Read Ezra 9
Ezra’s Prayer About Intermarriage
After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. 2 They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”
3 When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 4 Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.
5 Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the Lord my God 6 and prayed:
“I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. 7 From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.
8 “But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. 9 Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.
10 “But now, our God, what can we say after this? For we have forsaken the commands 11 you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. 12 Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’
13 “What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. 14 Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? 15 Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”
In this chapter of Ezra, he receives word that the Israelites who had started the work of rebuilding the temple and the city of Jerusalem had gotten distracted from their mission. They had disobeyed the Lord’s command by intermarrying with the surrounding cultures, acculturating to them and participating in practices that were detestable in the eyes of the Lord.
Ezra is absolutely devastated by the news. His anguish should cause us to pause as we reflect on how quickly and easily our own hearts, lives, and faith journeys intermingle with the culture we are immersed in and are called to follow Christ in.
Acculturation, or cultural assimilation, is so dangerous to our faith. Seemingly harmless practices lull our spiritual senses and desensitize us to the potential dangers and evil practices present within our cultures (although not all cultures are inherently evil, elements of them may be). Practices that start as being rationalized, become tolerated, and what we tolerate for long enough, becomes normal. Soon enough, what is normal and “what we’ve always known” becomes “the way things are” and we are nearly blind and numb to how our faith is sterilized and compromised as a result.
We need to notice what is at stake. The first group of Israelites sent back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the city were led by Zerubbabel sixty years earlier. The same group of people who had disobeyed God’s command and assimilated into the cultures around them also suffered spiritual apathy, which led the work they were called to in the first place to be left undone. Disobedience, acculturation, spiritual apathy, and abandonment of Kingdom work all run in the same crowd.
Unchecked acculturation hurts our relationship with God, our relationships with one another, and our families. It jeopardizes the healing and redemptive work God wants to do in our communities. Ezra models an appropriate intervention: repentance. He acknowledges the extent and the severity of what our apathy may tempt us to gloss over. He also places our gracious Father at the center of his prayer, just as we ought to keep Jesus at the center of our faith. Despite all of our failings—those that we see and those that we are still blind to—He is faithful, and He, not our culture, is the true and only measure of righteousness and holiness we are to measure our lives and faith against.
- In what ways have you experienced acculturation as a hindrance to your own walk with God?
- What values of your culture are normal, but in direct opposition, to the values of God’s Kingdom?
- What cultural practices or belief systems in your own life do you need to recognize as harmful and ungodly, and repent of today? Confess your sin to a member of your faith community and ask them to pray for you.
By the Way
How could the Israelites have known that intermarrying was so problematic? Intermarriage with the Canaanites was explicitly forbidden in Scripture (Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-5; Leviticus 18:3) and had serious consequences in Israel’s past (1 Kings 11:1-8).
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