Today’s reading: Ezra 1-10, Psalm 60-61
Remember a few weeks ago when we started the book of Numbers? The first chapter included a head count of the males age twenty and older from all the tribes of Israel. The total? 603,550.
Today, our reading begins with Cyrus’ decree sending the Israelites home. Then, in the second chapter of Ezra, we get the head count of all the people returning from Babylon to Jerusalem. The total this time? 42,360.
Generations of internal unrest, war with other nations, and exile have nearly decimated the population of Israel. Almost immediately, however, we get a clue that this remnant is coming home with a newfound resolve to live as God’s covenant people. Their first task is to begin preparing for the rebuilding of the temple, a visible sign of their enduring relationship with God. They give freely of what they have to the building fund so that this work can be accomplished. While that work is just getting underway, they construct an altar where they can immediately resume making burnt offerings according to the terms of the covenant. And then there is the matter of national purity.
To our 21st century ears, the final chapter in today’s reading will sound very strange. “Why are men being told to divorce their wives? Isn’t marriage a sacred bond?” you might be asking. It is important for us to read this section within its original context. First of all, the social norm for marriage was quite different from our own. Marriage was not typically between one husband and one wife; men had multiple wives and concubines, as we have already seen. More importantly, though, was the fact that for Israelites, marriage was commanded to be only to another Israelite–it was one of the ways they showed faithfulness. So, this episode is further evidence, in that context, that this time the people of Israel are serious about re-committing themselves to the covenant.
One thing worth noting today is how differently they react to the situation compared with pre-exilic times. Rather than placing the blame on the foreign women and/or foreign gods, the men come to Jerusalem confessing their own sin, seeking forgiveness and a solution. Granting divorces instead of death warrants and allowing the women to go home is certainly a sign of a new era.