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Laurie Pearce





Jews Intermarried Not Only in Judea but Also in Babylonia





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Laurie Pearce





Jews Intermarried Not Only in Judea but Also in Babylonia








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Jews Intermarried Not Only in Judea but Also in Babylonia

The Bible describes the shock that Ezra and Nehemiah experience upon learning that the Judean locals had married non-Judeans. And yet, from Babylonian marriage documents uncovered in cities near Babylon, we learn that intermarriage was occurring back in Babylonia as well.


Jews Intermarried Not Only in Judea but Also in Babylonia

A cuneiform marriage contract between a Babylonian groom, Gūzānu, and a Judean bride, Kaššāya; Sippar, 534 B.C.E., front and side views. British Museum (BM68921).

According to the biblical account, around 458 B.C.E., years after the first wave of Judeans returned to Judah and rebuilt the Temple, Ezra the scribe gathers many other Judeans still living in Babylonia, and leads them back to the land. They bring the gold and silver that they carried with them from Babylon to the Temple and offer sacrifices (Ezra 8:30–35).

After this, the Temple officers confront Ezra with disturbing news about the local Judeans:

עזרא ט:א וּכְכַלּוֹת אֵלֶּה נִגְּשׁוּ אֵלַי הַשָּׂרִים לֵאמֹר לֹא נִבְדְּלוּ הָעָם יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם מֵעַמֵּי הָאֲרָצוֹת כְּתוֹעֲבֹתֵיהֶם לַכְּנַעֲנִי הַחִתִּי הַפְּרִזִּי הַיְבוּסִי הָעַמֹּנִי הַמֹּאָבִי הַמִּצְרִי וְהָאֱמֹרִי. ט:ב כִּי נָשְׂאוּ מִבְּנֹתֵיהֶם לָהֶם וְלִבְנֵיהֶם...
Ezra 9:1 When this was over, the officers approached me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and Levites have not isolated themselves from the peoples of the land whose abhorrent practices are like those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 9:2 They have taken their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons…”

The officers’ complaint about foreign marriage alludes to a passage in Deuteronomy 7, to have no mercy on the nations who are living in the land when Israel arrives, and not to marry into their families:

דברים ז:א כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ וְנָשַׁל גּוֹיִם רַבִּים מִפָּנֶיךָ הַחִתִּי וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי שִׁבְעָה גוֹיִם רַבִּים וַעֲצוּמִים מִמֶּךָּ. ז:ב וּנְתָנָם יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְפָנֶיךָ וְהִכִּיתָם הַחֲרֵם תַּחֲרִים אֹתָם לֹא תִכְרֹת לָהֶם בְּרִית וְלֹא תְחָנֵּם. ז:ג וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן בָּם בִּתְּךָ לֹא תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ וּבִתּוֹ לֹא תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ.
Deut 7:1 When YHWH your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and He dislodges many nations before you—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you— 7:2 and YHWH your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them no terms and give them no quarter. 7:3 You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.[1]

The list of foreign peoples in the officers’ complaint contains several—Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Amorites—who were no longer around in the Second Temple period, and are there for literary effect.[2]

The Holy Seed of the Treasured People

The officers continue by noting how such marriages pollute the holy seed of Israel:

עזרא ט:ב ...וְהִתְעָרְבוּ זֶרַע הַקֹּדֶשׁ בְּעַמֵּי הָאֲרָצוֹת וְיַד הַשָּׂרִים וְהַסְּגָנִים הָיְתָה בַּמַּעַל הַזֶּה רִאשׁוֹנָה.
Ezra 9:2 …so that the holy seed has become intermingled with the peoples of the land; and it is the officers and prefects who have taken the lead in this trespass.[3]

Here again, the officers are building on Deuteronomy 7, where Moses explains that another reason for the prohibition, beyond the fear of idolatry, is because Israel is a holy people, and thus must remain apart from other peoples:

דברים ז:ו כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּךָ בָּחַר יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
Deut 7:6 For you are a people consecrated to YHWH your God: of all the peoples on earth, YHWH your God chose you to be His treasured people.[4]

Ezra’s Rebuke

In response to hearing this, Ezra mourns and offers prayers of penitence (Ezra 9:3–10:1), after which, he calls a meeting of the Judeans, announcing that whoever does not show up will be isolated (יִבָּדֵל) from the community. When the people arrive, they sit and tremble, awaiting Ezra’s message, and he offers them an impassioned reproach:

עזרא י:י …אַתֶּם מְעַלְתֶּם וַתֹּשִׁיבוּ נָשִׁים נָכְרִיּוֹת לְהוֹסִיף עַל אַשְׁמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל. י:יא וְעַתָּה תְּנוּ תוֹדָה לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם וַעֲשׂוּ רְצוֹנוֹ וְהִבָּדְלוּ מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ וּמִן הַנָּשִׁים הַנָּכְרִיּוֹת.
Ezra 10:10 …You have trespassed by bringing home foreign women, thus aggravating the guilt of Israel. 10:11 So now, make confession to YHWH, God of your fathers, and do His will, and isolate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign women.

As noted by Attila Marossy, the niphʿal form of the verb ב.ד.ל here is a late form, used especially in Ezra-Nehemiah, the connotation of which is the need of Judeans to isolate themselves from other groups.[5] The assembled congregation responds in the affirmative (Ezra 10:12), כֵּן (כדבריך) [כִּדְבָרְךָ] עָלֵינוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת “We must surely do just as you say.”

Another account of Judeans separating from their foreign wives appears in Nehemiah, according to which the separation takes place after Ezra’s public reading of the Torah:

נחמיה ט:ב וַיִּבָּדְלוּ זֶרַע יִשְׂרָאֵל מִכֹּל בְּנֵי נֵכָר וַיַּעַמְדוּ וַיִּתְוַדּוּ עַל חַטֹּאתֵיהֶם וַעֲו‍ֹנוֹת אֲבֹתֵיהֶם.
Neh 9:2 Those of the stock of Israel isolate themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.

For the Golah community of returnees from Babylonia, intermarriage threatened the purity of the Judean people, and especially the priestly line(s).[6] For Ezra, these issues were critical to the shaping of the people’s identity as the “holy seed” that would assure the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Nehemiah’s Rebuke

Ezra’s contemporary, Nehemiah, also rails against the on-going intermarriages:

נחמיה יג:כג גַּם בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם רָאִיתִי אֶת הַיְּהוּדִים הֹשִׁיבוּ נָשִׁים (אשדודיות עמוניות) [אַשְׁדֳּדִיּוֹת עַמֳּנִיּוֹת] מוֹאֲבִיּוֹת. יג:כד וּבְנֵיהֶם חֲצִי מְדַבֵּר אַשְׁדּוֹדִית וְאֵינָם מַכִּירִים לְדַבֵּר יְהוּדִית וְכִלְשׁוֹן עַם וָעָם. יג:כה וָאָרִיב עִמָּם וָאֲקַלְלֵם וָאַכֶּה מֵהֶם אֲנָשִׁים וָאֶמְרְטֵם וָאַשְׁבִּיעֵם בֵּאלֹהִים אִם תִּתְּנוּ בְנֹתֵיכֶם לִבְנֵיהֶם וְאִם תִּשְׂאוּ מִבְּנֹתֵיהֶם לִבְנֵיכֶם וְלָכֶם....
Neh 13:23 Also at that time, I saw that Jews had married Ashdodite, Ammonite, and Moabite women; 13:24 a good number of their children spoke the language of Ashdod and the language of those various peoples, and did not know how to speak Judean. 13:25 I censured them, cursed them, flogged them, tore out their hair, and adjured them by God, saying, “You shall not give your daughters in marriage to their sons, or take any of their daughters for your sons or yourselves…”

Nehemiah ends this diatribe by noting that intermarriage had even entered priestly families:

נחמיה יג:כח וּמִבְּנֵי יוֹיָדָע בֶּן אֶלְיָשִׁיב הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדוֹל חָתָן לְסַנְבַלַּט הַחֹרֹנִי וָאַבְרִיחֵהוּ מֵעָלָי. יג:כט זָכְרָה לָהֶם אֱלֹהָי עַל גָּאֳלֵי הַכְּהֻנָּה וּבְרִית הַכְּהֻנָּה וְהַלְוִיִּם. יג:ל וְטִהַרְתִּים מִכָּל נֵכָר...
Neh 13:28 One of the sons of Joiada son of the high priest Eliashib was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite; I drove him away from me. 13:29 Remember to their discredit, O my God, how they polluted the priesthood, the covenant of the priests and Levites. 13:30 I purged them of every foreign element…[7]

While the concern in Ezra-Nehemiah is framed as a problem unique to Judeans living in Judea, who married local foreign women (Ammonites, Moabites, Edomites, etc.), we know that intermarriage between Judeans and non-Judeans was taking place in this period in Babylonia as well.

Marriage, Babylonian Style

Among the hundreds of Babylonian texts documenting marriage practices over a 140-year period from the founding of the Babylonian empire by Nabopolassar (626 B.C.E.) through the second regnal year of the Persian king Xerxes (486–465 B.C.E.),[8] only around sixty marriage contracts are preserved.[9]

The preserved records reflect some common social and legal constraints of marriage. We can identify four social configurations of marriages:

  1. Elite endogamous marriages—members of elite families with family names, who were connected to the priestly offices of the temples, marrying each other.[10]
  2. Non-elite endogamous marriages—members of the upper class, merchants or members of the court, without family names, whose professions granted them social standing but who had no connection to the cult, marrying each other.[11]

The endogamous marriage categories (1&2) are the most prevalent.[12]

  1. Exogamous marriages—marriage between members of the elite and non-elite, the most common form of “mixed” marriage.
  2. Ethnically mixed marriages—marriage between persons of Babylonian and non-Babylonian backgrounds.[13]

Two of the six Neo-Babylonian period contracts of ethnically marked marriages relate directly to Judean-Babylonian marriage.[14] Both date to 534 B.C.E., the fifth year of the reign of the Persian king Cyrus, a few years after the promulgation of the decree permitting Judeans to return to Judah.[15]

The Marriage of Nanaya-Kānat to a Non-Elite Babylonian Man

One marriage contract is between a Babylonian man named Nabû-bān-aḫi from a non-elite background (no family name is included), to a woman named Nanaya-kānat.[16] The document begins with the agreement between Nabû-bān-aḫi and the woman’s mother Dibbî; apparently the father was no longer alive:

(1–10) Nabû-bān-aḫi, son of [K]īnâ, voluntarily spoke to [D]ibbî, daughter of Danna, as follows: “Please give me Nanaya-[k]ānat, your daughter, the maiden in marriage. Let her be my wife.” Dibbî consented to Nabû-bān-aḫi and gave Nanaya-kānat, her daughter, the maiden, in marriage.

The document continues with the financial obligations of the husband in case of divorce, a Babylonian practice parallel to the later Jewish ketubah:

(11–18) Should Nabû-bān-aḫi release Nanaya-kānat and sa<y as> follows: “She is not my wife,” he will bind six minas of silver in the hem of her garment. She may go whi[ther] she wishes.

The divorce clause exists to protect a woman in a weak situation by forcing husbands who considered leaving their wives to pay such a heavy financial penalty that it would almost certainly dissuade the man from divorcing his wife.

The agreement also includes a harsh penalty for the wife in case of adultery:

Sho[uld Nanaya-k]ānat [be f]ound with anoth[er] man, she will die by the dagger.

The divorce clause and the penalty of the dagger were standard in marriages involving non-elite brides.[17]

Contracts of the urban elite marriages focus exclusively on the composition of a bride’s dowry, reflecting a concern with maintaining wealth and social standing. The lack of a dowry from the bride’s family implies they were not well off. Instead, the groom bestows a gift upon the bride’s mother:

(19–22) With one KUR.RA garment wor[th] five shekels of silver, the ... (of) Nanaya-kānat, Nabû-bān-aḫi will cover Dibbî.

The document’s final clause is the invoking of curses on any side that violates the agreement:

(23–28a) May Marduk and Zarpānītu decree the destruction of [whoever] contravenes [this agreement]. May Nabû, scribe of the Esagil cut short his long [d]ays. May [the majes]ty of Cyrus, king of Babylon and the Lands call him to account.[18]

Nothing about the document thus far, including the woman’s name, confirms that she is Judean. But it seems likely, in view of the preponderance of Judean names—mostly Yahwistic—among the witnesses and the fact that the contract was written in a Judean town in Babylonia, where the Judeans lived since the earliest days of the Exile (I have included the standard Hebrew version of the Judean names to make the connection to the Akkadian name forms clear):

(28b­–41) At the sealing <of> this <document>, before: Mukīn-apli son of Aḫu-..., Šillemyah (שֶׁלֶמְיָהוּ) son of Nadabyah (נְדַבְיָהוּ), Yarimyah (יִרְמְיָהוּ) son of Padâ (פְּדָיָ[הוּ]), Natanyah (נְתַנְיָהוּ) son of Barīkyah (בֶּרֶכְיָהוּ), Ṣidqiyah (צִדְקִיָּהוּ) son of Natīn (נָתָן), Mešallam (מְשֻׁלָּם)[19] son of ..., Aṣīlyah (אֲצַלְיָהוּ) son of ..., Pillelyah (פְּלַלְיָהוּ) son of ...., And the scribe: Adad-Šamā son of [... ][20] descendant of Bāsia. (Written in) Āl-[Ya]hudu. Addar, the [ ... ], fifth [year] of Cyrus, [king of Babylon and the Lands]. In the presence of Mešallam (מְשֻׁלָּם), brother of Nan[aya-kānat][21]

Only the first witness (Mukin-apli) has an Akkadian name. Notably, Nanaya-kānat's brother Mešallam is alive, and the document ends by noting his presence as a witness to the agreement. In Babylonian marriage texts, mothers and brothers serve as the bride’s agents when her father was deceased. In such circumstances, the power to accept a marriage proposal lay in the mother’s hands.[22]

The Marriage of Kaššāya to an Elite Babylonian Man

A second marriage contract is between Kaššāya, the daughter of a Judean named Amuše (=Hoshea, הוֹשֵׁעַ) son of Arih (אָרַח), to a Babylonian groom named Gūzānu, son of Kiribtu, from the urban elite family Ararru (“Miller”).[23] Two of the Judean woman’s uncles were royal merchants. This indicates the upper class (but non-elite) status of her family.

The text begins with the proposal and agreement. Again the father of the bride seems to be deceased, though this time the bride’s brother is explicitly identified as a partner with their mother in the proceedings:

(1–9) [Gū]zānu, son of Kiribtu, descendant of Ararru, [volu]ntarily spoke to Bēl-uballiṭ, son [of] Amušê (הוֹשֵׁעַ), and to Gudaddadītu, his mother, as follows: “Please give me Kaššāya, your daughter (and sister, respectively), the maiden, in marriage. Let her be my wife.” Bēl-uballiṭ and Gudaddadītu, his mother, listened to him (favorably) and gave Kaššāya, their daughter (and sister), the maiden, to him in marriage.

Like the previous example, the document continues with the financial obligations of the husband and the penalty of adultery for the bride, but in reverse order:

(10–15) Should Kaššāya be found with another man, she will die by the iron dagger. Should Gūzānu release Kaššāya and take another wife in preference to her, he will pay her six minas of silver, and she may go (back) to her father’s house.

Usually, the iron dagger clause was a sign that the bride was of non-elite social status. Here, although she is from a wealthy family, it reinforces that she, a Judean, is a social outsider; a wealthy Babylonian bride would not have this clause in her marriage agreement. Another indication of Kaššāya’s family’s wealth is the next clause, which contains a dowry payment to the groom:

(15–22) Bēl-uballiṭ and Gudaddadī<tu> voluntarily gave as dowry with Kaššāya, their daughter (and sister), to Gūzānu, son of Kiribtu, descendant of Ararru: 1/3 shekel of (gold?) jewelry, one pair of gold earrings worth one shekel, one Akkadian bed, five chairs, one table, a goblet and a platter of bronze.[24]

As above, the agreement’s final clause invokes curses:

(23–26) [Whoever] contravenes the [wo]rds of this (agreement) – may Marduk and Zarpanītu decree his destruction, may Nabû, the scribe of Esagila, cut short his long days.

Unlike the previous document, which was signed primarily by people with Judean names, here all the names are Babylonian. Even the son of Amušê (Hoshea) has a Babylonian name: Bēl-uballiṭ, “The LORD (Marduk) sustains,” and the bride, Kaššāya, bears the same name as one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters.

The family’s activities attest to their participation in high social and economic circles, implied by the designation “royal merchant” born by two of Kaššāya’s uncles. For such a family, the adoption of Babylonian names and the marriage of the daughter to a Babylonian groom were means of reinforcing their standing in the Babylonian community.

While the contracts invoke Babylonian gods in their curse formulas, this was standard for Babylonian documents. It is not necessary to assume that the Judean families represented in these contracts abandoned their ancestral religious practices, although evidence for the nature of their practice is not preserved.

Judeans as Quasi-Non-Elite

The appearance of the “iron-dagger” and divorce clauses mark Kaššāya as of lower social standing (as an outsider) than her husband, even though her dowry reflected the wealth of a royal merchant family. However successful the sons of Arih may have been, Kaššāya’s marriage agreement demonstrates that, in this period, even among wealthy people in elite circles, outsiders remained outsiders.[25]

The Collapse of the Babylonian Elite in the Persian Period

Around 490 B.C.E., towards the end of King Darius I’s rule (550–486 B.C.E.), the wording and content of marriage documents changed, reflecting shifts in social and economic conditions. Adultery and divorce clauses, as well as family names, disappeared, and marriage documents from all classes begin to include dowries, signaling a shift away from the dual marriage system that resulted from the strict distinction between urban elite and non-elite marriages.

In 484 B.C.E., the second year of Xerxes’ reign (486–465 B.C.E.), temple administrations and cult centers ceased to produce archival texts. As Johannes Hackl notes, this was part of a reorganization of Babylon’s major temple, suggesting “a collapse of the priestly ‘clan system,’ apparently because the members of this class were deprived of the property (and ousted from the cities?) at that time….”[26] These changes resulted in the elimination of the prestige, autonomy, and financial benefits of the prebendary (=priestly) offices enjoyed by urban elite,[27] and led to a blurring of social and legal boundaries between the urban elite and the non-elite.[28]

While intermarriage between Babylonians and non-Babylonians took place in the Neo-Babylonian and early Persian Periods, Babylonian priestly families were effectively banned from marrying outsiders, by severe penalties imposed on both parties. In his suppression of the old priestly elite, however, Xerxes effectively quashed any bans on intermarriage between the priestly class and others. This resulted in an end to these socially-ingrained, prejudicial practices, and opened up even elite families to intermarriage.[29]

By the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, who were active during the reign of Artaxerxes (465–424 B.C.E.), intermarriage between Judeans and locals in Babylonia would have been more prevalent. Understanding this broader social development in Persian-Period Babylonia highlights the extreme nature of what Ezra and Nehemiah try to enforce in Judea.

Enforcing in Judea What They Could Not in Babylonia

While Ezra and Nehemiah would not have been able to control intermarriage in Babylonia, they use harsh measures to do so in Judea, where they have governmental powers as appointees of the Persian king. Confronted with intermarriage in their ancestral homeland of Judea, Ezra and Nehemiah enforce an alternative ethos based on a strict interpretation of the need for Judeans לְהִבָּדֵל “to isolate themselves” from the surrounding nations to protect their status as זֶרַע הַקֹּדֶשׁ “holy seed.”[30]

Notably, the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah avoids mentioning Judean intermarriage in Babylonia, and thus, Ezra and Nehemiah’s shock implies to the reader that what the Babylonian emigrés encounter in Judea is unique or deviant. But from what we saw in the Babylonian archives from before 490, and from what we know of marriage practices in Babylonia after this period, Ezra and Nehemiah may be responding to the permissive reality in Babylonia, in the hopes of crafting a more acceptable ethos in the Judean homeland.


August 16, 2022


Last Updated

June 8, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Laurie Pearce is a Lecturer in Akkadian in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, UC, Berkeley. She holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale’s department of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures. Among Pearce’s articles are “Looking for Judeans in Babylonia’s Core and Periphery”and“Cuneiform Sources for Judeans in Babylonia in the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods: An Overview” and she is the author (with Cornelia Wunsch) of Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer.