In twenty-first-century America, race often finds itself at the center of our socio-political discourse. We speak of racial equality, racism, and race relations, even as we debate policies relating to issues as disparate as voting, education, and immigration.
As Christians, our perspectives on any particular issue, or on the role of race in modern society, are often shaped more by our political leanings than by our faith.
Divisions over these issues have prompted accusations of racism against Christians, both modern and throughout history. And to be sure, church history, like human history, is full of examples of animosity and mistreatment across racial lines. And in some instances, people have sought to justify their attitudes toward other races using the words of scripture.
But do such justifications hold up under scrutiny?
Perhaps it is a good time for us to reexamine what the Bible says about race.
Race in the Bible
Scientists have spent decades mapping the human genome. One question that they have sought to answer in doing so is whether or not humanity has a ‘default’ or ‘original’ race. Let us turn to the earliest days of humanity as recorded in Genesis to see if we can find an answer to this question through scripture.
What Race were Adam and Eve?
The Bible describes Adam and Eve as ‘created in the image of God,’ (Genesis 1:27), but does not detail any physical characteristics such as skin tone or facial features that we might use to differentiate between races today. So let’s follow the story further to see when and how race emerges.
Cain: Adam and Eve’s firstborn son, Cain, is famous for having killed his younger brother, Abel. Subsequently, God
A few scholars have attempted to interpret this ‘curse of Cain’ as a darkening of his skin. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it inserts ideas in scripture that are simply not present in the text. The word ‘curse’ is not used in the Genesis account, and the ‘mark’ could have been anything (the Bible does not describe it). So we cannot look to this passage as the beginning of racial distinction.
Nephilim: Looking ahead to the time of Noah, the Bible describes the ‘sons of God’ who married the ‘daughters of men’ (Genesis 6:2). The text goes on to call them ‘Nephilim’ (v 4), providing us perhaps our first glimpse of different races in the Bible.
However, most Biblical scholars interpret ‘sons of God’ to mean beings who are of angelic origin (demons), and not human. But even if the Nephilim were a distinct race of humans, the world was about to change, and humanity along with it…
The Sons of Noah: During the Genesis flood, Noah’s three sons and their wives were present with him on the ark. Genesis 10 provides us a detailed account of the offspring of each, and from the names of these subsequent generations, we can identify different people who settled in different geographic areas.
- Japheth: Among the offspring of Japheth we see the names of European and northern people groups (Magog, Ashkenaz), and groups that would become ‘maritime’ (Mediterranean) nations.
- Ham: Noah’s son, Ham, is recognized as the father of African races (Egypt, Cush, Sheba).
- Shem: The Israelites are descendants of Shem (from whose name the word ‘Semitic’ originates), as are other Mesopotamian people.
As studies of human genetics confirm, as people spread and settled in closed groups isolated from one another, they expressed distinguishing physical characteristics that identify them as separate people groups. So it is here, in the generations subsequent to Noah’s sons, that we first identify distinct racial groups.
Mixing Races in Marriage
The Old Testament follows the story of the descendants of Jacob (Israel), who himself descended from Shem through Abraham.
Moving ahead in the story several centuries, after the Israelites had been freed from slavery in Egypt through Moses, God led them to the Promised Land, which had been occupied by the Canaanites (and other descendants of Ham).
During this time, God established the Mosaic Law with Israel, which included a prohibition against intermarrying with the people of other nations:
Why did God Prohibit Mixed Marriages?
The purpose of this law seems to have nothing to do with racial (genetic) purity, but with religious practices. The Lord did not wish for Israel to be enticed to serve other gods (Deuteronomy 7:4), and also warned against making treaties with foreign nations (Exodus 34:15). Treaties were often ratified and consummated through the intermarrying of ruling clans of different nations.
Therefore, God prohibited Israel from intermarrying with other nations because Israel was the nation through which He was carrying out His redemption plan for the whole world. And so, He called Israel to be holy (literally, ‘set apart’) for Him.
The Israelites, however, did not always heed this decree.
Solomon’s many foreign wives turned his heart away from the Lord, prompting God to divide the kingdom, leaving only one tribe for Solomon’s offspring (1 Kings 11:1-13). And after the Jews returned from Babylonian exile centuries later, Ezra lamented that the Israelites were again falling into this same error (Ezra 9:1-12), and Nehemiah warned against repeating the mistakes of Solomon (Nehemiah 13:23-27).
Were Mixed Marriages Ever Permitted?
Yet, despite the problems that intermarriage with other nations brought to Israel throughout their history, God did allow, and even bless, notable exceptions to His prohibition.
Rahab: The Canaanite prostitute Rahab was instrumental in protecting the Israelite spies when Israel conquered the Promised Land (Joshua 2). When Jericho fell, only Rahab’s family was spared (Joshua 6:17). And in Matthew’s record of Jesus’ genealogy, Rahab is revealed as the mother of Boaz (Matthew 1:5).
Ruth: The book of Ruth records the story of a Moabite woman who had married an Israelite and was subsequently widowed. She returned to Israel with her mother-in-law, Naomi, and assimilated into Israelite life and worship (Ruth 1:16). Ruth subsequently met and married Boaz, and would go on to become the great-grandmother of David (Matthew 1:5-6).
It is noteworthy that these unions feature prominently in the genealogy of Jesus because His work and the work of the early church prompt us to look at race and ethnicity in a whole new way.
Race in the New Testament
As previously mentioned, God chose Israel as the nation through which He would save the whole world. And that plan of salvation was achieved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Racial animosity was prevalent in Jesus’ day, yet Jesus himself was willing to breach societal customs to minister to Samaritans (John 4) and cast them in a favorable light (Luke 10:25-37). Similarly, Jesus did not withhold his mercy from the Gentile (non-Hebrew) Romans, choosing to heal a centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-9).
And when Jesus commissioned the church, he commanded the disciples (and all of us) to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). ‘Nations,’ we must understand, are not defined by political borders, but by shared ancestry. And Jesus declares that His salvation is meant for people of all ancestries.
Verses About Racial Equality
At the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-21), the early church wrestled with what might seem like a silly question to us, but it was an important one in its time: Must gentile converts to Christianity become circumcised? Circumcision was the ritual by which Jewish males were brought into the covenant of Abraham. So to word the question another way, the church was asking “must people become Jewish in order to become Christians?”
The answer, as decided by the council, was “no” (Acts 15:28-29). It is for this reason that the apostle Paul writes to the Galatian church that ‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile’ (Galatians 3:28). He repeats these words in another letter (Colossians 3:11), even adding the names of additional people groups (Scythians and barbarians).
So even though God chose one nation to serve an appointed purpose, we understand from the entire witness of scripture that all of humanity is created in His image, that all are welcome in His church. It is God’s desire that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, or heritage, would come to know Him.
And the good news is, that when we look ahead to the end of the story, we see that God’s salvation plan does indeed reach people of all races:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
For it is God our Creator and Jesus our Redeemer that make us worthy, and not our race, ethnicity, or heritage.