Covenant to Put Away Pagan Wives (Ezra 10) December 21
As Ezra prayed and wept before the temple, a large assembly of the people gathered to join in his mourning and prayer to God. Just as corrupt leadership had led the people astray, so righteous leadership can lead others in the proper direction.
In verse 2 a certain Shechaniah remarkably observes that even though the people had grievously sinned, "yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this." That is a true and wonderful message. It characterized the whole history of the nation. And it remains true for all who will today or in the future be part of the Israel of God, His chosen people. Despite our past sins, God will still work with us and ultimately deliver us. Yet that is contingent on our making a change in our lives. People must repent. And in verse 3, Shechaniah suggests a covenant with God to do just that—in this case, ending their illegal marriages.
Shechaniah is referred to as the son of Jehiel of the sons of Elam. "Possibly his father is the same Jehiel mentioned in vv. 21 and 26 as he also was of the family of Elam.... Perhaps Shecaniah was grieved that his father had married a non-Jewish mother. Six members of the clan of Elam were involved in intermarriages (v. 26)" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 2).
Specifically, Shechaniah's call is to put away their pagan wives and the children born to them. Shechaniah says, "Let it be done according to the law" (verse 3), evidently referring to the law of divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-2, where a man could divorce a wife if he found fault in her. In this case, the fault was evidently that the women were still pagans. Moreover, these marriages were illegal to start with. The sending away of the children with their mothers had a precedent in God telling Abraham to heed Sarah in sending Ishmael away with Hagar so that Ishmael and his lineage would not cause problems for the son of promise, Isaac, and his lineage (see Genesis 21:8-21).
Encouraged, Ezra has the leaders take an oath about putting away the foreign wives (Ezra 10:4-5). Yet he continues his fast (verse 6). In verses 7-8, a proclamation is issued demanding that all the Jews of Judea gather at Jerusalem within three days. "As the territory of Judah had been much reduced, the most distant inhabitants would not be more than fifty miles from Jerusalem. The borders were Bethel in the north, Beersheba in the south, Jericho in the east, and Ono in the west.... All could travel to Jerusalem 'within three days'" (note on verse 8). Those who would not come would have their property confiscated and be expelled from the Jewish community. Emperor Artaxerxes had given Ezra the powers of confiscation and banishment along with other state powers—even capital punishment—in the decree he issued regarding the return (see 7:26).
Incidentally, some see "all Israel" in 10:5 and other such references to Israel as an indication that all 12 tribes of Israel had returned to the Promised Land. But verse 9 makes it clear that this referred only to "all the men of Judah and Benjamin" along with the Levites also mentioned in verse 5. These constituted the remnant of Israel—Israel, as mentioned earlier, being the name of the nation in covenant with God. While a small smattering of people descended from the northern tribes did live among the southern tribes, having been absorbed into Judah, the northern tribes, as tribes, remained scattered. They will not return to the Promised Land until the time of Christ's return.
The 20th day of the ninth month (verse 9) would have been in December. So besides being rainy, it was also probably very cold—leaving the people shivering (on top of their trembling over the current situation). This created a problem in dealing with the matter at hand. The people, while in agreement with Ezra's directive, recognized that it would take much more than a day or two to search out all the guilty and make sure all were sworn to putting away their pagan wives and children—and during this time the people who had traveled to Jerusalem couldn't reasonably be expected to live and sleep outside in the cold and rain. So they requested that the investigation be organized by their officials and carried out in rotations (verses 12-14).
The opposition of the four men in verse 15 lends credibility to the account. That is, rather than a general statement that "everyone agreed," we are specifically told of four who did not without any indication given as to why. It's like the reading of a vote tally. As to the objections of these four, it should be noted that it is not clear exactly what they were objecting to—whether to the rotational investigation proposed by the people or the putting away of wives and children. Whatever it was, their objections apparently had no effect. The investigations by Ezra and the leaders proceeded (verse 16).
Interestingly, we are told that it took a few months to "question" the men who had married pagan women (verse 17). It seems that for a mere blanket decree of putting away foreign wives, a simple identification of each woman's nationality would have sufficed and that this would not have taken so long. Perhaps there was a complicating factor. Some of these women may have converted to the Israelite religion, as with Ruth and Rahab. If so, the examination may have included determining if these women were indeed still pagan, and only those who still were would have to have been put away, along with their children who would have been adversely affected by their mothers.
Verses 18-44 list 113 men who had married pagan women. The Encyclopaedia Judaica comments that this is "an exceptionally small number in a community of some 30,000 persons. It is probably a truncated list, including representative names and pointing to the involvement of all classes, as the schematic arrangement may indicate. For the most part members of the upper classes are named, which also seems to reflect the genuineness of the list since they alone were in a position to contract such marriages and stood to benefit most from them" (quoted in Expositor's, note on verse 44). On the other hand, it could have been a complete list—as the sins of a few could bring guilt on the whole nation (compare the sin of Achan in Joshua 7). Either way, it is worth noting that of the 113 listed, 17 are priests, 10 are Levites and 86 represent the rest of the nation. Thus, nearly 25 percent of those listed are religious leaders. What a sad state of affairs this was.
Presumably, all who were married to pagan wives gave their promise to put them away, though that is explicitly stated only about those listed first (see verses 18-19; compare verses 20-44). Yet whether or not all of them followed through on their promise is not even hinted at. It seems hard to believe that Ezra would have allowed this to continue on any kind of wide scale. But his hand may have been weakened over time. Indeed, around 25 years later Nehemiah would have to redress this problem once again.
We should not look at Ezra 10 as the conclusion of the book. For as mentioned in the Bible Reading Program's introductory comments on this book, in the Hebrew canon Ezra and Nehemiah are reckoned together as one book. Yet before proceeding to Nehemiah 1, we will, after a supplementary reading, turn back a few chapters in the book of Ezra for the sake of following the apparent chronological order.