not long after the book of Ezra closes.  However, it is a generation from the beginning of the book of Ezra when the exiles were given permission to return to Jerusalem.  In 539 BC Cyrus issued a decreed that the Jews could return to their homeland and he even sent with them the remaining articles from the temple that Nebuchadnezzar had captured 70 years earlier.

Ezra records the building of the temple in Jerusalem and finally Ezra arrives in Jerusalem with a second round of exiles in 458 BC.  Ezra leads the people in spiritual reforms and instructs them in the law of God.

Nehemiah picks up a decade later.  While the temple has been rebuilt in Jerusalem, the city is still in trouble.  The walls surrounding the city are in shambles.  Word comes to Nehemiah in 1:3:

 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” 

This is more than an issue of not looking nice.  We might consider it a disgrace if the yard to our church hadn’t been mowed in weeks and one of the windows had been broken and hastily covered over with a sheet of plywood.  The walls being broken down would be similar to that but there is a very practical problem here as well.  A city without walls in these days is a defenseless city.  Basically anyone could march right in and take what they wanted.  In theory, the city had the protection of the king, but it was a five month journey to Babylon, so they were pretty much left to fend for themselves.

When Nehemiah hears the report that the city’s walls lie in ruin, he weeps.  After Nehemiah cries out to the Lord in prayer, chapter 1 closes with a matter of fact statement “I was cupbearer to the king.”  Nehemiah’s heart is broken by the state that Jerusalem is in, but God has placed him in a position to do something about it.  A cupbearer in the ancient world was not just a servant.  It was one of the most trusted positions.  The job of a cupbearer was to first drink from the king’s cup in order to make sure that it hadn’t been poisoned.  As such, he had close access to the king and had been entrusted with the king’s very life.  Nehemiah would have been in the presence of the king on a daily basis thanks to his job.

Of course being in the presence of the king regularly wasn’t without its drawbacks.  During this era, servants were not allowed to be sad around the king.  The idea behind it was quite simple – the king didn’t want to be brought down by the problems of his mere servants.  Nehemiah hid his sadness from the king until he couldn’t keep it from his face any longer.  When the king asked, Nehemiah gave him the cause of his sadness.

When King Artaxerxes responded by asking Nehemiah what he wanted in light of the circumstances that made him so sad, Nehemiah quickly said a prayer.  Nehemiah models prayer throughout the book but this prayer is his greatest in my opinion.  We aren’t told what he said and he obviously didn’t have much time to pray before responding to Artaxerxes.  This shows what it is like when one prays continually the way Paul instructs us.  It is not about the words that we say or how we say them.  Instead it is about our attitude.  Nehemiah lived in an attitude of prayer.  It was so ingrained into him that even when he only had a split second before needing to respond to the king, he still thinks to pray for success.

Even though the passage makes no mention of it, Nehemiah 2 is an important date in Biblical history.  The year is most likely 444 BC when this conversation takes place between King Artaxerxes and Nehemiah.  When he is told to go and repair the wall surrounding Jerusalem, this starts the prophetic clock ticking on Daniel’s prophecy concerning seventy sevens.  You can read much more about it on the Spreading Light Ministries page but in short, this proclamation starts the countdown until the day that Christ will be crucified.  If anyone had understood the prophecy at the time, they could have counted down to the day when Jesus would walk into Jerusalem as the Passover lamb to be crucified.

Nehemiah heads to Jerusalem and begins to survey the wall.  It is in bad shape, as he expected, and he begins to form a plan to complete the task.  The job would be difficult enough considering its magnitude but Nehemiah must also deal with opposition from some of the local people who don’t want to see the wall rebuilt.  Men by the names of Sanballat and Tobiah will do all that they can to stop Nehemiah and the Jews from rebuilding the wall.  Each time they try something, Nehemiah responds with a new plan to keep the people working.

When Sanballat and Tobiah mock the Jews, Nehemiah prays and asks that God would punish them for opposing His work.  When the enemy makes plans to lead an army against Jerusalem, Nehemiah prays and posts a 24 hour guard.  When they persist in trying to kill the workers, Nehemiah splits the people into two groups.  Half work while the other half stands guard.  They continue working from sunrise until sunset.  Four times Sanballat and Geshem attempt to lead Nehemiah away with a ruse but he refuses to leave each time by saying that the work is too important.  The enemy uses slander when they write a letter to Artaxerxes claiming that Nehemiah and the Jews planned to rebel but Nehemiah ignored it.  And finally they bring a false prophet to try to trick Nehemiah into taking refuge in the temple but Nehemiah sees through the scheme.

Despite all of the opposition, the wall is completed in an incredible time, only 52 days.  Now, it is difficult to say how big the city of Jerusalem was at this time.  I have read multiple different theories on the size and population of the city.  But no matter what size it really is, this is an incredibly significant accomplishment.  They are not building a fence around the city, they are building a wall that has to be high enough and deep enough to repel enemy forces.  If the city is relatively small at this time, as some believe, that would mean that this task is accomplished by a relatively small number of workers – perhaps only a few hundred.

No matter the size, the speed at which this task is accomplished impresses even the enemy.  Nehemiah 6:16 says:

When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.

While Nehemiah’s main task was the reconstruction of the wall around Jerusalem, like Ezra, he also enacted some social reforms.  Perhaps chief among these was his strong reaction to the intermarrying of Jew and Gentile.  While the situation caused Ezra to pull out his own hair, Nehemiah inflicts the pain on the culprits by pulling out their hair.

It also comes to light that Sanballat and Tobiah have supporters amongst the Jews which is how they knew what was going on in Jerusalem so often.  Nehemiah doesn’t respond kindly to this, including kicking one of the priests out of the temple for marrying Sanballat’s daughter.

Nehemiah’s leadership, alongside of Ezra’s, is certainly significant among the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem from the exile.  Nevertheless, when one thinks of Nehemiah they will likely first think of the tremendous accomplishment that he achieved in rebuilding the wall in 52 days.  After that, they should think of him as a man of prayer who prayed in all circumstances and made it to be a regular part of his life.