lamb-leftWhat the Bible Really Says by J. R. Hyland
From Humane Religion

Chapter 11: EZRA: Godly Purge Or Ethnic Cleansing

In 587 B.C. Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians. The town and the Temple were razed to the ground and the Jewish people were exiled to the land of their captors. But fifty years later Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered the conquerors and established his own rule in Babylon. He was well-disposed toward the Jewish people living there and issued an edict allowing them to return to their own country. But not everyone wanted to go.

Although the siege of Jerusalem had been brutal, once the people were settled in their land of exile, living conditions kept improving. Ultimately, they were given the opportunity to become contributing members of the Empire and encouraged to retain their own Jewish culture. By the time Cyrus came to power, the majority of Jewish people did not want to exchange a prosperous lifestyle for the uncertainty of returning to a country that had been lying in ruins for half a century. But they were quite generous in their financial and moral support of those who were willing to go back and resettle their homeland.

When the first group of exiles arrived back in Jerusalem, circa 537 B.C., they found things were even worse than expected. The countryside was desolate and rebuilding loomed as a monumental task. And other problems faced the returnees. They had come back ready to reclaim Jerusalem and institute their own agenda. But when they arrived they found that the ruins of the city were inhabited by the descendants of poor peasants who had hidden out in the hills during the Babylonian siege. They had escaped capture while the wealthy merchants, landowners and priests who had substantial lands and other holdings, had been rounded up and deported by their conquerors.

During the years of Exile, the peasants left behind had made a life for themselves that centered around Jerusalem. They built homes for their families and for many years had eked out a living in the barren countryside. And during those years, the peasant survivors of the southern kingdom of Judah had made common cause with those left alive after the takeover of the northern kingdom of Israel.[1] The bitter rivalry that had once divided the Jewish tribes had been healed by the misfortunes they suffered and by the need for mutual aid if any of them were going to survive.

But those who first returned from Babylonian Exile, under the leadership of the High Priest Jeshua, had nothing but contempt for those who had been left behind. They were considered ignorant; the dregs of society, because without the leadership of the exiled priests and scribes, they would not have properly fulfilled the religious rules and regulations that were supposed to govern daily life.  Therefore, they were ritually unclean and were to be shunned.

Of course, ritual impurity can be remedied over a period of time by observing every jot and title of the Law but this remedy was not applied to those who had been left behind. Their impurity stemmed from intermarriage with mixed-race Jews. They had mixed the pure blood line of Abraham through intermarriage with those of impure lineage and their offspring had been contaminated.

So, although the resident survivors around Jerusalem thanked God for the return of the Exiles and wanted to help them rebuild the Temple site, they were not allowed to do so. They presented themselves to Jeshua and other leaders saying “We would like to build with you, for we seek your God as you do and we have sacrificed to him since the time of Esarhaddon”[2] Their offer was refused, they were unworthy; unclean. They reacted to this bigotry by harassing the returnees as they undertook the recon-struction of the Temple.

But despite various problems, the altar was reestablished and dedicated to God by a massive slaughter of animals that provided a great feast for the people. In a total rejection of the oracles of the Latter Prophets, who condemned killing animals in the name of God, one hundred bulls, 200 sheep, 400 lambs and 12 goats were sacrificed and slaughtered on the altar site.[3]

In the generations that followed, the descendants of those who returned from exile married, raised families and centered their religious life around the altar at Jerusalem. And for those who married other pure-blooded Jews there were no problems. However, some of them were marrying those whose bloodlines had been tainted by intermarriage. The religious leaders were very disturbed by this trend, but were unable to do anything about it until a priest named Ezra arrived in Jerusalem.

Ezra was a scribe as well as a hereditary priest. As a scribe he was trained in the minutiae of religious law and was qualified to translate and interpret those laws. In Babylon he had been the equivalent of a minister for Jewish affairs at the Persian Court and he used that position to secure letters of authority from the king. He had himself sent to Jerusalem as a political and religious leader, empowered to collect money, appoint judges and punish with death, banishment, confiscation or imprisonment any Jew who did not obey the laws he expounded.

Armed with that power, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem almost a hundred years after the first returnees had come back from Babylon and lost no time in instituting a policy of ethnic cleansing. He, and other like-minded leaders, were determined to get rid of those half-breeds who were the offspring of several generations of unions between pure-blood Jews and the impure resident survivors.

In ancient Israel mixed marriages had been allowed, but eventually they came into disfavor. Foreign women were blamed when Jewish men failed to fulfill their religious obligations or fell into idolatrous worship. The reaction against such marriages was an attempt to avoid influences that might dilute or corrupt Judaism.

However, those foreigners who were willing to renounce their pagan worship and follow all the requirements of Jewish law and worship could be accepted into Judaism.

But Ezra introduced a new element into his ban on intermarriage. The issue was not whether or not a spouse was willing to worship the one God; beliefs did not matter. The issue was whether or not a person was a pure-blooded Jew. For the first time, one group of people viewed other groups as a contaminating influence - - a source of racial or ethnic impurity - - regardless of how they lived or what they believed.

Ezra began his purge with a lengthy speech-prayer that he gave in the Temple court-yard. For the benefit of God and the assembled people, he gave a synopsis of Israelite history and then told the Lord how angry He was going to be about what was taking place in the present. Because the chosen people had intermarried “with wicked people. . . You will be so angry that You will destroy us completely and let no one survive.”[4]  Not surprisingly, the assembled men were terrified by the message that God would completely destroy them if they did not cast off their contaminated wives and children. And this time no one would escape; Abraham’s descendants would be wiped out.

This public speech-prayer, threatening the extermination of an entire people, is universally praised by religious spokesmen who echo the sentiments of the Inter-national Bible Commentary: “Ezra’s prayer is one of the most moving of all the prayers which are recorded in Scripture.”[5]

Having established the threat of annihilation, Ezra took the next step in implement-ing his purge. He issued a proclamation demanding that all the Jewish people come to a meeting in Jerusalem. By now they were scattered about the countryside and under ordinary circumstances many would not have bothered to come. But this was not an ordinary situation; Ezra used the extraordinary powers given to him by the Persian King to insure full attendance.

“A proclamation was issued throughout Judah and Jerusalem for all the exiles to assemble in Jerusalem. Anyone who failed to appear within three days would forfeit all his property. . .and would himself be expelled for the assembly.”[6]

Under the impetus of that threat, all the Jewish males assembled in the Temple square. There they were given details of the purge that was about to take place. They were to turn in any members of their family who were tainted by non-Jewish blood. They were informed that committees would be set up to investigate all reports of the existence of such undesirables. There was no way to avoid detection. There was no escape.

“Ezra the priest selected men who were family heads, one from each family division and all of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to investigate the cases and by the first day of the first month they finished dealing with all the men who had married foreign women.”[7] It took three months for this systematic purge to identify all the undesirables.

Not only did Ezra demand that the foreign wives of Jewish men be cast off, he demanded that all the children of such marriages be sent away. His edict was multi-generational. Children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were to be cast off, never again to see their families.[8] And wives, who had been with their husbands only a few years, as well as those who had spent a lifetime with their mates, must also be sent away. No one whose blood was contaminated with non-Jewish blood could stay.

Of course, there was no place for most of them to go. In that day and time women, children, the frail and the elderly, had no way to sustain themselves. The homes from which they were banished were the only homes they had known. They were sent out into a hostile environment with no resources and few skills. For many of them, Ezra’s proclamation was a death sentence.

The fate of women and children without male protection was well-known among the Hebrew people. The Prophets had repeatedly spoken of God’s concern for the oppression they suffered at the hands of their own people and the oft-repeated Psalm 146, clearly told of the Lord’s special concern for them; “(God) protects the strangers who live in our land and helps widows and orphans. . .he judges in favor of the oppressed.”[9]

Ezra’s threats of retribution forced the acceptance of his purge in spite of such demands for the care of the powerless from both the psalmist and the prophets. Unless the assembled men did what he demanded, they themselves would become outcasts; they would lose their property and be banished from their homes. Faced with such drastic consequences, it is not surprising that the Bible reports only four of the assembled men protested Ezra’s demands.[10]

In Ezra’s time there was no precedent for the kind of massive purge he wanted to institute and the men of Israel may not have been aware of the extent of the suffering he was about to unleash on so many people. But it is difficult to understand how Ezra’s policy of ethnic cleansing can continue to receive religious endorsement in a post-Holocaust world. Yet modern Christian scholars continue to endorse Ezra’s purge because the scribe who wrote the biblical account claimed that “God’s holy people had become contaminated” by marrying those whose bloodlines were not pure.”[11]

Consequently, modern commentators have turned the victims, who were banished from their homes into the villains. Ezra is applauded for his courage in demanding that the national and religious purity of his people be maintained and those who lost everything in the purge are seen as transgressors who had taken part in what the Evangelical Commentary calls “the reprehensible sin of intermarriage.”[12]

And a Catholic scholar notes that in Ezra’s “concern for racial purity” can be seen as a religious reason for the banishment of undesirable children and wives. Another scholarly note says “if (Ezra’s) reforming measures seem severe, it is because his zeal was great, and the need to protect his community, urgent.”[13]

Because all the protagonists in the story of Ezra’s purge were male and because Bible scholars are usually male, some people of faith have hoped that with the inclusion of female exegetes a more comprehensive and compassionate understanding of the scriptures might emerge. Unfortunately, the publication of The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary has momentarily dashed those hopes.[14] Typical, is the comment regarding Ezra and his emphasis on the need for a pure lineage: “(Ezra’s) radical emphasis on pure lineage. . .was timely and vital for the continuation of pure religion.” The commentator goes on to claim that had he not instituted this ethnic cleansing, the Jewish people would have become extinct.

Jewish apologists, as well as their Christian counterparts, continue to insist that Ezra’s purge was an absolute necessity. Rabbi Bernard M. Caspar, Dean, University of Jerusalem, writes that “the great problem which faced Ezra upon his arrival in Jerusalem was the danger of assimilation for the newly established community. During the period of the Babylonian exile. . .a small nucleus of original Israelites from the North of the country were now mixed with other (impure) colonists not only in blood but also in cultural standards.”[15]

This contemporary support for the divine right of a people to rid themselves of the culturally and ethnically undesirable is not limited to religious spokesmen. A best selling, 20th century author, supported Ezra’s concept, writing that “The loss of racial purity will wreck inner happiness for ever. It degrades men for all time to come. And the physical and moral consequences can never be wiped out.” He also said that the result of mixing a pure-blooded people with those who are mixed, always results in the degeneration of the pure-bred. And although he did not claim or affirm the biblical claim that intermarriage with undesirables would ultimately lead to the destruction of an entire people and their culture because “it was against the will of the Eternal Creator. . .Nations that make mongrels of their people or allow their people to be turned into mongrels sin against the Will of Eternal Providence.”[16]

His book became just as popular as the Bible. By 1933 Mein Kampf was alternating with the Bible for the number one spot on Germany’s best seller list. In his book, Adolph Hitler did not introduce a new concept to the people of Germany; he built on the foundation of the Judeo-Christian acceptance of Ezra’s purge as a necessary and godly undertaking.

Although horrified by the Holocaust, traditional Christians and Jews continue to endorse the purge that was instituted by Ezra. And as long as they attribute that ancient, man-made reign of terror to God, Western civilization is threatened by a foundational belief that ethnic cleansing can be a godly undertaking, necessary for the survival of a nation. Unless it is repudiated, this potentially destructive belief, usually concealed beneath the surface of everyday life, will continue to erupt in terrible ways that cannot be predicted.

[1]  Survivors of the Northern kingdom of Israel came to be called Samaritans. Their kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.

[2]  Ezra: 4:2  JB

[3]  Ezra 6:16, 17  JB

[4]  Ezra 9:14  TEV

[5]  IBC  p. 495

[6] Ezra 10:7, 8  NIV

[7]  Ezra 10:16, 17  NIV

[8] The policy instituted by Ezra was more severe and contradicted the Deuteronomic Law which said: “You shall not detest an Edomite… you shall not detest an Egyptian…The sons of the third generation who are born to them enter the assembly of the Lord.”  Deut. 23:8 NAS

[9]  Psalm 146 is the first of a third Hallel: Ps 146 – 150  (JB note  p. 927

[10] Ezra 10:15  TEV

[11]  Ezra 9:2   TEV

[12]  Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, p. 295

[13]  Jerusalem Bible, Old Testament, p. 495

[14]  InterVarsity Press, 2002

[15]  An introduction to Jewish Bible Commentary, Rabbi Bernard M. Caspar, Dean, The Hebrew University Jerusalem. Publ: Thomas Yoseloff, NY © 1960 World Jewish Congress.

[16]  Mein Kampf,  p. 186 . . . p.162

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