Vaniah, Meremoth, Eliashib … Ezra 10.36.
Yes, this was the random text that my Bible software threw up as the starting point for me to find my reading for today! What was I to do? Accept it, or try again? Well, I decided to treat it as a challenge and to go with it. So, my first question was, who were Vaniah, Meremoth, Eliashib — because I have to admit that I had never heard of them before? The answer lay further on in the chapter. They (and about a hundred others named alongside them) “had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children” (Ezra 10.44), or, as it was reported to Ezra, “the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9.2).
In our day, when mixed-race marriages don’t even raise an eyebrow anymore, we may feel that the news caused Ezra to over-reacted somewhat: “As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled … because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles …” (Ezra 9.3-4).
Why get so upset? What was so wrong about a Jew marrying a Canaanite or a Hittite? Well, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with it from a racial point of view; but there was plenty wrong with it from a spiritual point of view. These women all came complete with what the officers reporting to Ezra called “their abominations” (Ezra 9.1) — they worshiped false gods. And Ezra knew what happened when you put Canaanite fertility worship into a marriage alongside Jewish monotheism — the one drove out the other. It was a version of what, in the financial world, is known as Gresham’s law: “Bad money drives out good.”
It had happened with Solomon: “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women … from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love … And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father” (1 Kings 11.1-4). It had happened with Ahab: “And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him. And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshipped him” (1 Kings 16.30-31). It always happened; and the only way to stop it happening was to rule out marriage of Jewish men with foreign women.
Does this have any application today. It certainly does, and Paul spelled it out for us when writing to the Corinthians: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6.14-15). Paul has in mind there the Old Testament prohibition in Deuteronomy 22.10: “You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey together.” Why not? Because an ox and a donkey are fundamentally incompatible and putting them together in the same harness precludes the possibility of ever being able to plough a straight furrow.
So it is in any life-sharing relationship. Paul’s words are generally taken to be an injunction against believers marrying unbelievers, but it seems to me to be wider than that. Any close relationship will run into difficulties sooner or later unless both parties are equally committed to Christ. The integrity of the believer’s faith will be compromised at every end and turn, or if it is not, the relationship will be full of conflict and pain.
Once, when I worked with young people in the church, I found this was a principle that they would always try to reject. “It’s different with me and Shirley. I really love her and she loves me and I know that if I keep going out with her she’ll end up becoming a Christian too.” “No,” I would think, “she probably won’t … and the chances are that she will turn your heart away after her gods.” But that is something that, like Vaniah, Meremoth, Eliashib in this morning’s reading, young Christians in particular just do not want to hear.
If, of course, one is already in a close relationship with an unbeliever — a marriage or a business partnership, perhaps — then one must work at that relationship and honour it for as long as possible (1 Corinthians 7.12-16); but if I am to be true to the Scriptures, I will not form with non-Christians any attachments so deep or of such a life-sharing intensity that the inevitable outcome will be either dissention and conflict or the compromising of my faith.
PS. I am posting this today because I go into hospital for an operation early tomorrow morning and will be out of action for a day or two.