Ezra & Nehemiah

Those who returned from Babylonia sought to reclaim Judah's former glory, despite major challenges.

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Ezra reacted strongly to this news: He tore his clothes as a sign of mourning, and prayed and fasted as a sign of repentance. Ezra's reaction is easy to understand: the returnees believed that the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were destroyed because their inhabitants did not live up to God's laws, and Ezra was determined to avoid a similar fate for the new society they were building. (Intermarriage with the inhabitants of the land is forbidden, according to Deuteronomy 7:3).Therefore, the laws of the Torah had to become the blueprint for the new society. Ezra convinced the people to begin a process of separating from non-Israelite wives, but the process "was longer than one day or two days' work" (Ezra 9:13); and it is doubtful if the process was ever completed.

The Third Stage: Nehemiah

When the third stage of the return took place, the issue of intermarriage came to the forefront once again. The leader of the third stage of the return was Nehemiah, a high official in the Persian imperial administration, of Jewish ancestry, who was seized with a desire to ameliorate the physical condition of Jerusalem and of its Jewish community.

Against threats of war from the Samaritans and the Ammonites, who did not want to see Jerusalem become the political centre of the land, Nehemiah rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem. The builders "built with one hand, while holding daggers in the other" (Nehemiah 4:11), building during the day and guarding the wall at night (Nehemiah 4:16).  But Nehemiah did not deal only with the physical problems of the community. He fought with the community's leaders over their non-Jewish wives (in Nehemiah chapter 13).

In explaining his objection to intermarriage, Nehemiah does not only see intermarriage as a violation of divine law. He speaks about the practical consequences of intermarriage, and mentions two points: 1) Intermarriage challenges the ethnic identity of the community, and erodes its sense of peoplehood.  Nehemiah complains (Nehemiah 13:21) that the children of intermarried couples are unable to understand Hebrew, a basic requirement for being a member of the returnees’ Jewish community. 2) Intermarriage challenges the religious identity of the Jewish member of couple: Solomon, beloved of God, was led by his gentile wives to worship their gods (13:26).

Victory and Disappointment

Ezra and Nehemiah tell a frustrating story. In many ways, the reality of the return to Zion did not measure up to the returnees' expectations. The temple they rebuilt was smaller and far less glorious than Solomon’s had been, and religious challenges such as intermarriage and resistance to Shabbat observance vexed their leaders.  But the persistence and doggedness with which the Jews of the period confronted these challenges became a model for the generations that followed. "Rabbi Tarfon said: "It is not incumbent on you to finish the work, but nor are you free to desist from it." (Mishnah, Avot, chapter 2.)

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Shawn Zelig Aster is Assistant Professor of Bible at Yeshiva University.