Apologies for my month-long hiatus; things have gotten pretty busy with school this semester.
Finally, the conclusion to the book of Ezra!
June 11, 2012
As I read through Ezra 9, I began to understand why Ezra has such a pivotal place in the book. This eluded me before because I had not yet considered the entire story; I was still 2 chapters from the end! What happens next is a two-part action; I will go into greater detail of the results next time, and for now will focus on the cause.
Having arrived in Judah after Zerubbabel’s rebuilding efforts, Ezra finds out that the Israelites have been drawn into sin again. They have repeated a less-savory part of their history – intermarriage with Gentile nations, producing half-breed children with split loyalties. Ezra grieves when he hears of this, astonished at how quickly Israel has been drawn off the right path once again. After all, they had just returned from exile and rebuilt the Temple; what’s more, Ezra had just arrived, expecting to teach the Law to people eager to learn it! How could they become so complacent so quickly?
It is in this time that we see Ezra’s character shine; instead of turning back and returning to Persia, he stays to confront the problem. At the evening sacrifice (ironically the same time of day when Jesus died centuries later), Ezra prays to GOD, begging forgiveness on behalf of the nation; rather than set himself apart, he acknowledges himself as one of the people and approaches the LORD in that mindset. He recognizes GOD’s love and grace, and how the people have been spared only because of it. He fears that, having come so far and learned nothing, something even worse than exile awaits should the people fail to turn away from this sin. It is during this time, I believe, that GOD is preparing Ezra’s heart and those of the people for the Torah-reading in the final chapter; the first step towards change is to recognize what is wrong. Their hearts will be broken by the guilt for their sins, then GOD may come in and heal them, drawing His children back to Him in the spirit of love.
Then, following this powerful prayer, the events of chapter 10:
June 12, 2012
This chapter explains yet more pain for the former exiles – and perhaps more bad blood between the Jews and the Samaritans.
As Ezra mourns, a large crowd gathers to grieve with him, confessing their guilt to GOD. That in itself is a sign of their sincerity; having newly been restored to GOD, they now have caused grief to Him and themselves, and they know it. The path to healing will not be easy, though – GOD will ask something of them that will be most difficult indeed.
GOD’s law expressly forbade intermarriage with non-Jews, just as today Christian doctrine forbids marrying non-believers. The people recognize their sin, and as part of their repentance decide to “put away” the pagan women they have married and the children born by these marriages. In essence, they have pledged to send away their wives and children, ending one relationship to restore the other – their relationship with GOD. They then make a promise to Ezra to support him as he oversees/advises them in this endeavor.
While it was not done overnight, the agreement was made and the great separation began. Beginning with the religious leaders, who should have been leading the way anyway, the men of Judah send away their foreign wives, some of them with children born from the marriages. Division seems to have been a constant part of Israel’s family history; from Abraham to Jacob & Esau to the twelve Patriarchs, it has never been easy – and it should never be so.
One of the hardest thing a father could ever do is send away his wife and/or children. In Scripture, this action is seen in Genesis when Abraham sends away Hagar and Ishmael at the urging of Sarah and the confirmation of GOD; while GOD promised to watch over Ishmael, it must have been devastating for Abraham to send away his own son, especially in front of Isaac, the son of GOD’s promise and Ishmael’s half-brother. We see it again in Esther when Xerses banishes/divorces his queen, Vashti. When he was looking for a new queen, might he have been comparing each candidate to his former wife, wondering if he would ever experience the same happiness again? That pain and hurt is multiplied to an exponential level, as all these local leaders in Judah send away their pagan wives and half-breed children. Yet the list herein is not meant to condemn, but rather to display those men who were willing to make that choice for GOD’s sake as an example for all who read.
Where could they possibly go? The closest – and most logical – option would be Samaria, and for at least a couple reasons. First, Samaria was in the local area; it would be easiest to travel a short distance to shelter and aid rather than risk returning to whatever home they might have come from. Even had they been able to do so, the children would never have been accepted; being half-Jewish, they would have been given no place among the pureblood Gentile cultures their parents would have come from. The second reason was because of the background of the Samaritans; they too were half-Jewish, and had also been rejected by the now-returned exiles. They were natural allies, and people to whom the newly-turned outcasts could reach out to without fear.
The anger, sorrow, and resentment toward their Jewish brethren would stay with the Samaritans through the centuries, finally being addressed when Jesus Christ came. After preaching to the Jews, Jesus reaches out to certain Samaritans in His ministry. From the woman at the well to the Samaritan leper and the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus uses the outcast to reach hundreds, and opens the Church to them after His resurrection. GOD healed the wounds between Jew and Samaritan in His time and in His way, bringing them together at the foot of the Cross, covered by the blood of Jesus.
Following GOD wholeheartedly demands that we make very difficult decisions in life; sometimes, that means not going places or doing certain things that our acquaintances and peers do. Other times, it means removing something/someone from your life for GOD’s sake because of the ungodly influence they have on you. Jesus never said that following Him would be easy; that’s why He tells us in the Gospel to pick up the cross. Elsewhere, He compares following Him to a narrow gate/path that few would find; it is also a difficult path to stay on, because there are so many things around that will try to get us to step off. The reward of eternal life with GOD in eternity, however, makes any risk seem small by comparison.
What makes it even better is that, by doing as GOD instructs, we may actually draw people into His kingdom by the Holy Spirit speaking through our actions. So long as we draw breath, there is a chance for everyone and anyone to be redeemed. That is why we should make every effort to live for GOD in our lives; both He and others are watching us, observing what we do. As I close this look at Ezra, I pray that we would remember the events and lessons of the past, carefully note what part they play in our present lives, and what GOD hopes to accomplish with both in the future.
Thus ends our progress through Ezra. I hope this has been a blessing for you to read, and that GOD has spoken to you through it. I will endeavor to post Nehemiah and Esther when I can, and perhaps afterwards go further back in the Bible. A new day lies before me, however, and I must go to meet it. Until next time, dear readers!