(Ezra 10:3) Doesn’t it seem cruel that these Pagan wives and children would be ‘put away’ by these men?

CLAIM: God says, “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2:16). Paul writes, “If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her” (1 Cor. 7:12). However, in this passage, many men divorced their wives, and they even sent their children away too (v.44). How can this be morally justified?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, this passage doesn’t contradict the Bible’s teaching against divorce. Paul wrote against divorcing a non-believer, but he wrote this in the new covenant—not the old. In the new covenant, the mission of believers is to reach the world by going out, while in the old covenant, the mission was to be a light to the nations by staying separate and being different from the surrounding cultures. Unbelievers could certainly join the people of God in Israel, but Jews were not commanded to go out to reach them. One of the crucial differences for this is surely the fact that old covenant believers were not sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ps. 51:11; 1 Sam. 16:14), as new covenant believers are today (Eph. 1:13-14; 4:30; Jn. 14:17).

Second, this passage could be a case of prioritized ethics. While it is wrong to lie, it is not always wrong. If you were hiding Jews in your attic during the Holocaust, then it would be morally obligatory to lie when the Nazi’s came to the door asking for leads. This doesn’t make morality relative, because in each context it is either always objectively right to lie or always objectively wrong to lie (see “Prioritized Ethics”). Context needs to be considered to discover objective moral duties. Here we respectfully disagree with the ethical view of theologians like Wayne Grudem (see “Why It Is Never Right To Lie”).

Third, this could be a case of an irresolvable moral dilemma. Dilemmas like these occur when there is no good ethical choice; that is, both options are bad. In such circumstances, it is appropriate to choose the greater good (or the lesser of two evils).

Under Solomon’s reign, the nation of Israel divided and eventually split, because Solomon’s idol-worshipping wives led him away from God. 1 Kings 11:2 states, “They [the unbelieving wives] will surely turn your heart away after their gods.” Solomon’s decision to take foreign wives led to a 500 year spiritual and moral decay in Israel, ending in child sacrifice, prostitution, and eventual judgment in the Babylonian Exile. Ezra 9-10 takes place on the eve of the Regathering… and the men were immediately falling back into the same exact sin of King Solomon!

While divorce is immoral, having all of the men of Israel being married to idol worshippers would be even worse. Saving the nation of Israel from corporate apostasy and judgment is ethically greater than preserving this small percentage of marriages. There were only 111 men listed who intermarried (vv.18-44). This is an incredibly small percentage compared to the 30,000 men in the nation.[1] Moral dilemmas like these end in poor results no matter how you pick. Either circumstance is ugly, but one is worse than the other.

Scholars have long noted that post-exilic Israel did not struggle with idolatry as they did before the Exile. Gleason Archer goes so far as to say that pagan idolatry was non-existent after the Exile. How do we know that this decision to divorce the wives was not a major factor in Israel’s collective turn from idolatry? Yamauchi compares Ezra’s stance with other Jews who returned after the Exile, but who tolerated intermarriage: “What happened to a Jewish community that was lax concerning intermarriage can be seen from the example of the Elephantine settlement contemporary with Ezra and Nehemiah. Intermarriages took place among both lay leaders and priests… The Jews at Elephantine worshiped not only Yahweh, but the goddess Anath-Yahweh (cf. Jer 7:16–18).”[2]

Fourth, the unbelieving wives could have been given an opportunity to convert to Judaism. Nothing in OT law explicitly prohibits Jews from marrying Gentiles, as long as they converted to Judaism (e.g. Ruth and Boaz would be a key example). While Ezra 10 does not explicitly tell us the spiritual convictions of the wives, could it be that they refused to convert to Judaism in the full two months it took to decide this legal case? (Ezra 10:16-17)

Fifth, there was little time for children to be born. Yamauchi notes that only eight months transpired between when Ezra arrived (August 4) until this command was given (March 27).[3] This means that (1) some of these babies could have been born prematurely, (2) these Levites had married before they regathered in Israel, or (3) these Levites had come to Israel before Ezra arrived. Yamauchi fails to note that some of these children could have been step-children from the Canaanite women. Regardless, once (or if?) these women refused to convert to Judaism, it could’ve been an ethical dilemma on what to do with the children. Presumably, these children were very young (perhaps even newborns?), and tearing the children away from their mothers would’ve incurred further tragedy.

Sixth, this is descriptive and not necessarily prescriptive. The text doesn’t say that this was right or wrong—though it seems to favor the interpretation that it was right.

For further reading on divorce and remarriage, see comments on Matthew 19:3-12. For further reading on marrying an unbeliever, see comments on 2 Corinthians 6:14.

[1] Yamauchi, E. (1988). Ezra-Nehemiah. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4, p. 676). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[2] Yamauchi, E. (1988). Ezra-Nehemiah. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4, p. 677). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[3] Yamauchi, E. (1988). Ezra-Nehemiah. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4, p. 676). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.