Given the history of the Israelites, they were bound to lose steam in keeping God's law vigilantly. Part of the need for the Messiah is the fact that it's impossible to perfectly keep the law. Note, that doesn't mean we shouldn't try or that the law is broken. There are numerous posts on the site about the law that go into more detail on this note, but for now, we're focusing on the struggle of the Israelites with keeping the law. Every time they dedicated themselves to following God's law, something drew them back into sin.
The Israelites were forbidden from intermarrying with those who had not chosen to follow God. This wasn't a case of God saying one race was better than another, remember all of the nations are related to each other through the sons of Noah. God issued this law to keep the Israelites from falling into idolatry. In relationships where the couple belongs to different religions, each person is expected to make sacrifices that may be against their religion to make the relationship work. Further, there is the issue of which religion will be taught to their children. In essence, by marrying a person, you are also accepting their beliefs, and paganism is not something God wanted His children to accept.
Before the exile, the Israelites were very fond of intermarrying and now that they had returned to Jerusalem, they were back to marrying off their sons and daughters to pagan nations. It isn’t surprising when you realize that there are groups of people of almost every race that claim Jewish heritage. Ezra finds this practice to be unacceptable since it is disobedience to God and likely to end in idolatry as it had all the times before. In a prayer to God, Ezra stresses that disobedience was what led to their captivity and reminds us that God never forsook them so it wasn't too late to repent. After everything that had happened, they should have learned their lesson, but they didn't. We repeat this cycle ourselves in the modern era (not specifically with marriage but with sin in general).
After the prayer, the people of Israel gathered around him and wept. Ezra proposes that the Israelites send their foreign wives and children away so that they may preserve the covenant. Divorce for reasons other than adultery is not allowed, so why did God allow this? The New Testament tells us that we are to stay with a spouse who doesn't share our faith if they will have us. These spouses, likely were not happy with the crack down imposed by Ezra. In addition, the text never says the people were divorced. It is quite possible that women who sent their pagan husbands away were not allowed to remarry. Men who sent their wives away probably shouldn't have remarried, but may have since men often had multiple wives.
Everyone was called to Jerusalem to hear this decree, and those that did not come after 3 days were cut off from the community. This meeting occurred on the 20th day of the ninth month. We are also given a list of people found guilty of this trespass, many of which were Levites. The list is probably there to remind us that even "the chosen" are to be held accountable for their sins.
Ezra 10:3 contains the phrase "my lord," but the Masoretic Text reads "my Lord." The difference is that lord would refer to an earthly master, whereas Lord was the phrase substituted when referring to God. It is unclear if Shechaniah was speaking of God (Lord) or Ezra (lord) when he gives his speech.
In either case, it is he who proposes that the Israelites send their foreign wives and offspring away to preserve the covenant.
References and Footnotes
- Holman Bible Publishers. Holman KJV Study Bible, pg. 811-812. 2014