Ezra: Oath of Children of Israel, from Bible Historiale by Workshop of the Boucicaut Master

Workshop of the Boucicaut Master

Ezra: Oath of Children of Israel, from Bible Historiale, c.1415, Illuminated manuscript, 450 x 330 mm, The Morgan Library & Museum, New York; Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan, 1910., MS M.394 fol. 258r, Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, New York

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The Strongest Oaths

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This miniature illumination in the French Gothic style, dated c.1415, is entitled Ezra: Oath of Children of Israel. It is part of a Bible Historiale, a popular medieval text combining biblical narrative, legend, and religious commentary.

The scene at upper right takes place within the walls of the city: an audience of five men look up to Ezra, who gestures toward them as he holds forth, standing in a draped pulpit. At lower left just above a square ivy-rinceaux foliate decoration, two women are pushed out of the city gate of Jerusalem by man in a turban.

The scene suggests what occurs only later, not in the book of Nehemiah but at the end of the book of Ezra: the annulment of all marriages between Jerusalemite men and indigenous women and the expulsion of those women and the children who are the issue of those unions (see Ezra 10). The illumination reflects the version of the narrative in the deuterocanonical 1 Esdras (canonical in the Greek and the Russian Orthodox Churches, not so recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, though it appears in an appendix to the Latin Vulgate Bible.) There, the expulsion of non-Israelite spouses immediately follows Ezra’s declamation:

Then the men of the tribe of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem ... Ezra stood up and said to them, ‘You have broken the law and married foreign women, and so have increased the sin of Israel. Now then make confession and give glory to the Lord the God of our ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from your foreign wives’. Then all the multitude shouted and said with a loud voice, ‘We will do as you have said’. (1 Esdras 9:5–10)

1 Esdras leaps at once to where Nehemiah’s narrative is moving more gradually: it is after a period of reading the Law and fasting that the Jerusalemites ‘separated themselves from all foreigners’ (Nehemiah 9:1–3); and ‘[w]hen the people heard the law, they separated from Israel all those of foreign descent’ (13:3).

The man in the turban here, then, may well be expelling his own wives from the city.

 


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