Ezra & the Outsiders

The book of Ezra in the Old Testament shows conflicting attitudes toward outsiders.

Most famously, Ezra ends with the push for the Israelite men to get rid of their foreign wives and their children. These wives are leading the men astray, making Israel impure, and potentially bringing the judgment of God on the people. These ungodly women are a blight on the just-restored Israel.

Less famously, Ezra begins with the story of another foreigner, Cyrus, King of Persia (the messiah, according to Isa. 45). God has worked through this foreigner, perhaps without Cyrus’ awareness, to bring Israel home from captivity and begin the work of restoring the temple. This foreigner, this outsider, is a blessing to the people of God.

So which is it? Are foreigners a blight or a blessing?

God’s intention is to restore all of creation, including all nations and their inhabitants. Israel is God’s chosen vehicle for accomplishing that restoration. The election of Israel, therefore, is not merely for their own sake, as though God wanted to bless them to the exclusion of everyone else. Neither was it the case that God’s activity was limited to Israel and its people. Through Israel, God worked to benefit outsiders. Through outsiders, God worked to benefit Israel.

So what about those foreign wives and kids? What was the problem there? The aspect of their foreignness that was problematic was that they were leading Israel astray. Though married to Israelite men, they retained their primary allegiance to their home gods. They were winning over the Israelite men to the ways of the gods of the nations, rather than being won over to YHWH. Israel might in the land and home from exile, but they were losing their identity as Israel because they were straying from God.

The New Testament handles these questions differently. Yes, we still see God working through Israel – particularly through Israel’s true Messiah, Jesus – to rescue the nations. That’s why we see Jesus telling his followers to go and make disciples of “all nations.” God is still working through outsiders as well, though in their involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus the Romans play more the role of Nebuchadnezzar (who took Israel into exile) than that of Cyrus (who sent Israel home from exile). In his letters to the Corinthians, we see Paul handing marriage to outsiders differently as well. First, if one is married to a non-believer and that non-believer is willing to stay in the marriage, do it that way. That’s a major change from what we see in Ezra. Second, if you are unmarried, be sure and marry within the faith. This view is in continuity with the model in Ezra.

The key features I draw from these episodes are as follows:

Our identity as people of God is primary. The foreign wives in Ezra were challenging that identity. For Ezra, at least, identity as the people of God trumps family commitment. If we take Jesus’ teaching as normative, it looks like Jesus is on the side of Ezra. “Let the dead bury their dead, you come follow me.” “Who is my mother, brother, and sister? The one who believes in me and does the will of my father in heaven.” “Unless you hate your father and mother you are not worthy of me.” Strong words in a family-centric culture. Sometimes American Christians today, pushed by the perception of cultural forces inimical to the family, portray Christianity as all about family and “family values.” Well, that’s surely not the whole picture.

God can and does work through whom he likes. God seems to revel in working through those whom we least expect. We can keep our eyes open and watch for God at work, not just in Christian America, or in other Christian cultures, but even in places and in people we’d least expect.

We are part of God’s ongoing story. It’s worth our while, then, to pay attention to that story, to its plot line, its characters, and it’s setting. It’s also worth our while to take that story as the primary story in which we live.

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