27 December 2015

Foreign Wives: Paying the Price

Ezra 9-10

So I pack my bags again,
a few bags more than when I came,
a child at each hand and on my back
the heavy load of your shame.

You say it was a sin,
marrying me -
yet I am the one who is punished.

The day I arrived
I was a girl,
lost and confused,
thrown into a world
I was not ready for.
Given to a foreign man
whose dialect I could not understand,
to warm his bed and bear him sons,
to get to know him,
learn to love him,
to overcome the fear
and my longing for home,
and become his wife.

You say it was a sin,
marrying me.
yet I had no say in the matter.

The day I arrived,
I was a girl,
frightened and lonely,
facing you - the man my parents chose.
Now I am a woman,
a wife rejected,
unwanted and scorned,
sent home in disgrace
back to the fools who sent me here.

We had our differences,
our disagreements,
barriers in language we never quite overcame.
We had our arguments,
our misunderstandings.
We had a life together,
though we never understood each other,
and today as I leave you,
I feel I never knew you.

You say it was a sin,
marrying me.
I say you don't undo it
by sending me away.
For either way
someone must pay -

and so it is I,
trudging home shamed,
a child at each hand,
weighed down with the burden of your sin,
paying the price
for your mistake.


[27. December 2015]

When the Israelites were allowed to return from exile under the Persians' reign, many (especially among the elite) intermarried with the Canaanites - thereby breaking God's law which forbade intermarriage with the people of the land (Dtn 7). When Ezra heard of this, he was deeply shocked - and together with the people came to the conlcusion that the mixed marriages should be separated, the women and their children sent home.

To understand the concern behind this, we need to remember that in those days, religion was closely connected to nationality and ethnicity, and note the "matrilinear" workings of Judaism. To this day, children are "born Jewish" only if their mother is Jewish (which is why in the OT intermarriage was so problematic). In OT times mothers were the ones responsible for bringing up children, and for their religious education. A mother from a different people would follow a different religion, and bring up her children in that religion. A few OT stories (notably the example of Solomon's wives and Jezebel) show foreign wives having a bad influence on their Israelite husbands. After the exile, the Israelites' identity was fragile - they couldn't use that kind of negative influence or confusion.

But what about the wives? In those days, being sent away by one's husband must have been a deep disgrace. Women would be sent back to their parents, vulnerable and dependent, probably having a hard time finding a new husband because they had been married before. In those days, people did not usually marry for love, so I doubt the "enforced" divorces caused much heartbreak of that kind. Still: the women were most likely not in those marriages by choice, and probably nobody asked for their opinion either when they were sent away.

My conclusion in reading this uncomfortable story is that this is a dilemma. Sin cannot be undone, even though the men repent of it. The damage is done and the damage will continue unfolding; sin has its consequences and it is a great grace of God if those are stopped, but He does not always stop them. (An example I keep thinking of is David's sin with Bathsheba: God forgave him, but still let the consequences happen - havoc in David's family, Absalom's rebellion.)
In the case of the mixed marriages, it would have been bad for the men to keep their wives - but it was also bad for them to send them away, because in doing so they hurt these women who were not really at fault. It was the men's sin, but the women bore the consequences. The best solution would have been not marrying the women in the first place (they knew it was forbidden) - as it was, in trying to amend the wrong they had done, the men ended up causing more pain. Sin can be forgiven, but it can't be undone.

I wove in a bit about intercultural miscommunications and difficulties that would have come with an intercultural marriage - intercultural marriages are challenge enough when you marry for love; I'm sure the situation is less than ideal if it's an intercultural arranged marriage!

Picture by Jakub Schikaneder

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