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Later in Hebrew history, after the Exile, the returning Jews "separated from Israel all the mixed multitude." (Nehemiah 13:3) But in the Exodus, at the beginning of the history of the Hebrew nation, the "mixed multitude" was allowed to intermingle with the Jews.

The children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside the children.
And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks and herds, even very much cattle. (Exodus 12:37-38)

Why was this allowed? And did it have any effect on the history (fate) of the Jews destined for the Promised Land?

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Solomon's Enthronement Prayer (2 Chron. 6)

32 “To the foreigners who are not of your people Israel, but who come from a distant land for the sake of your great name, your mighty hand and outstretched arm, and come in prayer to this house, 33 listen from heaven, the place of your enthronement. Do all that the foreigner asks of you, that all the peoples of the earth may know your name, may revere you as do your people Israel, and may know that your name has been invoked upon this house that I have built.

The mingling of the mixed multitude was allowed because God did not forbid it. Solomon's policy, rather than that of Nehemiah, is the normative standard. Indeed, it can be argued that those of other races had a major beneficial impact on the historical of the Israelites. Here some early examples:

  • Asenath, the wife of the patriarch Joseph, was the daughter of an Egyptian priest. She was thus the ancestor of the tribe of Joseph and her extended family may have adopted Joseph's religion. So others may have done during Joseph's reign, and their descendants may have formed part of the "mixed multitude" who followed Moses.

  • Zipporah, a Midianite woman of a people specifically forbidden to intermarry with the Israelites, not only married Moses but saved his life. If she was identical with Cushite woman that Moses married (Numbers 12:1), then God harshly punished those who criticized here adoption into Israelite society.

  • If the Cushite woman was not identical with Zipporah, then she is a second example of a foreign woman traveling with the Israel whom God specifically welcomed.

  • Jethro, a Midianite priest who recognized other gods in addition to the God of Moses, became an trusted advisor to the prophet, helping him to establish an effective system for the administration of God's law. (Ex. 18)

  • The Kenites, traditionally believed to be descendants of Jethro, were adopted into the Israelite federation. The great heroine Jael - who famously killed the Philistine general Sisera, was the wife of a Kenite man named Heber. (Judges 4:17)

While the "mixed multitude" was generally frowned upon in the Torah for wanting to return to Egypt, there must have been many of them as well that united with the faithful Israelites and completed the journey into Canaan, where they accept the Law of God and became indistinguishable from other Israelites. Solomon welcomed foreigners and asked God to listen to their prayers in the Temple. Just as during the time of Jesus there were many non Jews who attended synagogues and believed in God, so in the time of the "mixed multitude" we should not presume that everyone in this group was an out-and-out pagan.

In fact, prior to the time of Nehemiah, many Jews made godly marriages with non-Jews. The issue had not been race, but religion. The outstanding example is the marriage of the Moabite Ruth and Judahite Boaz, which produced King David a few generations later. One may also mention the name of Rahab, a Canaanite, who - like Ruth - was given the honor to be named as one of the foremothers of Jesus in the genealogy provided in Matthew's gospel. In addition Bathsheba's first husband, Uriah the Hittite, was one of David's most valiant and loyal soldiers even though not an Israelite.

Nehemiah's policy was not truly normative

It has also been argued that Nehemiah's policy of breaking up existing marriages between Jews and Gentiles was an outlier. Nehemiah was an administrator, not a prophet; but Malachi, his contemporary declared God's word:

Malachi 2:15-17

Did he not make them one, with flesh and spirit? And what does the One require? Godly offspring! You should be on guard, then, for your life, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel.

Furthermore, in calling God's people out of exile to return to Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah stated:

The foreigner joined to the Lord should not say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” (56:3)

We even have an example - from the same general time period as that described in Nehemiah - where a Jewish woman, Esther, married a pagan king and ultimately saved the Jews from destruction in doing so. One wonders what Nehemiah would have to say about such a thing.

In the end, Jewish legal tradition rightly decided that foreigners could indeed marry Jews if the foreigners agreed to convert to Judaism. Malachi's teaching prevailed that a Jewish man should not divorce "the wife of one's youth." This policy would later be adopted in a Christian context by Paul, when he stated:

Corinthians 7:14

The unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through the brother. Otherwise your children would be unclean, whereas in fact they are holy.

Conclusion: the Bible's attitude toward mingling with the mixed multitude is somewhat ambiguous. They were frowned upon in a general sense, but the text also tells of significant cases where they contributed significantly to God's providence. Nehemiah's policy about separating from non Jews was controversial. The general rule throughout Israelite and Jewish history has been treat foreigners with justice and to allow both intermarriage and other forms of assimilation when the non-Jew agrees to covert.

Leviticus 19:33-34

When an alien resides with you in your land, do not mistreat such a one. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God.

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In short - the mixed multitude enabled Israel to become a nation in in just four generations.

When Jacob entered Egypt, his family numbered 75 people (Acts 7:14, Ex 1:5). Some of these were not direct descendants of Abraham such as the wives of the 12 patriarchs, notably Joseph’s own wife. 215 years and four generations later at the exodus, Israel’s army had over 600,000 men, excluding women and children, (Ex 12:37, Num 1:46, etc) suggesting a total population of several million people, requiring many additions. This included a significant mixed multitude (Ex 12:38) showing that Israel obviously consisted of many non-biological Jews had joined. (Note that it is biologically impossible for Israelite numbers to have grown from 75 to several million biologically without many outside additions.)

This was not unusual - Israel was always mixed lot:

  • The unfortunate story in Gen 38 about Judah and Tamar shows that a foreigner became the mother of the tribe of Judah.
  • Moses married a Midianite (Ex 2:16-21) also known as a Cushite. Miriam and Aaron were severely reprimanded and punished for displaying racism (Num 12:1, 2)
  • Caleb, who represented and led the tribe of Judah was a Kennizite (Num 32:12).
  • Rahab was a Canaanite (Josh 2:1, 2, Matt 1:5)
  • Ruth was Moabite (Ruth 1:4 16, 17, Matt 1:5) – these last two make King David descended from foreigners (Ruth 4:13-16).
  • Uriah was a Hittite (2 Sam 11:3)
  • King David’s elite personal regiment consisted of Gittites, that is, Philistines (2 Sam 15:18-22, 1 Chron 18:17)
  • Isa 14:1 - When the LORD has compassion on Jacob and again chooses Israel, and settles them on their own land, then strangers will join them and attach themselves to the house of Jacob.
  • Isa 56:6, 7 - And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD to minister to Him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be His servants— all who keep the Sabbath without profaning it and who hold fast to My covenant—I will bring them to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on My altar, for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” See also V3.
  • The Rechabites were Kenites (Jer 35:1-19)
  • Many other foreigners lived in Israel (1 Chron 22:2, 17, 2 Chron 30:25)
  • In Esther’s time “many of the people of the land became Jews” (Esther 8:17, 9:27)
  • Even in NT times, many Jewish synagogues were attended by godly gentiles converted to Judaism (Acts 13:16, 26, 16:14, 17:17)
  • Many Jewish proselytes came to worship in Jerusalem (John 20:20, Acts 2:9-11)
  • Jesus quotes Isa 56:7, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations”, Mark 11:17.
  • Further, biological Israelites could opt out of the covenant and be cut-off (Ex 30:33, 38, 31:14, Lev 7:20, 21, 25, 27). Esau and Ishmael (both descendants of Abraham) were good examples of this.

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