“Let us now make a covenant with our God to divorce our pagan wives and to send them away with their children….”
Then Ezra the priest stood and said to them: “You have committed a terrible sin. By marrying pagan women, you have increased Israel’s guilt. So now confess your sin to the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do what he demands. Separate yourselves from the people of the land and from these pagan women.” – Ezra 10:3, 10-11, NLT
Ezra is a confusing book for modern people. I want to share a few framing pieces of information that explain the radical differences between those days and our own before I draw some conclusions.
The reasoning behind the divorce of pagan wives in Ezra chapter ten has to do with the old covenant with God where the Israelites were forbidden to intermarry with outside races. To violate this command was to court national disaster–hence, the imperative here to divorce during a time of national rebuilding–as a violation of the covenant came with all the curses tied to the Old Testament covenant. In other words, the people of Judah here were striving to obey their covenant with God in order to end the curse upon their nation for violating it.
I share that historical information to say this passage does not readily avail itself of modern applications when it comes to a theology of divorce. It is limited by its context. However, I see two important exceptions to that rule:
1) This passage proves divorce is not sin and may–under some circumstances–be a godly choice.
We cannot honor God by sinning. So, it makes absolutely no theological sense to label divorce as always sin when we have Scripture here clearly indicating divorce as God-honoring. In fact, the Jewish men are divorcing their pagan wives here as an act of turning away from sin and to God. That is radical and mind-blowing to consider today.
This passage still serves as an important corrective to our evangelical subculture’s hyper divorce phobia. We need to remember that God views sin as more heinous than divorce. Remember:
It is important not to confuse a proxy–i.e. divorce–with the problem–i.e. sin.
That said, divorce certainly can be sin–e.g. Malachi 2 teaching against jettisoning a Jewish spouse for a pagan one–but the fact of divorce–i.e. it happened–says nothing about whether it is sin or not. The circumstances need examination. The divorced person may very well be acting righteously–like the Jewish men in Ezra’s day–by choosing divorce. Today’s divorced Christian may be choosing to follow God’s example of refusing to tolerate adultery as in Jeremiah 3:8.
2) It serves as example of a priest–i.e. pastor–advocating strongly for divorce.
I alluded to this in a previous post. The reason I raise this second point is to highlight how a godly leader sometimes may need to advocate for divorce. These particular set of circumstances found in Ezra are not applicable for today, in my opinion. However, the passage still stands as a counter to the generally unchallenged evangelical stance of pastors or Christian leaders never advocating for divorce. In my opinion, other situations like ongoing adultery, for example, may call for such godly advocacy from a pastor or Christian leader (see Jeremiah 3:8, Mt 1:19, and I Cor 7:15).
Once again, this passage serves to remind priests of our primary calling–i.e. to honor God in our leadership. This means focusing on holiness where sin is avoided–and not necessarily divorce–as we see in this passage.
Ezra chapter ten is a very interesting passage in how it challenges our modern thinking on divorce in the church. I hope the points I have raised today have provoked thought and brought healing to other faithful spouses who have experienced the opposite of such teachings in damaging ways.