The books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Bible appear to take a very intolerant attitude toward foreigners. More than a hundred men who married foreign wives caused a great scandal that ended in mass divorce. But in the book of Ruth, Boaz becomes the hero by marrying Ruth, a foreigner.
People who think the Bible is full of contradictions have a field day. As always, a careful look at everything the Bible has to say resolves the apparent conflict. Ezra 9-10 and Nehemiah 13 describe the scandal of foreign wives. We need to understand other passages in the Bible to put these chapters in perspective. As it turns out, the marriage of Ruth and Boaz would not have scandalized Ezra or Nehemiah.
There is one crucial difference between the Mosaic law and the church age, by the way. In the New Testament, believers are sealed with the Holy Spirit and sent out to bring the whole world to faith in Jesus. In the Old Testament, where the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, faithful people were supposed to separate from the rest of the world and live a distinctly different lifestyle. The only problem about foreign wives in the Bible, then, comes in the Old Testament.
The problem of foreign wives in Ezra and Nehemiah
Ezra led a group of Jews and holy vessels belonging to the temple from Persia back to Jerusalem. He had the full backing and financial assistance from the king of Persia. He also had authority to enforce Jewish law.
Some unspecified time later, local leaders informed Ezra that some people, including priests and Levites, had married women from the surrounding nations. From the days of Joshua forward, marrying foreign wives had been at the heart of the sins that eventually led to the Babylonian captivity. King Solomon’s foreign wives had seduced him into idolatry and destroyed his kingdom.
The news shocked Ezra. He tore his clothes, sat astonished until the evening sacrifice, then attended the sacrifice to pray. A large crowd of people, moved by his prayers and tears, surrounded him and joined his weeping. One of them suggested that all the men who had started families with foreign wives should sever relationships with those women and their children.
Ezra called a mandatory assembly at which he commanded everyone who had married a foreigner to separate themselves from her and her children. Then he appointed men to conduct an investigation, which took three months. The book ends with a long list of the guilty parties.
In Nehemiah 13, the wall had been built and dedicated. The dedication ceremony included a reading of the law. Nehemiah 13:1 specifically refers to the part where no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be part of the congregation of Israel. In Nehemiah 13:23-28, we learn that the children of the foreign wives spoke their mother’s languages and had no knowledge of Hebrew.
Putting Old Testament narratives in chronological order can be difficult. Ezra’s prayer gives thanks for the wall, so it is entirely possible that we see the two leaders’ very different personal reactions to the same situation. Ezra’s cautious planning and Nehemiah’s violence combined to achieve the same purpose.
The marriage of Ruth and Boaz
Ezra 10:15 names four leaders who disagreed with the plan to dissolve so many marriages by judicial fiat. Some modern scholars propose that the Book of Ruth was written to counter the plan’s harsh assessment of foreign wives.
That is impossible. Until sometime after the time of Christ, Judges and Ruth appear to have been one book, counted among the historical books. That is, only later did Jewish leaders separate Ruth from Judges and transfer it to the “writings.” The move makes sense, because Ruth was much more heavily used in Jewish liturgy than the rest of Judges.
Since Ruth must have been written centuries earlier than Ezra and Nehemiah, it cannot be read as a disagreement with them.
Nonetheless, it describes a mixed marriage very favorably. Naomi and her husband Elimelech had moved to Moab in a time of famine. Elimelech died. Their sons both married Moabite women and died childless. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth insisted on going with her.
Boaz served as kinsman-redeemer to give Elimelech an inheritance. Since Naomi was past child-bearing years, marrying her would not have served the purpose. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 specifies that if a man dies childless, his widow mustn’t marry an outsider but that his brother must marry her to give him an inheritance. Ruth couldn’t marry her husband’s brother, because he, too, had died.
But there’s a complication: Deuteronomy 23:3-6 specifies that no Moabite or Ammonite could ever enter the assembly of the Lord. Ruth was a Moabite. That fact caused a closer relative than Boaz to decline to marry her.
Why does the Bible commend Boaz for obeying Deuteronomy 25 when it apparently meant violating Deuteronomy 23?
How Ruth and Boaz did not violate the law
The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 includes four women. Verse 6 says that Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth.
Rahab was a Canaanite harlot who committed high treason against her own people to accept the God of Israel. Salmon may have been one of the spies she protected. She and her family became full members of the Israelite community, apparently specifically part of the tribe of Judah.
In Ruth 1, Naomi sent her daughter’s-in-law back to their parents when she decided to return to Bethlehem. Or she tried. Ruth would have none of it. In Ruth 1:18, surely the most often quoted verse in the entire book, Ruth declared that Naomi’s people would be her people and Naomi’s God would be her God. In other words, she repudiated her Moabite gods.
The genealogy names Boaz as the father of Ruth’s child Obed, but legally, Obed was Elimelech’s heir. In the same way Rahab had been accepted as an Israelite and no longer a foreigner, Ruth was ethnically Moabite but became Israelite by choice. Because she had repudiated her heritage, her marriage to Boaz did not violate the prohibition of Moabites from joining the assembly. Nothing in the Bible supports racism.
How the people of post-exilic Jerusalem followed the same principle
We find exactly the same situation in Jerusalem after the return from exile.
In compliance, Tattenai, governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-Bozenai, and their companions speedily accomplished what Darius the king had decreed. The rebuilding by the elders of the Jews prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they built, and finished it, according to the decree of the God of Israel and according to the decrees of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia. This temple was finished on the third day of the month Adar during the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.
The children of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the descendants of the captivity kept the dedication of this house of God with joy. At the dedication of this house of God, they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs; and as a sin offering for all Israel, they offered twelve goats (according to the number of the tribes of Israel). They appointed the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their orders for the service of God in Jerusalem, as it had been written in the Book of Moses.
The children of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. Because the priests and the Levites had purified themselves together, all of them were pure. So, they slaughtered the Passover lambs for all the descendants of the captivity, both for their brothers the priests and for themselves. Then they ate together, both the children of Israel who had come out of captivity and all those who had separated themselves from the uncleanness of the nations of the land, in order to seek the Lord God of Israel. With joy they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days because the Lord had made them joyful. He had turned the heart of the king of Assyria toward them and strengthened their hands in the work on the house of God, who is the God of Israel. –– Ezra 6:13-22 MEV, emphasis added
This is one of the dull bits in the Bible that people gladly skip over. I don’t ever recall hearing a sermon or reading an article about it. But don’t fail to notice the part in bold.
At the dedication of the temple, some of the surrounding pagans repudiated their gods and joined themselves to the God of Israel, just as Rahab and Ruth had. They became part of the nation of Israel and were welcomed to join in its most important festival. When they married ethnic Israelites, those marriages were not part of the problem Ezra and Nehemiah dealt with. Again, nothing in the Bible supports racism.
The uncleanness of the nations of the land
Ezra’s profound grief came at the news that so many men of Israel had married foreign wives who had no intention of turning from their unclean ways. They didn’t even bother to make sure their children learned their fathers’ language.
They presented exactly the same situation that led to the captivity and exile in the first place. The people of the nations of the land
- worshiped idols instead of the one true God—worshiped the creations of their hands instead of the Creator
- probably still practiced human sacrifice, specifically child sacrifice
- knew and cared nothing about the distinction between moral and immoral behavior in general
- knew and cared nothing about faithfulness in marriage
- and especially, knew and cared nothing about the central commandment of the Mosaic law to love God with all their being and their neighbor as themselves
These women had a chance to become Israelite and refused. They were poison. They would have eventually led their husbands into the same uncleanness and destroyed the society that godly leaders were working to build.
Don’t worry about what happened to them after the mass divorce. They probably found husbands back home.
The possibly worse sin of the men of Israel
The men who married the foreign wives committed a serious offense. It might have been even worse than the books of Ezra and Nehemiah portray.
Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which He loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this, teacher and student, yet who brings an offering to the Lord of Hosts.
This is the second thing you do: You cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and crying out, because He no longer regards the offering, nor receives it with good will from your hand. Yet you say, “Why?” It is because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously. Yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant.
Did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.
For the Lord, the God of Israel, says that He hates divorce; for it covers one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of Hosts.
Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously. – Malachi 2:11-16, emphasis added
It appears that at least some of them divorced Israelite wives in order to marry the foreign wives. The well-known verse that says God hates divorce comes in this context. There is no sign in the Bible that he hated the mass dissolution of marriages in the book of Ezra that never should have happened in the first place.
The error of today’s biblical illiteracy
American society today bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the uncleanness of the nations of the land around resettled Jerusalem. Even in the church, we practice and defend the same kinds of idolatry and immorality.
Too many preachers, seminary professors, and writers of commentaries apparently see no problem with that. They will happily prefer the apparent acceptance of foreigners in Ruth to the apparent intolerance in Ezra and Nehemiah. That way, everyone can be regarded as Christians in good standing without anyone having to repent of uncleanness.
It’s always a mistake to pit one passage of Scripture against another, as if we have the right to pick and choose. On careful examination, all apparent contradictions disappear. And God’s standards never change.
In the foregoing analysis, I am indebted to two volumes of the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Judges and Ruth by Arthur E. Cundall and Leon Morris and Ezra and Nehemiah by Derek Kidner