After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”- Ezra 8:1-2
From the beginning, this passage of scripture makes me nervous. Ezra obviously becomes very upset after the leaders come to him about this unfaithfulness. However, I have seen this passage of scripture and ones like it misinterpreted so often that I can feel the tension in the room as soon as I read the text. For some, the proper interpretation eases the tension a little. However, for many of us the right interpretation is even more challenging and convicting.
The people…have not kept themselves separate
In Deuteronomy 7:6, God tells the Israelites, “For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” While we interpret the word holy to refer to righteousness or purity, these are actually the results of holiness. Holiness actually refers to our position as separated unto God or set apart for His purposes. When we are set apart for His purposes, He causes us to be righteous and pure, but we are first called to be holy or set apart.
This message is now the message that God gives to His people who are adopted as children through the blood of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:9 calls us a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We, too, are called to be a holy people, set apart for His purposes.
Why not “intermarry”?
Just before God calls the Israelites his treasured possession, he instructs them not to intermarry with the people in the land that they are about to enter (Deut 7:3). This is just a portion of what God means when He calls them holy unto Himself. This isn’t an arbitrary rule, as some of us might suggest. Rather, God tells them that if they do marry women from other nations who do not worship God, the people that they marry will turn their children away from following God in order to serve other gods (Deut 7:4). God is trying to protect His people from the temptation to stray.
Of course, we all have a tendency to believe that we are the exception because we are much stronger and smarter than those others who have fallen. In case we don’t believe that God knew what he was talking about, 1 Kings 11:1 tells us that King Solomon loved many foreign women from the nations about which God had given this command. The result, according 1 Kings 11:4 was “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” Solomon was the wisest king in the history of Israel. His father was the man who God called “a man after my own heart.” However, even David was not immune to the temptation that is introduced with regard to the opposite sex. Why do we believe that we will be any different? Paul applies this same sort of instruction to the New Testament people of God by telling us “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14). This is not a matter of race or national origin. Rather, this is a matter of not compromising by establishing intimate relationships with people who do not serve our God. In the end, we will be led astray.
The response of Ezra to this infraction is perhaps the most enlightening and inspirational parts of this whole story. Don’t miss next week as we study how the man of God responds to sin.