Mixed Marriages as a Challenge to Identity in Second Temple Judaism

The rigorous stories which reject any intermarriage as totally unacceptable are only one score and not the whole symphony. They have to be read in the context of the whole biblical canon. Thus they are criticized and qualified by other stories like the book of Ruth, Joseph and Asenet or Zippora as positive examples of intermarriage. Neither Ezra nor Phineas have the last word in the discourse which goes on in post-biblical times.

See Also: Mixed Marriages Intermarriage and Group Identity in the Second Temple Period (T & T Clark International, 2011).

By Christian Frevel and Benedikt Rausche
Chair of Old Testament Studies,
Ruhr-Universität Bochum,
January 2012

1. Stunned by the Zeal of Phineas – Introduction

Is it real or fictional? How can one be so rigorous and merciless? One is often confronted with these questions when bringing in Phineas or Ezra into a discussion about the processes of identity formation in early Judaism from a biblical perspective. Both are concerned with mixed marriages and both are zealous, harsh, and unsympathetic. The priest Ezra commands the divorce of any mixed marriage without considering the hard fate of the children who are put aside along with their indigent mothers (Ezra 10), whereas the priest Phineas even spears a mixed couple to death in his outrage (Num 25); they were probably engaged in sexual intercourse within the sacred precinct, which was not tolerable as such, but which moreover made the mixed marriage between Zimri and Kozbi, a Midianite bachelor girl, public. Today, readers get deeply upset over both issues, as they are violent and since the delinquents are given no chance to show remorse or repentance. Although the two biblical stories are related textually to completely different times, they belong to the same period considering their time of origin. By hinting at the almost unique covenant of peace which is given to Phineas and his offspring, as well as by fostering the moral and political guiding role of the high priest, both stories are comparable and related to the development of the diverse Second Temple Judaism(s).2 But why is the issue of mixed marriages so pressing in the post-exilic period when Yehûd was almost isolated from its neighbors? The emphasis put on intermarriage can be considered to be a sign of the struggle on identity, on marking boundaries and consolidating an existing local community. Marital rules often indicate a social situation of struggle, threat, and challenge. The textual reality in which this issue is negotiated is related to but is by no means identical with the historical reality. However, the treatment of mixed marriages on the narrative level underlies other regulations: in order to have an effect it has to be far more bold and intransigent. Thus one has to analyze the textual representation of the mixed marriage discourse before judging the violence of the issue in biblical narrative. Where, when, and how does the issue occur in biblical texts? Is there a particular development within the biblical traditions from accepted endogamy to the challenged marital practice? Was there a real threat from foreign woman?

When analyzing the development of marriage prohibitions in the Hebrew Bible, it appears necessary to provide a brief and systematic overview on the textual evidence to avoid getting lost in the diversity of material regarding the topic.3

As a first step, it may help to point at the technical terms endogamy (marriage within a defined group) and exogamy (blurring the boundaries of a defined group). The way the in-group is defined is crucial for the notion of exogamy. That is why the topic of so-called mixed marriages is interconnected with the question of how a group’s identity is construed.

There is a variety of endogamous conceptions in the Hebrew Bible:

  • Endogamy within family or the inner circle of closer relatives is favored in the Patriarchal narratives of Genesis (cf. the marriages of Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Lea/Rachel).
  • Num 36 and Lev 21:14 represent the idea of tribal endogamy.
  • Neh 13:23-27 emphasizes ethnic endogamy (including a cultic orientation).
  • Exod 34; Deut 7; 1 Kgs 11; Judg 3:6 command religious endogamy, warning against the seduction towards apostasy by foreign wives.
  • Ezra 9-10 describes an endogamous concept based on the notion of the community as “holy” entity. Joseph Blenkinsopp recently described this ideology as “ritual ethnicity”,4 which quite well combines the idea of ethnic endogamy and “ritual” as a main element of the construction of ethnicity.


Additionally, texts can be found that display positive, pious, or at least neutral examples of foreign wives like Ketura, the latter wife of Abraham, Aseneth, the wife of Joseph, Zipporah, the (first) wife of Mose or Ruth. Those examples give a vivid impression of an opposite position which rejects a total prohibition of exogamy in favor of narrating the ideal of the pious foreign woman blended in well into Israel.5

2. Three Main Lines of Prohibition of Exogamy and Their Reception

2.1. The Deuteronomistic Line of Argument

There are both narrative and legislative texts using the same line of argument to substantiate their position against exogamy. The reason is clearly religiously motivated: The foreign women are associated with deviant cults while the in-group is defined as a Yahwistic Israelite community. It is quite striking that the mixed marriage narratives can be located at important points of Israelite history: Num 25 at the border of the promised land; Josh 23:7, 12 within the speech of Joshua after the conquest of the Holy Land; Judg 3:6 in the interpreting introduction of the book of Judges; 1 Kgs 11:1-8 as reason for the division of the Solomonic Empire into a Northern and a Southern Kingdom. Deut 7:3 as well as Exod 34:15-16 represent a legislative fundament for this rejection of mixed marriages by formulating a prohibition of marriage with a list of Canaanite peoples.

Recent discussion has strongly argued for a post-exilic date of the texts mentioned here.6 Because of its expanded form, it is quite probable that Deut 7:3 has to be dated later than Exod 34:15-16. At this point it is not quite possible to go deeper into this matter; however, due to its land-perspective and introductory form, Deut 7:3 has to be dated latest to the Exilic period. Several aspects point at an even later date.

As Exod 34:15-16 only argues with the peril of exogamy, but does not represent a legislative as Deut 7:3, it has to be placed to an earlier stage of literary development probably.7 Though the legislative context of Ex 34:*17–27 is pre-exilic, Exod 34:15–16 cannot be attributed to the earliest stratum of the Sinai narrative. While the ban of alliances in Exod 34:12.14 is older, the prohibition of intermarriage in Exod 34:15-16–though being the oldest legislative regulation on this issue–may be post-exilic, too.

Deut 7:2-3 seems to represent a kind of synthesis out of Exod 34 and Josh 23 with its warning not to mingle with the peoples. The terminology used in Deut 7 points at a relation here. 1 Kgs 11:1-8 only refers to the terminology of Josh 23 although a reference to the legislation of Deut 7 would have been natural here (see 1 Kgs 11:2). Judg 3:6, on the other hand, takes up Deut 7:3-4 and hence has to be dated later. In sum, a development can be established beginning with the warning against apostasy in Exod 34:15-16, leading over Josh 23:12 and 1 Kgs 11:1-8 to the synthesis in Deut 7 and finally to the implementation of the exogamy prohibition in the book of Judges.8 Genesis 34 also takes up Deut 7:3, but with more radical consequences.9 The warning against apostasy is absent here. Thus, the text does not belong to the line of argument described here, but represents a later, specialized attitude.

The Deuteronomistic rejection of exogamy defines the in-group as the Yahwistic community of Israel which has to separate from surrounding peoples. The nuanced position of the Deuteronomistic texts is the result of a development with references to the mixed marriage topic added step by step.

2.2. The Patriarchal Line of Argument

Gen 26:34-35 as well as 27:46-28:9 with the treatment of the marriages of Jacob and Esau speak in favor of endogamy within family. These sections often are regarded as belonging to the Priestly source.10 While there is no consensus about that, there is no substantial doubt that they stem from the Persian Period. Gen 24, which is probably inserted later during that Period, combining the well scene of Gen 29 with the marriage narratives in Gen 26:34-35 and 27:46-28:9 strengthens this line in the later Persian Period. Now it is Abraham who is the authority who advices endogamous marriage. There is no clear reason why Canaanite women are considered to be unacceptable wives. The in-group is defined as the family of the patriarchs. Those who can claim to be descendants of Abraham are inside, while others – no matter if close in a geographical sense – are outside.

2.3. The Priestly Line of Argument

In Leviticus 21:14, marriage of High Priests is restricted to tribal endogamy. The section is part of H and has probably to be dated to the Persian Period.11 According to Ezek 44:22, all the priests have to marry within Israel. This development points at the late Persian Period. But it is not only the priests who are required to marry endogamous themselves. It is also expected that they are fighting exogamous tendencies within the community (cf. Numbers 25:6-18 or Maleachi 2). Neh 13:28-29 (to be dated later than but close to Ezek 44) probably criticizes failure in both fields: There is a case of exogamy even in the High Priestly family and the priests as a whole have not acted according to the covenant of the priesthood and the Levites which refers to the covenant given to Phinehas in Numbers 25 as a reward for his zealous action.12 Neh 13:23-29 as well as Ezra 9-10 seems to be well in line with this expectation to the priests: It is Nehemiah’s critique that the Priests have failed in this regard and Ezra 9-10 on the other hand presents a righteous example: the priest Ezra who acts according to the Torah. Ezra 9-10 emphasizes a state of holiness to the people of Israel which otherwise is attributed to the priests (cf. Lev 21). Although the difference between priests and people is not annulled, Israel as a whole is seen as a holy entity, which is quite consequent – given the centrality of the temple for the post-exilic community according to Ezra-Nehemiah.

3. From Persian to Hellenistic Times

The line of argument regarding the topic changes significantly during the Persian Period and the passage to Hellenistic times.

With respect to the cultic charging of the mixed marriage issue which is gradually put forward in Ezra-Nehemiah, it is first of all striking that role and function of the priests is already connected with intermarriage affairs within the people of Israel in Num 25. As we have seen already, Phineas is a priest like Ezra. But while the priesthood of Ezra is not at the center of interest, in contrast to his competence regarding the Torah, the priesthood of Phineas is of paramount importance. He is member of the Aaronide lineage acting as legitimate successor of Eleazar. Thus, we may consider Num 25 as an example for the development towards a more and more significant role of the priests and priestly terminology for the mixed marriage discourse. The Aaronide priesthood claims to be morally integer (but see for instance Lev 10) and responsible for the moral integrity of the community: rigorously and without exception, substantiated religiously and legitimized by divine commission. Num 25 functions as the founding myth of priestly authority regarding the topic of intermarriage. The narrative in Numbers builds upon Lev 21 extending the danger of mixed marriages to the community of Israel as a whole. On the one hand, the argument is mixed up with the purity issue: the priest is responsible for the purity of the sacred precinct; therefore, Phineas has to act. On the other hand, Phineas acts in substitution for the whole congregation which is present but fails to react. Accordingly Phineas-as the story puts it-has saved the people from God’s wrath. The story probably forms an ideal of the priestly role in the Israelite community which is in the background of Nehemiah’s critics (cf. Neh 13:28-29). Ezra’s priestly role differs from that as he combines the authority of a priest and a scribe. The ideal of the Ezra narrative is the Torah skilled priest who implements and interprets the Torah. This picture is more elaborated than the spontaneous zeal of Phinehas. In Ezra 9-10, a priest fulfills what Nehemiah had wanted Eliashib to do. The priest Ezra does not rely on a lay authority like Nehemiah, who fights for the fulfillment of the Torah, but does it on his own as the accepted authority within the community. Phinehas can therefore be seen at the beginning of the debate on the priestly role in context of the rejection of intermarriage on the one hand and the growing emphasis on priestly authority on the other hand.

As already mentioned, Neh 13 and Ezra 9-10 take up traditions which belong to the above mentioned lines of argument. Both texts, however, develop them further. Despite several similarities, Ezra 9-10 constructs the argument against mixed marriage slightly different from Neh 13. The marriages to foreign wives defile Israel as a “holy seed” (cf. Ezra 9:2). While a genealogical concept of holiness and purity is put forward explicitly, the differences between the rationales for the election of the priests and the lay people fade with regard to the demand for endogamy – a clear contrast to Neh 13. The Ezra narrative in the “mixed marriages crisis” in Ezra 9-10 seems to build upon the Nehemiah narrative and takes its consequences in a quite organic, but also creative way. Ezra is not in opposition to Nehemiah here, but Ezra 9-10 provides indeed the culmination of the argument.

Ezra 9:2 with its reference to the “holy seed” (זרע הקדש) can be identified as the Archimedean point for an understanding of the mixed marriage discourse in these two chapters:13 the central position of the sanctuary is emphasized and extended to the post-exilic community as a people which has to be holy in order to dwell in the presence of the sanctuary. The community consists of the “holy seed” which by no means could be allowed to intermingle   (ערב) with the “peoples of the land” who are devaluated strongly by referring to their “abominations”   (תועבה). The peoples of the land are constructed as an impure (cf. Ezra 9:11: נדה) opposition to Israel. Thus, Israel has to separate itself (note the frequent use of the priestly term בדל, a classical verb in context of the division between pure and impure, cf. Lev 10:10) from their impurity. Otherwise its existence in the land would be endangered. Several terms and motives link the narrative to Leviticus 18 (cf. תועבה ,טמא; Egyptians and Canaanites in Ezra 9:2, and the relation between peoples and the land, cf. Ezra 9:10-12) to underline the paradigm of purity. The demand for purity addressed at the cultic personnel in Neh 13:28-30a is expanded to everyone belonging to the Israelite community denoted as “sons of the Golah”: The Deuteronomistic prohibition against intermarriage is thus explicated not by referring to the fear of apostasy, but by the overall conception of Israel as a holy people in the presence of “his holy place” (קדשו מקום). The people’s holiness is defended by opposition against exogamy.

Probably the picture of Ezra as priest and the absence of a governor (פחה) throughout the narrative, nearly substituted by Ezra’s authority, points at Early Hellenistic times when the position of the priesthood endured, but the governor lost his position. Numbers 25 and Nehemiah 13 could be dated roughly to the time of change between Persian and Hellenistic Period.

4. The sound of a trumpet alone does not meet the symphony - conclusion

As we have seen, there are different lines of argument rejecting exogamy or speaking in favor of endogamy. Especially in later times these lines are combined and elaborated. The literary debate on mixed marriages becomes very dense in the Persian and also later in the Hellenistic period with several different voices and an expanding reference system of texts. The religious threat is first complemented, then integrated and finally, beyond Ezra-Nehemiah, replaced by the purity paradigm. The more serious the issue becomes in the texts the more it is directed inwards as a pillar of understanding Early Judaism, related to its common cultural memory. The description of the In-group becomes more and more complex, elaborated and theologically qualified as can be seen for example in Ezra-Nehemiah. There is not one central identity marker, but a bundle which culminates in a highly sophisticated definition of identity.

The development starts with texts which warn against the danger of apostasy or emphasize cultural differences referring to a common meta- narrative of descent. This may have been the case already in exilic times but becomes prevalent in the Persian Period. The later texts are also rooted in the specific qualification of the priests. This leads to a complex theological definition of the in-group, constructed as a clearly separated ethnos. The change between Persian and Hellenistic Period intensifies this development. Maybe this intensification is due to the changing social structure in the late Persian and Hellenistic Period: the beginning Judaism had to deal with the question of whom to include and whom to exclude from the legitimate community. This dynamic discourse has to be seen on the background of the existence of a plurality of groups, claiming to belong to it and trying to gain the prerogative of interpretation.

Does this line of argument heal the harshness and violence of the texts for modern readers mentioned at the beginning of this paper? Indeed not: Insights into the development may strengthen the understanding of the issue in general, but there is no remedy against the rigorous and sometimes dubious moral of the stories. In societies which are coined by migration, the issue of intermarriage is prevailing and pressing. To understand that marriage rules and marital customs are sociologically identity related and politically always an instrument of power is helpful at first hand. Our task is to understand the morality of the narratives, not to adopt them uncritically. The difference between text and historical reality has to be strictly observed; to identify them gives rise to fundamentalism.

By the way, the rigorous stories which reject any intermarriage as totally unacceptable are only one score and not the whole symphony. They have to be read in the context of the whole biblical canon. Thus they are criticized and qualified by other stories like the book of Ruth, Joseph and Asenet or Zippora as positive examples of intermarriage. Neither Ezra nor Phineas have the last word in the discourse which goes on in post- biblical times. If it is only for this polyphony, the issue is raised more intensively in biblical studies today: we have already gained much.


1 This article includes results of a research project on mixed marriage in the Hebrew Bible by Prof. Dr. Christian Frevel, Ruhr- Universität Bochum, sponsored by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). For further information see http://www.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/at/forschung/projekte/projekt_dfg.html.

2 For the attribution of Num 25:6-18 to the post-exilic period see for instance Rolf P. Knierim / George W. Coats, Numbers (fotl IV), Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2005, 263–266; Horst Seebass, “The case of Phinehas at Baal-Peor in Num 25”: Biblische Notizen 117 (2003) 40–46.

3 For a more detailed insight into the topic, see the recently published anthology “Mixed Marriages. Intermarriage and Group Identity in the Second Temple Period” (LHBOTS 547), New York: T&T Clark 2011 edited by Christian Frevel. Benedikt Rausche has published recent articles with his former name Benedikt Conczorowski which has been changed by marriage.

4 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Judaism. The First Phase. The Place of Ezra and Nehemiah in The Origins of Judaism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Cambride, UK 2009, 142.

5 On the relation between mixed marriages and identity, see Shaye J.D. Cohen: The Beginnings of Jewishness. Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, Berkeley: University of California Press 1999, 241-262.

6 See J. Pakkala, Intolerant Monolatry in the Deuteronomistic History, G#xF6;ttingen: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht 1999, 139.

7 Pace Michael Konkel, “S#xFC;nde und Vergebung” (FAT 58), T#xFC;bingen: Mohr Siebeck 2007, 195–198, 253, who is correct in the assumption that a definitive decision remains more than difficult.

8 On the mentioned texts cf. also Gary Knoppers, “Sex, Religion, and Politics: The Deuteronomist on Intermarriage,” HAR 14 (94): 121-41.

9 See Christian Frevel, “Separate Yourself From the Gentiles” (Jub. 22:16): “Intermarriage in the Book of Jubilees” in C. Frevel (ed.), “Mixed Marriages Intermarriage and Group Identity in the Second Temple Period” (LBHOTS 547), New York: T&T Clark 2011, 220–50.

10 See e.g., David M. Carr, An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts, John Wiley & Sons: Chichester 2011, 169f et passim.

11 See Christophe Nihan, “From priestly Torah to Pentateuch: a study in the composition of the book of Leviticus” (FAT II/25), T#xFC;bingen: Mohr Siebeck 2007, 481-491; Saul Olyan, Social Inequalitiy in the World of the Text: The Significance of Ritual and Social Distinctions in the Hebrew Bible, G#xF6;ttingen: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht 2011, 165.

12 Cf. Christian Frevel: "Mein Bund mit ihm war das Leben und der Friede." Priesterbund und Mischehenfrage, in C. Dohmen/C. Frevel (Eds.), F#xFC;r immer verb#xFC;ndet. Studien zur Bundestheologie der Bibel. FS F.-L. Hossfeld (SBS 211), Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk 2007, 85-94.

13 For discussion, cf. Christine Hayes: Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities. Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to Talmud, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002.

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