Intermarriage in Ezra-Nehemiah by Katherine E. Southwood

Marriage is never only about love. It also evokes debates within and across families about kinship, wealth, and identity. Biblical texts concerning marriage are often as fraught as present-day debates about suitable partners (though, of course, the two things are not directly comparable).

Which groups intermarry in Ezra and Nehemiah?

Ezra 9-10 and Neh 13:23-27 features narratives about intermarriage with so-called foreign women. In these texts, two groups are represented: First are those returning from the Babylonian exile who are characterized as wishing to remain pure. This group is represented as dominant in the text, and they call themselves the “Holy Seed” (Ezra 9:2) and the “children of the exile” (Ezra 6:16, Ezra 6:19-20; Ezra 10:7, Ezra 10:16). The other group is negatively represented as a mixture of various peoples (Ezra 9:1) and given the anonymizing title the “people of the land” (Ezra 4:4; Ezra 10:2, Ezra 10:11). The Holy Seed are described as having wrongly “intermingled” and “intermarried” with the people of the land (Ezra 9:2). This intermarriage irritates Ezra, the priest and scribe. His prayer describes the people of the land in strongly polemical ritualized language as having made the land thoroughly “unclean” from end to end (Ezra 9:10; cf. Lev 18:25-26; Deut 7:1-6).   

Why is this intermarriage condemned?

In these texts, ethnicity is important. The Holy Seed group is depicted as having taken “foreign women” in marriage (Ezra 10:2, Ezra 10:10-11, Ezra 10:17-18; Ezra 10:44; Neh13:27). The notion of the “foreign woman” as a threat occurs repeatedly in other parts of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., the book of Proverbs), and this negative stereotype is also at the forefront of Ezra 9-10. This typecast of the ethnic Other may be explained as the result of a growing ethnic awareness and an increased emphasis on purity, perhaps as a result of the challenges—such as, for example, maintaining community identity while in a foreign culture—that faced the group who went into exile and returned. Because of this, the return-migration of the Holy Seed provoked a negative characterization of the group who were left behind on the land and therefore did not experience the same hardships.

Paradoxically, the two groups were originally one. However, after the exile the groups are depicted as deeply divided. This division appears to be, at least in part, desired by the Holy Seed, who refuse help from those who remained on the land (Ezra 4:1-5). Regardless, the text actively constructs negative ideas about deep ethnic difference between the groups and then makes the differences matter.

It is good to recognize here that these depictions of ethnic difference do not necessarily indicate what we might think of as real difference. This is because many anthropologists interpret ethnicity as something that does not exist as a given but, instead, as something that is constructed by a community. It is also worth noting that a lot of other texts in the Hebrew Bible do not object to intermarriage in the way that Ezra and Nehemiah do. For example, in Numbers, Moses is depicted as having married a woman from Cush, and his sister Miriam is punished for criticizing this union (Num 11; cf. Exod 2). Indeed, some other texts within the Hebrew Bible are more positive about those depicted as foreign. For example Yahweh points out Jonah’s small-mindedness when it comes to his compassion for all human and animal life (Jonah 4:11). However, for Ezra and Nehemiah, so-called foreign women remain a source of threat to ethnic purity.

Katherine E. Southwood , "Intermarriage in Ezra-Nehemiah", n.p. [cited 4 Aug 2021]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/intermarriage-in-ezra-nehemiah

Contributors

southwood-katherine

Katherine E. Southwood
Associate Professor in Old Testament , University of Oxford

Katherine E. Southwood is Associate Professor in Old Testament at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. She is author of Ethnicity and the Mixed Marriage Crisis in Ezra 9-10: An Anthropological Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

one who studies human cultures and their development

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

rhetoric intended to oppose a specific position

A state of being ritually unacceptable and therefore excluded from proximity to holy objects or use in religious observance. According to the book of Levticus, some unclean things can be purified and become clean, whereas other are permanently unclean.

Ezra 9-10

Denunciation of Mixed Marriages
1After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites hav ... View more

Neh 13:23-27

23 In those days also I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; 24 and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could n ... View more

Ezra 9:2

2 For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and ... View more

Ezra 6:16

16 The people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. 

Ezra 6:19-20

19 On the fourteenth day of the first month the returned exiles kept the passover. 20 For both the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them ... View more

Ezra 10:16

16 Then the returned exiles did so. Ezra the priest selected men,[a] heads of families, according to their families, each of them designated by name. On the fir ... View more

Ezra 9:1

9 After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from ... View more

Ezra 4:4

4 Then the people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, 

Ezra 10:2

2Shecaniah son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra, saying, “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples ... View more

Ezra 10:11

11Now make confession to the Lord the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”

Ezra 9:2

2 For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons. Thus the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands, and ... View more

Ezra 9:10

10 “And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, 

Lev 18:25-26

25 Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my ordina ... View more

Ezra 10:2

2Shecaniah son of Jehiel, of the descendants of Elam, addressed Ezra, saying, “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples ... View more

Ezra 10:10-11

10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have trespassed and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. 11 Now make confessio ... View more

Ezra 10:17-18

17 By the first day of the first month they had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women.
18 There were found of the descendants of the pri ... View more

Ezra 10:44

44 All these had married foreign women, and they sent them away with their children.

Ezra 9-10

Denunciation of Mixed Marriages
1After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites hav ... View more

Ezra 4:1-5

4 When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the Lord, the God of Israel, 2 they approached Zerubbabel ... View more

Num 11

11 Now when the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes, the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled. Then the fire of the Lord bur ... View more

Exod 2

Birth and Youth of Moses
1Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a f ... View more

Jonah 4:11

11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right ... View more

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