We know Ezra and the second-temple Judahites bent the rules about polytheism and intermarriage. Could they have also bent the rules about the genealogical record defining your membership in the community? How about foreign wives?

It’s interesting that you speculate that Ezra’s community might not have strictly enforced the rule on documenting their inheritance and sending away foreign wives. First of all, how, really, would people have documented their genealogy? Settlers didn’t have to go all the way back to Abraham, but according to Ezra they did have to prove they were part of the Jewish group who went to Babylon and then returned. But they had no Ancestry.com, no birth certificates, no photographs, no DNA.  And Ezra’s second-temple community was rebuilding Jerusalem 150-200 years after the exile began. If you don’t think that’s a long time to remember who was part of the original exile community and who wasn’t, ask your friends how far back they can document their own genealogy (it’s hard enough for white American families who didn’t have their histories erased). Holocaust deniers doubt events that happened only 80 years ago. So I imagine the only way to prove your history was tp get someone else to testify for you. I believe the “shared past” Ezra insisted upon was a cultural construct, like many of the pedigrees and “begats” in the Hebrew bible and in Matthew. The Book of Ezra actually lists the pedigrees of those who returned. At that point, it’s like a loop. The text of Ezra becomes part of the proof Ezra is looking for.

You mention the “seeking and finding” in earlier disputes as a kind of documentation. This “seeking” is associated with Ezra’s overall obsession with documents. For example, he includes the text of earlier letters to the Persian king and refers to archives quite often. He also “documents” public prayers as a kind of legal document or contract, including the entire text of these prayers in the record. He even makes those who hear the Torah performed sign that they have understood it and will be bound by it. Perhaps he used those signatures as documentation against people who violated Torah laws.

You might ask a similar question about the foreign wives problem. Did people really send their wives away? Some must have resisted (take the author of Ruth, who insists on the importance of foreign wives to the entire community). Some must have refused. I think the text of Ezra is an idealization of what actually took place. Just look at Nehemiah, which is part of the same scroll. Nehemiah argued that anyone who helped rebuild the city walls should be considered a Judahite. Nehemiah was Ezra’s late contemporary. So we don’t have to go as far as Ruth to find a critique of Ezra’s demand for a pedigree and his insistence on “pure” native bloodlines. Nehemiah proves that some early settlers wanted to be much more inclusive.

Another possibility that could explain why some rules were bent is that the post-exile community in Jerusalem saw themselves as a group apart, and perhaps they believed the laws they followed were only for them. There is mention in Ezra of an attempt by another group of Jews, perhaps the ancestors of Samaritans–northern Torah observers who did not accept any other texts–to help with the temple. These people are treated as outsiders and rebuffed. (In contrast, Nehemiah says that anyone who helps build the wall belongs to that community. ) So perhaps when the Judeans refer to “gods” when addressing other Hebrew groups and allowed them to build a second temple and celebrate Passover without a text, they were being tolerant because they believed their laws only applied to themselves. 

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