August 10, 2022

Biblical Theology of Race

Biblical Theology of Race

Steven Foong

16 Minute Read


Although Christians are familiar with the Biblical injunction that faith in Jesus Christ means, among other things, the rejection of racism (e.g., Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14), the history of Christianity leaves much to be desired of. The Holy Writ was abused by Nazi Germany to espouse anti-Semitism and the promotion of the Aryan master race.1 Earlier still, Christians in the United States found “scriptural support” for black slavery in Gen. 9:18-27.2 While the apology made by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995 for “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism” is to be lauded, the fact remains that Christians are susceptible to racial discrimination and this tendency must be defeated.3

One method that we can employ to refute the use of the Bible to justify racial discrimination is to attack its “scriptural bases” by providing good hermeneutical arguments for each of the Bible verses quoted. Equally useful is to quote other Bible verses that are incompatible with the notion of ethnic superiority. This paper, however, recommends a biblical theological approach of tracing the theme of ethnicity throughout the Bible, from its beginning, to its development, and finally its consummation to see how God is drawing all nations to Himself while “maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus”.4

J. Daniel Hays

One may justifiably wonder whether this paper is not superfluous with the publication of J. Daniel Hays’ book on the subject matter.5 While his book provides much insight into this theme, my criticism of Hays is his undue emphasis on the “Black Cushites”. For example, in his discussion on the “mixed multitude” in the Exodus narrative (Exod. 12:38), Hays is primarily concerned with “the degree to which Black Africans of Cush would have been part of this group”.6 His chapter on “Racial Issues in the Prophets” is mainly an examination of texts that “address the ancient Black Cushites” with the aim of formulating a “theology regarding the Cushites”, while nominally cast within a broader parameter of the “theology regarding the nations”.7

While I understand that Hays is discussing a very pertinent issue in America, the Bible simply does not speak of a White-Black racial divide. Moreover, I argue that the Bible never intended a biblical theology of Black Cushites that is distinct from other non-Israelite nations. The identification of Cush as the recipient of the mislabeled “curse of Ham” (Gen. 9:18-27) is attributable to a late misreading of scripture. Since the Biblical authors do not share this pejorative view of Black Cushites, there is no reason for them to consciously make a special appeal for the incorporation of the Cushites into God’s people in the same vein as, for instance, Ruth the Moabitess or the Samaritans. Any application to racial issues in America or elsewhere must thus derive from a general treatment of the Biblical theme of ethnicity.8

The Genesis of Race

Human beings are created by God in His image and are tasked to multiply, fill the earth and exercise dominion over other creatures (Gen. 1:26-29). From the very beginning, the Bible makes it clear that all humanity is descended from this common ancestry, a fact that continues to be affirmed through to the NT (e.g., Acts 17:26). In the Garden of Eden, God and man have unbroken fellowship.

The tragic fall of humanity in Genesis 3 eventually leads to the devastating flood account (Gen 6-9). After this catastrophe, God again reiterated His original command to human beings to multiply and fill the earth (9:1-2, 7). However, post-flood human beings prove to be just as sinful as their forebears. Noah’s drunkenness and Ham’s sin result in the curse of Canaan (9:20-27), the first incident of a curse on a distinct people group. Hays is correct to note that this is a “prophetic curse against the future enemy of Israel”.9

The term הַגּוֹיִם (haggoyim, “the nations”) is first introduced in Gen. 10:5, which the LXX translates as τὰ ἔθνη (ta ethnē), a word NT writers continue to use.10 In verses 5, 20 and 31, we find the concepts of “nations, languages, clans and lands”. At this juncture, the reader is not told whether nationalities carry a positive or negative connotation. The genealogical table of the nations in Genesis 10, however, serves as a preface to chapter 11’s explanation of the Biblical context of ethnic origins.11

In Genesis 11, we find the people, unified in tongue, plan to build a skyscraper to “make a name” for themselves rather than to glorify God. Another reason for the building project is to prevent their dispersion over all the earth – a clear act of defiance against the divine injunction given to Adam and Noah. Thus, the tower of Babel narrative is a record of humanity’s rejection of God and their desire to “establish their own power base without any regard for God”.12 God’s judgment was to confuse their languages (11:6-9), thus forcefully separating the people into their “nations, languages, clans and lands”. The semi-tongue twister involving a number of wordplays in this narrative produces a rhetorical effect that culminates in the climatic wordplay on the name Babel (בָּבֶל, bāḇel) and the Hebrew term for “confused” (בָּלַ֥ל, bālal).13 Therefore, the basic premise of human separation due to racial prejudice is divine judgment for rebelliousness and pride, rendering any Biblical claims to ethnic superiority ironic and sinful.

The Covenant with Abraham

The tragedy at Babel and the beginning of ethnic groups separated by different languages provides the background to one of the pivotal episodes in the Bible. Out of the many nations, God chooses Abraham to initiate a plan of redemption for all humanity. God will make Abraham a great nation and make the latter’s name great in an obvious rebuke to the Babel incident (12:2). God establishes a covenant with Abraham to give him land, an offspring, and blessings for him and “all the families of the earth” (12:1-7).

The express goal to bless all the families of the earth underscores the “universal scope of the commission” in Gen. 12:1-3.14 God’s strategy from this point forward is to build the Abrahamic race into a model nation of faith (15:6) to attract all the other nations He scattered at Babel into a meaningful relationship with Him. Rather than licensing favouritism, God’s actual intention is to “work through one family for the benefit of all families”.15

The Children of Israel

As mentioned earlier, there is a “mixed multitude” that also made the exodus out of Egypt together with the children of Israel (Exod. 12:38). This shows that God’s intention is to bless all nations through Israel. Critics, however, may point out that Israel was subsequently commanded by God to carry out mass killings against the seven nations in Exod. 23:23-33, which Moses reiterated in Deut. 7:1-5. However, one must bear in mind that Israel’s war policy is governed by their status as a treasured possession, a holy and chosen people, “important religious themes that are related directly to the covenant” (Deut. 7:6).16 The idolatry and moral decay of the Canaanites attracts God’s judgment and Israel is to be His agent to execute it.17 Furthermore, the injunction not to intermingle with the Canaanites has nothing to do with race per se but so that they will not be tempted to worship gods other than Yahweh (7:2-5), “the most fundamental breach of the covenant”.18

Yet even as God metes out His judgment on the Canaanites, He shows remarkable grace upon those who believe. By believing in the sovereignty and power of God (Josh. 2:9-11), Rahab the prostitute not only escapes the fall of Jericho, her entire family becomes part of God’s people (6:17-19, 25) although the “rules of herem require that she and her family be exterminated”.19 Another example is Ruth the Moabitess. The implied reader cannot be faulted for viewing the Moabites with a negative stereotype.20 They are of incestuous origins (Gen. 19:30-38) and excluded from the assembly of Yahweh (Deut. 23:3-6). Yet, Ruth’s willingness to pledge allegiance to Yahweh results in her incorporation into Israel and is noted as an ancestress of King David (Ruth 1:16-17; 4:13-22).

Kingdom of Israel

While David’s reign saw many foreigners included in his administration and army,21 it is during his son Solomon’s reign that we come closest to the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Under Solomon, the people of God have occupied the Promised Land, are numerous in number, and are enjoying the blessing of plenty (1 Kgs. 4:20-25). Royalties from other nations such as Hiram the king of Tyre (5:7) and the queen of Sheba (10:9) are attracted by Israel’s prosperity and give praises to Yahweh the God of Israel. Of special interest is the reason for the queen’s visit – she has “heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the LORD”. In other words, “she recognizes that only a great God could produce such a great king”.22

However, the golden age of Israel comes to an end with the kingdom dividing into two (1 Kgs 12:1-24) and the shameful rise of idolatry. Yet even in Israel’s poorest state, God continues to use her to attract others. A prime example is Naaman the commander of the Syrian army who hears from his lowly Israelite slave girl that the prophet Elisha in Samaria is able to cure his leprosy (2 Kgs. 5:1-27). Naaman’s faith (“there is no God in all the world except in Israel” – v. 15) and Gehazi’s punishment are proof positives that acceptability by God is a matter of faith rather than ethnicity.

Prophets of Israel

The prophets too understand that God’s desire is for all nations to be brought into fellowship with Him. In Isaiah 2:1-5, the prophet saw a vision that all the nations will be drawn to the temple of God at Zion. In the “Servant Songs” we are told that the Servant’s task is to “bring forth justice to the nations” (42:1) and He will be as “a light for the nations that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). The clearest passage in Isaiah is 56:1-8. Foreigners who join themselves to the Lord will be granted access to the house of God and their offerings will be acceptable to Him. No longer will the temple be strictly for the Jews but God’s house “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (56:8). Finally, Isaiah 60:3-11 records the prophecy of nations attracted to Jerusalem’s light and brought their wealth to her.23

Jeremiah’s calling is to be a “prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). Although much of his writings concerning other nations are primarily of judgment (46-51), he also writes that, “all the nations will gather in Jerusalem to honour the name of the LORD” (3:17). Ezekiel’s oracles against other nations (Ezek. 25-32) are written so that “they may know that I am the LORD”, the aptly named “recognition formula”. Iain M. Duguid explains, “The nations will recognize the Lord’s sovereignty…. He is the only one with power to judge or to deliver; … their gods are impotent to save them.”24 Even more convincing is Ezekiel’s vision of restoration where foreigners are entitled to an inheritance among God’s people and even regarded as native-born (47:21-23).


The severity of the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah’s subsequent exile to Babylon in 584 BCE is not only a historical fact but also an event orchestrated by God to serve as an example to the other nations of the result of covenantal disobedience (Deut. 28:37; cf. Jer. 22:8-9; Ezek 5:15). The exile has an immense impact on the Jewish psyche and identity. Daniel L. Smith-Christopher argues that the xenophobia exhibited by Ezra and Nehemiah is attributable to the “sociology of a threatened minority”, in their attempt to “preserve identity and culture”.25

Ezra’s motivation in coercing the post-exilic Jews to forcibly divorce foreign wives is the fear of re-offending God, which may result in total annihilation of the already weakened Jewish people (Ezra 9:13-15). At any rate, Blenkinsopp is probably right that Ezra’s “rigorist interpretation” of Deut. 7:1-5 (quoted in Ezra 9:12) mostly failed, otherwise the same initiative “would not have remained to be done all over again” by Nehemiah (Neh. 13:23-30).26

Nehemiah’s complaint of mixed marriages is motivated by both sociological and theological reasons. From a sociological point of view, since children learn their first language from their mothers, the children of these foreign women do not speak the language of Judah (Neh. 13:24), resulting in further erosion of the already fragile national culture and identity.27 Nehemiah’s theological rationale is based on the Deuteronomic warning against idolatry caused by marrying foreigners (Deut. 7:1-5), with Solomon’s fall as his prime example (13:26; cf. 1 Kgs. 11:1-6).28 Blenkinsopp concludes, “The most significant, and in many ways the most problematic outcome of his pursuit of this goal [ed., ritually segregated] was its adoption by the Hasmoneans who looked to him as their model and inspiration”. Yet this ethno-religious exclusivity provides the perfect background for what is to come – the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of ethnic inclusiveness (Isa. 56:1-8; cf. Zech. 2:11 and Mal. 1:11).

Jesus Christ – Saviour of the World

The coming of Jesus Christ unveils the fulfillment of the Isaianic prophecy of salvation for all nations (Matt. 12:18-21; cf. Isa. 42:1-4). Jesus reveals that He is the promised Servant of the LORD coming to serve, that is, to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45; cf. Isa. 52:13–53:12). In heralding the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist proclaims that, “all mankind shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:4-6; cf. Isa. 40:3-5).

Perhaps the most deeply ingrained racial hatred the Jews possess is directed towards the Samaritans. In a radical blow to the established sociology, Jesus depicts a Samaritan man as the hero in his parable when questioned on the scope of neighbourly love (Luke 10:25-37). Leading not only by words, Jesus breaks the race barrier by approaching the Samaritan woman by the well (John 4:1-42, especially vv. 7-10). Jesus explains that His mission to the Samaritans is part of God’s will (v. 34) and they responded by recognising that He is the “Saviour of the world” (v. 42).

Jesus’ ethnic-inclusive mission is brilliantly exemplified by His denunciation of the temple authorities for turning God’s house of prayer for all nations into a den of robbers (Mark 11:17; cf. Isa. 56:1-8; Jer. 7:11). This is a reference to the authorities’ decision to move commercial activities to the court of the Gentiles. Beale and Carson explain, “By preventing the Gentiles who fear God from worshiping him in the place especially reserved for that purpose, the temple leadership represents ethnocentric prejudice and repression.”29

Through Jesus’ death, the “dividing wall of hostility” between the Jews and the Gentiles is finally broken and both parties are united and reconciled to God (Eph. 2:14-16). After His resurrection, Jesus commissions His disciples to disciple all nations before ascending to heaven (Matt. 28:19). He announces that He will not return before the gospel is proclaimed to all the nations (Matt. 24:14; Mark 13:10; Luke 21:24).

The Early Church

At first, the disciples could not overcome their Jewish aspirations and asked Jesus whether He was about to restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). Jesus replies that their role is to be His witnesses not only in Judea but also Samaria and to the ends of the earth (1:8). Thus, “from the outset of Acts, the inclusive nature of the new people of God is affirmed”.30 On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit enables the disciples to announce the gospel to God-fearing Jews from every nation, and they miraculously heard the message in their respective languages (2:4-6). Peterson observes, “God was expressing his ultimate intention to unite people ‘from every tribe and tongue and language and people and nation’ (Rev. 5:9-10; 7:9)”.31 This supernatural event signals the reversal of the curse of ethnic division at Babel (Gen. 11:1-9).

From Jerusalem, the gospel spreads to Samaria (Acts 8:4-25) and, pivotally, to the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house (10:23-48). The unity of Jewish and Gentile believers is wonderfully displayed at the church in Antioch, the apostle Paul’s “home church”, where the disciples were first called “Christians” (11:19-26). Luke then dedicates the rest of Acts to Paul’s missions to the Gentile world. However, when the mostly Gentile Christians in Galatia fell under the influence of the Judaizers on the necessity of circumcision, Paul was up in arms and did not mince his words in denouncing the perpetrators as anathema (NIV – “eternally condemned”). He connects the Galatians’ receiving of the Holy Spirit through faith in the crucified Christ (3:1-2) with God’s promise to bless all the nations through Abraham (3:8-9), which we have discussed at length. Hence, to Paul, there is neither Jew nor Greek but unity in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28; cf. Col. 3:11).

The New Jerusalem

At the end of the age, God will gather to Himself a great multitude “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9). John describes the New Jerusalem as a city where “the nations will walk by its light” (21:24) and “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it” (21:26), in fulfillment of Isa. 60:3-11. The curse of separation due to racial prejudice as a result of God’s judgment for sin and pride (Gen. 11:1-9) is completely reversed and all the nations are finally recovered to full fellowship with God forever.


The Bible clearly teaches that the notion of ethnicity originates from God’s judgment of human sin (Gen. 11:1-9). God’s choice of the Abrahamic race is not the basis for racial discrimination but is entirely out of God’s desire to bless all the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). The history of Israel, its psalms and its prophets affirm God’s purpose is for people from all the nations although the failure of Israel inhibited large-scale fulfillment. God’s plan is ultimately fulfilled through Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus united and reconciled both Jews and Gentiles to God (Eph. 2:14-16). On the day of Pentecost, God signals the reversal of the curse of Babel by pouring the Holy Spirit to overcome linguistic barriers (Acts 2:4-6). Today, the people of God are not defined by ethnicity but by their identity in Christ (Gal. 3:28). At the end of this age, people of all ethnicities and languages will be brought into a meaning relationship with God (Rev. 7:9).

Having examined the biblical theme of race, this paper concludes that there is no scriptural basis for perpetuating racist views. In fact, the closer one’s relationship is with God, the less relevant the divisive factor of race becomes. The Christian church today ought to stamp out all forms of racism and be a shining beacon to draw all the nations to God through the efficacious cross of Jesus Christ.32

1 See Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

2 For example, Thornton Stringfellow, Scriptural and Statistical Views in Favor of Slavery (Richmond: Randolph, 1856). For a recent treatment, see Stephen R. Haynes, Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002).

3 Southern Baptist Convention, “Resolution on Racial Reconciliation on the 150th Anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention,” in SBC Resolutions [database on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 19 September 2013.

4 T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, eds., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2000), 10.

5 J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, NSBT (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003).

6 Hays, From Every People and Nation, 67.

7 Hays, From Every People and Nation, 105.

8 The deeply ingrained and institutionalised racism in Malaysia provides the impetus for writing this paper. However, to avoid disrupting the flow of this paper, observations of the Malaysian malaise will be kept to these footnotes.

9 Hays, From Every People and Nation, 55. Cf. Gen. 15:18-20.

10 E.g., Matt. 24:9; Mk. 13:10; Gal. 3:8; etc.

11 David Atkinson, The Message of Genesis 1-11, BST (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990),173.

12 John E. Hartley, Genesis, NIBC (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2000; reprint, 2003),125 (page citations are to the reprint edition).

13 Gary Edward Schnittjer, The Torah Story: An Apprenticeship on the Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006),105-106.

14 G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 625.

15 Hartley, Genesis, 133.

16 Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 179.

17 On why Christians, although they are the people of God today, do not have the mandate to engage in “holy war”, see Christian Hofreiter, “Genocide in Deuteronomy and Christian Interpretation,” in Interpreting Deuteronomy: Issues and Approaches, edited by David G. Firth and Philip S. Johnston (Nottingham: APOLLOS, 2012), 240-262.

18 J. G. McConville, Deuteronomy, AOTC (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002), 153.

19 J. Harris, C. Brown, and M. Moore, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, NIBC (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2000), 50.

20 Peter H. W. Lau, Identity and Ethics in the Book of Ruth: A Social Identity Approach (Göttingen: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2011), 90-91.

21 See Hays, From Every People and Nation, 87-94.

22 Paul R. House, 1, 2 Kings, NAC (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 161.

23 We shall discuss the fulfillment of these Isaianic prophecies in the NT sections of this paper.

24 Iain M. Duguid, Ezekiel, NAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 324.

25 Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, “Between Ezra and Isaiah: Exclusion, Transformation, and Inclusion of the ‘Foreigner’ in Post-Exilic Biblical Theology,” in Ethnicity and the Bible, edited by Mark G. Brett (Leiden; New York: E. J. Brill, 1996), 117-142, here 123. I agree with Smith-Christopher’s comparison between the attitude of foreigners of the post-exilic Jewish community and that of the Native Americans’ concern over adoption by non-natives. This sheds some light on my own observation of contemporary Malaysia where each ethnic group feels threatened by extinction (justified or not), whether with regard to language, culture, privileges or identity, resulting in ethnocentric politics.

26 Joseph Blenkinsopp, Judaism: The First Phase – The Place of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Origins of Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 67, 145. He calls Ezra’s interpretation “rigorist” because the law does not mandate “coercive divorce and dismissal of children”.

27 The recent Malaysian education debate is centered on the teaching of mathematics and science in English (PPSMI). Malay pressure groups join hands with Chinese educationists to oppose the policy out of a common fear of the dilution of the respective groups’ ethnic heritage. See Ministry of Education Malaysia (Corporate Communication Unit), “Why PPSMI is abolished,” in The Star Online, 5th October 2011; available from; Internet; accessed 26 September2013.

28 If true Yahweh-worship was an international rather than limited to the Jewish people, would Nehemiah’s concern be for the intermarriage between believers and unbelievers rather than Jews and non-Jews?

29 G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker and Apollos, 2007),68. See their whole discussion from 66-70 and 208-212.

30 Howard Clark Kee, To Every Nation Under Heaven: The Acts of the Apostles (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997), 24.

31 David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 136.

32 Perhaps our churches in Malaysia ought to reassess the practice of organising ourselves along linguistic lines in light of Babel and Pentecost to ensure that we are not doing so out of inadvertent racism. Also worth reflecting is our inertia to bring the gospel to the majority of this country – is our reluctance entirely reducible to legal restrictions or whether there is also a hint of racism due to perceived discriminatory national policies resulting in some of us being less fervent for their salvation than others?

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Steven Foong is a Bible teacher from Petaling Jaya Gospel Hall, and is passionate about bringing bible literacy among God's people and to encourage them to grow more and more in love with the Lord Jesus Christ. He holds a Master of Divinity from Seminari Theoloji Malaysia (STM) and enjoys a good game of chess and you can encourage him to play more by buying him a cup of coffee.

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