The story of Ezra returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple has a disturbing account at the end of the book. The leaders come to Ezra and inform him in Ezra 9:1-2 (ESV) that:
“The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.”
The LEB translation (Lexham English Bible, based on the Septuagint) in this passage says in place of holy race: “holy seed.” The NIV says “intermingled” instead of mixed itself.
One verse later (v3) Ezra tells us:
As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled.
Reading these verses from our Western context, we think, “Well, sure Ezra was disturbed. God had told Joshua and the Israelites when they came into the land that they were to destroy most of these tribes because they were exceedingly sinful in His eyes.” But does that really explain Ezra’s great angst? I submit that this explanation is inadequate and our understanding is flawed because our typical Christian teaching doesn’t reach into the past far enough, it neglects to include the supernatural issues that are in play, and it misses the entire context of the situation.
The Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Amorites were all descendants of Noah’s son Ham. They were also labeled, along with several other tribes descended from Canaan, as Rephaim. Inevitably, each time the Israelites came upon any of these tribes, God commanded His people to completely annihilate them, i.e. devote them to destruction. The Hebrew word for this concept is cherem, which means to exterminate. Again, that seems pretty harsh if we only consider them as sinful people. Where is God’s mercy? Maybe there’s something else going on at a deeper level.
To appreciate the context and how the ancient Israelites would have understood the implications in God’s decrees, we have to first go to Genesis 6:1-5:
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
Modern Christianity attempts to whitewash this passage and take away its supernatural aspect. The thought of divine beings or angels coming to earth and taking human women as their “wives” is a bridge too far for many people. As a result, the idea that the sons of God, the bad guys, are Cain’s descendants, while the daughters were from the Godly line of Seth has been promoted.
There is nothing in the Biblical text that can in any way lead us to this conclusion. Pastors, when they must touch upon this topic, and seminaries, when they reluctantly address it, almost universally declare there’s no way angels could come to earth and reproduce. The argument often revolves around the statement Jesus made in Matthew 22:30 that angels in heaven don’t marry. This is a simplistic argument. It doesn’t address angels when they come to earth and assume a corporeal body. What do we know about angels in this human form and the functions they have? Nothing. The verse also doesn’t say angels can’t marry; it says they don’t marry. Words mean things.
So, the supernatural meaning of this passage is a distinct possibility. Beyond that, we must realize that the Ancient Near East was a hotbed of the supernatural. Moses, who wrote Genesis, knew the neighborhood in which he lived. He knew that God was a God of miracles and manifestation. The angel of the Lord came and spoke to him face to face.
To comprehend that the Nephilim were the hybrid offspring of fallen angels and human women wasn’t a conceptual stretch for Moses or anyone else in that period. In fact, it’s this narrative that shapes the entire Biblical story. God’s rebellious divine sons wanted to take His place. Fallen angels intermarrying with humans, corrupting the human bloodline, and killing off humanity so that the Seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15 couldn’t bring forth the promised Messiah, were ideas that every Israelite carried with them as God’s chosen people.
How do we get to the Rephaim and the associated tribes that God wanted His people to kill off? It is speculated that the wife of Ham had Nephilim corrupted blood; whereas Noah, his wife, his other two sons and their wives had the righteous, pure, human blood that God needed when He saved Noah and his family. But through Ham we have these tribes that God says to cherem—to devote to destruction.
When Ezra prays is Ezra 9:11-12, he reiterates what God has told the Israelites:
“which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore, do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’”
God was very clear. Don’t have anything to do with these abominable people. They are unclean. The deeper story is that their uncleanness is not simply from sin; it is from a corrupted bloodline that must not pollute the offspring of the Israelites.
Regarding the other three tribes of the Moabites, Ammonites, and of Egypt, we have oracles and prophecies that God declares which condemn these nations. Amos 1:13-15 deals with Ammon; Amos 2:1-3 addresses Moab; and Isaiah 19:1-17 speaks of Egypt. Each of these transgressed against Israel in vile ways, and perhaps in this instance in Ezra God truly is judging their sins as abominations. On the other hand, maybe there were Rephaim offspring that had migrated to these countries and at that particular time their people had tainted blood. Thus, intermarrying with them was particularly forbidden. God knows.
As a result of these impurities, when Ezra issues a proclamation for all descendants of the captivity to gather in Jerusalem, he says in Ezra 10:10-11:
“You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now then make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”
Ezra 10:44 finishes up with:
All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children.
This is tough stuff. Everyone who has taken a foreign wife is to separate from them; any kids go as well. If God hates divorce, what’s with this? These people had placed themselves into a position completely contrary to God’s Word. The implications for their intermarrying actually went beyond the concept of divorce. It was a necessity that none of the offspring be considered Jewish because they might actually have tainted blood, i.e. blood resulting from the fallen sons of God in Genesis 6:1-5.
You may have also wondered what the point of listing the offenders was—why bother? It was very specific, very deliberate. The names of the offending Israelites had to be made public so that none of their descendants could claim to be an Israelite. God’s people had to maintain purity within the bloodlines to truly be those through whom Messiah would come.
It was Ezra’s faithful actions in a difficult situation that enabled God to continue with His plans and purposes. What were these? To redeem Israel so that through her all nations could be blessed. And we are. We owe a debt of gratitude to Ezra that he was a righteous and holy man, totally sold out to God.