Ezra 7-10 The Rebuild: Part two – who can we blame?

a reflection by Dan Spragg

The rebuild part two! Today we meet Ezra and hear about attempt number two at re-establishing the former glory of Israel. Ezra feels called to lead a spiritual renewal of the people of Israel. We know from the anti-climatic ending of Zerubbabel’s project – the rebuilding of the temple – that for the exiles returning to their homeland things had not gone as they expected! Their hopes were captured by the idea of rebuilding the temple which, surely, would mean the return of God’s presence, blessing and favour… well, those hopes were dashed. If building a glorious temple wasn’t what would return God’s presence in their midst then maybe something else was needed? 

Up steps Ezra. Ezra takes with him from Babylon, with the permission of the King, a bunch of people and a lot of gold, silver and animals to use as sacrifice offerings to God. They head to Jerusalem with the purpose of teaching again the Torah and practising their ‘right-worship’ in the temple. Ezra being an expert in the law of Moses, those foundational commandments and laws of their community, was to teach the law and ensure all knew and were living by it. It is implied that this purity of living surely would return them to their former glory. If building a temple wasn’t going to work then surely doubling down on legislation, living upright and moral lives, would help them form their community once again.

But, alas, we hear another anti-climatic ending. Ezra’s efforts get derailed, sidetracked, by the leaders of Israel who complain about the presence of inter-marriage between the Israelites who remained in Israel during exile, with people from neighbouring tribes and nations. This is an abomination under their comprehension of themselves as a ‘holy’ nation, a pure nation. We see how it really affects Ezra, he is distraught! He is convinced that this is the thing that is stopping them from being ‘acceptable’ of God’s presence and blessing. It is, I think, important to note that God didn’t appear to order the divorce and sending away of the foreign wives and children. It came from the other leaders of Israel. Ezra is supposed to know the teachings of God and the prophets very well – being a highly regarded scholar of the day. So it is curious in his prayer that he says the prophets have taught against inter-racial marriage when I can think of at least two situations where the prophets potentially don’t agree! We have referenced Jeremiah quite a bit in our life, you’ll recall Jeremiah’s words: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease…” (Jeremiah 29:5-6). And, in Malachi 2 God seems to command against divorce saying, “The man who hates and divorces his wife… does violence to the one he should protect,” (see Malachi 2:13-16). This, of course, is not to be taken as God’s final word on the matter for all time, we’re smart enough to know that, but it is curious in this instance that we find contrasting statements. As far as Ezra is concerned it seems he is ok with being selective in which laws, commands, or teachings he commands others to follow! Which is something that has happened in other times and places of course… I think that what is actually happening is that as their hopes and dreams of an Israel restored to the pre-exilic ‘good old days’ seem to not be coming true they resort to the timeless game of looking for who is to blame and as always, those who are different from us are the ones who are at fault. Policies of nationalism appear to go a long way back into our human history as well as being selective as to which policies one highlights as important and which ones are chosen to be left out.

Here’s something else that I find interesting. I noticed the language of ‘penitence’ especially in his prayer. Ezra is convinced that it is their behaviour and breaking of the ‘rules’ that have caused the continuing absence of God’s presence. They are guilty, they find themselves on the wrong side of the ledger, they are in debt. In their understanding they believe that God’s love and favour is conditional. Punishment and working their way out of deficit is how they will once again win the favour of God. Not only do they blame the foreigners in their midst and so seek to rid themselves of them, they also blame themselves for how things are turning out.

At a recent Presbytery retreat we were fortunate enough to spend some time learning about the presence of lament in the bible and in our religious practices. Rev and songwriter Malcolm Gordon is currently writing his PHD on the subject and was sharing with us some of what he was learning. During this time in Israel’s history that we are located in at the moment – this time following exile – things didn’t go as they had hoped – as we are discovering – and so the jewish theologians of the day introduced quite strongly this idea of penitence. The idea was that all the bad things that were happening to them must be happening for a reason and they themselves must be the reason. This is where penitence takes departure from lament. Up until this time in the biblical story lament had been the prevalent vehicle for dealing with the fact that things don’t often go the way of ‘Goodness’. Just think of the number of Psalms which begin or contain the phrase, ‘God, why…’ Both lament and penitence acknowledge that bad things happen but while lament allows one to rage and shout and complain at God for what is happening, penitence focuses the source of the bad to always be personal. Lament is the healthy expression of anger, frustration, sadness, grief towards God and it is the stepping in and being motivated to do something about it if possible, including owning one’s own part in the issues if that is needed. Penitence says however that everything that is going wrong is your own fault and therefore you are the only one who can fix it by punishment, by working harder, by being a good little girl or boy so that Santa will visit your house and bring you more than a lump of coal. Yes, the idea of penitence became so pervasive that the Christian church – particularly in the West – has perpetuated it to no end. This, despite the fact that a fairly compelling Jewish Rabbi called Jesus taught and lived the complete opposite! I have to ask, what is that about?!

I have a hunch that it is because it is the easy way out. Assigning blame is easier than sitting with the question of ‘why?’ unanswered. Thinking that there may actually be something that you can do about it, even if that is punishment, is also an easier way. Imagining that things have happened for a certain reason is simply easier. It’s also a good deal for the powerful people who always will get a better deal by assigning blame to those who they rule over, or by being able to buy their way out. It is a ‘transactional’ view of the world. Punishing oneself to become worthy in the sight of God kind of works like a divine eftpos machine. I want a good life free from hardship, I want God’s blessing and favour and so I swipe my divine eftpos card paying the price in the form of penitence and then I will receive goods I have paid for. It sounds silly when we put it like that but unfortunately this view of the world, this view of God is still very prevalent – I bet you have heard someone say, ‘They must have done something to deserve that…’ when things aren’t going someone’s way. It is fascinating that despite all of the evidence in the scriptures and especially in what Jesus taught us that this understanding of God got any traction at all. Which is why I cringe every time I hear the view known as ‘substitutionary atonement theory’ – that God sent Jesus to die on the cross to be punished in our place, to pay the debt for our sin – I just don’t buy it… but that’s a sermon for another day!

At the end of chapter 10 of Ezra, the last chapter before we move to Nehemiah’s story, we are left with another abrupt, unresolved, anti-climatic ending. The story sort of just peters out. It seems as if they are all ramped up to divorce the foreign wives and to kick them and their children out of the country in the name of purification but then it seems to be raining quite a bit, the crowd doesn’t want to stand around getting wet, the task itself doesn’t seem to be as easy as they thought it was. The idea is put that perhaps just the leadership could do it on behalf of the people – that’s a smart crowd by the way isn’t it? Getting the leadership to take the responsibility on behalf of them all – and it seems that is where it ends. All this makes me wonder that in actual fact what appears to be a simple solution to their problems is found wanting as they are confronted with the reality of what it means. Families destroyed, loved ones forced away, the distraction all this causes from what they had gone there to do. Maybe, as is usually the case, playing the blame game, punishing others and themselves didn’t bring the result they were hoping for. And so, Ezra’s story sort of fizzles out and the Israelites are left hanging. A new temple didn’t return them to the glory of the ‘good old days’ and neither did efforts of ‘purification’, of making sure they were following the rules and playing the game they thought they had to be playing. Which is just what it is isn’t it. The blame game. A game designed to keep power out of our reach, a game designed to distract us from the real work we are invited to do.

Next, we head to Nehemiah and so we will see what the third attempt at rebuilding brings!