Tag Archives: ezra

Study Bible Roundup: Ezra

Today I’m introducing a new feature called Study Bible Roundup. In these posts, I will select a challenging story or passage from the Bible, and then survey the commentary in four popular “study Bibles”: The NIV Study Bible, The ESV Study Bible, The American Patriot’s Bible (yes), and The Extreme Teen Bible (yup).

If you grew up in a conservative and/or evangelical church tradition, I don’t need to explain study Bibles to you. For everyone else, these are giant tomes which contain the full text of a popular Bible translation along with commentary from editors, usually pastors and apologists. Study Bibles often claim to be objective and scholarly, but typically cater to specific markets or denominations. These are the only safe and approved educational apparatus available to many Christians.

My goal in this exercise is to see how these commentaries handle the text in question. Do they consider history, language, and politics in their analysis? Do they acknowledge potential issues in the text and, if so, what responses do they offer? I’m not expecting them to reach certain conclusions, I’m just looking for a well-rounded and intellectually curious presentation. For this first installment, we’ll piggy-back on our previous post about the book of Ezra. Will our study Bibles acknowledge and address objections to the content of Ezra, specifically the mass deportation of women and children? Let’s take a look.

NIVNIV Study Bible

While I give the NIV commentary credit for a fair amount of historical detail (mostly geographic trivia), its exposition of Ezra 9 and 10 is basically a covert apologetic. Covert because it never openly acknowledges any potential difficulties in the text, yet it consistently builds a case for the necessity and propriety of Ezra’s edict about “intermarriage” (the word is used pejoratively). 

Two rationalizations are offered for Ezra’s deportation, one scriptural and the other historical. First is an appeal to Malachi 2, in which the prophet condemns Judah for figuratively shacking up with a foreign god/wife. Next is the non-biblical cautionary tale of the Elephantine settlement, a community of Jews in Egypt roughly contemporary to Ezra which was eventually assimilated into the greater population. The sense is that Ezra is right about Judah, that intermarriage is both a sin and a threat to national security, and that the shame and repentance of the people was the only fitting response.

The only crack in the veneer is a comment on chapter 10 verse 15 which acknowledges that Ezra was opposed by four other priests, possibly because they found his measure “too harsh.” However, the commentary also wonders if these men might merely be acting out of self-interest.

ESVESV Study Bible

Like the NIV, the ESV commentary speaks of “intermarriage” as a serious problem and the chief sin of the men of Judah. There is no ambiguity or restraint in this analysis: the foreign women are “wicked” and “idolatrous” by nature, and Ezra’s deportation program was nothing less than faithful obedience to God’s command to “purge the evil from your midst” (Deut. 17:7). There is no view to a political battle or any wider historical perspective. There is even an attempt to neuter the meaning of 10:15 (about the opponents of Ezra’s plan).

I would characterize the ESV commentary as intensely unapologetic in its insistence that Ezra represents a god’s-eye-view of an authentic and exemplary revival. Ezra himself is seen as a bold and godly leader, a Phinehas whose zeal for the Lord led him to perform drastic deeds of “righteousness.” There is no room for sympathy for the banished women, who were inherently evil, or for their children, who paid the price for their parents’ sin in accordance with God’s “justice.”

APBThe American Patriot’s Bible

Whereas the NIV represents a covert evangelical apologetic and the ESV an intensely Reformed theological buy-in, the “American Patriot’s Bible” (APB) is an unabashed flag-waving midrash on the entire Bible, reimagining it as a textbook about American greatness. Under that banner, the little book of Ezra is actually a big deal: a tale of restoration, reconstruction, and bold leadership. Hey, just like America!

The APB does not provide verse-by-verse commentary like the NIV and ESV, rather it interjects short inspirational blurbs throughout the text. Between 9 and 10, the chapters detailing the deportation, there is a short profile of the 19th century evangelist Peter Cartwright, who baptized and converted thousands of people in the deep south. The implication is that Ezra has performed a similar function, convicting the men of Judah of their sins and providing the way “back to God.”

Elsewhere in Ezra, comparisons are made with U.S. presidents from Washington to Reagan, and (I kid you not) figures like Booker T. Washington and Harriet Tubman. To give the APB an ounce of credit, they are specifically referring to Ezra leading people out of the slavery of exile. But given the parade of refugees this book leaves in its wake, those might not be the wisest comparisons to draw.

ETBThe Extreme Teen Bible

The Extreme Teen Bible (ETB) is a hip and totally-in-your-face study Bible for young evangelical Christians. I really wanted to make fun of this thing and exploit it for laughs, but I must confess that it completely surprised me. Not only does it go out of its way to explain to kids that the Bible comes from another time and culture, it is the only Bible on this list that anticipates and directly addresses objections to Ezra’s pagan purge. I may not be on board with their answers, but I applaud them for even making the attempt.

In a blurb labeled “Intermarriage,” the ETB says the following: “Intermarriage wasn’t a moral problem. People are people no matter where they are from. But intermarriage was a spiritual problem. All the surrounding cultures worshiped idols. Marrying someone doesn’t mean you will take on all their beliefs and practices, but it does mean that you will be influenced by them.” And a comment later in chapter 10 stresses that the intermarriage crisis was not about “race” but about “worship.”

Wow. While I think this is ultimately a poor response to the objection (racial discrimination is immoral but religious discrimination is not?), I am nonetheless heartened to see an affirmation of basic human dignity in this conservative Bible aimed at young people. Despite its goofy cover and outrageous fonts, the ETB manages to be more thoughtful and open-hearted than any of the other Bibles on this list. Too bad that it ultimately falls back on unsatisfying answers.

What did you think of this feature? Would you like to see more posts like this? Let me know.


Break Your Bible: Ezra Makes Judah Great Again

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.