Jonathan, Jahzeiah, Meshullam and Shabbathai
Ezra is a hard book for me right now, I’m not going to lie. It’s a book full of contradictions. It’s about upholding external purity of race and marriage without any apparent awareness of the way that this ‘purity’ is in fact hurting people, driving people further from God or indeed creating an opportunity for mass genocide of innocent women and children. And it’s a book about building walls. About keeping ‘bad foreigners’ out. They even find a way to get tax-exempt status for the elite!
So for a few fairly obvious reasons, given the state of current international politics that’s a wee bit uncomfortable for me.
And yet, it’s still here in the Bible.
Not only that, it’s still in the Bible that I know is alive and active, “sharper than any double-edged sword. His word can cut through our spirits and souls and through our joints and marrow, until it discovers the desires and thoughts of our hearts.” And I know that “[e]verything in the Scriptures is God’s Word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live.”
So what do we do with all of this?
A Little Bit of Background
For those of you who have forgotten the details of this little book tucked near the end of the history section of the Old Testament, let me just back track for a few moments and fill you in on what’s going on.
The people of Judah were eventually carted off in captivity because they had been unfaithful to God. They have spent 70 years in captivity. Eventually they won enough favour with one of the rulers – King Cyrus of Persia – that they were given permission to return to Jerusalem. They also received money and tools and craftsmen to help them with the process of rebuilding. This is exciting times, and we’re told that over 42,000 people made the journey back to Jerusalem. They travel together to start rebuilding the city and the temple.
Everything is fine, really, until chapter four, where the people who have been living in the land for seventy years come along. They see that work is being done to rebuild and they offer to help.
It’s a kind offer – a generous offer – as far as I can tell. They claim to have been worshipping God ever since they got to this land. The problem is, the people who have returned from exile see them as the enemy. These are the people who have been living in their land while they’ve been stuck in captivity. These are the foreigners whose ancestors led their ancestors into all of the despicable ways of living that got them sent into captivity in the first place. These people, therefore, cannot be trusted. Purity, it is decided, must come first if they want to be allowed by God to stay in the land. So the offer is rejected.
This of course has the unsurprising effect of people getting upset. The foreigners feel hurt and slighted and put down (because they were). The result is that they do what many people do in those sorts of situations and they come back fighting.
Building While At War
Basically after that there is a long period of time where the returning exiles find themselves rebuilding while simultaneously being at war. Passive aggressive letters back and forth to the rulers over this area are also involved. Eventually King Darius sets the record straight and tells the ‘foreigners’ to back off and let the people get on with the work.
The temple is ultimately dedicated and the people celebrate Passover in Jerusalem again – which is a big deal!
You’d think that all would be well now, but unfortunately not.
A few years later a new guy shows up in the story named Ezra. He’s a priest who spent his whole life holed up in a library reading and studying. He had tried to work out why God had been mad at the Jews and what they needed to do to make God not be mad at them. Anyways, he convinces the new ruler, King Artaxerxes to send him to Jerusalem. When he gets there he finds something that horrifies him!
Remember those 42,000+ people who had made the trek back to Jerusalem a while back? Well, they got there and some of them weren’t married. Some of them probably lost wives to childbirth. With one thing and another, if they wanted to get married there weren’t a lot of Jewish choices.
So they looked around, found some foreign girls, and got married. These girls in turn had given birth – as is the nature of life. So they now had children from these mixed marriages. As a Canadian this seems pretty normal – pretty every day. A beautiful display of cultural diversity. But to Ezra this breaks all the rules!
To Ezra, this is the slippery slope back into worshipping idols and following the evil practices of the foreigners around them. To Ezra, this is going to be the fledgling nation’s ticket straight back into exile, and it’s not going to happen on his watch.
So he calls everyone together and he demands that all of the men who had taken foreign wives should have to divorce their wives and children. That they should send them out, away from the communities. In a patriarchal society that is so dependent on community for food and water – the basic necessities of life – this may have been as good as sentencing them to death.
Four Men Object
Everyone else rips their clothes, wails in grief and says ‘of course – how could we have been so wrong.’ They wallow in guilt and shame and allow their wives and children to be sent away from them.
But four men – Jonathan, Jahzeiah, Meshullam and Shabbathai – say no.
The book of Ezra calls these four guys out for not following the party line. It calls them out to shame them and to tell those at the time and future generations about how wrong they were for disagreeing.
What If Ezra Was Wrong?
But when I read it today I wonder whether maybe there is another way to see these names. Maybe this seems far-fetched, but for all their efforts at purity in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people still ended up doing all of the things that they were supposed to avoid. Shame and guilt around purity do not bring people closer to the life God intended us to live!
So I wonder whether maybe these names are a reminder to us today? Perhaps a reminder that just because someone in authority says we have to follow a certain rule or ‘bad things will happen’ that there’s another choice? Or perhaps a reminder that unjust laws can be protested? Or perhaps that it is possible to have courage even when we are crazily outnumbered?
Maybe it’s even a reminder that standing up for the marginalized and the voiceless may or may not be successful, but it is always important. In this case, important enough that 3000 years later we still know these four men by name?
- How do you feel when you hear the story of Ezra? Does it feel comfortable to you or uncomfortable? Why?
- What do you make of people like Jonathan, Jahzeiah, Meshullam and Shabbathai? Are they brave? Heretical? Disobedient? Compassionate?
- What do these ancient protestors have to say to you this week in the middle of whatever you find yourself in?
This summer we are looking at ‘stories you missed’ in the Bible. Feel free to check out the other stories in the series here.