The story of the Bible is one that fights back against racism. The Bible can be confusing though, so here’s a guide to see what the Bible says about race.

Culture

Race Through The Bible: Part 1 (The Old Testament)

Caleb Mathis

24 mins

Racism is America’s original sin. But if I’m honest, it sometimes feels like the people of God are the last to admit it. Does God actually have anything to say about it? Wasn’t the Bible used to prop up slavery in America? Is there anything in that old book that can offer a way forward today?

As a white American of faith, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve spent most of my life looking right past what, if anything, the Bible said about racism. Then 2020 hit like a wrecking ball, and I came face-to-face with the reality that people of color have known their entire lives: racism is still very much alive.

If you’re anywhere on the spectrum of following Jesus, you may have wondered if the Bible even speaks to this issue. It does—and what it says may surprise you.

Admittedly, the Bible is a long, sometimes complicated, read. But it’s far from silent on the issue of race. In fact, its lessons on the topic are spread from the first pages to the final book. We don’t have time to unpack every nugget of truth buried in the scriptures. But a run-through on the topic of race feels timely. If you can stand the play on words, we’re going to race through the Bible to see what it has to say about race.

This won’t be a sprint, but it’s not a marathon either. Think of this as a double 5K—the first five kilometers will take us through the Old Testament, the first half of the Bible, dealing with ancient history before Jesus was born. The second leg, detailed in the companion article, will take us through five kilometers of the New Testament to see how Jesus and his early followers handled the issue of race. Don’t jump ahead. To get a full scoop of the Bible’s take on race, you’ll need to go the full 10 kilometers. No, there won’t be a commemorative t-shirt or orange slices at the finish line, but I think you will feel a sense of accomplishment nonetheless—and I hope you’ll learn a thing or two.

One caveat before the starting gun goes off. There are no white European people in the Bible. So as you read and come across familiar characters from the pages of scripture, you’re going to have to willingly adjust the hue of their skin in your mind’s eye. That’s actually an important exercise.

Humans instinctively see themselves as the heroes in the stories they read, and unless prompted otherwise, imagine those heroes looking like themselves. There’s at least a millennia of religious artwork that’s led us to conclude that heroes like Moses and Esther and Daniel and Jesus looked like the majority culture—and in our nation, that’s white Anglo-Saxon. But no one in the Bible looked like that. Try to keep that front of mind.

Ready to go? Legs stretched? Headphones in? Shoes tied? Great.

Runners to your marks. Bang.

KILOMETER 1: HAVEN’T WE ALWAYS BEEN DIVIDED?

In a word… no.

The Bible begins with an explosion of creativity. Merely by speaking, God brings everything into existence, from the sun and stars to the sea, land, and all the life that fills them. Only one piece of creation broke his formula, his pièce de résistance: humanity. Alone among creation, humans were formed not by God’s spoken words but by his hands. The Bible describes Adam as being made from the dust. Shortly thereafter, God forms Eve from one of Adam’s rib bones.

But that’s not all that sets humanity apart from the rest of the created order. The Bible also notes that humans are the only living things fashioned in God’s image, reflecting his divine nature. The first page of the Bible records it this way:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness…” So God created man in His own image; He created him in the image of God; He created them male and female.

In the creation story, what the Bible doesn’t mention is just as important as the few details it does give. The Bible makes no mention of the race or ethnicity of the first couple—probably because that wasn’t the point. The main message was that humanity, every single person who has lived and died on planet Earth, was created in God’s image. The color of one’s skin, or the ethnic heritage of one’s ancestors, didn’t actually factor into the equation. There is a weight and worth to human life—of all colors, shades, and backgrounds—that exceeds the rest of creation. To fall in line with this value is to fall in line with God’s original intent for this planet.

Division is such a common reality that we begin to assume it’s just the way it’s always been—but that’s not true. From the onset of creation, there is order and unity. God makes a perfect world and then dwells among his creation. Adam and Eve are given the task of caring for their paradise home and having babies. They routinely meet with God, as you might do with your best friend. For a brief moment in time, all is right with the world.

While this paradise on earth doesn’t account for many pages in the Bible (we’ll get to that next), it’s important to note that life on this planet started from a place of peace.

Peace between men and women, peace between creation, and peace between the created order and the Creator. The Bible word for this state is “shalom.” It’s a word that gets translated into English as “peace,” but it’s much more than just the absence of adversity or pain. Instead, it’s a proactive harmony, a wholeness, a completeness of existence that leads to tranquility. That’s the world we were created for, and it’s the world we all continue to long for.

We weren’t created to accept division as a necessary part of life, but it didn’t take long for those dividing lines to get drawn anyway.

KILOMETER 2: DIDN’T GOD PRIORITIZE HIS OWN PEOPLE?

If you’re familiar with the Biblical epic, you know things didn’t last long for Adam and Eve in their garden paradise. An act of rebellion against God allowed sin and death to enter the world, and things changed irrevocably. But God’s plan wasn’t undone.

God’s work of reconciliation started with a couple, Abraham and Sarah. Through them, He sought to grow a nation that would walk with Him, providing an example that would do nothing short of leading the entire world back to Him.

God’s call to Abraham, found in Genesis 12, goes something like this:

“Go out from your land… to the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing… And all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Abraham took action on God’s call, and the plan started to take shape. The nation created in the aftermath was Israel, named for Abraham’s grandson, who himself had twelve sons of his own. Each son became a tribe within the burgeoning nation. But notice how God’s blessing was never intended to stay within this new nation He was building. From the get-go, God’s plan was to extend it to all the peoples of the earth. No hard lines about race, ethnicity, or tribe.

Looking back on this conversation with Abraham, knowing thousands of years later Jesus would be born to Jewish parents, you can see just how God intended to keep this promise. The blessing to all the peoples of the earth would be God Himself, in the form of Jesus, offering forgiveness, reconciliation, and a chance to return to the shalom of Eden. And it would be extended to all.

Did God prioritize his people? You could make a case for that, but it’s clear his shalom was never meant to stay in place or with one family—it was meant to spread over the entire world.

This might come as a shocker, but racism, as we think about it today, wasn’t very prevalent in the ancient world. American racism is based primarily upon differences in skin tone. It makes assumptions about everything—intentions, lifestyle choices, mental capacities, and beyond—from external appearances of color. As you can imagine, the ancient world was not near as universally connected as we are today. Most people lived and died within a ten-mile radius of where they were born (which itself ratchets up the challenge God placed on Abraham to leave his homeland).

It’s likely many people wouldn’t experience others who looked vastly different than them. But humanity still found ways to divide itself. Instead of racism, most people in the Bible would have experienced tribalism—essentially the same thing, but based around the tribe or people group you belonged to instead of the color of your skin.

While God’s nation was meant to be an example to the rest of the world, they rarely reached this height. Instead, they bickered amongst themselves, mistreated each other, and even drew tribal lines within their own nation, dividing the very people of God. The unity of Eden must have seemed like a fairy tale. And yet, nothing brings a group of people together like common suffering. Unfortunately, for the people of God, that’s exactly where they were headed.

KILOMETER 3: BUT ISN’T SLAVERY IN THE BIBLE?

Let’s fly over a couple hundred years of history. When Abraham’s grandson, Israel, got old, a severe famine afflicted the land. His growing family was forced to flee to Egypt, where one of his sons, Joseph, had been promoted to second in command.

Egypt has plenty of food due to the leadership of Joseph, and Israel’s family ends up staying—for generations. As the nation grows within the confines of Egypt, they begin to be viewed as a threat. When a Pharaoh takes the throne who knew nothing of Joseph, the Egyptians make the power move, enslaving the Israelites. For 400 years, God’s people are unpaid laborers building the Egyptian dynasty. Mistreated and abused, God sees their misery and takes action (Exodus 3:7).

Another important American distinction we need to understand is that slavery in the ancient world was almost never based on race. Generally, one would become a slave through a military loss, to pay a debt you couldn’t financially afford, or as punishment for wrongdoing. American history has tied slavery and racism together, so it’s important we cover this full kilometer. But the distinction remains. In the Bible, enslavement would have been based around something more than melanin.

After 400 years of oppression, God dramatically rescues his nation through a set of plagues and a well-timed Red Sea parting. Moses, and then Joshua, leads the growing nation through the desert and into the Promised Land—named that because God originally promised it to Abraham way back in our 2nd kilometer.

In the ancient world, the practice of slave ownership was ubiquitous. So while it may surprise us, once the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery, they adopted the practice of slave ownership themselves. But, again, this wasn’t based on race. They enslaved fellow Jews (for unpaid debts or as a punishment) and non-Israelites (through military conquests). What sets the nation of Israel apart is the fact that slaves had rights. This flies in the face of how nearly every other ancient culture treated slaves and certainly is the direct opposite of what God’s people experienced in Egypt.

Remember, God’s people had been slaves for four generations before their approach to the Promised Land. To help them steer a clear course, God passes down the Law, a set of guidelines to direct his people on how to live. It covers everything from crime and punishment to dietary restrictions to worship practices. In that law, God explains that a Jew can only enslave another Jew for six years—in the seventh year, the slave goes free (Exodus 21:2). Household slaves who believed in God could participate in religious festivals like Passover (Exodus 12:44), and slaves were given a day to rest, every week, on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12). The Law also outlined protections for slaves against murder and physical harm from their masters, even giving an allowance of freedom if a slave was permanently injured (Exodus 21:20, 26).

But the real icing on the cake was something called The Year of Jubilee. At God’s command, every 49 years, all debts were to be forgiven, all Jewish slaves were to be freed, and all land went back to its original owners—the ancestral family plots that were parcelled out as the Israelites first took the Promised Land. It was a hard reset for God’s people and meant freedom for debtor slaves. In Leviticus 25, after giving all the details on Jubilee, God explains the “why” behind the special year:

“For the Israelites are My slaves. They are My slaves I brought out of the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.”

The Year of Jubilee was about restoring perspective. It was about God’s people remembering that they were once all slaves, set free by God Himself. He was a God who forgave debts and proclaimed freedom. In their mission to help restore the entire world, they were to be the same—starting with each other and then reaching outward.

Throughout history, twisted men have tried to twist scripture to support one human having ownership over another. But let’s be absolutely clear about this: while we do see slavery in the Bible, it bore little resemblance to the dehumanizing institution used to build America.

KILOMETER 4: ISN’T GOD EXCLUSIVE?

From the get-go, God’s people were designed to be different—peculiar, as one translation puts it (Deut 14:2, KJV). The list of peculiarities would be a mile long, but the biggest and most obvious would be their commitment to only one God in a world that fully embraced polytheism. This peculiarity was going to attract attention, especially as God’s people left the barren desert behind and moved into the already-populated Promised Land.

It’s one thing to be committed to God when it’s just you and people who think like you. It’s something else when the land you aim to call home is populated by loads of pagan tribes. Israel was easily influenced. Moses knew this and offered this wisdom as they prepared for their big move.

And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you and do them… do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples… for what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us?

Moses commands the people to be obedient to God “in the sight of the peoples,” fellow Jews and pagans alike. Why? Because God’s shalom wasn’t meant just for the Israelites. There was something about God’s people that was going to attract others—and that’s precisely what we see as God’s people begin to take the Promised Land.

The Old Testament has example after example of non-Israelites opting into the movement of God. Tribalism should have cut these people out. They were heathens, worthy of God’s wrath but not his love. And yet, there they are, drawn to forsake the gods of their ancestors in order to anchor themselves to the God of Israel. Even when God’s people did a poor job representing Him, His shalom still beckoned outsiders to come.

We’ve already recounted how Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. What we didn’t mention is that a sizable portion of people from all backgrounds, Egyptian and beyond, joined their ranks. Exodus 12:38 records that a “mixed multitude” went up with the Israelites when they left Egypt. Presumably, this mish-mash of people (probably slaves from other conquered people groups and maybe even Egyptian nationals) witnessed the power of God and decided to side with the Israelites. The term “multitude” gives some indication that it was more than just a handful of people, and yet despite the fact that they weren’t Jewish, this group was let in on the blessing of freedom and rescue.

Fast-forward to the taking of the Promised Land, and the Israelites run into their biggest challenge yet with a city called Jericho. Its strong walls and stronger-willed people refuse to give way to the former slaves. The Israelites send in spies, who meet a prostitute named Rahab. Although not Jewish, she not only hides the spies but helps them elude capture and escape in the night. Why? In Joshua 2, she explains that the whole region had heard of the God who rescued his people from Egypt, and they feared Him. “Your God,” she explains, “is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”

She was an outsider, but she wanted in. The spies agree, and when the Israelites finally take Jericho, she is spared and assimilated into the nation. Thousands of years later, when an early follower of Jesus records the Messiah’s genealogy, guess who we find there? Rahab, the former prostitute, grafted directly into the family of God.

We also find a woman named Ruth in Jesus’ family tree. Born a Moabite, a people group hated among the Israelites, Ruth married into a Jewish family during a famine. Although her Israelite husband died young, Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, a woman named Naomi, did not. When Naomi decides to return to Israel, Ruth doesn’t let her go alone. In fact, she forsakes her former life in Moab, explaining that she will go wherever Naomi goes, and her God will become Ruth’s God. This was unheard of across tribal lines. Ruth’s beautiful story unfolds in the book bearing her name, and this outsider goes on to become the great-grandmother of King David and a direct ancestor of Christ.

We could keep going, with example after example, but you probably get the point.

The problem with tribalism, like racism, is that by building walls it puts possibilities to death. If tribalism had had its day, the story of the Old Testament would be vastly different, Israel may never have had their greatest king, and the human bloodline of Christ would have been significantly altered. Yet God, in his foresight, actively sought to bring outsiders to the inside and to include non-Israelites in His work of redemption. This is God keeping his promise to Abraham that through him and his family, the entire world would be blessed.

Later, through the prophet Isaiah, God further revealed his heart to destroy the -isms the still plague our world:

“The sons of the foreigner who join themselves to the LORD, to serve Him, and to love the name of the LORD, to be His servants… even them I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer… for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

What blessings and joys are waiting for you when you engage in conversation, in connection, empathy, and justice for people outside your tribe? There’s only one way to find out.

KILOMETER 5: WHAT ABOUT THE VIOLENCE?

Before we finish this final leg of the race, we have to talk about something. The Old Testament gets the reputation of being hard, brutal, and kinda violent—because it can be hard, brutal, and kinda violent. It’s true that upon entering the Promised Land, God commands his people to destroy many of the pagan tribes living there. “Wait,” you ask, “I thought God was trying to bless the world, not destroy it?”

“You’re correct,” I’d say, “But God’s plan to do that blessing was through the nation He was building. He could not, and would not, bless people who didn’t acknowledge Him as the true and only God because that blessing would elevate a false deity. A blessing like that would run counter to His plan because God (and God alone) is both the source of blessing AND the blessing itself.”

In the Old Testament, God was looking for devotion. He drew close to people who were devoted to Him and drew away from people who were not—no matter their tribal background, gender, or title. Devotion to God mattered above tribe or race, above family or friends, above preferences or convenience.

God’s command to destroy the pagan tribes living in the Promised Land wasn’t racially or tribally (is that a word?) motivated, as much as it was protection for His people. As we’ve already established, many of the forefathers of the faith came from tribes outside Israel. God’s people were notoriously fickle. Throughout their history, they continually stray from God’s commands and worship, adopting the habits and teachings of the people around them. The call to destroy the neighboring tribes was meant to insulate God’s people from influences that would take them away from their devotion.

Israel, however, didn’t do a great job cleaning out the Promised Land. They left pagan tribes behind, and just as God told them, those tribes became a thorn in their side, constantly leading them away from Him.

Much of the rest of the Old Testament follows a cycle that goes something like this: God’s people follow Him and things are good; because things are good, God’s people take their eye off the ball and begin to slip away from their devotion; God’s people get overtaken by enemies; in their desperation, they ask God to rescue them; He does, and they follow Him for a time before things start to slip again. Over and over and over and over again.

Finally, God steps in and breaks the cycle, albeit not in the way His people would have hoped. The once prosperous nation of Israel has split in two. The northern kingdom, called Israel, is conquered by the Assyrians, taken as exiles from their homeland. The vast majority of them never return. A few decades later, the southern kingdom of Judah is conquered by the world power Babylon, forced into exile with their homeland and temple burning as they leave.

Surely, if there was good reason to hate another tribe, to do violence to a people group, Babylon would be it. And yet, that’s not what we see the prophets and patriarchs doing. Even outside their homeland, the devoted remain so, and their devotion brings blessings on their enemies. Daniel, for example, becomes an advisor to numerous kings of Babylon; his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego become high-ranking officials; Nehemiah was a trusted cupbearer for the Babylonian monarch. If you look closely, you can find multiple examples of Hebrews working for the good of the people group that tribalism taught them to hate. Perhaps they were motivated by the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote the following in a letter to Jewish exiles living in Babylon:

“This is what the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles I deported from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them. Plant gardens and eat their produce… Seek the welfare of the city I have deported you to. Pray to the LORD on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.”

God’s devoted children were to remain devoted to Him, no matter where they lived. One sign of that devotion was seeking the welfare of Babylon and praying to the LORD on its behalf. Those prayers worked, for seventy years later, Babylon would be conquered by the Persian Empire. The new king, Cyrus, would not only allow the Jews to return home, but help provide building supplies for the new temple. There God goes again, using outsiders to bring His blessings to the world.

Tribalism would have taught the Jews to hate their Babylonian captors; to plan subversion from the inside; to spit in the face of their kings, and bring all manner of evil and violence against them. Yet God instructs His nation to be a blessing to people who are different from them; to seek their welfare; to pray for them. What mattered most was not skin color, tribal background, or us vs. them. What mattered most was devotion to God.

God’s devoted people—in Babylon and today—remember that all humanity is crafted in His image. They seek the blessing that God wants to bring upon all people. They look for ways to bring outsiders into the family of God. They pray for and seek to bless people who don’t look like them.

THE FINISH LINE: DOES THIS MATTER TODAY?

The Bible in America has a complicated history. Those with political agendas have tried to use it to prop up their beliefs, including slavery and racism. But the Scriptures tell a different story. Even before the time of Jesus, the Bible reinforces the value of humanity, throws punches at tribalism (racism being a form of that), and makes calls for the outsider to be let in on the blessings of God. The Bible is a book of freedom.

That’s why, in the early 1800s, a British Bible publisher printed a very redacted version of the scriptures called The Slave Bible. Used to teach slaves to read, this heavily edited Bible removed the stories of freedom, like the exodus of God’s people from Egypt, and instead emphasized portions about obedience. While Protestant Bibles contain 66 books, the Slave Bible contained excerpts from only 14 books. That’s a lot of freedom left by the wayside. The intent of that edited Bible is clear.

Cherry-picking a verse here or a story there, you may be able to paint a misguided image of God or His people. But when you wrestle with the full extent of scripture, you find a God of creativity, who crafted people of all shapes, sizes, and colors, calling them very good. And when those people ran away from them, He chased them down. He is a God of diversity, love, and freedom.

If you’re taking the time to investigate the scriptures, don’t settle for a redacted one. Fight through the difficult or confusing parts, ask questions, and dig in. I believe you’ll find freedom there that has no place for racism. And we haven’t even gotten to Jesus yet.

If you’re up for another 5K run, we’ll be lacing up our shoes for a jog through how the New Testament approaches racism next. We’ll look at Jesus’ ethnically unpopular decisions, how welcoming outsiders drove the growth of the early church, some confusing things Paul said, and how the end of all stories is one of color.

Grab an orange slice, and I’ll see ya there.

Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...

Discussion Questions

  1. What stands out to you most about this article? Why that? (Noticing what strikes you can be the beginning of hearing from God. Lean into it. See where it goes.)

  2. What has most informed your views about people who look different than you? When you think about your views on racism, inclusion, diversity, and equity, where do most of your perspectives come from?

  3. What is your story of reconciling the Bible and your views about race? Have you ever connected them? How might something from this article change a perspective or prompt a new behavior?

  4. If you’re prompted with an idea of something to do that you think may be from God, do it! If you don’t have any ideas yet, be sure to read Part 2 of this article here.

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Caleb Mathis
Meet the author

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

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