October 18, 2020

Salt & Light Online

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Alive and Well
Nehemiah 8:1-12

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To understand the tears as well as the rejoicing in this study, it may be useful to pull back to see a larger context for Ezra’s reading of the Law. Ezra reads the Law, and the Levites interpret the Law for people who have been in exile in Babylon and are returning to live in Jerusalem. The returning exiles have rebuilt a diminished version of the temple. They have rebuilt the walls of the city, albeit while refusing the help offered by those who had not experienced exile. The wall-building has proceeded under heavily armed guards, with the builders themselves wearing weapons to defend themselves against those who did not want the walls to be built. Ezra’s insistence on a pure and undefiled people has prompted him to proclaim a divorce decree, dissolving the marriages of any Israelite who has married a foreign wife. Families are separated, and the foreign women and their children are sent away from Jerusalem. The initial response of tears when Ezra reads the Law comes in the context of many causes for grief.

Pulling back further still, I see Ezra’s actions, recorded in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, standing in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who focused on religious and ethnic purity and separation from other nations. Throughout Scripture, that tradition was always in tension with another tradition of more inclusive prophets who insisted that Israel was blessed in order to be a blessing to all nations, that God’s love included the foreigner and welcomed the stranger. This inclusive tradition is most obvious in the story of Ruth, a Moabite who married an Israelite.

I have tended to see the dance between these two traditions as “two steps forward, one step back.” The inclusive tradition, moving forward toward Christ’s salvation for the whole world, is the two steps forward, and the exclusive tradition, demanding priestly purity and ethnic isolation, is the one step back.

But in the midst of this pandemic, I have a new appreciation for calls for purity and separation. Maybe a better metaphor is that these two prophetic traditions are two voices necessary in a faith conversation. Perhaps sometimes we need the voice for radical inclusion, and sometimes we need the call to purity and separation from the world.

  • When are fastidious practices of purity and cleanliness necessary, life-saving rituals?
  • When are they fear-inciting, exclusivity-producing barriers?
  • When are walls and defended borders a lifesaving gift?
  • How is strengthening the border between the United States and Canada during a pandemic different from building a wall between the United States and Mexico?

—Gwen Groff, bethanym@vermontel.net

© 2020

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Gwen Groff is pastor of Bethany Mennonite Church in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont. She lives in Plymouth, Vermont, with her husband and intermittently with her adult children.

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