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Ezra’s executive order

In one form or another, executive orders have long been issued by the highest office in the land to implement policy or highlight priorities. In theory, an executive order is not new law, yet a controversial aspect is the power of an individual to control the laws of the land with the stroke of a pen and the net effect may be an actual change in law.

The manner in which Ezra singlehandedly addresses a pressing matter can likewise be viewed as an implementation of existing law. He is in Jerusalem for a mere four months when some of the officials approach him with a charge: the people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated from “the peoples of the land”—that is, foreigners—and they have married foreign daughters (Ezra 9:1-2). This charge is formulated on a pastiche of texts from Deuteronomy and Leviticus and presented as an act of sacrilege. Unwilling or unable to take care of what they see is the problem themselves, these officials challenge Ezra to act.

Ezra ultimately rises to the challenge and issues an order:

“You have trespassed by bringing home foreign women, thus aggravating the guilt of Israel. So now, make confession to the LORD, God of your fathers, and do His will, and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign women.” (Ezra 10:10b-11, NJPS)

After some initial hesitation, Ezra’s order is implemented after the guilty parties are identified and the foreign women along with their children are expelled from Jerusalem (Ezra 10:12-44). As the end of this episode suggests, in Ezra’s Jerusalem, the buck stops with Ezra.

This episode does not rank among the most edifying parts of the biblical text. Rather than dealing directly with the guilty parties, Ezra forces the separation of families and, in what amounts to a swift and sweeping deportation without due process, expels non-Israelite women and children. For his role, Ezra has been labelled as an anti-assimilationist and the one who with a single stroke of his pen officially codifies the biblical ban on inter-cultural marriage.

As harsh as it appears, we should at the very least try to understand the rationale behind Ezra’s order. When the returnees from Babylon arrive in Jerusalem with Ezra, they are returning to a city that is under the rule of a foreign power. Included in the population are “the peoples of the land.” With this geo-political situation in mind, some of the followers of the Israelite cult foresee an extreme scenario: if every Israelite male marries non-Israelite females and the children born to them do not identify as an Israelite, then no one will be left to ensure the upkeep of the Israelite cult through the proper observance of any of its commandments. With the arduous task of the reconstruction of the Israelite cult in Jerusalem at hand, the responsibility to prevent a catastrophe falls on Ezra.

Ezra addresses the situation through his own expertise. He is a “priest-scribe, a scholar in matters concerning the commandments of the LORD and His laws and rules to Israel” (Ezra 7:11, NJPS) and has access to “the scroll of the Teaching [torah] of Moses” (Neh. 8:1-3, NJPS). This Teaching is commonly thought to be the Pentateuch in some form. Ezra grounds his order on a commandment in Deuteronomy: “Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons” (Deut. 7:3, NJPS). Ezra, however, goes beyond the laws in Deuteronomy. Whereas Deuteronomy prohibits marriage with the Canaanite nations (see also Deut. 20:16-18), Ezra’s order reflects a much more expansive application of his legal source—he bans not only marriage with any foreigner but also any contact with a foreigner.

Ezra’s order is not actually new law. It is a directive, albeit one informed by a very broad understanding of existing law. Ezra agrees that a crisis is looming within his own community and his order, as extreme as it appears, aims to preserve his cult by eliminating the possibility, however remote, that a foreign population will mingle with the Israelites and eventually overwhelm the cult.

In theory, Ezra’s executive order on the separation from all foreigners addresses the challenges of maintaining his cult under a foreign power. How this actually translates into practice is open to interpretation. It is debatable if Ezra achieves his goals or if his order’s intended and unintended results are desirable. Some communities may even uphold Ezra’s order as the justification for banning any action that could threaten the future viability of a particular culture. Other communities may dispute the legality of Ezra’s order and, just as any executive order is subject to review, the merits of this order deserve to be scrutinized by its critics.

Featured image credit: Codex Amiatinus (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Amiatinus). Public doman via Wikimedia Commons.

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