Contemporary American Jews often hear of an “intermarriage crisis,” with reportedly half of Jews marrying outside of their faith. [i] [ii] [iii] The precedent for the Jewish reaction to this phenomenon is rooted in biblical scripture. Yet, even in the Bible, the reaction to intermarriage has not always been monolithic. The manner in which intermarriages are portrayed in the text varies remarkably both between the earlier sources and Second Temple era texts, as well as within the later sources themselves. The first books of the Bible do not appear to stress intermarriage as a cataclysmic sin, while large portions of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malakhi are dedicated to decrying exogamy as an existential threat to the Jewish people. In contrast, the Persian Jews of the Book of Esther are saved by the eponymous heroine’s marriage to Ahasuerus, an intermarriage that faces no criticism by the text.[iv] This essay will attempt to provide a possible explanation for these apparent discrepancies in Biblical approaches to intermarriage through carefully studying the historical context of each relevant time period.
I. Intermarriage in the Pentateuch and Early Prophets
The earliest specific references to a prohibition of intermarriage in the Bible can be found in the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.[v] The verse warns, “and thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go astray after their gods, and make thy sons go astray after their gods”[vi] and “when the Lord your God will bring you into the land…and shall cast out many nations…you shall not marry them…”[vii] It must be noted that these verses are specifically referring to intermarriage with the seven Canaanite nations, and appear to be based on the fear of idol-worship as the inevitable outcome of the illicit marriages. An example of this can perhaps be found in in Numbers 25, where Phineas is hailed as a zealot for killing Zimri, a Prince of the Tribe of Simeon, after Zimri is found publically cohabitating with Cozbi, a Midianite woman.[viii] The context of this incident was that Midianite women were drawing the Israelites towards idol worship, and it appears that idol worship was the major concern in this incident.
The aforementioned prohibitions notwithstanding, there are multiple references to intermarriages in a neutral or even positive sense in the Pentateuch. Louis Epstein, a twentieth century Bible historian, uses the marriages of Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, and Ruth as examples of seemingly permissible exogenous relationships.[ix] Furthermore, some argue that the fact that there are specific restrictions on marriages with Amonites, Moabites, and Egyptians implies that intermarriages with other nations might not be as restricted.[x] [xi] Traditional sources explain these seemingly problematic marriages by claiming that the non-Israelite partner converted, although in many of the previously mentioned cases it is not clear that this actually occurred.[xii] Additionally, the process of conversion does not appear to have been formally accepted within the framework of normative Jewish law until a later time period.[xiii]
Shaye J.D. Cohen, Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy at Harvard University, asserts that there are four passages in I Kings which do not appear to disapprove of Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter. The two verses that do condemn the marriage state,
Now king Solomon loved many foreign women, besides the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites; of the nations concerning which the LORD said ‘Ye shall not go among them, neither shall they come among you; for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’[xiv]
Cohen contends that the author of Kings was at worst ambivalent towards the prohibition of intermarriage, as well as to the figure of King Solomon. [xv] [xvi] Like Epstein, he notes how intermarriage does not seem to be a major concern within the earlier Biblical texts. Perhaps a distinction may be drawn between implicating intermarriage as itself a sin, as opposed to just an induction towards idolatry. It appears that a simple reading of Kings implies the latter was Solomon’s sin, while in the eyes of later rabbinic figures Solomon’s marriage itself was of concern. Whether Solomon’s wives converted has been debated by many scholars and commentators through the ages, and has been used as an explanation by traditional Jewish sources for why Solomon’s marriages were acceptable.[xvii]
II. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malakhi’s Rebuke
While earlier sources may not have considered intermarriage a grave sin, the exilic authorities in the Second Temple period viewed exogamy as destructive and harmful, an offense requiring harsh rebuke. The Book of Ezra concerns the return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile, and the attempt to rebuild the Temple. Large portions of the book are dedicated to Ezra’s reproach of the Jews in Jerusalem for disregarding the marriage laws. [xviii]
In Ezra 9, Ezra describes his anguish when he heard that the people had intermarried, saying that he “sat appalled until the [time of the] evening offering.”[xix] Ezra goes into mourning and warns the Jews of the evils of intermarriage, saying that a disregard of the prohibition will cause the Jews to lose the land. He says that if the intermarriage does not cease, God will destroy the Jews “beyond remnant and escape.”[xx] The foreign women and their children are subsequently expelled from the land.[xxi]
The Book of Nehemiah concerns the renovations of the walls of Jerusalem and the people’s devotion to God. Like Ezra, Nehemiah called on the people to marry Jewish wives, explaining that foreign wives caused the Jews to sin and lose their sense of unity.[xxii] He has the people commit to a brit amanah, where they agree to follow the word of God.[xxiii] Nehemiah says that the intermarriage of the kohanim and leviim defiles their priesthood, saying,
Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites. Thus cleansed I them from everything foreign, and appointed wards for the priests and for the Levites, every one in his work;[xxiv]
In a similar manner, the final book in the Prophets division of the Bible, Malakhi, spends much ink on the prophet’s castigation of the Jews for marrying gentile wives. Echoing the themes of Ezra and Nehemiah, Malakhi cries in anguish, “an abomination has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem”[xxv] He warns that God will cut off any descendants of those who intermarry, even asserting that that the Jews who intermarried did so “l’ḥallel berit avoteinu- in order to defile the covenant of our forefathers.”[xxvi] The language of berit was also used by both Ezra and Nehemiah, most likely to reinforce the idea that intermarriage destroys the Jews’ relationship with God, formed in the covenant with Abraham (berit bein ha-betarim).[xxvii]
It is eminently clear that the approach of the Jewish authority figures towards intermarriage changed from the Pentateuch and First Temple through the Second Temple period. Sara Japhet, Professor of Bible at Hebrew University, claims that Ezra’s course of action does not correspond to the procedure that should be followed in case of transgression.[xxviii] Even with the Biblical precepts found in Exodus and Deuteronomy, the social unrest that would ensue from expelling all the foreign women would seem to be unwarranted.
Japhet posits that unlike the problem that the earlier sources had with intermarriage, namely that it might lead to idolatry, the origins of the women themselves are problematic to the author of Ezra. In Ezra 10:2-3, the verse says,
And Shekhaniah…said unto Ezra: ‘We have broken faith with our God, and have married (va-noshev)foreign women of the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel concerning this thing. Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away (le-hotsi) all the wives, and such as are born of them…and let it be done according to the law.
Although JPS translates va-noshev as “married,” Japhet notes that the expected root N.S.A is not used. Similarly, instead of using the root G.R.SH, divorced or expelled, the author uses the atypical Y.TS.A. She claims that these word choices imply that the marriages were annulled, indicating an inherent problem with the intermarriages themselves.[xxix] [xxx]
Christine Hayes, professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, discusses the rationale behind the intermarriage prohibition.[xxxi] She argues that the intermarriage is prohibited because of the fear of “profaning the seed of Israel.” Rabbinic bans on intermarriage were not based on ritual impurity, but the creation of the category of gentile impurity in itself was an innovation based on the desire to prohibit marriages outside of Judaism. Malakhi indicates this concern of profanation, as it reads “Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which He loveth, and hath married the daughter of a strange god.”[xxxii] Ezra’s ruling was innovative as it greatly expanded the prohibition, both in its breadth and severity. The ban enacted was a universal prohibition that according to Epstein also uniquely restricted marrying the children of the illicit intermarriage.[xxxiii]
Other modern scholars discuss Ezra and Nehemiah’s stringent approach to exogamy. Gary Knoppers, professor of Classics at Pennsylvania State University, contends that new political, religious, and social factors caused Ezra to expand the list of prohibited nations from the seven Canaanite nations to all non-Jews.[xxxiv] Similarly, Jordan Rosenblum, assistant professor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes how starting in the Second Temple period, intermarriage increasingly became an issue for the Jewish leadership.[xxxv] The new interpretations in the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods are even greater expansions of the original prohibitions found in the Pentateuch.[xxxvi] [xxxvii]
III. Esther and Ahasuerus
The approach of the author of the Book of Esther to intermarriage differs drastically from the remainder of Ketuvim. Esther marries Ahasuerus, leading to the redemption of the Jews of Shushan, with no indication that their marriage is in anyway problematic. The Talmud briefly discusses this issue from the halakhic perspective, with one opinion saying that Esther was totally passive while with Ahasuerus, and therefore, was not required to give up her life.[xxxviii] Some traditional Jewish commentators also try to explain the marriage’s permissibility, including the medieval exegetist, Rashi. In his commentary, Rashi quotes Esther Rabbah, which says that Esther married Ahasuerus only because in the future she would have the opportunity to save the nation.[xxxix]
Recent Bible scholars have also discussed Esther’s marriage at length. In his discussion on the irreligious nature of the Book of Esther, Levenson comments how in Esther 2:17, there is no specific mention that Esther actually married Ahasuerus, possibly to deemphasize the violation of Jewish law in the marriage.[xl] However, the lack of direct criticism should be noted.[xli] Aaron Koller, discusses how some scholars have argued that the intermarriage of Esther may be a reason why the Book was not found with the other Dead Sea Scrolls in the Qumran.[xlii] [xliii] The Qumran sect accepted in their canon the Book of Jubilees, which rules that those who intermarry are liable for capital punishment and therefore, would have considered Esther to be problematic. [xliv] [xlv]
IV. Idolatry in Judaism
The prohibition of intermarriage has clearly undergone many changes through the centuries. To begin to suggest possible explanations for the issues raised in this essay, we must examine the issues emphasized by Jewish communal leaders throughout history. In the early texts, through the Second Temple period, idolatry was heavily stressed as the primary sin that the Jewish people must avoid.[xlvi] Many laws in the Pentateuch deal with idol worship, and the revulsion of God towards the worship of other beings.[xlvii] The early judges and prophets struggle with the people’s lack of faith towards God and the seemingly endless cycle of sin, punishment, and forgiveness.[xlviii] It is, therefore, not a surprise that when intermarriage is mentioned, it is often, if not exclusively, in the context of idolatry. [xlix]
By the Second Temple period, idolatry ceased to be the primary issue of concern for the Jewish leaders.[l] Traditional Jewish texts discuss this, attributing it to the members of the Great Assembly praying to wipe out the evil inclination that had consistently led the Jews away from God towards idolatry.[li] Moshe Halbertal, of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, writes,
The fight against idolatry, which was a central theme in biblical religion, disappeared during the period of the Second Temple…the temples of Baal and Astarte ceased to be real enemies; they no longer threatened the hegemony of God in the Jewish community, and the problem of the temptation of idolatry was removed from the spiritual agenda of the period.[lii]
Whether due to the Rabbis’ prayers or an outcome of a societal and cultural shift, it is evident that, beginning around this time period, the threat of idolatry was not as pressing.[liii] From the texts of Ezra and Nehemiah, we can theorize that a more existential threat to Jewish identity was threatening the Jewish people. Life in exile was wrought with challenges that the Jews of earlier generations had not faced. Perhaps worse than the sin of idolatry, the loss of the Jewish nation was possible.
Divergent approaches to these new problems are seen in the Second Temple texts. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malakhi take a conservative approach, creating new prohibitions, focusing on the evil of the act of intermarriage itself, instead of the idolatry that it can lead to. Exogamy now was threatening the physical, as well as spiritual survival of the Jewish people. This methodology was adopted by the rabbis of the Talmud, who even further expanded the laws and decried intermarriage as a major sin in and of itself.
The lack of reproach to Esther also reflects a response to an existential threat. Though, in Esther’s case, the intermarriage was what resolved the unfolding crisis. While this might have been problematic to Ezra and Nehemiah, these challenges were fairly new, and intermarriage itself had not yet been codified as a virtually ineffable sin. It is, however, understandable why the Jews of Qumran would have struggled with the Book of Esther. This approach to the new reality of the Second Temple period would have been difficult to comprehend for a people who viewed Jubilees as sacred.
The evolving issues facing the Jewish people in the Second Temple period most likely affected how the contemporary Jewish leaders viewed the biblical prohibition of intermarriage. While earlier sources appear to view the seemingly inevitable outcome of idolatry as the reason behind the law, later sources focus on intermarriage itself as the sin. Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malakhi take a strict approach to try to resolve the crisis, as seen in their mourning over the intermarriages and in Ezra’s expulsion of the foreign women. The Book of Esther also deals with an existential crisis, but chooses to take a drastically different approach than the other books. Intermarriage had not yet been established as a sin in and of itself. Therefore, the author might not have viewed exogamy as a major problem, which requires rebuke, as the marriage was not intended to lead to idolatry. The lack of other religious themes in the Book of Esther may also be of relevance and warrants further research in how it relates to the silence over her marriage.
Our analysis presents a new perspective on the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans. The responses following the survey revealed the extent of the concern within the Jewish community regarding the threat that growing intermarriages rates pose to the continuation of Jewish life in the United States. These issues, while perhaps more pressing now than ever before, are not new. In fact, they have been discussed and debated for millennia. In the time of the Second Temple, the leaders of the Jewish community felt threatened by the rising tide of intermarriages, and like many Jewish leaders and organizations today, tried to stem the tide of the assimilation.
Adam Zimilover is a senior at YC majoring in Biology and Political Science.
[i] Special thanks must be given to Dr. Aaron Koller. This essay is adapted from a paper written originally for his Esther, Daniel, and Diaspora course from which much of this material is based. It would not have been possible to write this without all that I have learned from Dr. Koller.
[ii] David W Belin, “Confronting the intermarriage crisis with realism and effective actions.” New York: American Jewish Committee (1991).
[iii] “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”. Available at: www.pewforum.org.
[iv] A premise of this paper is that Ezra, Nehemiah, Malakhi, and Esther were written roughly in the same era. See Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983. 651.
[v] It is important to acknowledge that while not a specific prohibition, Abraham instructed Isaac and Isaac instructed Jacob not to marry Canaanite women. This may be relevant in a discussion of the development of the intermarriage prohibition
[vi] Exodus 34:16. All translations are from the JPS 1917 edition unless otherwise noted.
[vii] Deuteronomy 7:1,3. Translation my own.
[viii] Numbers 25:11-15.
[ix] Louis M. Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942).
[x] See Deuteronomy 23:4-9.
[xi] Christine Hayes, “Intermarriage and Impurity in Ancient Jewish Sources.” The Harvard Theological Review 92, no. 1 (1999): 3-36.
[xii] See for instance Ralbag and Ibn Ezra on Ruth 1 who say that Ruth converted before marrying. The simple reading of the text gives no indication if or when she converted.
[xiii] It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the history of conversion to Judaism. Rabbi Joel Sirkis (Bach) in his commentary on Ruth, Meshiv Nefesh, says based on Maimonides (Issurei Biah 13:15) there was no process of conversion in the times of David and Solomon. See Cohen below who adds that there was no conversion until approximately the first century C.E.
[xiv] I Kings 11:1-2
[xv] Shaye Cohen, “Solomon and the Daughter of Pharaoh: Intermarriage, Conversion, and the Impurity of Women.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 16, no. 17 (1984): 23. See I Kings 3:1, 7:8, 9:16,24
[xvi] Epstein goes into great detail explaining Kings’ neutral stance to Solomon’s marriage to the Egyptian women. See pages 25-27.
[xvii] Maimonides, Mishna Torah, HIlkhot Issurei Biah 13:14-16; Radaq and Ralbag commentary on 1 Kings 3:1-3; Yevamot 76a-b discuss in detail how Solomon’s marriage might have been permissible.
[xviii] In,Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought, Aaron Koller notes other works relevant to this issue. See page 123, footnotes 26-27, for other relevant sources. For the purpose of this article we will focus on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi, but it must be noted that other works exist which show how opposition to intermarriage was widespread.
[xix] Ezra 9:5. Translation my own.
[xx] Ezra 9:14
[xxi] Ezra 10
[xxii] Nehemiah 13:23-26
[xxiii] Nehemiah 10
[xxiv] Nehemiah 13:29-30
[xxv] Malachi 2:11
[xxvi] Malakhi 2:10
[xxvii] Genesis 15:1-15
[xxviii] Sara Japhet. “The Expulsion of the Foreign Women (Ezra 9–10): The Legal Basis, Precedents, and Consequences for the Definition of Jewish Identity,” in “Sieben Augen Auf Einem Stein” (Sach 3,9): Studien Zur Literatur Des Zweiten Tempels : Festschrift Für Ina Willi-Plein Zum 65. Geburtstag, by Ina Willi-Plein, Friedhelm Hartenstein,and Michael Pietsch (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2007).
[xxx] Ezra 10:3
[xxxi] Hayes, 3-36
[xxxii] Malachi 2:11-12
[xxxiv] Gary N Knoppers. “Intermarriage, social complexity, and ethnic diversity in the genealogy of Judah.” Journal of Biblical Literature 120, no. 1 (2001): 15-30.
[xxxv] Jordan D Rosenblum, “From Their Bread to Their Bed: Commensality, Intermarriage, and Idolatry in Tannaitic Literature.” Journal of Jewish studies 61, no. 1 (2010): 18-29.
[xxxvi] Yevamot 23a
[xxxvii] For a further discussion of these issues, see Olyan, Saul M. “Purity ideology in Ezra-Nehemiah as a tool to reconstitute the community.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 35, no. 1 (2004): 1-16.
[xxxviii] Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 74b
[xxxix] Rashi to Esther 2:11 and Esther Rabba 2:6
[xl] Jon D. Levenson, Esther: a commentary. (Westminste: John Knox Pr, 2004). Levenson goes to great detail to discuss many omissions of religion in Esther, including the lack of any reference to God. See pgs 17-19.
[xli] Barry Walfish, professor of Hebrew language at the University of Toronto, also discusses, in “Kosher Adultery? The Mordecai-Esther-Ahasuerus Triangle.”Prooftexts 22, no. 3 (2002): 305-333, the lack of religion in Esther, emphasizing how the marriage to Ahasuerus is even more problematic if Esther was married to Mordecai. There is much literature on this subject, beyond the scope of this paper.
[xlii] James C. VanderKam,”Authoritative Literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Dead Sea Discoveries (1998): 382-402.
[xliii] Aaron Koller, Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought. (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
[xliv] Koller 122.
[xlv] Jubilees 30:7-10
[xlvi] José Faur, “The Biblical Idea of Idolatry.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 69, no. 1 (1978): 1-15.
[xlvii] As reference examples, see Exodus 20:1-15, Leviticus 19:4, Deuteronomy 4:15
[xlviii] Michael Carasik. “Shoftim (Judges: Introduction and Commentary)(review).”Hebrew Studies 41, no. 1 (2000): 283-286.
[xlix] Martha Himmelfarb. “Levi, Phinehas, and the Problem of Intermarriage at the Time of the Maccabean Revolt.” Jewish Studies Quarterly 6, no. 1 (1999): 1-24.
[l] Yitzchak Levi “The Return to Zion and the Construction of the Second Temple” the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at www.vbm-torah.org/
[li] Yoma 69b
[lii] Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit. Idolatry (Harvard University Press, 1992), 2-3
[liii] “Idolatry,” available at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org