Are you grappling with a difficult verse in the Bible? And are you looking for a short, easy-to-read answer that really makes sense without explaining away the verse? Visit this page for a daily excerpt from IVP's Hard Saying series.

Today's Study

Ezra 10:2-3: Let Us Send Away All These Women and Their Children!

The issue of divorce is never a pleasant topic, for those who are affected by it or for those who must interpret what the Scriptures say about it. This text arouses the question of whether divorce is a morally proper corrective for apostasy. If so, how can this be squared with the outright statement in Malachi 2:16 that God hates divorce?

The marriage problems in Ezra 9--10 began in this way. In the seventh year of Artaxerxes (458 B.C. ), Ezra led a second group of Jewish exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem, only to learn that a serious problem existed in the community that had developed under Zerubbabel. Influenced by leaders of this new community, the priests and Levites, along with others in Jerusalem, had intermarried with the pagan population they had found living in the land. When Ezra learned this, he ripped his garments and pulled out his hair in horror and grief. He was dumbfounded as to what to do.

At the evening sacrifice, Ezra fell on his knees in prayer before God, confessing his shame and guilt on behalf of his nation. As he prayed, others joined him in weeping and prayer. Suddenly, Shecaniah, one of the sons of Elam, proposed a solution: the people would acknowledge their sin and make a covenant with God that all pagan wives be put away. Ezra apparently agreed that this was the mind of the Lord, and so an announcement was made that in three days the putting away would take place.

On that third day, the people stood in the rain as Ezra intoned these words: "You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel's guilt. Now make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives" (Ezra 10:10-11).

Now according to the list in Ezra 10, only 113 had taken foreign wives (17 priests, 6 Levites, 1 singer, 3 porters and 86 laity). Since the total number of families was something like 29,000, the size of the problem shrinks under closer scrutiny to about 0.4 percent. Nevertheless, the issue was not size but the severing of Israel's marriage covenant with God, which forbade God's people marrying persons outside the covenant.

Even before Israel had entered into the land, they had been warned not to intermarry with the inhabitants (Ex 34:11-16; Deut 7:1-5). Such intermarriage would inevitably result in idolatry. Though there were many intermarriages throughout Israel's history, apparently many of these involved proselytes. The outstanding examples, of course, are Ruth, Rahab and Moses' Cushite wife. But many others cannot be explained as converts; they often appear to be tolerated and left in the midst of God's people. Ultimately, this was one of the factors that led to God's judgment and the Babylonian captivity.

What did Ezra do with these wives? The word translated "to send away" or "to cause to go out" in Ezra 10:3 is not the usual word for divorce. Nevertheless, that is what appears to have happened. Even more surprising, their solution is said to agree with the law!

Divorce was permitted under certain circumstances in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Could it be that Ezra unlocked the meaning of that mysterious phrase "for something unseemly, shameful" or, as the NIV translates it, "he finds something indecent about her"? This could not refer to adultery, as the law provided the death penalty in that case (Deut 22:22). Thus it had to be something else that brought shame on God's people. What could bring greater shame than the breaking of the covenant relationship and the ultimate judgment of God on all the people? Perhaps Ezra had this passage in mind when he provided for the divorce of these unbelieving wives.

There are many questions that remain. Were the ostracized children and wives provided for? Were any attempts made to win them to faith in the one true God? No direct answers are given to these and similar questions, perhaps because these matters were not germane to the main point of revelation.

Those attempting to show that Ezra rendered a questionable decision say he lost his prestige and influence in the community as a result of this decision. However, when the chronology of Ezra and Nehemiah is restored to its proper sequence, according to the textual claims and the most recent historical studies, Ezra was once again before the public during the revival of Nehemiah recorded in Nehemiah 8.

Are we left then with an argument for divorcing unbelieving spouses today? No! In fact, 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 says that if the unbeliever is willing to continue living with the believer, then they must not divorce, for the unbelieving partner is sanctified by the believer! However, should the unbeliever finally and irremediably desert the believer, the believer "is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace" (1 Cor 7:15). The object is to win the unbelieving spouse to Christ. But when an unbeliever chooses to desert his or her partner and marriage vows, then reluctantly the believer may let that one go, that is, sadly accept the divorce, with the right to be married to another.