I did not go to seminary, and I do not have formal theological training. However, like many, I have engaged in Bible study for years and am a daily Bible reader. There are passages in the Bible I find quizzical, disappointing, infuriating, beautiful, and humorous. One example of Scripture’s multi-faceted appeal is found in the 9th and 10th chapters of the Book of Ezra.
At the outset of the Book of Ezra, King Cyrus of Persia permits the Jews living in exile to return to Jerusalem to “rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem (1:3).” 50,000 or so were permitted to make the journey home. They returned and lived “in dread of the neighboring peoples (3:3).”
When the “adversaries” heard the returned exiles were building a temple, they asked if they could help, “for we worship your God as you do and we have been sacrificing to him… (4:2).” But the response was, “You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God… (4:3).” Even though they worshiped the same God, they believed their life experience kept them apart. What a lost opportunity!
Oh, how I wish I could have read that the offer was graciously accepted and that dialogue and goodwill helped to lead to an era of peace and tranquility. How many times have we heard the inspiring reports of peoples of different faiths standing together in solidarity in recent years? Some have even offered their sanctuaries as places of worship for those who have other beliefs and practices!
Then, the priest Ezra arrives in Jerusalem and learns the Jews are living among “the peoples of the land with their abominations (9:11)” and have married some of them, had children and raised families so that “the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands… (9:2).” Ezra demands they send away these family members. That’s right! He insists they force their own spouses and children to leave. Despite all efforts to spin these verses, they still possess unbearable cruelty.
“Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethia the Levites supported them (10:15).” These are my heroes in the Book of Ezra. Their opposition was such that we know of it to this day, and I am grateful for it.
I am aware of interpretations that emphasize themes such as faithfulness and repentance, restoration, and the need to understand the cultural context. Sure, OK, but to the lay reader, it reads as ugly. I suppose I appreciate that this is included in the Holy Scriptures because it reminds us yet again of how frequently we fall short of our beliefs and seek to exclude “others.” After all, it’s the daily drumbeat that emanates from the White House.
As for me, I desire a faith that draws the circle wide and emphasizes love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. That’s the faith I try to live out. That’s the faith I believe Jesus is all about.