Wednesday of Week 25 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Ezra 9:5-9

In our last reading from the Book of Ezra, it is Ezra himself who speaks. It is both a deeply felt prayer and an exhortation to his people. He is deeply upset because they have been so unfaithful. He is particularly disturbed that many have intermarried with the unbelieving and idolatrous people around them.

He tells us that at the evening sacrifice, he came out of a stupor. Just before this Ezra has been told that many of the people, including even priests and Levites, have intermarried with women from the non-Jewish (and non-believing) tribes. The result is that the “holy race” has become contaminated and hence liable to fall into the idolatrous practices of their wives.

Actually, in ancient Israel inter-ethnic marriages were not forbidden (see one example in Gen 41:45, where Joseph marries an Egyptian woman), but were later forbidden by Deuteronomy in order to combat idolatry, which Gentile women tended to bring with them into the home. The danger increased after the Exile because the majority of the returning exiles were men. The reason for the separation is still religious, but a second reason now emerges here, concern for racial purity.

On hearing all this, Ezra tears his clothes, pulls the hair from his head and beard, and sits down in horror. All who felt the same way about the infidelity shown to God gathered round him in sympathy and support, while Ezra remained sitting there in horror until the evening sacrifice.

At the evening sacrifice, he comes out of his wretched state and, in his torn clothes, falls on his knees, stretches out his hands to Yahweh and begins to pray. The prayer of Ezra, which is also a sermon, is inspired by Deuteronomy and the prophets. It may be compared with those of Nehemiah (9:5-37) and Daniel (9:4-19).

In the name of his people, he tells God how ashamed he is, how he blushes even to lift his face to God. He is ashamed for the terrible sins of his people which are now “higher than our heads” and whose guilt has reached right up to heaven.

This is nothing new for God’s people. From the days of their ancestors until now they have been deeply guilty. The Israelites had a strong sense of their corporate solidarity with their ancestors.

Because of their iniquities, they, together with their kings and priests, have been handed over to the kings of other countries, have died by the sword, been taken away into captivity, been pillaged and looted – and reduced to shame. This is still the case. Much of this suffering was the result of their sins and infidelities. In Ezekiel (21:19) “the sword of the king of Babylon” is described as an instrument of divine judgement.

In spite of all this, now, for a brief moment, the favour of Yahweh their God has allowed a remnant to escape from exile and given them a stable “stake in his holy place”, so that their God can raise their spirits and revive them a little in their slavery. The literal reading of “stake” is a ‘nail’ or a ‘peg’, evoking the image of a nail driven firmly into a wall or a peg driven well into the ground.

However, in spite of somewhat better times now, they are still slaves under a foreign ruler. But God has not forgotten them in their slavery. He has extended his faithful love for them even under the kings of Persia and revived them to rebuild the Temple of our God, restore its ruins and provide them with a refuge in Judah and Jerusalem.

The Achaemenid Persian kings were favourably disposed to Jews (as they were to other religions): Cyrus (539-530 BC) gave them permission to return (Ezra 1); his son Cambyses (530-522), though not named in the Scriptures, also favoured the Jews, as we learned from Elephantine papyri; Darius I (522-486) renewed the decree of Cyrus (Ezra 6); his son Xerxes (486-465) granted privileges and protection to Jews (Esther 8-10); his son Artaxerxes (465-424) gave authorisations to Ezra (Ezra 7) and to Nehemiah (Neh 2).

In God’s strange providence, it was the enlightened policy of the pagan Persian emperors which had made it possible for God’s sinful people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple. In many ways, it was this exile which helped them appreciate what they had lost. God, too, can make strange and unlikely people be the agents of his bringing us back to him.

In our lives, too, there can be painful experiences. They can either embitter us and drive us deeper into ourselves or we can go through them and see that God in his love and compassion is present there. We then turn such experiences into opportunities for personal growth and deepening our sensitivity for the sufferings of others.

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