What the Bible Teaches about Race and Ethnicity

December 1, 2014

Whose Line Is It Anyway?
What the Bible Teaches about Race and Ethnicity
by Immanuel Marsh

Many believe that the racial, ethnic, and cultural lines that divide us have biblical origins.
Three things have contributed this fallacy. One, people simply do not know what the Bible says. Two, people lack an understanding on what Scripture means and how it works. And three, Christians, or those claiming to be Christians, have used the Bible to justify misguided ideologies and misdeeds. This essay seeks to dispel some of these fallacies by examining what the Bible really teaches about race and ethnicity. The first three sections provide a biblical foundation. The remaining sections deal with specific charges against the Bible and Christianity.

The Inherent Value of Humanity

The creation account in Genesis attests to humanity’s value. The Bible begins with God creating order from chaos, vegetation and animal from void, and man from dust. Mankind is created in the image of the Trinity, given dominion over the rest of the created order, and animated by the very breath of God. Man was created good. The psalmist provides further evidence of humanity’s significance, describing mankind as being created “a little lower than the angels” and being bestowed with “glory and honor.” Along with God’s desire to create, we see his desire to bless. God blesses the man and woman. This blessing extended to all of humanity, not just the first couple. Then follows the command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Any discussion of the biblical position on race and ethnicity has to begin here with the divine image, the divine blessing, and the divine command.

Sin: the Root of All Division

If God created mankind in his image, and blessed mankind, and everything God created was good, then why do we treat each other so poorly? The answer to this question also resides in Genesis. Adam and Eve’s disobedience thrust all of creation into a state of sin and death. Sin separated man from life, man from each other, and man from God. Outside of Eden, sin wreaked havoc on human relationships. Cain kills his brother Abel. Lamech kills a man for hitting him. Sin spreads until “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Sin incites the creatures commanded to subdue the earth to subdue one another. Racism, tribalism, jingoism, and the like, are products of human sin, and not a biblical mandate.

The Rise of Nations

Genesis presents two events instrumental in the fracturing of mankind into people groups: the proliferation of Noah’s sons after the flood, and the confusion at Babel. Genesis records the genealogies of Noah’s three sons after the flood. Japheth’s offspring spread (ד ַרָּפ) to Asia Minor (Turkey) and Europe. Ham’s descendants inhabited Canaan (Israel and Palestine), Egypt, other areas of Africa, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and the Arabian Peninsula. Within Ham’s genealogy we have the first mention of a kingdom, established by Nimrod, Ham’s grandson. We are also introduced to the Canaanites who disperse (וץּפ) to their settlements. Shem’s descendants settle in northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and Arabia. In his genealogy we are told that Peleg lived in a time when “the earth was divided (גַלָּפ).”

Each genealogy concludes with the formula “by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations,” further evidence of cultural, ethnic, and national demarcations being developed. The genealogies end with the phrase, “from these the nations spread abroad (ד ַרָּפ) on the earth after the flood,” forming an inclusion with v. 5. The rise of nations is due in part to God’s command to Noah and his family to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Genesis 11:1 describes a world in which “the whole earth had one language.” The
picture is that of a people united by language and location, two prominent cultural markers. God thwarts the peoples’ sinful ambitions by interfering with those two markers. He confuses their language; and he disperses “them from there over the face of all the earth.” Essentially, a people (one language and locale) became peoples (many languages and many locales). The rise of nations is partly due to man’s sinful nature. So we see that people groups resulted from both God’s blessing and God’s judgment. Many people believe that the Bible teaches racial separation, or at least promotes it. This simply is not the case. The rest of this essay examines several prominent fallacies concerning what the Bible teaches about race and ethnicity.

Fallacy #1: The Bible Teaches Racial Superiority

Israel’s status as God’s chosen people has given many the impression that the Bible approves of racial superiority. While it is true that God chose Israel, this is only part of the story. God’s covenant promises to Abraham were for the benefit of “all the families of the earth.” God’s election of Israel does not represent a rejection of other nations; rather it is a means for the redemption of all nations. The Bible does not paint Israel as a superior nation. In fact, Scripture highlights Israel’s insignificance among the nations. Deuteronomy states that Israel was not chosen because it was a great nation, or because it was particularly righteous. Other nations were “more numerous and mightier.” God’s love and faithfulness alone secured Israel’s election. Israel is not a special nation; it is a nation that receives special grace.

For some, Israel’s brutal conquest of Canaan represents ethnic cleansing. A few things
must be understood to view these events correctly. First, the conquest of Canaan was an act of divine judgment against the wickedness of the inhabitants. Furthermore, these nations had over four hundred years to turn from their iniquity. It should also be noted that this was a unique judgment, carried out by a unique nation (a true theocracy), at a unique time. The Bible does not present it as a model. Second, Israel was not exempt from judgment. The potential existed for them to suffer the same fate as the Canaanites. They too could be “vomited” from the land and “devoted for destruction.” Third, deliverance was possible through allegiance to Yahweh, judging by the accounts of Rahab and the Gibeonites. The conquest of Canaan was not about the race of the inhabitants; it was about the righteousness of God.

Fallacy #2: The Bible Promotes Racial Segregation

Some charge that the Bible condones the separation of the races. They see Israel as a segregationist nation, hostile to foreigners. This belief appears to have merit. However, a careful examination provides evidence to the contrary. The truth is the Israel was never a homogeneous nation. When Israel was freed from Egyptian bondage, the Bible says that they left as a “mixed multitude,” meaning more than just the descendants of Jacob were represented. They lived in harmony among the Israelites. The Mosaic Law even contained instructions on how to treat the foreigners who lived among them. Israel was forbidden to “wrong” or “oppress” the foreigner. Not only was Israel instructed not to oppress foreigners, they were also told to love the foreigner because God himself loved them. Solomon even envisioned the temple as a place where foreigners would come to worship.

There are nations which the Mosaic Law specifically barred from the assembly of the
Lord, namely the Ammonites and Moabites. The exclusion of these nations was twofold. First, these nations were the product of an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters. Second, the Moabites had not treated Israel well after leaving Egypt. So the status of these nations had to do with behavior, not ethnicity. Even so, there were people like Ruth, a Moabite, and Rahab, a Canaanite, who displayed belief and trust in the living God. They became instrumental in Israel’s history, both being named in the genealogy of Christ. An oft-cited example of Israel’s segregationist tendencies is the Mosaic Law’s ban on intermarriage with other nations. The prohibition appears to validate this charge. But the truth is the commandment was intended to prevent the worship of foreign gods. Idolatry was strictly forbidden under the law, and had dire consequences. During the lawless time of the judges, Israel’s intermarriage among the Canaanite tribes caused them to “forgot the LORD their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth.” King Solomon began as a devout servant of Yahweh, but his love of foreign women eventually eroded that devotion. In his old age “his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God.” Solomon begin to worship the gods and goddesses of the Sidonians, the Ammonites, and the Moabites. The very man who built the temple of the living God built high places to the abominable gods of his foreign wives. Nehemiah uses Solomon’s exploits as a cautionary tale when Israel’s intermarriage in his day caused them to forget the Sabbath, an observance they were specifically told to remember.

In the New Testament, Paul’s admonition for Christians, “Do not be unequally yoked
with unbelievers,” carries a similar sentiment, although not expressly dealing with marriage. Paul explains this partnership would be just as irrational as the antithetical relationships of righteousness with lawlessness, light with darkness, Christ with Satan, and idols in the temple of the living God. Just as in the Old Testament, race is not an influential factor. The ban on intermarriage was a matter of religious purity, not racial purity.

Fallacy #3: The Bible Endorses Racial Subjugation

Perhaps the most heinous perversion of Scripture relates to the issue of slavery. The belief that the Bible advocates racial slavery arises from two interpretive issue. The first issue involves the “Mark of Cain.” The earlier description of Cain’s countenance, “and his face fell,” was translated as “and his face became sad” in the Syriac language. The Syriac word for “sad” is related to the word for “black.” Thus Cain’s mark become associated with blackness. It must be noted that Cain’s mark was given to preserve his life. It was an act of God’s grace.

The association of blackness with slavery arose from a tradition that erroneously saw Ham as black. Noah’s curse of his grandson Canaan (Ham’s son) to be a “servant of servants” became the “curse of Ham;” thus linking blackness with slavery. Since some of Ham’s descendants settled in Africa, the black Africans were seen as a cursed people. This amalgamation of unfortunate interpretations was used to justify slavery for centuries.

The references to slavery in the Pentateuch cause many to think that the Bible endorses slavery. Several things must be understood about slavery in the Bible. One, slavery in the ancient world was not akin to North American slavery. Slavery in the Bible was not based on race. Slavery in the ancient world was primarily the result of indebtedness or being conquered by another nation. In fact, the Bible forbids what would be analogous to modern slavery. For example, kidnapping a person (referred to as man-stealing) and selling him was forbidden under the Mosaic Law, and punishable by death. Also, the Law required slaves to be treated well; mistreatment of slaves had consequences. For instance, killing a slave resulted in death. Gouging out a slave’s eye or knocking out his teeth resulted in the slave’s freedom. The New Testament also decries slavery of the modern variety, listing “enslavers” in a vice list. Some consider Paul’s desire for Onesimus, a runaway slave, to return to his master, Philemon, detestable. But they miss the point that he calls for Philemon to receive Onesimus as a “beloved brother” in Christ, not as a slave. Slavery in the Bible, especially as it related to the people of God, was the result of economic factors, not ethnicity.

Conclusion: Unity, Diversity, and Division

To say that there are no divisions between people groups in the Bible would be untrue. In fact, the Bible very early on makes a distinction between two groups of people. Genesis 4:26 tells us that at the time of Seth’s son, Enosh, “people began to call upon the name of the LORD.” The prophet Joel says that in the coming day of the Lord, “that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.”Paul affirms this by saying no distinction exists between Jew and Greek “for the same Lord is Lord of all…for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” There is a line drawn between those who are holy unto God, and those who are hostile toward him. This is the only division than can be thought of as truly biblical. All other partitions are the result of being conformed to the sin-stained pattern of this world.

In the New Testament, we see the Gentiles formally grafted into God’s covenant people
through Christ. We see people of diverse backgrounds and cultures become followers of Christ: the Roman centurion, the Samaritan woman, the Ethiopian eunuch, Lydia from Thyatira. Paul’s epistles often concern themselves with preserving Christian unity in the midst of cultural differences. In Christ, Jews, Gentiles, men, women, slaves, free men, Scythians, and barbarians come together to worship the triune God. The kingdom of God is marked by diversity and unity; all nations and ethnicities are welcomed. The scene in Revelation 5:9 depicts a throng ransomed by Christ “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Believers are baptized by one Spirit into one body, and worship one Lord, and one God. This is the unity the Scripture foreshadows in the Old Testament and fulfills in the New Testament. But this unity is not at the expense of diversity. Notice how the Revelation verse still mentions those factors we divide over. Why does the verse not erase those ethnic and geographical markers? It is because Christ does not remove our ethnicity – he redeems it.



Stay Connected

Get Agape in Your Inbox!

Subscribe to Agape News for the latest messages, news, events, & useful resources.

Sign Up!

Live Generously, Give Cheerfully

If the LORD leads you to give as part of worship

Give Today

Learn About Giving …