National Council of Churches President and General Secretary Jim Winkler offers embarrassingly bad exposition of the Old Testament Book of Ezra this week. Writing for the ecumenical council’s electronic newsletter, the former lobby chief of the United Methodist Church looks at chapters 9 and 10 of the account of the Jewish scribe and priest who led a group returning to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon.
Winkler bemoans “a lost opportunity” to partner with neighboring peoples in rebuilding the temple:
Oh, how I wish I could have read that the offer was graciously accepted and that dialogue and goodwill helped to lead to an era of peace and tranquility. How many times have we heard the inspiring reports of peoples of different faiths standing together in solidarity in recent years? Some have even offered their sanctuaries as places of worship for those who have other beliefs and practices!
Then, the priest Ezra arrives in Jerusalem and learns the Jews are living among “the peoples of the land with their abominations (9:11)” and have married some of them, had children and raised families so that “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands… (9:2).” Ezra demands they send away these family members. That’s right! He insists they force their own spouses and children to leave. Despite all efforts to spin these verses, they still possess unbearable cruelty.
Winkler breezes past “abominations”, seemingly uninterested in the practices these peoples were perpetuating, and why God forbade them. Chapter 9 lists these peoples as including Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites. Women of these cultures did worship other gods, including Asherah. Earlier in Deuteronomy, the Israelites are warned “do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there.” These abominations included divination or sorcery, witchcraft, consulting the dead, and yes, those “who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire.”
Problems with intermarriage between the Jewish people and neighboring groups were not new to Ezra’s time. Those returning from exile were aware that King Solomon earlier “was led into sin by foreign women” (Neh. 13:26). Solomon tolerated the worship of false gods because of his foreign wives (1 Kings 11). Those studied in Israel’s history were not eager for a repeat.
The NCC chief lists these passages in Ezra as among those in the Bible he finds “quizzical, disappointing, infuriating, beautiful, and humorous.” He notes that those returning from exile lived “in dread of the neighboring peoples (3:3)” and is aware of interpretations that emphasize faithfulness, repentance and restoration, but he’s unimpressed with Ezra:
Sure, OK, but to the lay reader, it reads as ugly. I suppose I appreciate that this is included in the Holy Scriptures because it reminds us yet again of how frequently we fall short of our beliefs and seek to exclude “others.” After all, it’s the daily drumbeat that emanates from the White House.
As for me, I desire a faith that draws the circle wide and emphasizes love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. That’s the faith I try to live out. That’s the faith I believe Jesus is all about.
Winker reduces the biblical account to a cautionary tale of exclusion with a little political jab. He, on the other hand, (with apologies to the 90s-era alternative band) is better than Ezra, living out real faith.
Ezra’s people were to covenant themselves as fully devoted to the Lord. They were to remove all connections with those who worshiped other gods. Interestingly, much of the tension surrounding these chapters involves holding them alongside biblical proscriptions against divorce in the Book of Malachi and later in the New Testament. Winkler doesn’t go there.
Marriages with people of other nations that worshiped false gods were forbidden in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 7:3–4). Ezra’s heart was grieved. He tore his tunic and cloak, pulled hair from his head and beard, “and sat down appalled” (Ezra 9:3). Idolatry was one of the sins that had resulted in Judah’s being conquered by Babylon. Now, upon their return to the Promised Land, Judah was again toying with the same sin.
Winkler wants to emphasize “love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness” but he anachronistically projects those concepts back upon pagan idolaters. Ezra was seeking to uphold God’s justice and holiness amidst competing cultures that had little regard for biblical concepts such as grace and mercy, now widely understood as part of the moral architecture that under-girds Christian-influenced societies.
Religious Left luminaries don’t produce heresy out of thin air. They often correctly identify God’s heart for one thing – reconciliation, for example – and then elevate it at the expense of other Godly attributes, such as holiness or justice. Ezra sought to be faithful to God, preserving the devotion of the people by setting them apart from others engaged in “detestable practices” (Ezra 9).
American Christians are not the ancient people Ezra led back from exile, and these commands should be understood in the cultural context of their time. But Ezra was serious about the damage unchallenged idolatry would inflict upon God’s people.
The head of a Christian council like the NCC would do well to remember this.