W. M. Johnson, The Holy Seed Has been Defiled: The Interethnic Marriage Dilemma in Ezra 9–10

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Johnson, Willa M., The Holy Seed Has been Defiled: The Interethnic Marriage Dilemma in Ezra 9–10 (HBM, 33; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011). Pp. ix + 134. Hardcover. US$37.50. ISBN 978-1-907534-21-8.

This is a revision of a doctoral dissertation that was completed in 1999 at Vanderbilt University. The stated goal was to produce a narratological analysis (following the work of Mieke Bal) of the story of the interethnic marriage dilemma in Ezra 9–10. Narratology, according to Bal, strives for a description of the way in which the narrative text is constructed.[1]

In explaining her choice of a narratological approach, Johnson accuses traditional scholarship of concentrating on “historical-critical methods and related interpretive tools such as textual criticism” (p. 2). To Johnson, the problem with such a historical analysis is the underlying assumption that the resulting work is necessarily transparent and devoid of interpretation (p. 2). She refers to Langmuir to complain that “von Ranke's positivistic tradition has had a stranglehold on biblical scholarship since its inception” (p. 3).[2]

If readers are therefore led to expect a non-positivistic, narratological discussion of the text of Ezra 9–10 they will be disappointed. Johnson assumes that the events and statements described in Ezra 9–10 actually occurred as stated. She not once posits that anything in these chapters might exist only at the level of the story. Nor does she provide a discussion of such obvious narratological elements as point of view, the switch from first person to third, or the displacement of the major role from Ezra to Shecaniah.

Indeed, Johnson's overriding hypothesis is not narratological, but historical. She states that:

The injunction against interethnic marriage in Ezra 9–10 is…a response to a complex confluence of economic, ethnic, gender- and class- related, and sexual concerns that emerged in the aftermath of the trauma of exile and the reconstruction of the identity of YHWH's chosen people in their former land (p. 13).

In these and other passages, Johnson shows that her main concern is not so much with the story of the ban on intermarriages, but rather with the ban itself.

After a brief introduction explaining her approach to the text, Johnson reviews the anthropological literature on exile, and shows how exile leads to trauma, and how trauma can lead to concerns about ethnic identity and purity. She also discusses the economic effects of marriage, explaining that marriage brings about property transfer through bride prices and dowries. She hypothesizes that the intermarriages described in Ezra were between Yehudite men and high-ranking Persian women, and that Yehudite men married these women in order to obtain autonomy over tracts of land (p. 18). Yehudite men, she claims, married these foreign women to satisfy economic goals (p. 23).

In support of this thesis, Johnson attempts in ch. 3 to clarify through archaeological evidence the economic and sociopolitical dynamics that were at play in the Achaemenid period (p. 27). She reiterates her thesis that “some Yehudite men exchanged their sons in marriage to guarantee access to the land,” since “evidence suggests that most postexilic Yehudite families did not own the land on which they lived” (p. 28). In support, she cites (p. 51) Dandamayev who shows that the Achaemenids confiscated land in the areas they conquered and dispensed them as domain-lands (fiefs) to members of the royal family and to other retainers.[3] This important insight is worth the price of the book, but I cannot agree with the conclusions that she draws from it.

Johnson suggests that in order to obtain ownership of what had been their own land prior to the exile, Yehudite men married the daughters of Persian nobles to whom tracts of land in Yehud had been given, and that these are the foreign women referred to in Ezra 9–10. This assumption, however, seems extremely unlikely. To back up her argument, Johnson refers to the several daughters of Artaxerxes II who were given in marriage to non-royal military commanders (p. 53), but these military commanders were high level Persians!—namely, Orontas, Pharnabazos, and Tissaphernes.[4] They were not members of subject populations. Johnson suggests additionally that the Persian hierarchy exchanged their sisters and daughters to procure military service (p. 53). Archival data from many sources throughout the Empire reveal that military service was routinely exchanged for (confiscated) plots of land, never for Persian daughters or sisters (cf. the Murashu tablets).

In chapter 4 Johnson examines the various stories in the Hebrew Bible that depict marriage (or rape or incest), the Aramaic marriage documents from Elephantine, and marriage laws in the Mesopotamian law codes. It is clear from the Elephantine papyri that the Judean women there were able to inherit property, institute divorce, and upon marriage, to secure their property for their sons, preventing their husbands from obtaining it in the event of a divorce. There is nothing like this hinted at in the Hebrew Bible, however, except perhaps in the rare case of brotherless women (Num 27; 36). Johnson also spends some time discussing the mahar, or “bride-price” that she finds in the Elephantine marriage contracts; but it cannot be—nor does Johnson assert—that Judean men were able to obtain Persian wives by virtue of the huge bride-price they could offer.

More relevant is the author's question about what intervened between the permission to marry foreign women in pre-exilic biblical texts and their contravention in Ezra-Nehemiah. The answer she maintains is the Exile (p. 63). Johnson's primary thesis is that the trauma of the exile led to the prohibition against mixing ethnic entities. She maintains that this was to protect against the influence of other religious traditions and customs, but this is not stated in Ezra (although it is in Neh 13:26). She does not deal with what is actually stated in the text of Ezra, and that is the genealogical purity (Ezra 9:2).

It is not until chapter 5, however, that Johnson begins to provide a narratological analysis of the text. She points out that Ezra's elaborate mourning ritual upon hearing the news of the intermarriages functions to legitimize the ban on intermarriages (p. 81). Johnson does not claim that Ezra's mourning ritual functions this way at the level of the text, however, but rather she apparently assumes that the ritual actually took place and that it functioned at the level of society.

In this chapter, Johnson points out that the foreign wives and their children do not speak, that they are an “absent presence which signifies that discourse is a privilege of power” (p. 90), that the power to speak belongs to specific strata of society and to a specific gender. The foreign women are the “object of the gaze, but have no perceptible power” (p. 90). Totally unseen, and not the object of anyone's gaze, are the Judean women who could not marry at all because their potential mates have married out (p. 91). The text implies that women and children, families, are disposable, and renders the reader complicit in that attitude. She wonders what the effects of banishment were on these women and their children, and if the Deuteronomic provisions for orphans and widows was applied to them.

Johnson sees the conflict surrounding intermarriage as that between two relatively affluent groups. One group consisted of those who were in power and who married high-ranking Persian women. A second rival group aimed to recast the social structure in Yehud in order to ensure their own power, and to exclude the group who intermarried (p. 87). Thus, the conflict is not centered so much around identity as around economics and social status. It is to the latter group, the group not in power, that she assigns the authorship of the text.

Primarily, Johnson attempts to exonerate the harsh judgment of the text by showing that the xenophobic behavior characteristic of the returned exiles is typical of exiles in general, is rooted in their traumatic experiences, and has nothing to do with a racially stigmatized Other (p. 96).

For readers interested in an anthropological understanding of the events described in Ezra 9–10, this book is a helpful investigation. My main criticism is that by condemning the historico-critical approach to biblical study, Johnson prevents herself from applying it herself. Consequently she does not question whether there was, historically speaking, an Ezra, or if there was, historically speaking, a ban on intermarriage. While claiming to elucidate the text on a narratological level, she does not attempt to distinguish between narration and history. What she provides instead is an interesting anthropological explanation for a ban on mixed marriages which may have occurred in fifth-century Judah.

Lisbeth S. Fried, University of Michigan

[1] Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative (3rd ed.; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 24. reference

[2] Gavin Langmuir, History, Religion, and Anti-Semitism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1990). reference

[3] Muhammad A. Dandamayev, “The Domain-Lands of Achaemenes in Babylonia,” AoF 1 (1974), 123–7. reference

[4] Maria Brosius, Women in Ancient Persia (559–331 BC) (Oxford Classical Monographs; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 204. reference