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Intermarriage in Ezra-Nehemiah

The intermarriage narrative in Ezra-Nehemiah is a postexilic text that betrays increased awareness of ethnic identity among those returning from exile.

Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali

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.

  • southwood-katherine

    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).