Ezra 10:10–44—Why did God command Israelite men to put away their unbelieving wives, but Paul said not to do so?
Problem: Ezra made all the returning Israelites put away their “pagan wives” because they were “adding to the guilt of Israel” (Ezra 10:10). However, when Paul was asked whether a believer should divorce an unbelieving spouse, he said, “If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her” (1 Cor. 7:12). Aren’t these contradictory instructions?
Solution: The different advice is given at different times, for different peoples, and for different reasons. First of all, Ezra’s command was given in OT times to the Jews, and Paul’s command was given in NT times to Christians. New Testament believers are not under OT laws to Israel (see comments on Matt. 5:17–18).
Furthermore, even assuming that the moral principle embodied in this OT command is still binding today, the situations are different for three reasons. First, the wives in the OT were not just “unbelievers” who were “willing” to be “sanctified” by the believing husband (1 Cor. 7:14). They were “pagans,” that is, they were probably Babylonian idol worshipers (cf. Neh. 13:25–26), who were having a pagan influence on their husbands. God told Solomon that his pagan wives, “will turn away your hearts after their gods” (1 Kings 11:2). Second, these were not just any pagans, for they included descendants of Moab and Ammon (Ezra 10:30; cf. Neh. 13:23) and other surrounding nations of which God had told the Israelites explicitly that they should not marry them (cf. Ex. 34:16; Deut. 7:3). Third, they may even have been extra wives (cf. Ezra 10:44), and God forbid polygamy (see comments on 1 Kings 11:1). If so, they had violated the laws about polygamy (Deut. 17:17) and idolatry (Ex. 20:4–5). This is a different situation from Paul’s instruction to keep a non-idolatrous monogamous wife (cf. 1 Cor. 7:2), if she wished to remain under the sanctifying influence of a believing husband.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.