In Ezra and Nehemiah, why would priests exclude people and define Jewishness so narrowly? To me it would make sense to want to have lots of people in your religion to make it powerful and influential.

I love your question. Since Paul, the Jesus movement (later Christianity) has been an inclusive movement. Luke’s gospel tells the prodigal son story to suggest that while the one son (the Jewish people) has always “been with me,” the prodigal son (symbolically, the non-Jewish converts) is still entitled to his father’s blessing, no matter how long it takes him to come to it.

But there was another Jesus movement supervised by Peter and Jesus’s brother James. It was centered in Jerusalem and it was only directed at what Matthew’s gospel calls “the lost sheep of Israel” (that is, other Jews, especially the poor or provincial or unlucky.) It was not interested in obtaining converts or for that matter setting down its tenets, which is one reason why this group vanished when Peter and James vanished at the hands of their Roman overlords. I believe Jesus was preaching to this group, not Luke’s group. But that’s just my interpretation of who Jesus really was.

I mention this movement because its much more in keeping with Judaism itself, which was a national religion before the exile and a racial and familial movement after. To this day, Judaism is passed down through the mother because she is the surest link to the past. It’s the reason why you don’t see Jews proselytizing, and why Jews have traditionally emphasized marriage from within. To be part of God’s chosen, you have to be able to (theoretically) trace your connection to David. Of course, actually providing proof of that lineage in Ezra and Nehemiah’s time would have been extremely difficult. People didn’t have notarized family trees. But the texts of Ezra and Nehemiah present an ideal rather than a reality (it’s equally unlikely that they sent away all those “foreign” women).

In the same way, the Puritan movement in America was an exclusive rather than an inclusive movement. The puritans believed in predestination, so you had to prove that you were predestined by God to be saved (when we get to Daniel, we’ll see how the idea of having your name in a “secret book” was first articulated. ) To prove you were part of the elect, you had a keep a diary or spiritual autobiography to show signs of your election. These were pretty formulaic, so to show you were chosen, your diary had to look like everyone else’s. The consequences of NOT being chosen were devastating. Besides being saddled with the knowledge that you were going to hell, you were also excluded from the community and forced to make your way alone. That’s a tough sentence on the frontier. The story of Anne Hutchison, whom I’ve mentioned elsewhere, illustrates the dangers.

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