Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Nov 15 2019 - Ezra 10:1-17 – Dealing with foreign marriages

Ezra's distress over the intermarriage between Jews and people from other nations was soon shared by many of the people – even those who had taken foreign wives. We read:

Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, ‘We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.’ (vv. 2-4)

Ezra summoned a meeting of all the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem and Judah and assembled them uncomfortably in the rain in the square before the temple. He commanded them each to separate from their foreign wives and families. And so it was done, with "only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah, supported by Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite" opposing this action (v. 15).

What are we to make of this chapter, which continues with a long list of those who had married foreign wives and been required to send them away? We need to be careful how we read the Scriptures. Just because we read of something happening in the Bible, that does not mean that it was the right and appropriate thing to do. This is quite obvious when we read of such incidents as David's adultery with Bathsheba and the arranged death of her husband, but it is equally true even in less obvious examples. Was it right for wives and children to be sent away without support even if those wives were devotees of another religion and engaged in idol worship – even if they were polygamous marriages? The apostle Paul, faced with marriages between believers and unbelievers in Corinth gives very different instructions (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-14).

Let me tell you a story concerning the famous explorer and missionary, David Livingstone. It seems that, in conventional terms, he was not very successful in leading the people of Africa to faith in Christ. He had only one African convert, Sechele, the chief of the Bakwena tribe in what is now Botswana. But Livingstone soon wrote off his convert as a backslider because he would not abandon his secondary wives. Sechele pleaded with Livingstone, "Do not give me up because of this. I shall never give up Jesus. You and I will stand before him together." His pleas did not move Livingstone, but after he left, Sechele led church services for his own people. He taught them to read and the Bible became popular. Gradually the Bakwena became Christians. Sechele then travelled hundreds of miles as a missionary to other tribes and many more were drawn to Christ through his ministry.

Was Livingstone right? Was Sechele right?

One thing is clear, the Lord looks for a people who are wholeheartedly devoted to him and who are careful to avoid anything that would lead them away from him. We are often faced with difficult decisions about what this means in practical terms in our daily lives. We want to be good witnesses to the world around us and so are concerned not to cut ourselves off from those who don't share our faith. We don't want to live in a Christian ghetto. We want to be like our Lord Jesus who was often found in dubious company and was criticised by the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders for this. We want to be those whose lives are a blessing to others, but we need to be careful that our friendship with others leads them towards Christ rather than leading us away from him.

Lord Jesus, help us by your Spirit to have the wisdom and discernment to know what you would have us do in the difficult decisions we need to make day-by-day. May we do what is pleasing to you and brings your presence and blessing to those around us.

Peter Misselbrook