Scripture: Ezra 10:1–15
“Wait, is that in the Bible? I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard that story before!”
These words may be akin to what ran through your head when you heard this passage from Ezra. I know something akin to that ran through mine when I first remember hearing it in seminary. Not in Sunday school. Or youth group. Or even in college. Even though I had read through the Bible all the way through before I got to seminary, it was then that I really understood what is happening in this passage here at the end of Ezra.
In case you don’t know or remember the context, Ezra is one of the leaders of the people of God following the Babylonian Exile. The Israelites are allowed to return, in order to rebuild. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of this rebuild, including construction of the wall around the Temple, and rebuilding of the social structure around the Torah. Ezra was a priest, and in many ways, a hero to God’s people from this period. After years of Exile, a tenuous return, and shaky rebuild, it looks like they will be united under Ezra and the other leaders of their day.
And then Shecaniah shows up. We don’t know much about Shecaniah, besides this event, but his words here have tremendous effect on the community of faith, and on generations who have come since. His argument is basically this:
1. God wants us to follow the Torah (which is the main point of the book of Ezra),
2. the Torah says that you should have no other gods before me,
3. some of our men have married women from other faiths and cultures and races,
4. therefore, the only way to be faithful to God is to send these women and the children from these marriages back to their homes and most likely to their deaths on the way there, alone and unprotected in the wilderness
5. thus impressing God with our purity.
Huh. OK, then. Biblical scholar Johanna Bos suggests that Shecaniah demonstrates what she calls “creative exegesis.” [Exegesis is just a fancy word for Bible study and life application.] In other words, the Torah does not say that men who have married wives from other faiths and cultures and races must divorce them and send them back to their homes (and probably to their deaths). Shecaniah reads into scripture something that seems to come more from his own cultural presuppositions and bigotry and racism. In fact, Bos suggests, Shecaniah completely misquotes the Torah, which actually suggests on more than one occasion that the community of faith must care for and protect “the stranger,” those from outside the community who come seeking refuge in their midst. In Hebrew, the word is gar and is sometimes translated as guest or sojourner. Even though these women seem to be precisely the stranger that God commands care for, Shecaniah uses a different word—nokree—putting them in a different category and thus suggesting that the Torah’s command for care no longer applies. Shecaniah dehumanizes these women and places them in the category of God’s enemies. And the priest Ezra and the officials go along with it, and enact Shecaniah’s suggestion.
According to Bos, this creative exegesis comes not from the pages of Scripture, but from a much closer culprit: fear. She writes, “Fear looks for a scapegoat. The officials and Ezra locate a scapegoat in the group of women who have been taken into marriage by the Jews.” Because they are afraid of the other and of God and God’s retribution, these women and children are sacrificed, sending hundreds of them to their deaths.
What do we do with this story?
Unsurprisingly, this story of exclusion and violence has led to practices of exclusion and violence. A few weeks ago, we had a conversation in the Two-Way about how Christians have used the Bible to denounce multiracial marriages. They asked what part of the Bible folks have used to attack those marriages…and this passage from Ezra is one of them. Likewise, this passage has been used to defend exclusion and violence based on race in multiple times and contexts. If the people of God could do this, based on one’s race and culture, then why can’t we do the same?
Robert P. Jones writes in his book White Too Long that this is actually a common practice of many Christians and many churches in the United States. He delineates 400 years of white supremacy in this county, much of it originated by Christians, supported by churches, and defended by Scripture. Lynchings. Jim Crow laws. State brutality. Redlining. Discrimination based on skin color or simply on names perceived to be of a certain race. Cultural oppression through symbols and statues. Violence against those in multiracial marriages and against their children. Even the very institution of slavery itself. Defended by Scripture. Each of these examples of “creative exegesis,” based on some theological conception of “purity,” Jones says. We must keep ourselves pure. Holy. Blameless before God. Which, in the U.S. in the last 400 years, means “white.” “If the people of God could enact this exclusion and violence, based on one’s race and culture, then why can’t we do the same?”
Jones recognizes and writes that in our country, racism is not just something that Black people have to deal with. That indigenous people have to deal with. That Latino and Latina people have to deal with. That racial and religious minorities have to deal with. He writes that racism and white supremacy are a disease that white people must deal with. A theological virus that has eaten us from the inside for 400 years. A spiritual sickness that we must find a way to diagnose, and eradicate, and immunize ourselves from. Jones writes that our very souls might depend on it:
“The question today is whether we white Christians will also awaken to see what has happened to us, and to grasp once and for all how white supremacy has robbed us of our own heritage and of our ability to be in right relationships with our fellow citizens, with ourselves, and even with God. Reckoning with white supremacy, for us, is now an unavoidable moral choice.”
Period. End of book. Mic dropped.
What do we do with this story? Did you notice the very end of the passage that I read? I sure didn’t, not even when I was awakened to the reality of this passage in seminary. Let me read it again, in case you missed it like I did: Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levites supported them.
Jonathan. Jahzeiah. Meshullam. Shabbathai. One verse for all of them combined. We know nothing about them, except the recording that they were in opposition to this practice. We don’t know why they opposed it. Maybe they wanted the expulsion of these wives to happen more quickly or maybe they didn’t even want to allow them to live until they made it into the wilderness. But what if they heard the argument of Shekeniah, and the acquiescence to that argument by Ezra, and the vigor with which the people of God cheered the decision? And what if these four men said, “this is not right. This ‘creative exegesis’ is not Torah. This is not the God I know.” What if they looked these women in the eye and saw a guest, a stranger, a sojourner in need of protection? What if they saw these children, crying in fear, and watched the gleam in the eye of the men sending them away, and said “we cannot be silent.” What if they saw what was happening and believed that the only way they could act in accordance with their faith was to resist. To stand against the exclusion and violence and scapegoating and fear that was encouraged on that day. What if they used their power and their privilege—all four as men with a voice in the assembly, and two of them from the powerful family of the Levitical priests—to speak up and speak out. Jonathan. Jahzeiah. Meshullam. Shabbathai. Members of the resistance.
The task of reading the historic Scriptures of God and applying them in current context is a difficult one. Shecaniah and Ezra and the leaders here thought that they were being faithful. They thought that they were protecting the ways of God. They thought they were defending purity. They believed that family and tradition and culture as they knew it must be safeguarded at all costs, against those on the outside.
But there is another way. In this passage, it appears that there is another voice. Members of the resistance chose inclusivity. Chose love of neighbor and stranger and enemy and other. Regardless of race. Regardless of difference. They chose a different way. And a few hundred years later there lived another member of the resistance. Around him were those who felt the need to protect the ways of God, to defend purity, to safeguard family and tradition and culture as they knew it. But this member of the resistance picked up the Torah and chose inclusivity. Chose love of neighbor and stranger and enemy and other. Looked at the poor and vulnerable and lonely and hurting and said, “these are my mother…these are my brothers…all those who do the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus chose the way of resistance. Jesus stood up to those who would send out the “other” into the cold rain of exclusion. He picked up the children. He cared for the women. He rejected the rejection of those in power and authority, and said “we cannot be silent.”
Stephen D. Jones—no relation—some of you will know is the pastor at First Baptist Church of Kansas City, Missouri and co-pastor with Dezo. Steve has written a novel on the life of Galusha Anderson. Galusha Anderson was a pastor in St. Louis, at Second Baptist Church in the city, and served during the Civil War. Anderson served in a divided country, in a divided city, in a divided congregation. St. Louis was a border city between North and South, and those in his neighborhood and church sent sons to fight and die against each other on opposite sides of the war. The safe thing for Galusha to do would have been to avoid the topic of slavery, which in fact he did for some time. But finally, his reading of the Gospel and of the times meant he could no longer stay silent. In the face of the violence of slavery, he preached a sermon that explained how slavery and white supremacy and the Gospel could not be concurrent, and that this practice must not be allowed to continue. Galusha Anderson joined the resistance.
But it did not come without a price. Confederate sympathizers left the church immediately, never returning to the congregation. His life was often threatened. The church was attacked during a worship service. Newspapers denounced him in print. He was literally at the top of a hit list created by Confederate sympathizers. His courage came with a price, but it was one that he was willing to pay. Today, we remember Second Baptist and Galusha Anderson as heroes of the faith, who chose Gospel love over supremacy and hatred.
I conclude this morning from Steve’s novel, written from the perspective of a pastor in crisis. Perhaps they can be words to inspire and challenge us today:
“What was boiling within me was the gospel truth, as I knew it. It was of a Savior who lifted people from bondage. It was a God who created all of us equal, no matter the color of our skin. It was of a gospel that proclaimed freedom, upon which our nation was founded and the truth of which was boldly proclaimed in our nation’s founding documents. And it was a failure of our nation to live up to our own ideals—slavery and its continued practice being chief among our sins….In my deepest heart, I want to believe that it was gospel truth itself that I could no longer contain…to not speak out was wrong and to maintain the peace at the cost of the gospel truth was wrong.”
Jonathan. Jahzeiah. Meshullam. Shabbathai. Jesus. Galusha Anderson. Members of the resistance, all. May we follow in their footsteps today.