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In Ezra 7:8 it says Ezra and the people who made aliyah with him arrived in Yerushalayim in the fifth month. In 8:32-33 it says they rested for three days and on the fourth were ready to count the donations they brought for the Temple. In 9:1-2, Ezra is informed that the some of the Jews have intermarried. At first glance, it seems as though Ezra heard this a very short time after his arrival. Ezra makes an impassioned prayer to Hashem in public, begging for forgiveness, which leads to many people gathering around him, attempting to repent. Subsequently, all the Jews in the land are commanded to arrive within three days' time to Yerushalayim. This is stated in 10:7-9 to have happened in the twentieth of the ninth month (four months after he arrived in Yerushalayim)! And in 10:44 it is stated that some of these intermarried couples also had children, so it would seem that this phenomenon had been going on for a while.

Why did it take Ezra so long to notice what was going on, and worse yet, didn't discover it himself, but had to have others come and tell him about this?

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  • No source for this, but maybe he wasn't in the habit of asking random women about their lineage?
    – msh210
    Feb 17 at 16:32
  • @msh210 Per that, why did anyone notice? Also, everything starting from ch. 7 indicates he came to Eretz Yisrael to be a spiritual leader and teacher to the Jews. I would have expected him to have traveled between the cities inquiring into the spiritual levels of the settlers. And, as stated in 9:2 and 10:44, it wasn't just women, it was also non-Jewish men.
    – Harel13
    Feb 17 at 16:37
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    I do not see anything strange about addressing a public society issue within 4 months of learning about it. Why would you think so? He needed time to research it and give a proper address based on what the people would most likely hear. As for the "children" showing it was going on quite some time, ...as you said, it may be so but he just arrived 4 months ago. Feb 17 at 16:41
  • @DavidKenner from p'shat, it appears he only found out about it when informed on the matter. And he is so shocked at this discovery, that he tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth and begins to fast. It came utterly out of the blue for him. No research involved...
    – Harel13
    Feb 17 at 16:44
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    @DavidKenner I don't understand the question. As I understood the verses, Ezra has been in Yerushalayim for 4 months. One day, people come and tell him that, hey, actually, for awhile now, people have been intermarrying and they even have kids now. Ezra rips his clothes, starts fasting and prays out in public. People gather and three days later, everyone else comes to Yerushalayim. That's what happened. There's no indication, that I can see, that Ezra took time to do research. Later, after the big gathering, people are chosen to oversee the divorcing of the men and women and they do research.
    – Harel13
    Feb 17 at 17:27
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Doros Harishonim (vol. 2, pp. 653ff) discusses this. He first makes a couple of background points:

  1. The "sarim" who inform Ezra are actually the national Sanhedrin (the nucleus, if not the totality, of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah), which he had re-established from among the group he had led from Babylonia. (Note that the "sarim" in v. 1 accuse the "sarim" in v. 2 of being among the most prominent of the intermarriers; the first are the Torah sages, the second the local noblemen.)

  2. The regional government and the (Jewish) lords didn't care much, if any, about halachah. So even though there were local batei dinim in the various towns, they lacked power to enforce their rulings. That was why the king's rescript (Ezra 7:12ff), granting Ezra and his group official government backing, was crucial. (The governors and nobles and their minions also had government backing, so it wasn't necessarily possible to force them to obey Ezra and the Sanhedrin, but at least now they couldn't interfere with its operations.)

The four months, then, were spent in getting the national Sanhedrin up and running, and familiarizing themselves with the local conditions. Once that was done, lines of communication were opened between the local batei dinim and the Sanhedrin (either the former came and reported to the latter, or the opposite - the members of the Sanhedrin started traveling around the towns), and the first item on the agenda was about the intermarriages (which had indeed been going on for some time, but which the local batei dinim had hitherto had no ability to prevent). The Sanhedrin in turn promptly informed Ezra, and he and they were then able to make things happen using a combination of Ezra's moral suasion (making a public spectacle, to get the people themselves to realize that this needs to be corrected) and the Sanhedrin's temporal power (to force everyone to attend the meeting).

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  • Remember that Ezra, and Nehemiah, and others told them to send away their non-Judean wives from intermarriage was that there was no such thing as conversion. If conversion exited, they would have converted.
    – Turk Hill
    Feb 17 at 18:13
  • @TurkHill Wrong. As I've mentioned to you before, if it was a simple matter of sending them away, then the people wouldn't have said that it would take time and require the involvement of the batei din (10:13-14), and they wouldn't have had to have three months of investigations (10:16-17). On the contrary, precisely because conversion already existed (since the giving of the Torah), there had to be careful investigations of who hadn't converted at all, who had converted but improperly, etc. Doros Harishonim makes this exact point ibid. pp. 660-661.
    – Meir
    Feb 17 at 18:28
  • How do you know the investigations weren't in whether or not the wives were pagan? Isn't this a more reasonable explanation?
    – Turk Hill
    Feb 17 at 18:44
  • @TurkHill The people themselves voluntarily said that they're ready to send away their non-Jewish wives. So anyone who knows that he married a non-Jewish woman would just send her away, and that would be that. The complication was precisely because conversion is possible.
    – Meir
    Feb 17 at 20:18
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    @TurkHill As Harel has pointed out to you below, conversion for marriage is generally unacceptable; that would be reason enough for the non-Jewish wives not to stay. (That said, conceivably part of what the batei dinim were doing during those three months was indeed to supervise conversions of some of these women, if there was evidence - perhaps like in Aaron's answer - that they were genuinely attracted to Judaism.)
    – Meir
    Feb 17 at 20:33
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The book of Ezra is the first time we hear of the concept of the "holy seed" being a concept directly tied to bloodline in Tanakh. I don't think it's accidental that this concept is introduced in the very same verses you are asking about:

Ezra 9:1-2;

א. וּכְכַלּ֣וֹת אֵ֗לֶּה נִגְּשׁ֨וּ אֵלַ֤י הַשָּׂרִים֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר לֹֽא־נִבְדְּל֞וּ הָעָ֤ם יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְהַכֹּהֲנִ֣ים וְהַלְוִיִּ֔ם מֵעַמֵּ֖י הָאֲרָצ֑וֹת כְּ֠תוֹעֲבֹֽתֵיהֶם לַכְּנַעֲנִ֨י הַחִתִּ֜י הַפְּרִזִּ֣י הַיְבוּסִ֗י הָֽעַמֹּנִי֙ הַמֹּ֣אָבִ֔י הַמִּצְרִ֖י וְהָאֱמֹרִֽי׃

  1. Now when these things were done, the princes drew near unto me, saying: 'The people of Israel, and the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.

ב. כִּֽי־נָשְׂא֣וּ מִבְּנֹֽתֵיהֶ֗ם לָהֶם֙ וְלִבְנֵיהֶ֔ם וְהִתְעָֽרְבוּ֙ זֶ֣רַע הַקֹּ֔דֶשׁ בְּעַמֵּ֖י הָאֲרָצ֑וֹת וְיַ֧ד הַשָּׂרִ֣ים וְהַסְּגָנִ֗ים הָֽיְתָ֛ה בַּמַּ֥עַל הַזֶּ֖ה רִאשׁוֹנָֽה׃

  1. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves and for their sons; so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the peoples of the lands; yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been first in this faithlessness.'

I will now give my personal opinion and thus I am the only source. It's my belief that Ezra didn't "notice," or take action sooner because intermarrying the locals had somehow not caused widespread sin and debauchery. We don't get any public complaints in Tanakh of these intermarried exiles offering sacrifices to pagan Gods, or having idols inside their houses, going to "high places," or eating unclean animals, etc. It seems like these "local" wives and husbands though of non Israelite/Judean stock were willing to either practice Judaism on some level, or at least not corrupt their Israelite spouses to idolatry. Therefore Ezra wouldn't necessarily notice things are amiss, because everyone is acting more or less like they should be. It's also likely that the local Samaritan/Ammonite/Egyptian/Hittite looked very similar to a Judean, so it wouldn't be visually obvious that a couple was intermarried.

But then Ezra is "informed," that all these people have intermarried and have "mingled" the holy seed with the peoples of the lands. These informers also say that abominations are happening.... but no evidence is actually presented. So it is my opinion that the issue of intermarriage wasn't necessarily one of paganism, or idolatry, but rather one of "racial purity." Keep in mind that while racial purity may not matter greatly for a common Israelite/Judean, the same can't be said for the priestly class, the levitical class, and potentially for the descendants of Dawid as princes.

This potentially explains why these informers also emphasize that the "The people of Israel, and the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands...yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been first in this faithlessness."

And perhaps this sheds light on why a council needed to be appointed to seek all these intermarriages out, because otherwise these intermarriages might fly under the radar for generations. This would run the risk of destroying the legitimacy of the priesthood, the levites, and the descendents of Dawid within just a few more generations. So if the idea is that racial purity must be maintained for these classes, it's understandable why Ezra needed to be informed, and why he might take so drastic a measure as sending away all the wives and children, even those of normal Israelites/Judeans.

Another answer here makes the argument that it's possible Ezra didn't believe in conversion. This idea has merits worth contemplating as the author points out that Ezra and his court didn't try to convert these foreign spouses, instead insisting that they must all be sent away, without exception. This seems odd when you consider an average Israelite is allowed to marry converts, so why not convert these spouses? My response is: Because maybe it wasn't a question of whether or not Ezra believed in conversion in general, but maybe the question is whether Ezra believed that Priests, Levites, and Princes could marry a convert from Moabites/Hittites/Egyptians/Amorites/Samaritans/etc.

Note: Nothing in my answer is an attempt to extol, justify, or even critique the idea of racial purity. It is my opinion that Ezra and his informers were motivated by racial purity, but I leave it up to you the reader to decide what you think about racial purity as a concept.

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  • @Harel13 Please keep me in mind for tomorrow! And I've added some edits in response to Turk Hill's answer
    – Aaron
    Feb 17 at 22:09
  • @Aaron I think your answer is also strong. I noticed that people tend to downvote answers with original thought (without sources), and although I agree that it is important to cite sources when possible, it's also important to encourage thinking. This is why I upvoted your answer. And as I said previously, it is possible that Ezra did not want the priests to marry non-Judeans. This makes sense.
    – Turk Hill
    Feb 17 at 23:19
  • @TurkHill I've been surprised to have some of my non sourced answers do well. And I've been surprised to have some of my very sourced answers do terribly. Shall we make a wager on which direction this answer will go?
    – Aaron
    Feb 18 at 0:03
  • @Aaron Sure. Tho I hope it does well.
    – Turk Hill
    Feb 18 at 0:10
  • @TurkHill I think because my answer is based on racial purity as being a potentially Jewish idea in this instance I will face a lot of potential flack and backlash
    – Aaron
    Feb 18 at 0:11
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It took Ezra a while because he came from Persia as "King's eye" and he probably needed approval from the Great King [of Persia] before he could act. When he learned that conversion did not exist in Judaism, as it did not in Zoroastrianism, from which he was very familiar, he told the Jews to send away their non-Judean wives. He was against intermarriage because the practice of conversion simply didn't exist. If conversion existed, they would have converted.

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  • What does that mean, "when he learned that conversion did not exist"? It explicitly says in Ezra 7 that he was knowledgeable in Torah, i.e., a Talmid Chacham. You say that the fact that conversion supposedly didn't exist came out of the blue for him. How do you know this?
    – Harel13
    Feb 17 at 18:19
  • @Harel13 Correct. The knowledge demanded to send them away. If conversion existed, why didn't it say he sent them away, save the converts?
    – Turk Hill
    Feb 17 at 18:46
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    You know, conversion isn't something that's done willy-nilly. They spent months discussing how to do the send-off. Presumably they concluded that it was irrelevant to convert, for a whole load of reasons.
    – Harel13
    Feb 17 at 18:50
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    Weeelll... isn't that convenient? So now conversion did exist in Ruth's times!
    – Meir
    Feb 17 at 20:24
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    @TurkHill In other words, now you concede that the concept of conversion existed at the time, and the question is only whether she underwent that before marrying Machlon or not.
    – Meir
    Feb 17 at 20:34

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