Texas Senate Bill 4 and a Very Bad Alumni Chapel service

Texas Senate Bill 4 and a Very Bad Alumni Chapel service March 4, 2024

A xenophobic, anti-immigrant state bill pushed by Texas Republicans got smacked down by a federal judge named Ezra.

Most people are aware that “Ezra” is a biblical name, but few people seem to appreciate that it’s the name of a biblical villain. Ezra was a cruel, ethnic-cleansing monster. He confused holiness with ethnic purity, and so he did something truly horrible. He instituted mandatory mass-divorce and child-abandonment. Think Hagar and Ishmael — times a thousand.

A surprisingly large chunk of both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures consists of biblical authors rebuking and rejecting Ezra’s views and actions. But despite the sharpness of these repeated, categorical refutations, there is also a large chunk of scriptures affirming and defending Ezra’s position. It’s a long-running biblical argument with two sides.

That’s why, despite his villainy, the name “Ezra” lives on in a way that, say, the name “Ahab” does not (outside of Melville, who was Announcing a Symbolism).

See also: “Jonah.”

So it’s funny, and a little strange, to read a vigorous legal defense of the rights of refugees written by a judge named Ezra.

Which brings me back to a Very Bad Alumni Chapel service at my alma mater, Eastern University. The speaker at that Very Bad Alumni Chapel service was me.

Apparently Bryan Stevenson and Tony Campolo and Shane Claibourne were all busy that year, so I was invited to speak for the annual alumni chapel. The theme for Eastern’s chapel services that semester was “What is the gospel?” and I had prepared to talk about that working from the text of Matthew 1:1-6. That’s Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus — the bit that most of us skip over in the Gospels when addressing a question like “What is the gospel?”

In other words, I was going to talk about that rat-bastard Ezra and about Ruth and about the way that Matthew’s genealogy emphatically took sides in the dispute between them.

To do that, I was going to talk about the only verse from Malachi that most of the students in that audience would have known, Malachi 2:16, “For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel.”

That was a verse I was all-too familiar with because I’d had it swung at me like a club by pious, “biblical Christians” back in the early ’90s when I got divorced from the fellow Eastern alum I’d married a year after our graduation. Her name was Ruth.

And so what happened at that alumni chapel was that I chickened out. For a bunch of reasons that hit me all at once the moment I stood up there at the podium in Eastern’s gymnasium, I lost my nerve.

That’s the same gymnasium where Ruth and I first met at freshman orientation. That’s a pretty good story — a charming, funny, romantic story if you don’t think too much about how it ultimately ended. I’ve told that story many times, but I’d never before tried to tell it right there, in that same room, while looking out at the faces of hundreds of young students who probably hadn’t come to chapel expecting to hear some guy telling stories about his divorce. What was I thinking? Nobody wants the alumni chapel service to involve some old former student standing up there talking about how he married his college sweetheart and then got divorced.

Vulnerability is a lot easier on the page than it is in person, in front of a crowd.

So I got nervous, which means I started telling jokes to hear some reassuring laughter and then, because I was nervous, I started leaning into that laughter, my mind racing to figure out how I was going to circle back to Matthew’s genealogy and Ezra and Ruth.

And that’s when I saw Dr. Enns sitting in the audience. “Hey, look,” my already panicking brain said to me, “there’s a bona fide biblical scholar in the audience. Wonder what he’ll think of your strained and speculative little English major’s riff on passages he’s carefully studied in the original languages?”

And I balked again and I’m still not entirely sure what I babbled about for the next 10 or 15 minutes as the chapel service turned into a stand-up routine. Mercifully, the clock ran out before I started doing crowd work.

Afterward, I was thanked for a “fun” chapel service. It had been unfocused and pointless, but at least it was “fun.”

I should note here that Pete Enns is actually a very friendly and encouraging fellow — nothing at all like the judgmental, academic snob that my panicked lizard brain decided he must be when I spotted him there in the audience that day.

And I should also note that I’ve spent a lot of time since then reading up on what actual biblical scholars have to say about Ezra and Ruth and the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. I’m much more confident now in understanding that my ideas about all of that aren’t just my ideas at all. They’re not just the idiosyncratic speculation of some English major, but the conclusions reached by legit scholars doing careful, painstaking work.

See, for example, this podcast episode from last summer from (checks notes) Dr. Peter Enns, talking with Dr. Judy Fentress-Williams of Virginia Theological Seminary about the book Ruth. Here’s Dr. Fentress-Williams on the origins and purpose of that book:

I like the argument or the theory that Ruth is written or comes into its final form at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, which would have been the sixth or fifth century. The reason I like that is because of all of the anti-foreign marriage material that we get in Ezra and Nehemiah, and particularly Ezra, where we have this very strange account of the people hearing the law, realizing they’re not supposed to marry foreign women, and then it simply kind of says they sent their wives and children away. How does that work? What happened to them? Did they not have any obligations to their family? …

It was just a strange moment in the story where they all go away. What? How did that happen? And I wonder if we have, in that account, this desire on the part of the people, this movement towards this heightened sense of nationalism, and embracing of insiders and outsiders that goes a little too far. And in the story of Ruth, we have this counter narrative that essentially says, y’all wouldn’t even be who you were without this foreigner, and not just any foreigner, a Moabitess.

That whole podcast episode is interesting and worth a listen, but here I just want to show that the idea that Ruth is a rebuttal or refutation of Ezra’s ethnic cleansing and cruelty is something that biblical scholars conclude as well. It’s not just the fluky hobby horse of one blogger who read Ezra and went, like, WTF?

Abandoning women and children is evil, cruel, stupid, and wrong. The foreigners we hate and condemn and send away are our kin and our cousins. Saying that is one big reason the book of Ruth exists. As canon.

That’s also one of the main reasons that Matthew’s Gospel — and the entire New Testament — starts out with that genealogy. Yes, this was partly Matthew’s attempt to legitimize Jesus as a kind of heir to David, but that only highlights how jarringly odd — and therefore deliberate, loud, and important — it is that this genealogy explicitly includes a “Moabitess” by name.

Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus doesn’t tell you the name of David’s mother. Or the name of his grandmother. But it tells you the name of his great-grandmother:

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
and Jesse the father of King David.

That’s on Page 1 of Matthew’s Gospel. The author is saying, explicitly: If you think God wants you to treat Moabites and other foreigners as people outside the love of God, then you should probably stop reading right now because you’re not gonna like any of the rest of this story.

That’s gospel.

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