One of the major convictions which fuel most of the material on this blog is my belief that modern Christianity must confront and reconsider how it understands and interacts with the Bible. This is not necessarily the most important nor the ultimate task, but it is a necessary stepping stone to growth and progress. The old flat and systematic way of reading the Bible as an inerrant catalog of religious axioms is the biggest hindrance to spiritual advancement and the rediscovery of Jesus which we need so urgently in my opinion.
In that spirit, I often highlight problematic or misunderstood portions of scripture, not to be contrary or to “attack the Bible,” but to foster the important conversation about what the Bible is and how we can read it honestly and fruitfully. Today I want to look at the small book of Ezra.
Ezra, Revival, and Mass Deportation
In a sense, Ezra should be one of the most triumphant and satisfying texts of the Hebrew Bible. It narrates the return of the exiled citizens to Judah, the rebuilding and rededication of the temple, and the religious reawakening of the people. And yet, many modern readers find this to be a shocking and upsetting episode for reasons we will presently consider.
The titular Ezra only shows up in the book’s final chapters, a priest empowered by the Persian King Artaxerxes to re-establish the traditions and (more importantly) the laws of the Torah. This involves prayer, reinstating sacrificial practices, public reading of the law, and a call for national repentance, which is where things start to get rough. Ezra demands that those Judahite men who have married foreign wives during or since the exile must divorce them and have them all “put away” along with their children.
The gamut of modern reactions to the book of Ezra is perhaps represented by two recent blog posts: one from our pals at Charisma News hailing Ted Cruz as “an Ezra for America,” and one from Fred “Slacktivist” Clark who responds with both horror and humor. The difference is between those who believe that mass divorce and deportation of women and children are right and good when religiously justified, and those who have their doubts.
The standard church reading of Ezra, informed by inerrancy and an apologetic commitment to the moral cohesion of the entire Bible, sees this as a story about revival, repentance, and the difficult choices we often must make when confronted with God’s clear commandments. This is not to say that every bible-believer smiles in approval of the tragic events at the end of Ezra (though some clearly relish it). But most feel obliged to give assent to the “divinely inspired” leadership of Ezra. In fact, most wouldn’t dream of questioning any of it, simply because it happens in the Bible.
Ezra and History
In a flat and self-contained reading of the Bible, especially historical texts like Ezra, the perspective of the author is always assumed to be divinely sanctioned, the morality consistent and prescriptive, and the main characters heroes of the faith. But diverse political and ideological perspectives run wild in the collected texts of scripture, often in tension or even in slap-fights, if we will just open our eyes to see it. When we acknowledge this fact, it is no longer possible to talk about a singular “biblical” perspective, but rather the various voices and agendas which populate the library. Just because the historical context or ideological bent of a book or author is not spelled out for the modern reader doesn’t mean they are not present or have no bearing.
In the case of Ezra, he represents a particular aristocratic wing of Yahwism in the fifth century BCE which placed a strong emphasis on religious and genealogical purity. This powerful group (or party) was opposed to and by other groups, such as the resident Samaritans, who were descendents of the northern Israelites with different ideas about how the nation should be run and who was to be included in the “people of God.” This political battle gave Ezra’s party control of Jerusalem and resulted in the great schism with Samaria, the effects of which are still seen centuries later in the narratives of the New Testament gospels.
While our traditional way of mining Bible stories for absolute truths and coded messages has only ever seen Ezra as a positive example of how a nation might please God by cracking down on certain laws or enforcing certain prohibitions, a more careful and educated approach understands that we are reading a text written by the winners of a particular ancient culture war. This doesn’t make their actions inherently commendable or condemnable, but it means that we are free to use our discernment and moral sensitivity when considering that question for ourselves. If forced mass divorce and deportation in the name of “pure religion” strikes you as unsavory, you might want to follow those instincts. I can even think of a few other voices in the Bible which might agree with you.
Weighing the Cost of Intellectual Honesty
Whenever I push Christians to think critically about the Bible like this, there is always the inevitable “gotcha” question: If you nuance, critique, or openly disagree with even one part of the Bible, how can you trust or believe in any of it, especially what it says about Jesus?
This question presupposes so much about authority and the nature of belief and the Bible, and my response is always the same. I can only judge anything I read in the Bible based on the same simple criteria I apply to everything else: Is it good, and does it turn out to be true? I can’t prove, argue, or defend anything based on those questions, I need to have faith and patience. Good things will bear good fruit, and bad things will bear bad fruit, regardless of obtuse appeals to authority or “purity.”
Subjectivity is unavoidable, in fact our attempts to deny it take us down roads of compromise and delusion. When it comes to the Bible, let’s learn from history, literature, and conscience. Let’s be the best subjective, educated thinkers we can be, let’s passionately celebrate the good things we find and not hesitate to call out specious and harmful things as well.