Ezra and his colleagues were overwhelmed with grief and fear when they discovered that the Hebrews who had returned from exile had intermarried with foreigners.
They were shocked when they heard that the “faithlessness … of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:2 ESV). Marrying foreigners was sinful, according the Law of Moses (Num 25). For this reason, Ezra publicly renounced the sin of the people and prays for mercy from Yahweh. But then something troubling happens: They decide to send all the foreign women and children away.
In ancient patriarchal societies, women—especially those widowed or abandoned—were usually a lower class. The story of Ruth demonstrates this. But once Ruth decides to worship the God of Israel, she begins her journey toward joining the family line of King David (and later Jesus). We are told nothing about the worship intent of the women in Ezra, or their situation once dispelled from their community. However, an understanding of the Hebrew word behind the translation “faithlessness” (or “unfaithful act”) helps us appreciate why Ezra believed ostracizing the foreign women was necessary.
The ESV English–Hebrew Reverse Interlinear of the Old Testament tells us that ma’al (מעל) is the Hebrew word behind the translation, “faithlessness.” We can look up this word, and locate the citation of our verse, in the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. From here, we can identify the exact form used in our passage and look up the other biblical passages listed. We will focus on those written earlier than, and contemporary with, Ezra. This leads us to Num 25—the first key in making sense of Ezra.
Numbers 25 relates a story of Israelite men accepting invitations from foreign women to worship the god Baal. As a result of their actions, a devastating plague breaks out in the Israelite camp. When the time for revenge against foreigners comes in Num 31, Moses reminds the Israelite warriors, “These [foreign women] caused the people of Israel to act treacherously (ma’al) against the Lord … so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord” (Num 31:16 ESV). The result of the ma’al was death.
The author of Chronicles, who lived when Ezra was being written, says the exile of the Northern Kingdom of Israel was a result of the people acting “unfaithfully (ma’al) toward the God of their fathers” (1 Ch 5:25–26 ESV). Similarly, the author describes the sins of several kings as ma’al (1 Ch 10:13; 2 Ch 26:16; 28:19). The author later asserts that “All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful (ma’al) following all the abominations of the nations” (2 Chr 36:14 ESV). Again, the direct result of following other nations, their gods, and their way of worship, was death and exile.
Ezekiel proclaims again and again that “unfaithful acts” (ma’al) leads to judgment of famine, the desolation of the land, and exile (Ezek 14:13; 15:8; 17:20). Similarly, the author of Daniel affirms that the exile was a result of ma’al (Dan 9:7).
Ma’al is a designation for a host of sins that result in God being demoted from His proper place of worship. The author of Ezra called marrying foreigners ma’al (מעל) because the term evoked disheartening imagery. This is confirmed in Ezra’s subsequent prayer where he begs Yahweh for mercy so that the people are not consumed again by exile and death (Ezra 9:10–15).
In the book of Ezra, though, the tables have turned. Ezra and Israel have been the disenfranchised for the last generation. They were ravaged, raped and forced from their land into a foreign country. They became the minority among the conquered. Ezra was leading a people psychologically and physically scarred by war and captivity. Now restored to their homeland, Ezra and Israel (naturally) panic when the possibility of exile presents itself again.
Even though they were restored to their land, Ezra and Israel were still the disenfranchised—counted as foreigners in the massive Persian Empire. Israel’s situation causes Ezra to realize that the preservation of its identity and worship is paramount, and not guaranteed. Likely with this in mind, the people obey Ezra and divorce the women (Ezra 10). There is nothing in the Law that forbids the women and children from being supported economically, but marriage is forbidden.