Ezra confessed the sins of the returned Jewish exiles when he learned many of them had intermarried with pagan peoples and were presumably practicing their abominations (Ezra 9). He then took further action, as we see in today’s passage.
Seeing Ezra’s deep sorrow, one of the men, Shecaniah, acknowledged the sin and proposed that the Jews divorce their pagan wives and disown the children born to these unions. Ezra approved of this, and he had the Jewish men take an oath to follow through (10:1–5).
This raises a dilemma, since it seems at first glance contrary to other biblical instructions regarding marriage to unbelievers (1 Cor. 7:12–16). So, what should we think of the community’s solution? First, let us note that this is a narrative portion of Scripture, and the actions of people in biblical narratives are not always praiseworthy. The community may have erred in these divorces (Ezra 10:6–17). Given Ezra’s positive portrayal, however, it seems more likely that the divorces were right. If so, why was divorcing unbelievers allowable in that day when Paul would later advise otherwise (1 Cor. 7:12–16)?
Considering the era in which these divorces occurred will help us. The only special revelation Ezra and the postexilic community had was the Old Testament, particularly the Mosaic law. While the law warns the Jews not to marry pagans, it does not explain what to do if such marriages occurred (Ezra 10:1–3; see Deut. 24:1–4). However, the law does address the conduct of non-Jews (in this case, the pagan spouses and children) in the promised land. That is, foreigners were not required to adopt the entire Mosaic law, but they had to refrain from its capital crimes. For example, divination and child sacrifice required capital punishment under the Mosaic law for pagans and Israelites alike. For such impenitent sins and others, the pagans were to be executed or driven from the land (Lev. 18; Deut. 13; 18:9–14).
The text doesn’t explain the entire situation, but perhaps the pagan wives and children refused to abide by the Mosaic laws that still applied even to them. If this was the case, the Jews would be in a predicament. They could not inflict capital punishment or exile their wives and children from Canaan as the law required. They could, however, try to obey the law by divorcing themselves from their pagan wives. While we do not know entirely, Ezra’s and Shecaniah’s hearts seemed to be set on following the Mosaic law inasmuch as they were able in their day.
Today’s passage is difficult, so we are thankful that we have more revelation under the new covenant with respect to marriage and divorce. If a believer’s spouse does not trust in Jesus, he or she should not divorce the unbelieving spouse if he or she is willing to stay married and allows the believer to practice the faith (1 Cor. 7:12–16). If we trust in Jesus, let us study these things—and the rest of the Scriptures—so as to do our Lord’s will in all things.