After a long captivity in Babylon, Israel starts slowly moving back toward Jerusalem. Cyrus, then Darius, not only permit them to go, but load up their shoulders with the blessings of Babylon, that they may go back and rebuild the Temple of the Lord their God. The books of Ezra/Nehemiah capture this work and this move toward home for us.
They tell us about the Israelites working faithfully on not only the Temple, but the wall - carrying trowels in one hand and swords in the other to protect themselves from those who oppose their work. They tell us about the opposition that they encountered along the way and how they pushed through and kept doing what God had given them grace to do. They tell us about how Nehemiah asked for a bit of leave from his position as the king's cupbearer and how Ezra didn't want to ask the King for soldiers or even for a letter of safe passage back home because he had already so confidently declared how the Lord his God was with him (and all the people of Israel). They tell us about how the returning Israelites completed the work on the wall, each at their own home, and so were building for themselves a place to live while rebuilding God's house among them.
It's a beautiful story of redemption and restoration, and it sets ours hearts dancing a little bit on what heaven might look like.
But this is not heaven.
We get almost all the way to the last of Ezra's record of this return, just a page or two from the end, and...shocker. Even Ezra wasn't expecting this one. Even Ezra, who was a leader among the people of Israel and who had been laboring alongside of them and leading them not only in the work, but in their defiance of all opposition, was stunned. His own account tells us that when he heard about this, he was severely grieved. He tore his clothes, as men of God did in those days, but he also ripped out his hair and his beard. He was seriously distraught.
What was happening was that as they were working, as they were rebuilding the city of God after being restored to it from exile in absolute grace and in a beautiful act of God's mercy and promise, the men of Israel started marrying the women of Jerusalem - women who were not Israelites.
See, when Babylon had taken Israel captive (and of course, when we're talking about Jerusalem, we're talking about the nation of Judah, whose relationship with the rest of Israel was...complicated, but I digress), they had relocated the Israelites to Babylon, and they had sent men and women of other conquered nations, or even of Babylon herself, to occupy Jerusalem. So the inhabitants of Jerusalem that the returning Israelites were encountering were, by and large, not Israelites. They were not peoples of God.
It was quite like the first time that Israel came into the land, and they should have known better than to intermarry with the peoples who lived there. These were the equivalents of the Canaanites who were living here now. There's no way God would have approved. And yet, here we were - and the trouble wasn't isolated.
The report that came to Ezra declared that not only was this happening, but it was happening to the greatest degree among the leaders, even among the Levites. Those with the most central position in God's redemptive story, those who had come along to offer the sacrifices, those who had the most vivid memories of the Temple in all its glory (because it was their personal family story) were the ones most guilty of polluting the new thing God was doing among them.
How does this happen? How do these faithful men, who are willing to leave everything to go back to a place they barely knew, pollute themselves this way? How does Ezra, charged with leading them and defending them and standing in the gaps for them, miss that this is happening?
Sadly, it's too easy.