The Book of Ezra starts of with some great news: Cyrus (king of Persia) proclaimed that the exiled Jews can return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Not only that, but he encouraged those around the Israelites to donate everything from gold to animals "for the house of God that is Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:4, English Standard Version). Cyrus was also someone who puts his money where his mouth is, and returned 4,500 "vessels of gold and silver" Nebuchadnezzar had taken from Jerusalem back with the returning expatriates (see Ezra 1:7-11). Not a bad way to head back home, eh?
I will admit that after reading through that book this week, the good news that starts Ezra off isn't what is going to stick with me. Instead, it's the situation dealt with in the last two chapters. This is how the ninth chapter begins:
After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, "The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands…For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost" (Ezra 9:1—2).
Don't get me wrong, the officials and Ezra had every reason to be concerned. Israelites weren't suppose to marry people from other nations, and when they did it had catastrophic consequences. Even a smart guy like King Solomon proved the wisdom behind the Lord's prohibition:
Now King Solomon loved many foreign women…from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, "You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods." Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods… (1 Kings 11:1-4).
Does anyone disagree that love can make people do some pretty dumb things?
However, even though I don't question the wisdom of God's ban on foreign wives, I will admit this was hard for me to swallow:
And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, "You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now then make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives." Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, "It is so; we must do as you have said" (Ezra 10:10-12).
Every appearance is that is exactly what they did. The book ends with a list of men who had verboten mates, and the very final words of Ezra are:
All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children (Ezra 10:44).
Well, of course they did! They were married!
Just think about it…a bunch of Jewish men sin by marrying non-Jewish brides and having kids, so to repent for their sin…
They abandon the women and children!
There was no other solution?! What if the Israelites had just stopped marrying any more foreign women and all the existing cases were closely monitored, with punishment only if the men, women. or children were caught worshipping other gods? Wouldn't that be better than kicking youngsters out on the street?
And that's not the only case with children that makes me cringe:
So they got away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. And Dathan and Abiram came out and stood at the door of their tents, together with their wives, their sons, and their little ones (Numbers 16:27).
And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods (Numbers 16:32).
I suppose the mixed-nationality children in Ezra's case got off easy…here it appears that because their fathers sinned, "their little ones" died after what must have been a very frightening last few moments of life.
There was no other solution?! What if God just commanded the men to stand by themselves and spared the little munchkins? Wouldn't that have been fairer?
Uncomfortable enough yet? Well, it gets more unpleasant. Following God's order that "in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes" (Deuteronomy 20:16), Joshua prepares his people to take Jericho instructing, "And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction" (Joshua 6:17a). Sure enough:
Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword (Joshua 6:21).
There was no other solution?! What if everyone have been killed except for the "young"? Wouldn't a merciful God understand that deviation?
I fondly remember Graham Maxwell, a theology teacher who, as a child, didn't think of of the flood the way kids normally do—you know, a floody, floody with animals going in by twosies, twosies into an arky, arky. Instead, he couldn't ignore the fact that so many women and children died as their lungs filled with water. (Not surprisingly, the famous "Rise and Shine" lyrics don't include, "All the little children drowny, drowny.")
And that same Graham Maxwell, when discussing these difficult items in the Old Testament would say something like, "Read on…it gets worse."
So, how do I explain how a righteous God has children abandoned, swallowed up by the earth, "devoted to destruction," or drowned?
Although I may posit an answer in a future piece, the space limits of a bulletin article mean that I must leave it as an exercise for you. It is an answer an unbelieving world needs because vocal scoffers attempt to damn our God by bringing up every harsh incident that offends modern sensibilities…