Question: "Why did the Israelites have to abandon their foreign wives and children?"
Answer: After the Jews’ return to Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian Captivity, Ezra, one of the leaders of the people, was given some bad news: “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness” (Ezra 9:1–2).
These marriages with people of other nations that worshiped false gods were forbidden in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 7:3–4). Ezra’s heart was grieved. He tore his tunic and cloak, pulled hair from his head and beard, “and sat down appalled” (Ezra 9:3). Idolatry was one of the sins that had resulted in Judah’s being conquered by Babylon. Now, upon their return to the Promised Land, Judah was again toying with the same sin.
In Ezra 10:2–3, as Ezra was praying, a large group of Israelites came to him in repentance. They made a proposal to rectify the situation: “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law.” The purpose of this covenant would be to once again set apart the Jewish people as fully devoted to the Lord and remove all connections with those who worshiped other gods. The agreement required the men of Judah to divorce their pagan wives.
Ezra agreed that this covenant was the proper course of action. He commanded, “You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now honor the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives” (Ezra 10:10–11).
A full list of the families involved is found in Ezra 10. The entire process took about three months at the end of the year.
We know that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), and some have asked how this event is related to the issue of divorce in today’s society. A couple of relevant points can be considered. First, this event took place during a previous dispensation, in a time when God’s chosen people were to live according to the Law of Moses. Christians today should not look to this account for justification to divorce a spouse.
Also, 1 Corinthians 7:15–16 gives the related principle for today’s believers married to unbelievers. Paul wrote, “If the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” In other words, a believer is called to stay with an unbelieving spouse whenever possible. However, if the unbelieving spouse abandons the relationship, the believing spouse is not to dispute the matter.