There is something else I wanted to deal with as part of my long essay on the Bible, sex, and marriage. But the piece was already long and unwieldy as it was. So, I left this for another day.
And that something else is intermarriage.
This is actually a big deal for Israel in scripture even as prohibitions against intermarriage are not really included in the Torah. (It remains a big deal for Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, today). The closest we get to a Torah commandment against marrying non-Israelites is in Deuteronomy 7, the same chapter where God gives instructions on how to wage merciless war against the Canaanites.
1 “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.
6 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 7:1-6 ESV)
It’s clear here, I think, that the issue is not so much racial purity, or even familial purity, as it is idolatry — which is far and away the greatest sin Israel struggles with. So when God commands Israel, “you shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters to your sons,” this is to protect against the temptations that Canaanite worship would constantly — and successfully — pose to Israel’s faithful adherence to God’s covenant.
Indeed, one of the first instances of Israelites, um, cavorting (the ESV Bible bluntly says “whoring”) with the locals is in Numbers 25. The young lasses of Moab are comely and inviting, apparently, and the temptation of sex leads to sacrifices to the Baal (Lord) of Peor. Which pisses God off something fierce,
4 And the Lord said to Moses, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” 5 And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor.” (Numbers 25:4-5 ESV)
One Phinehas, grandson of Aaron (and therefore a Levite), takes matters into his own hands when he sees an Israelite introduce a Midianite woman to the folks:
6 And behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman to his family, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the whole congregation of the people of Israel, while they were weeping in the entrance of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose and left the congregation and took a spear in his hand 8 and went after the man of Israel into the chamber and pierced both of them, the man of Israel and the woman through her belly. Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. 9 Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand. (Numbers 25:6-9 ESV)
(By the way, this story of Phinehas was the justification used by a group of American white supremacists some years ago to harass and kill interracial couples.)
Now, two things. First Moses gives instructions to kill a number of people, and apparently those commands are not followed. (Three cheers for not listening to God or God’s anointed!) Only Phinehas does the deed. (Scripture is not shy about noting when God or Moses sets some group of Israelites to kill other Israelites for their misdeeds, such as Exodus 32:25-29.) Second, a plague? That kills thousands? This just gets tossed in as an aside.
But Phinehas’ work averts total calamity, and he is blessed for it.
Now, interestingly enough, the Israelite that Phinehas kills is named — Zimri, son of Salu, of the tribe of Simeon — but so is the Midianite woman — Cozbi, daughter of Zur. There are lots of woman who go unnamed in the Bible who do good things, and aren’t struck dead by zealous Levites, but her name is recorded. For posterity. For eternity. Interesting fact, that.
So, what we have here is a clear example of the intermingling of sex and idolatry. To have sex with women who are not of the covenant is to risk worshiping their gods as well. (And since the Deuteronomy passage mentions sons and daughters, their young men are apparently just as beguiling.) However we attempt to explain it, the link is made between sex with foreigners, with people outside the covenant, (Moabites and Midianites are not Canaanites) and worshiping their gods.
This becomes explicit when the narrative turns to the Kings. Solomon, for all his wisdom and good works (building that house that David so wanted to build for God), Solomon allows himself to be … distracted.
1 Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, 2 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. 3 He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. 4 For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. 5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. 7 Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. 8 And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. (1 Kings 11:1-8 ESV)
Partly there’s just wisdom here. Had I married a good Muslim girl, for example, I would most likely still be Muslim. My wife Jennifer, the tender-hearted daughter of a Lutheran pastor, converted me. She evangelized me. She turned my heart. Simply by loving me.
Solomon clearly was a nice guy who loved pretty girls (and maybe even a fair many sweet and homely ones) and couldn’t say no. (Seven-hundred wives!!!!) When he married a non-Israelite, he likely told her it was perfectly okay for her to continue worshiping Baal and praying before Ashtoreth. Or whatever. And being the nice guy he was, who loved spending time with the women he loved (and three-hundred concubines!!!!), he was swayed. How could he not be?
Idolatry — Israel yoking itself to other gods and serving עבד them — is the sin that has plagued Israel ever since they started enslaving rather than expelling (and exterminating) the Canaanites, and it will doom Israel from here on out. Every one of Israel’s other sins — such as a failure to care for the poor and the weak, something so central to the prophetic critique that comes as Israel and Judah are collapsing — are linked to this sin. Everything begins with idolatry. And idolatry is intimately connected to sex.
(But not the kind of illicit sex prohibited in Leviticus 18 and 20. That’s not linked to idolatry at all.)
This is why the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38 is so very interesting. Remember, Judah’s wife — the mother of Er and Onan — is a Canaanite, the daughter of Shua (unfortunately, she is not named, though intriguingly, her father is). Because Judah is the most important of Israel’s sons, it is an odd fact that he marries and fathers three sons with a Canaanite. But this also probably explains why Er and Onan were “wicked in the sight of the Lord” and put to death by God Himself. (At least more than Onan’s failure to do his brotherly duty by spilling his seed upon the ground.) We do not know Tamar’s origins — the passage does not say — but I’m guessing she is not a Canaanite.
Which leads me to the big piece on intermarriage — Ezra’s prayer.
(If you have not read Ezra and Nehemiah, two short little books shoved in between Chronicles and Job, you should. They are central to our understanding the story that scripture is trying to tell, and Nehemiah 9 outlines the entire Old Testament story in a simple way that also tells us what it means.)
Ezra tells the story of the end of the exile and restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. Ezra himself appears late in his book, after he is dispatched from Persia to Judah to teach. And at the ceremonies where the temple is rededicated, Ezra writes:
1 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 with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 2 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.” 3 As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. 4 Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. (Ezra 9:1-4 ESV)
Ezra’s prayer is a lot like Nehemiah’s. And it is, in many ways, a powerful prayer — a confession of sin, an expression of thanks that God has not abandoned Israel, and appeal to God that in its restoration, Israel prosper.
And yet, quoting Deuteronomy 7, he is bothered by what he has been told. It saddens him deeply. So Israel responds,
2 And Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3 Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law. 4 Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” 5 Then Ezra arose and made the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take an oath that they would do as had been said. So they took the oath. (Ezra 10:2-5 ESV)
Now, I must confess — for all the death, destruction, mass murder, gang-rape, grifting, swindling, tent-peg pounding, underwear burying, she-bear siccing, and outright wife-stealing (thank you, David) that I’ve come across in scripture, nothing — and I mean absolutely nothing — horrified me as much as this passage. Upon coming across this for the first time, I had to put the Bible down and take a breath. Is this really saying what I think it’s saying? All of those women, and all of those children, beloved and cared for, tossed aside. Abandoned. As if they simply do not matter. Not us. Not anymore.
That’s how important this matter has become for Israel. Everything Israel suffered was because of its idolatry, and idolatry founded not simply because other gods are more interesting than Israel’s God (“Gee, your gods are swell!”) but on and in very concrete and very intimate relationships (“Gee, you’re cute! And golly, your gods look swell too!”). The lesson Israel seems to have learned from all this is: to be safe, we must keep to ourselves. Our history, our downfall, our suffering, our loss, are all a result of failing to do just that.
I’ve read the last two chapters of Ezra closely, and my horror has been lessened by the realization that while Israel assembles and confesses its sin here and promises to do what is asked, Israel also says — more or less — that this is a difficult matter. “But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for a day or two, for we have greatly transgressed in this matter.” (Ezra 10:13) (I hear an echo of Qur’an 2:70, “cows all look alike to us…”) Promises are made, but scripture doesn’t tell us what happens after that. Does Israel in fact put away all the “foreign women”? We do not know. After listing many who took “foreign wives,” the Book of Ezra ends on this odd — and obvious — note:
44 All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children. (Ezra 10:44 ESV)
And there we are left with it. Utterly and completely unresolved. Like with a whole lot of the story of scripture, we are left to write the next page. Are the “foreign women” put away? Should they be? After all, we’ve said we would.
However … We have a few contrary examples. Because it wouldn’t be the Bible if the story didn’t muck around with the teaching.
First, we have to Book of Esther, which comes right after Nehemiah before Job. It’s the story of Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living among the exiles in Persia (Iran, in case you were wondering), and her marriage to the (most certainly non-Jewish) Shah of Iran. And because of her position, she is able to reveal a plot against her kinsfolk and save them. It’s one of several stories (mostly chapters in Daniel) that tell how to heroically and successfully live as exiles, a tiny minority, in a great big, multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire.
But had she not married the Shah of Iran, Ahasuerus, the plot to kill the Jews of Persia would not have been uncovered. Useful, yes, like Joseph. But also faithful. And no less a marriage simply because she married outside the faith and the community.
(And now that I write this, I remember that Joseph married an Egyptian woman — Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, an Egyptian priest — who bore him Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 41:50-52), both of whom become “half-tribes” of Israel, with Ephraim also becoming a synonym for the northern kingdom. The northern kingdom, however, sinks into complete idolatry and disappears after being conquered by the Assyrians, its remnants popping up in scripture as the Samaritans everyone seems to hate so much in the gospels.)
There are two other examples highlighted, of all things, by Numbers 25. I find it very interesting that passage focuses its wrath on Israelites cavorting (ahem!) with Moabites (Num 25:1) and Midianites (Num 25:6), singling out these two peoples from the multitude surrounding and in the midst of Israel. Because in Exodus 2, when Moses flees Egypt, we read:
16 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. 18 When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, “How is it that you have come home so soon today?” 19 They said, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.” 20 He said to his daughters, “Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.” 21 And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah. 22 She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:16-22 ESV)
Moses marries a Midianite. (I have more to say about Moses later.) In fact, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian (and also known as Jethro) will advise Moses on properly adjudicating the squabbles and disputes of the Israelites in Exodus 18.
So, you’d think kin would account for something in Numbers 25, but apparently, it doesn’t. Still, a Midianite woman is good enough for Moses. But not for anyone else in Israel.
And then there’s Ruth, the plucky little Moabite girl who sweetly works her way into Boaz’s heart (descendant of Judah through Perez). Without this crafty little Moabite (she was five-foot-two with big brown eyes, and no, I will not say why I know that), there would have been no David. And as I noted previously, no David, no Jesus. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” writes Matthew at the beginning of his gospel. God loves David so much that God makes promises not just to David, not just to Israel, but all of humanity.
(David seems to be very nearly the exception to everything.)
However, in her words of devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi (words that ought to be said by every couple getting married in a Christian marriage ceremony), Ruth actually tells what is specifically at stake when one person joins themselves — cleaves, if you will — to another:
16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth 1:16-17 ESV)
She’s clearly not an Israelite. But she also shows that this attraction can work both ways. Yes, the God of Israel can actually interest someone from outside of Israel. Can be as compelling as a stone or wooden idol.
Again, there’s a tension left unresolved. Very purposefully, I think. Yes, marry within your own people. It is not just best for you, it is best for all of us. But even as that is true, and as we say that, we need to remember: the best of us are the result of proscribed or forbidden relationships. We would not even exist without those relationships. So, we are left to write that last chapter, to live it out, knowing that while not all answers are acceptable, there’s not really one right answer.
There is God at work. There is always God at work.