by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
20 June 2021
Last week we read from the book of the prophet Haggai as he encouraged the people to finish rebuilding the Temple after they had returned to Judea from exile in Babylon. This week we get the story of the priest and scribe Ezra. Some decades after the Temple was rededicated, Ezra was commissioned by a new Persian king to lead yet another band of exiles back to Judea in order to purify religious practice. Our text today begins with part of the proclamation of the Persian king Artaxerxes and concludes with Ezra’s own recorded thoughts on this commission. Hear now the word of the Lord:
“And you, Ezra, according to the God-given wisdom you possess, appoint magistrates and judges who may judge all the people in the province Beyond the River who know the laws of your God; and you shall teach those who do not know them. All who will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on them, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of their goods or for imprisonment.”
Blessed be the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who put such a thing as this into the heart of the king to glorify the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, and who extended to me steadfast love before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty officers. I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leaders from Israel to go up with me.
For the Word of God in scripture,
For the Word of God within us,
For the Word of God among us,
Thanks be to God.
When the Babylonians conquered Judah, they took the elite members of society as hostages back to Babylon. They left a remnant of Jews in the land, mostly poor peasants. Some of those people eventually left Judea and traveled to Egypt and formed a new Jewish community there in the town of Elephantine, where they even constructed a Temple. And so for a couple of generations there were at least three different Jewish communities—the old elite living in Babylon, the peasants left in Judea, and the group of refugees who’d traveled to Egypt. And each developed independently their own understanding of the faith and culture.
What comes down to us in the Old Testament is primarily the faith and culture developed by the exiles in Babylon. We know about the Jewish community in Egypt because of modern archaeological discoveries. The Egyptian Jews seem to have developed a more pluralistic, cosmopolitan culture and faith. While the Babylonian Jews formed a more tight-knit community centered on the written word. It is the Babylonian Jews who finally wrote down and edited and treasured the texts that later formed the canon of Hebrew Scriptures and gave birth to Judaism as it’s been known through the millennia.
When the exiles in Babylon returned to Judea, they encountered people who had lived in the land throughout that time but they didn’t recognize them as Jews. These poor peasants continued to practice the faith and culture that had been handed down to them, but they had missed out on the developments of the faith that had occurred among the exiles. Plus, they had learned to live with the other people around them, including marrying and having children. The returning exiles viewed the remnant in the land as practicing an impure, unfaithful version of the faith.
But for the first generation or so that didn’t matter too much. The focus of the first returnees was on restoring some sort of society and rebuilding Jerusalem.
So, after the Temple had been rebuilt, Ezra, who was a priest and scribe living in Babylon determined that he should organize a group to return to Judea and institute proper worship. He received the backing of King Artaxerxes for his effort. He organized a group of priests and Levites and had them prepare themselves for a spiritual mission. They viewed themselves as a new Exodus.
And when they got to Jerusalem, they were shocked by what they encountered. The faith and culture were not pure. It was not focused sufficiently on the Hebrew Torah that had been written down while in exile. Even the earlier returnees had grown laxer in their practice and had begun to intermingle with the non-exiles and foreigners.
Ezra, using the authority he had received from the Persian emperor, set out to rectify the situation. To educate people about the true faith. To impose proper rituals upon the Temple worship. And to rid society of its foreign elements.
And right about here, if not before, you should be sensing the danger of what’s to come. For Ezra is one of the most complicated figures in our religious heritage. On the one hand, Ezra is largely responsible for the Hebrew text we are able to read today. He and his scribes valued the written word. They accumulated, preserved, and edited the texts that had been written down before them. And they wrote much of it themselves. If we are “people of the Book” it is because we are spiritual descendants of Ezra.
And of course this accomplishment, centering the Hebrew faith upon written text, moral commands, and religious practices, gave birth to Judaism as a faith that has survived the millennia, despite much war, violence, persecution, and being spread around the globe. Of all the ancient cultures of the near east, it is the one people group whose literature and faith survives into the modern day. And Ezra is a key figure in that story of survival.
But, Ezra is also something of a fundamentalist. Unlike the prophet Haggai who we read last week, Ezra’s was not a universal vision. Both visions are present in the Hebrew Scriptures. One tradition inclusive of diversity and another that is not, but is exclusive, focused on purity. Ezra falls within that second group. He wanted to purify the faith and the people and to exclude all the elements which posed a danger to the long-term survival of the Jewish people.
And so what Ezra did is he required that all the returned exiles, including those who had already been living in Judea before he returned, to divorce their non-exile wives and set aside their children from those marriages. So any wives who were foreigners or any wives from the old remnant of people who had lived in the land. The returning exiles were only able to remain legally married to other returned exiles.
On one day he gathered all the people together and all the men were compelled to take this action. The wives and the children were set aside and disinherited. And no surviving texts record for us what happened to them.
This is one of the truly terrifying stories contained within our Bible. Even if we work to understand it, it horrifies us. As it should.
We get that this was a traumatized people, trying to do something new and move on from their trauma. And research shows how fears of the other can manifest themselves in traumatized people. I talked two Sundays ago, when we started this summer worship series, that these ancient forebears didn’t always succeed at creating something better. Sometimes they failed and created more trauma. And this is the clearest example of the ways in which a traumatized people can traumatize others. So it’s important that we rumble with these stories in order to learn. And in this instance what we learn is what not to do. Not to focus on purity in a way that excludes and leads to division and violence.
Back in the winter Katie introduced us, via Zoom, to one of her professors Rachel Mikva who talked to us about her book Dangerous Religious Ideas. This is an excellent book, that I highly recommend. We still have some copies in the church office too, if you’d like to purchase one.
In the book Mikva explores how key religious ideas can be good, vital, and helpful to our spirituality, yet also have dark sides that can be exploited in ways that lead to harm. She explores these ideas in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ultimately she is focused on how all of us can and should develop a self-critical faith, so that we can handle these dangerous ideas.
The two dangerous ideas she spends most of the book on are scripture and chosenness. Ezra is a key figure in both of these ideas.
Why is scripture a dangerous idea? She writes, “As long as there is scripture, people will wield the word as a weapon against each other in order to justify their own biases. As long as there is scripture, we have to reckon with the painful silences of those voices left out of the canon. As long as there is scripture, some people will turn their back on other God-given ways of knowing.”
Having myself grown up in a tradition that was overtaken by fundamentalists who insisted on the inerrant and infallible word of God and that their interpretations were the authoritative and correct ones to the exclusion of all others, I know how dangerous scripture can be. The Bible can become a weapon. And as a gay may I’ve been clobbered by fundamentalists abusing scripture.
Scripture doesn’t have to be this way, of course. We can have a critical faith, that weeds out what is terrifying and unethical, and treasures what is good and just and loving. Scripture inspires us to be our best, helps us to make sense of the world, comforts our sorrows, shapes a community with a mission to others.
So, I’m grateful for those teachers and professors and scholars who early in my life helped me to understand the dangers of mishandling scripture and how to embrace a more open and vital faith.
It is easier for us to see how the religious idea of chosenness can be dangerous. As Mikva writes, even the Hebrew prophets saw and warned about “complacency, chauvinism, and parochialism” that can result. And we’ve seen throughout history how campaigns for purity lead quickly from exclusion to violence.
So, is there any good side to chosenness? Over the centuries Judaism came to understand the idea of being “God’s chosen people” not that they had some special identity separate from other nations, but that they were given a responsibility to bring peace and healing to the world.
Which is closer to Haggai’s vision, not Ezra’s.
What should we learn, then, from reading a text like the Book of Ezra? I think rumbling with our stories can teach us what not to do as much as it can what to do. Reading this story invites us to empathize with the characters we encounter. What horror did the divorced wives and children experience? What were the feelings of the men forced to divorce their wives and cut off their kids? Can we even get into the mind of Ezra and understand what might lead someone to do such an awful thing?
As we try to empathize and understand a story like this, we learn and grow our emotional capacity, and we develop a self-critical faith. Which we can then apply to our own lives and situations. And maybe develop ethical principles to guide us in considering the hot button issues of our time, like how to treat transgender children or migrants at the border.
As we are engaged in our own season of restoration and transformation, let’s beware of the dangers that lie ahead even during this season. Let’s not be tempted into the paths revealed in this story. But let’s instead be inspired by the universal, inclusive, compassionate vision we also find in scripture. So that we might lay a foundation for a better future for all.