In Ezra 10, the Jews violated the law and had married pagan women. They were told to separate/divorce themselves from their wives in order to repent. Before examining Ezra 10, I want to make note of certain background information. Although the Law of Moses taught that the Jews could intermarry with pagans when certain requirements were met (Deut. 21:10-14), the general law under the Jewish system condemned religious intermarriage with other nations (Deut. 7:1-5; Josh. 23:12; Mal. 2:11). This law didn’t have anything to do with the color of skin or racial prejudice. Rather, it was a law given from a spiritual perspective to protect Israel from the influence of pagans and to keep them from straying away from God (Ex. 34:12-16; Neh. 13:25-27).
While marrying a non-believer has always been discouraged, at least in principle, (Deut. 7:1-5; Josh. 23:12; Mal. 2:11; Ex. 34:12-16; Neh. 13:25-27), there is no law in the Torah that gives instruction for a believer to divorce a non-believer once an intermarriage took place. In fact, the Old Testament is full of examples where intermarriages took place and divorce was not required. For example, Abraham (Gen. 25:1), Judah (Gen. 38:2), Joseph (Gen. 41:45), Moses (Num. 12:1-8), Salmon (Mt. 1:5), Mahlon, Chilion (Ruth 1:1-3), David (1 Chron. 3; 2 Sam. 12:7-8) and Solomon (1 Kings 11:1-6) all married pagan women, just to name a few. Some of these unions were not just accepted, but they were even blessed by God (e.g., Num. 12:1ff). Furthermore, Ruth, a Moabite, married her way into Judaism and was even in the linage of Jesus (Mt. 1:5).
While a couple of the above examples do show how marrying a pagan could have a negative impact on one’s spiritual well-being (e.g., Neh. 13:26-27), there is no writing in the Torah that teaches that repentance demands divorce in the case of intermarriage. The New Testament also teaches that a believer shouldn’t divorce a non-believer, and even admonishes against such divorce (1 Cor. 7:12ff; 1 Pet. 3:1ff). Therefore, why was divorce with non-believers required in Ezra 10?
Ezra 10 is the lone instance in the totality of the Bible where believers were instructed to divorce non-believers (Ezra 10:3-5, 7-8, 12, 19). It appears that religious intermarriages typically did not require divorce and certainly do not require divorce today under the Law of Christ (1 Cor. 7:12ff; 1 Pet. 3:1ff). The Jewish men in Ezra 10 who had intermarried were being negatively influenced and were jeopardizing all of Israel as a nation (Ezra 9:2). These wives had not turned to God nor were they converts. They were leading their husbands away from God.
Ezra 10 also took place during a time period when the Messianic plan was ever closer to reaching fruition (Ezra 10:3-5, 10, 11, 19; Galatians 4:4). In order to save the religious and moral welfare of the Jewish nation, the Jewish leaders had to completely purge themselves from all the pagan people. Therefore, this must be looked at from a nationalistic standpoint.
The Jewish men and leaders in Ezra 10 were not just told to divorce and put away their pagan wives, they were also told to put away their children born to them and to abstain from all the people in the land (Ezra 9:1-2; 10:3, 11). These Jewish men were never told that they couldn’t remarry or that they couldn’t have other Jewish wives.
Some bring attention to the fact that these men in Ezra 10 were told to divorce their wives according to the law (see: Ezra 10:3, 14-16). Per the information above, the phrase, “according to the law” in Ezra 10:3 can’t be speaking of a requirement of the law, but rather the manner of the law. The Law of Moses demanded that a formal bill of divorcement be given to the woman by her husband when a divorce took place (Deut. 24:1-4). This document would be needed by women to prove they had been divorced and can remarry again, but not men since men could marry more than one woman in any case under Jewish law (2 Chron. 30:21; 1 Kgs. 20:3; 1 Chron. 2:18-19; 2 Sam. 12:7-8; 1 Sam. 25:43; Judg. 8:30; 1 Sam. 1:2; etc.).
The purpose of the divorce certificate served as permission for the woman to marry someone else (Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, pp. 28-29, 118-119; Deut. 24:1-4). These Jewish men were not to just immediately up and leave their pagan wives. They were to act in accordance with the law by conducting formal rulings and giving their wives a bill of divorcement which would allow the woman to marry another (Ezra 10:14-16). This would be done to protect the woman.
Therefore, with all of this information in mind, it should be concluded that divorce was simply a byproduct of this “pagan-purge” solution in Ezra 10. That being the case, the special instructions to divorce non-believers in Ezra 10 must be understood from an exceptional, nationalistic circumstance during a most critical time under Jewish law and should not be looked at as objective moral law especially when considering the totality of the Bible (See: 1 Cor. 7:12ff; 1 Pet. 3:1ff).
– Kevin Pendergrass
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