Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud

By Christine E. Hayes | Go to book overview

4
Impurity, Intermarriage, and Conversion
in Second Temple Sources

In chapter 2, I argued that an alleged Gentile ritual impurity communicated by physical contact to the Israelite partner is never the rationale for biblical restrictions on intermarriage. The Torah's prohibition of intermarriage with the seven Canaanite nations, for example, is based on the fear that intimate contact with Canaanites will lead Israelites into idolatry and immorality. In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, a universal ban on intermarriage was formulated and a new rationale articulated: The holy seed of Israel must not be profaned by intermingling with the profane seed of Gentiles. 1 Although most Second Temple sources adopt the older moral-religious rationale for the prohibition on intermarriage, others — such as Jubilees and 4QMMT — do not. In these sources, Ezra's holy seed ideology develops into a full-blown principle of Israelite genealogical purity, which must be preserved from not merely profanation but also defilement that arises from sexual unions with Gentiles. Intermarriage with any Gentile — converted or unconverted — becomes an impossibility.

In this chapter I examine the prohibition of intermarriage in Second Temple sources, with special emphasis on Jubilees and 4QMMT as illuminated by the book of Ezra. I show that in these two works, as in Ezra, the underlying rationale for a global ban on interethnic sexual unions is not the fear of ritual or moral defilement by a ritually impure or morally corrupt Gentile but rather a concern for the preservation of the genealogical purity and sanctity of Israel (the distinction between these two will become apparent in a moment).

A terminological note is in order before we proceed. In these post-Ezran texts, terms of impurity take on two primary meanings in the context of intermarriage: There is a genealogical impurity that stands in opposition to purity and one that stands in opposition to holiness. 2 The genealogical impurity that stands in opposition to purity is closely associated with the idea of intermarriage as a mixture of distinct seeds, a more physically conceived adulteration of one seed's quantity and, as a result, quality by another. The genealogical impurity that stands in opposition to holiness is closely associated with the idea of intermarriage as a sexual sin (zenut), that impairs the basic nature, or quality of the seed. Let us consider each of these usages a little more carefully.

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