Imagine this real moment in human history:
A nation is just emerging from a long economic depression after losing a war they believe they should have won. The ascendancy of other powers weakens their ability to self-govern, making them appear feeble on the international scene. That leadership vacuum contributes to a long period of listlessness and disillusionment. Others bully them. But a strong leader appears and begins to arrest public attention. His strength and vision are contagious. He rallies the people to restore significant infrastructure so they can do the more important work of rebuilding the ideal society—one that will not easily lose against another alliance of hostile powers. He carefully studies the needs and opportunities. He has the backing of key figures in government. He believes the country is poised to rise to greatness. Just one major problem stands in the way of their glittering future: foreigners. This leader convinces the community that it is in everyone’s best interest to eliminate those whose ethnicity makes them “other.” The presence of foreigners makes them vulnerable. Foreigners dilute their national strength. They plan to gather the foreigners and send them away.
No, this story is not about Adolf Hitler. It’s about Nehemiah. This story is in the Bible.
A Tale of Exemplary Leadership?
Nehemiah was among the exiles from Judah living in Susa in service to the Persian King Artaxerxes. He heard reports about how his homeland had never recovered from the Babylonian attack in 586 BC. From his prayer, we learn that Nehemiah (rightly) attributed the exile of his people to their failure to keep God’s commands. He understood that the possibility of future prosperity for their nation depended on their obedience to the covenant (Neh. 1:5-9). He determined to use his proximity to the king to gain permission to address this problem. He secured the king’s permission to return, with safe passage and supplies for rebuilding (Neh. 2).
Nehemiah organized the community to rebuild the wall (Neh. 3). He also addressed the raging economic crisis by persuading the officials to stop charging interest to their own people (Neh. 5). After a time, Nehemiah returned to his post in Susa (Neh. 13:6). When the wall was complete, the people gathered for a major celebration. Someone read the Torah aloud and they together discovered a neglected command: "No Ammonite or Moabite should ever be admitted into the assembly of God, because they had not met the Israelites with food and water but had hired Balaam to call a curse down on them." (Neh. 13:1-2)
The command came from Deuteronomy 23, a chapter concerned to define who’s in and who’s out (Deut. 23:3). The instruction was based on a frustrating episode when the people of Ammon and Moab would not allow the Israelites to peacefully pass through their land on their way to the promised land. Moses intentionally handed down the memory of this lack of hospitality so that future generations would respond accordingly.
However, the people of Judah both over-read and under-read this command. For one, they missed its expiration date (“even to the tenth generation”) which had long since passed (Deut. 23:3). Second, rather than excluding only Ammonites and Moabites, “they excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent” (Neh. 13:3, emphasis mine). They did this even though Deuteronomy 23 explicitly states that after three generations they were welcome to include Egyptians and Edomites, and that escaped slaves were always welcome (Deut. 23:7-8, 15-16). In other words, Deuteronomy 23 was far less stringent on excluding foreigners than the interpretation put forward by the Judeans in Nehemiah’s day.
Nehemiah Weighs In
Nehemiah was not present during this debacle, but when he returned, he addressed what he saw as a recurring problem: “in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah” (Neh. 13:23-24). Their failure to assimilate to Hebrew language and culture likely indicated a neglect of proper worship as well, though the text doesn’t say.
God gave no direct command to Nehemiah at this point. Building on faithful historical precedent, Nehemiah had several options. He could have interviewed each family to determine their religious allegiances. Perhaps, like Ruth, some of them wanted to follow YHWH. For those who were committed to following YHWH but lacked understanding, he could have appointed someone to teach Hebrew language and worship of YHWH.
Instead, without taking time to investigate, he reported: "I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.’" (Neh. 13:25)
Nehemiah’s narrow application of the law left no room for those whose stories may have mirrored faithful non-Israelites who had joined the Israelite community through the ages. Such as: the “mixed crowd” that left Egypt with the Israelites (Exod. 12:38), Zipporah the Midianite (Exod. 2:11-22; 4:24-26), Ruth the Moabite, or Rahab the Canaanite (Josh. 2), not to mention Ephraim and Manasseh, the half-Egyptian sons of Joseph, who were heads of two of Israel’s tribes.
Nehemiah also seemed to forget the foreigners who blessed the family of Abraham without joining it, such as Melchizedek (Genesis 14), the daughter of Pharaoh (Exod. 2:1-10), and Jethro (Exodus 4:18; 18:1-27). “Foreign blood” was emphatically not the problem. In every case where YHWH prohibited intermarriage, his stated reason was to prevent the worship of other gods. The problem with foreigners was always either false worship or antagonism toward Israel.
The Roots of Xenophobia
To be fair, Nehemiah had experienced opposition from some foreigners who preferred that the people of Judah be powerless. A Horonite, Ammonite, and an Arab interfered with his projects by repeatedly mocking him and threatening to attack (2:10, 19; 4:1-5). Did Nehemiah’s negative history with these non-Israelites contribute to a generalized xenophobia? Had he forgotten Israel’s own history and how it shaped the laws God gave them?
"Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless." (Exod. 22:21-24 NIV, emphasis mine)
"Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt." (Exod. 23:9 NIV, emphasis mine)
"At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year's produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands." (Deut. 14:28-29 NIV, emphasis mine)
Israel’s law was so insistent on benevolent treatment of foreigners that it became the model for treatment of anyone who fell on hard times: "If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you." (Lev. 25:35 NIV, emphasis mine)
It’s hard to imagine how someone could read the whole Torah and conclude that sending away all the foreigners was the only or even the best solution to widespread intermarriage.
Nehemiah was not the first to take this approach. Ezra had paved the way for it when he arrived in Judah years before to teach the law of God (Ezra 7:1-6). He discovered that the people of Judah, even priests and Levites, had intermarried with “neighboring peoples with their detestable practices” and “mingled the holy race with the peoples around them” (Ezra 9:1-2). Following Ezra’s corporate prayer of confession, a member of the community suggested a solution: “Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children” (Ezra 10:3).
We have no evidence that this idea came from God or that a prophetic oracle confirmed it. The mass divorce this man proposed was simply his own suggestion. All the men agreed, so they began to process cases family by family. When all was said and done, 111 men sent their foreign wives packing with all their children.
It’s worth considering the words of a contemporary prophet named Malachi. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah do not mention him, but Malachi also addressed the post-exilic community, drawing attention to Judah’s unfaithfulness: “Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the LORD loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god” (Mal 2:11).
Strikingly, according to Malachi they should expel the man from the community for his unfaithfulness, presumably with his family, since Malachi also insisted that each one should be faithful to his marriage covenant (Mal. 2:12-15). Malachi conveyed this prophetic oracle: "‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the LORD Almighty." (Mal. 2:16 NIV)
Was divorce the right answer to the problem of intermarriage? Not according to God’s word through the prophet Malachi. The male community leaders should not have punished women (and their children) instead of the men who sinned by marrying them in the first place. Two wrongs do not make a right.
Malachi offers a canonical perspective on the policies of Ezra and Nehemiah. Reading these books together exposes the lack of divine directive for Ezra and Nehemiah. We have no evidence that either sought the Lord for guidance on this specific issue. Because both books are first person (“I”) testimony, we don’t have an explicit condemnation of their behavior from the narrator. However, the canon demonstrates the inadequacy of their approach.
Forgetting Our History
Ezra and Nehemiah were themselves immigrants. They had lived as foreigners among Babylonians and Persians. They were part of a people whose founder, Abraham, had been a migrant with no land of his own (aside from a burial cave; Gen. 23). Very little of the Torah, from which Ezra and Nehemiah took their inspiration, even took place in the land of Israel. For most of it their ancestors had been transients, dependent on the hospitality of other ethnicities. Had they learned nothing from this experience as outsiders?
The irony of their brand of ethnocentrism is that Ezra and Nehemiah could not look in the mirror without seeing a foreigner. When we forget our own history, it’s easy to imagine others as the outsiders and ourselves as the ones who belong. This is why God instituted a rehearsal of Israel’s origins into their yearly ritual. With every new harvest, God’s people were to bring an offering to the central sanctuary and make this declaration:
“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, LORD, have given me." (Deut. 26:5-10)
In other words, the Israelites were to regularly remind themselves that the land did not originally belong to them. It was a gift from God and the produce belonged to him. That declaration then shaped a practical response:
"Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household. When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied." (Deut. 26:5-12 NIV, emphasis mine)
Not only were foreigners welcome, but they belonged. Ezra and Nehemiah’s selective reading of the Torah resulted in practices that did not reflect God’s vision for the Israelite community. In the name of biblical fidelity, they lost sight of biblical hospitality. The literary design of both books highlights the failure of each attempt at monoethnic reform.
A Warning for Us
To recognize the interpretive myopia of the post-exilic community is essential lest we repeat their misstep. The world is remarkably complex. Those who insist on simple biblical solutions to complex questions are usually reading selectively.
Armed conflicts in the Holy Land.
Women in ministry.
We need a more robust reading strategy that goes beyond isolated verses. We must learn to read biblical stories against the backdrop of the whole collection of biblical commands and vice versa. The consequences of neglecting part of the biblical witness can be disastrous.
Carmen Joy Imes is associate professor of Old Testament at Biola University and the author, most recently, of Being God’s Image: Why Creation Still Matters (June 2023).