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Toward a Tentative Biblical Theology of Race and Ethnicity

Walter McConnell

Walter has directed OMF International’s Mission Research Department for more than ten years. He has previously served in Taiwan as a church planter and team leader, taught Old Testament, worship, and other subjects in a number of seminaries and Bible schools in Taiwan, Singapore, Ireland, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and served as pastor of the Belfast Chinese Christian Church. Walter has recently published How Majestic is Your Name: An Introduction to Biblical Worship.




Mission Round Table 18:3 (Oct-Dec 2023): 8-19

To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:3.

In writing this paper, I feel a bit like the Apostle Peter who, while trying to row across the lake at night, faced both the impossible wind and the terrifying sight of what he and his fellow disciples took to be a phantom walking toward them across the surface of the water. And though Jesus was there and could enable him to walk on the stormy waves, Peter found it difficult to keep his eyes on the Lord as his context was frightfully distracting. This urges me to start with a prayer that Jesus would help me focus on him as I interact with two complex issues that don’t integrate anywhere near as smoothly as we might like them to. You see, it’s one thing to say that you want to produce a biblical theology of race and ethnicity and quite another thing to do it.

How do you protect yourself from being swallowed up by the waves tossed up by the fierce winds of scholarship that make it difficult to even define what you mean by the terms “biblical theology,” “race,” and “ethnicity”? And how can you do a biblical theology on a theme that had probably not entered the minds of the authors of Scripture and left, at best, a minor impression? And how does one who has not been professionally trained in anthropology and sociology adequately portray how terms like “race” and “ethnicity” are understood by scholars today? I would like to say one does this by keeping his eyes on Jesus, but as Peter has ably modeled, this too can be more easily said than done. This is particularly so as I need to explain my definitions of the terms I will deal with so that, even if others understand them differently, the path I intend to tread through the waves should be clear. My hope is that by turning to the wind and waves of definition I do not lose track of the One who gives faith to those who look to him, and unites them as his people, as that is our supreme need as we address this important and difficult subject.

The winds of biblical theology

I begin by turning my face towards the winds of biblical theology. Though we might like to say that biblical theology is simply the study and presentation of what is revealed in the Bible,[1] a definition this broad does not help distinguish how the discipline differs from textual studies, exegesis, literary and historical enquiry, or other forms of theology. Neither does it get us around the thorny reality that, as Phyllis Trible perceptively noted: “Biblical theologians, though coming from a circumscribed community, have never agreed on the definition, method, organization, subject matter, point of view, or purpose of their enterprise.”[2] As a result, Old Testament theologians describe and use a great number of approaches. In influential works on the subject, Walter Kaiser lists four main types of Old Testament theology, Brevard Childs lists seven models for biblical theology, and Gerhard Hasel summarizes ten different approaches used by modern Old Testament theologians (which he maintains are not mutually exclusive and overlap to some extent).[3] Ralph Smith has synthesized Hasel’s summary to delineate six different approaches he believes should be used in combination in order to deal with all of the theological data found in the Old Testament.[4] More recently, Klink and Lockett have described five approaches to biblical theology while Kim and Trimm highlight seven.[5] It should be appreciated that there is wide acknowledgement that no one approach is sufficient so that modern practitioners use multiple methodologies to develop their Old Testament theology. Even so, the fact that scholars who self-identify as biblical theologians describe their craft in disparate ways, may lead one to question whether biblical theology is even possible. Is the best one can hope for an assortment of “biblical theologies” that reflect the understandings of various groups and individuals throughout biblical history or ancient and modern interpreters?

We should perhaps begin by saying that biblical theology is best understood in contrast with other types of theology.[6] It is, as Barr states: (1) “something that is done by biblical scholars,” (2) “something new, in the sense that it is searching for something that is not already known,” and (3) something “seen as possessing an ecumenical potential” in that all Christian traditions claim that the Bible is the prime source for their beliefs and practice.[7] Ironically, the fact that Christians (not to mention Jews) do not all agree on what the Bible teaches on many issues shows us just how important biblical theology really is and the need for us all to search for “something new”, as Barr’s second point stresses, so that we can discover its real meaning.[8] For, as Barr adds, “Perhaps the various traditional theologies fell into conflict because on the one hand they failed to absorb all the range of biblical material, or on the other hand allowed non-biblical sources, ideas and methods to influence their argumentation? If so, then might not a really biblical theology lead to results that would transcend these differences?”[9] If Barr is correct, a truly biblical theology would draw those who proclaim allegiance to the Bible together as they recognize the true meaning and purpose of God’s holy word. If it were only so easy.

As I see it, the bottom line for doing biblical theology is related to our starting point in asking theological questions. Let me illustrate my point. In doing this, I am not saying that one kind of theology or one direction of questioning is better or worse than another. Each has its own place, and each can be effectively used for understanding the works of God and the needs of the world.[10] A systematic theologian asks questions that are pertinent for his own age, in all of its cultural, historical, ecclesiastical, and philosophical particularity. Systematicians begin with current issues and use the Bible (and other resources) to devise answers that they find satisfactory (or, at least, plausible). Historical theologians pursue their craft in a slightly different direction, by asking questions about the development (or stagnation or disappearance) of particular doctrines through the course of history. The answers they find may explain why Christians (or sub-groups thereof) believe certain things today or they may focus on the understandings of certain groups at some point in history. Both pursuits have their place.

Biblical theologians begin with the biblical text itself, attempting to identify concepts—theological themes—that were of interest to the writers of the Bible and their first readers. Goldingay would thus limit his questioning to: “What understanding of God and the world and life emerges from these two Testaments?”[11] This means that biblical theologians must discern—mainly through inductive and descriptive means—what the Bible was written to say to people in the ancient world and construct a bridge that communicates and applies this message to our world today. As biblical writers could have different interests or perspectives on certain concepts or be writing to people who needed specific teaching, biblical theology notes the progress of redemptive history and how theological concepts developed over the time during which the Bible was produced.[12] Biblical theologians thus seek to discover what themes are important to a particular biblical writer and discern why this may be so. Biblical theology is thus fundamentally a diachronic investigation into the text of Scripture to see what themes it is interested in and to see how those themes develop. And biblical theologians, like all exegetes, need to remember that since the concerns of the biblical writers may have been completely different from ours, we must be careful not to read our ideas into the text or define the words they use any way we want to. The importance of this will be seen below.

The waves of “race” and “ethnicity”

Having cut through the winds of biblical theology (well, at least making a little headway), we need to confront the definitional waves that make “race” and “ethnicity” so difficult to meet head-on. To do this, we need to turn to the discipline of anthropology.[13] Though the word “anthropology” comes from Greek roots—anthrōpos and logia—that mean “the study of humankind,” this discipline was unknown in the ancient world. And while some locate its foundations in the Italian Renaissance,[14] most scholars see it developing during the age of discovery as Europeans came into contact with others who they perceived to be different from themselves. Simply put, “The field of anthropology emerged in Western society in an attempt to understand non-Western peoples.”[15] At its roots, it is therefore inherently Eurocentric. The origins of the discipline greatly impacted its development and findings as nineteenth-century Darwinian concepts held sway. Looking for development in the species, anthropologists described peoples and their cultures in terms of unilinear evolution as being somewhere along the spectrum of primitive to modern. Europeans, who invented the method, unsurprisingly located themselves at the apex of human development—civilized—with other cultures ranging somewhere between savage, barbarian, and civilized.

Stages in human evolution, illustration by David Gifford / Science Photo Library

This is clearly seen in the standard illustrations that accompany the social Darwinian concept of “the ascent of man.” In these pictures, the “modern man” is tall, white, fair-haired, and clearly advanced—out in front. The more primitive people are shorter, darker, and progressively ape-like. This structuring of people and cultures from a Eurocentric and Darwinistic perspective strongly influenced the development of what we would today call ethnocentric or racist attitudes and actions towards others. And since it was described as such in the books, white superiority was accepted as true (at least by some).

Thankfully, the “primitive” (and embarrassing) notions of early anthropology did not last—at least not in the books. As the twentieth century progressed, the discipline developed and many older ideas were replaced. Even so, many anthropologists—known as primordialists or essentialists—continue to ask questions about the biological characteristics of people, their essential qualities. They thus focused on things like skin color, hair color and texture, eye color, facial features, etc., to discern common features that transcended continents or can be minutely localized. Improving on their academic forebears, they added investigations into blood characteristics, genetics, and more. Even so, their fundamental approach identified some human characteristics as fixed from birth and independent from historical processes so that groups can be identified and categorized according to their inherent similarities.

One of the main models used by this method groups people geographically, thus producing the common idea that there are three races—“Europeans”, “Africans”, and “Asians” (otherwise designated “Caucasoids”, “Negroids”, and “Mongoloids”)—that developed in separate geographic regions.[16] While this theory first developed around 200 years ago, subsequent scholars noted the existence of sub-categories across these “races” and the significant overlap that exists between these groups. By reevaluating the evidence, scholars expanded on these three groups, identifying up to around 200 different racial groups. Others, by examining genetic data, have concluded that “Although there are clear observable correlations between variation in the human genome and how individuals identify by race, the study of human genetics challenges the traditional concept of different races of humans as biologically separate and distinct.”[17] Is there, as is popularly stated, “only one race: the human race” or three, five, 200, or more? That professional scholars who are asking this question can come up with such different answers indicates a great divergence in either their philosophical or methodological approaches or both. Either way, it begs the question regarding just how useful this way of dividing up humanity really is. The dangers are heightened when it results in people being pigeonholed due to their race or physical appearance. In the end, the primordialist path is one that many modern anthropologists refuse to travel.

Die fünf Menschenrassen [The Five Races of Man], G. Ellka (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.
Leaving biological and physical questions behind, cultural anthropologists regularly focus on the social worlds in which people live. Due to the direction of their questioning, the groups they describe often bear little if any resemblance to the way biological anthropologists describe the same people. Rather than thinking of “race” as a biological or genetic distinction that unites or separates people, they understand it to be a cultural construct, an ideological way of categorizing people, and thus center their study on people in their cultural settings. The approach will be familiar to many missionaries who have learned and used “participant observation”. By embedding oneself within a target group, a researcher can “observe” their actions through “participating” in their lives and cultures. Observation leads to “ethnographies” that describe a group’s social settings, economic conditions, religious affiliation, political organization, etc.

As research moved from the study of “tribal” populations to more heterogeneous, urban cultures, a change from speaking of “race” to speaking of “ethnicity” became conspicuous in some of the literature. While the term “ethnicity” was rarely used before the 1960s,[18] its popularity rose in the context of “collective identity”—the feeling of “we-ness” shared by a group that may engage in “collective agency” in order to gain group recognition or pursue a goal.[19] Collective identity seeks to answer the question, “Who are we?” But this can only be answered in the light of the questions, “Who am I?” and “Who do I belong to? Who am I part of?”[20]

Whereas biological distinctions were thought to be long-lasting if not unchangeable, collective identity is understood to be relatively short-lived and transient, undergoing continual metamorphoses. In part, this is because individuals may identify with multiple groups at one and the same time, but emphasize a particular group due to prevailing circumstances. Thus, someone could rightly say, “I am an American” or “I am a Chinese American” or “I am Chinese” and be speaking the truth. The differences in the responses may well be due to one’s setting and those with whom one identifies or not. Thus, “I’m not Chinese, I’m Vietnamese” corrects a wrong inference. Similarly, “I’m a born-again Christian” distinguishes the speaker from all non-Christians and those thought to be “liberal” or “folk” Christians or members of what the speaker understands to be a cult. Or two people can be friends at work but enemies once they leave the office because one is Catholic and the other is Protestant and they live in Northern Ireland. This constructivist approach to human groups stresses the “we-they” dualism that is used to describe “our group” as distinct from “their group”, relationships that continually change. From this perspective,

The core of ethnicity is the consciousness and feeling of individuals that they are members of a ‘We’-group, and their behavioral actions in light of this feeling. Ethnicity is a socially grown collective identity, which assumes a common history and origin as well as shared traditions, and claims to define a culture as different from (all) others.[21]

Even so, one can slip into and out of groups, almost at will.

Like different kinds of theologians, primordialist and constructivist anthropologists ask very different questions as they search for different kinds of answers. And while some may advise that we “consider these theories as not competing but, instead, as potentially complementary,”[22] the kind of questions asked naturally produces different answers and results in diverse understandings of race and ethnicity. The ensuing difficulties lead to the claim that “the vast majority of anthropologists have rejected the concept of ‘race’ as a useful scientific concept.”[23] This doesn’t mean that they don’t use the words “race” or “ethnicity”; they do. And it’s not just that people define the terms differently. The bottom line is that speaking about “race” is inadequate because “people use that word in very different ways but assume that they are talking about the same thing,”[24] when they are not. No wonder we are so often at loggerheads when it comes to discussing such potentially divisive ideas concerning race and ethnicity. It is almost like using the term “biblical theology.” Unless you define what you mean when you use the term and (humbly) request that others define what they mean, it is likely that misunderstandings will result.

A biblical vocabulary for humankind

Turning up one’s collar to the wild wind or trying to find refuge from the angry waves is difficult. But when it comes to attempting to do a biblical theology of race and ethnicity, one is battered by both at the same time. In addition to the basic problem of definition is the reality that, strictly speaking, “race” and “ethnicity” are not biblical terms.[25] How does one develop a biblical theology of concepts that are not explicitly present in the Bible as they hadn’t been conceived when it was written? This is another place where one needs to look intently to the Lord for help. And help is there, because even though the specific words “race” and “ethnicity” cannot be found in Scripture, a number of cognate ideas are. It is at this point that we need to consider a number of biblical words that relate to humankind, people, nations, tribes, clans, and language groups. Anyone who studies these in detail will discover that they are frequently used in parallel constructs or clustered together.

The basic biblical terms that can be related to race and ethnicity are as follows:

  • humankind, mankind, man (אָדָם ʾādām; ἄνθρωπος anthrōpos)
  • nation, people (עַם ʿam; גּוֺי gôy; לְאֹם leʾōm [only in poetry]; אֻמָּה ʾummâ; γένος genos; ἔθνος ethnos)
  • language, tongue (שָׂפָת śāpāt; לָשׁוֹן lāšôn; γλῶσσα glōssa; διάλεκτος dialektos)
  • tribe (מַטֶּה maṭeh; φυλή phulē)
  • family, clan, household, kindred (בָּיׅת bayit; מִשְׁפָּחָה mišpāḥâ; מוֹלֶדֶת môledet; οἶκος oikos; γένος genos; πατριά patria)

While each of Hebrew and Greek words has its own semantic range of meanings, there are significant areas of overlap between the meanings of many of these terms. The accompanying diagram shows that various Hebrew terms can be translated as “nation” or “people”.[26] Similarly, “language, tongue” and “tribe” can be used as synonyms for some of these terms.

The Semantic Relationships Among the OT Designations for “Nation”

Since these words can be used to refer to groups of people who share something in common with their own kind and distinguish them from others, they perform a similar function to the words “race” and “ethnicity” though the modern connotations of these words would have been unknown to the ancient users. They are, therefore, our entry point into discerning what the Bible teaches about relationships between peoples, and for this reason they will prove to be the best way to engage a biblical theology of the subject. So, since the Bible wasn’t written to speak directly into modern understandings of “race” and “ethnicity”, we will consider what it says about humankind as a whole and the relationship between groups of people in order to inform our understanding of how God would have us relate to others.

Though our study could address each of the terms listed above, we will limit ourselves to the study of “humankind”, “nation, people”, “sojourner”, and “house”, as these provide the foundational biblical teaching on humanity and human relationships.

Humankind (אָדָם ʾādām; ἄνθρωπος anthrōpos)[27]

The basic Hebrew word for humankind is ʾādām, which occurs more than 550 times in the Old Testament.[28] For the most part, ʾādām is a collective noun (and therefore never occurs in the plural) that can be translated “man” (in the generic sense), “mankind,” “human,” and “humankind.” It also is used for the name of the man “Adam”. The Greek term anthrōpos distinguishes humans from animals, angels, and God but adds little to the concept as developed in the Old Testament.

In many ways, the first use of ʾādām in the Bible sets the stage for our theological understanding of what it means to be human. When God says, “Let us make ʾādām in our image, after our likeness” and then “God created ʾādām in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26–27), it is clear that this initial creation of humans includes every human who would follow. From the beginning, there was no differentiation between races, nationalities, or any other human groupings. As Maass says, “The use of the word ʾādhām in the OT presents one of the strongest evidences for ancient Israelite universalism. In most passages using ʾādhām, including the earliest texts, it is clear that this word is not intended to refer particularly to Israelites, but to all men.”[29] The only point of differentiation was that ʾādām was created as male and female.[30] All humans—men and women, as ʾādām—are created as God’s-image-on-earth to relate to him and to the rest of creation. All humans possess equal rights and responsibilities to rule over creation as his representatives, his regents.[31]

But as the story continues, all people—both individually and corporately—are shown to fall into sin. The man, Adam, and his wife, Eve, are the first to succumb, but not the last.[32] Genesis 6:5 reports that sin was so pervasive just before the flood that “The Lord saw that the wickedness of ʾādām was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” God was so grieved by this universal rebellion that he chose to cleanse the earth through the flood and reset creation so that it could begin again. But even though God set things right, the “children of man” (benê hāʾādām, Gen 11:5)[33] continued to go their own way so that God had to intervene, dispersing them across the earth and confusing their languages (śāpāt, Gen 11:9).

The stories in the early chapters of Genesis describe a reoccurring pattern of sin, judgement, and signs of God’s grace. Though sometimes understood differently, the “Table of Nations” recorded in Genesis 10, which provides a genealogy of Noah’s three sons, should similarly be seen as a sign of grace. It is a promise that the people God has made will spread out into the world to receive his blessings. The problem is that the passage has often been used to identify black Africans as a cursed race for being descendants of Ham. There is, however, nothing in the text that would rightly lead to this conclusion.[34] And though some of the descendants of Ham were African—specifically Cush (Nubia and northern Sudan), Mizraim (Egypt), and Put (Libya)—the Canaanites, Babylonians, and Assyrians were also included among his descendants. It is therefore important to note that it was only Canaan (who was not an African), not all the sons of Ham, who received the curse (Gen 9:25–27).

The Table of Nations notably connects all the descendants of Noah as one people. Each section highlights the descendants of one of his sons, and ends with a refrain that mentions their lands (ʾereṣ), languages (lāšôn), clans (mišpeḥōt), and nations (gôyîm) (Gen 10:2–5, 6–20, 21–31; cf. 32). These are terms that will be repeatedly used in the Bible to unite people as one.[35] Most of these terms are found in God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham and his descendants.

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country (ʾereṣ) and your kindred (môledet) and your father’s house (bayit ʾebîkā) to the land (ʾereṣ) that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation (gôy), and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth (mišpeḥōt hāʾadāmâ) shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:1–3)

Though the term ʾādām never appears in the Abraham accounts, this key passage resounds with other words bearing significant theological weight on our subject—country/land (ʾereṣ), kindred (môledet), house (bayit), nation (gôy), and family/clan (mišpeḥâ). But before looking at some of the other words, we should notice Yahweh’s promise to bless all the nations through Abraham.[36] God’s creational intention was to bless humankind (ʾādām) so that they could “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28). This original blessing was passed on to Noah and his descendants after the flood in almost identical terms.

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered.” (Gen 9:1–2)

Dopo il Diluvio: l’uscita degli Animali dall’Arca (After the Flood: the exit of Animals from the Ark) by Filippo Palizzi (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. Oil on Canvas, 104.5 x 150.5 cm.

These promises are subsequently given to Abraham (Gen 22:17–18), his wife Sarah (Gen 17:16), his descendants (Ishmael—Gen 17:20; Isaac—Gen 25:11; 26:2–5, 12–13, 24; Jacob—Gen 27:27–29; 28:1–4, 13–15; 32:26–29; 35:9–12; Joseph—Gen 48:15–20; 49:22–26), and through them to the world (Gen 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; 30:27; 39:5; 47:7, 10).[37] God’s creational focus on the whole of humankind never ends, even when he is specifically identifying his “chosen people”.

Though God promises blessing to all people, Old Testament universalism should never be thought of in such terms that “everyone will be saved.” Neither Testament supports this idea. The New Testament does it in terms that explicitly use anthrōpos. Thus, Paul distinguishes between the “our outer man” (exō hēmōn anthrōpos)—our physical and moral selves (2 Cor 4:16)—and our “inner man” (ton esō anthrōpon)—our spiritual and immortal selves (Eph 3:16). He further differentiates between “the old man” (ton palaion anthrōpon)—our sinful, unconverted self (Rom 6:6; Eph 4:22; Col 3:9) and the new man (ton kainon anthrōpon)—our renewed self that has been regenerated by Jesus Christ (Eph 2:15; 4:24). And though all humans, from a creational perspective, are equal under God and consist of both the outer and inner man, only those who have been renewed through Jesus Christ become part of his family, the spiritual offspring of Abraham, the ones who receive and pass on the promise of God’s blessing.

The Lord of the Sabbath by Gustave Doré, engraved by Adolphe: François Pannemaker

A final significance is that the one God, in Jesus Christ, became human (anthrōpos). In this way, Jesus identified with us, set us an example, and made it possible for us to be made right with God. His identity was so completely human that people who saw him recognized him as a man—the man born blind (John 9:11), the Jewish leaders who recognized that “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46), the centurion who witnessed the crucifixion (Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47). That the Gospel writers used this term in a context where Jesus being a man is thought to be incompatible with his being God (John 5:18; 10:33) is all the more remarkable. Yet they never downplayed his humanity. Jesus included himself in Old Testament teaching regarding humankind—“The Sabbath was made for man” (Mark 2:27) and “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matt 4:4; Luke 4:4). His standard way of referring to himself was “Son of Man” (huios tou anthrōpou), a phrase that closely identified him with humankind in general but also signified that he fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (cf. Dan 7:13).

Another aspect of Jesus’ identity as a human is purely theological and made through a contrast between “the first man Adam” (ho prōtos anthrōpos Adam—note the echo of the Hebrew for humankind in the name) who became a “living being,” as he was “from the earth, a man of dust,” and passed those traits on to us and “the last Adam” (ho eschatos Adam), “the second man” (ho deuteros anthrōpos) who “became a life-giving spirit,” is “from heaven,” and is the source of our heavenly existence (1 Cor 15:45–49). Similarly, the kenosis passage of Philippians 2:5–8 elevates Jesus to be our example by explaining how he gave up his position as God, made himself as nothing by being born as a man (anthrōpōn), and as a man (anthrōpos), humbled himself even further by dying on a cross. Paul made a further statement that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men (anthrōpōn), the man (anthrōpos) Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). It is only by believing on this man that any human out of all humankind can be saved.

Nation/People (עַם ʿam; גּוֺי gôy; γένος genos; ἔθνος ethnos; λαός laos)[38]

A key part of God’s promise to Abraham was that he would become a great nation. The word gôy, and its more common plural form gôyîm, generally refers to “people” in a group sense, and (though biblical use is not consistent) it is often used for people who are related politically (perhaps, but not necessarily, under a king), come from the same geographical territory, and/or are related by blood. A gôy may also share a common language and worship the same deity. The word ʿam, also means “people”, and probably connotes a closer, potentially blood relationship with others (though as we will see below, this is not always the case). As ʿam sometimes denotes “relatives” (2 Kgs 4:13; Ezek 18:18), it can be used for a segment of a larger group. Both terms are broad in meaning and can be relatively ambiguous. Old Testament authors can thus use gôy and ʿam as synonyms (cf. Exod 33:13; Deut 4:6; Ps 18:44; 105:13)[39] or to distinguish between Israel as God’s people (ʿam) and the nations (gôyîm) who are outside the covenant.

In accordance with God’s promise, Abraham’s descendants are identified as a gôy since they inhabit a land and exhibit a political structure, be it patriarchal, under a judge/chieftain,[40] or monarch. But Israel was not to be a nation like the other nations. They were to be God’s nation. As Israel gathered at Mount Sinai, just before Yahweh gave them the Ten Commandments, he spoke to them through Moses and said: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (wegôy qādôš)” (Deut 19:5–6).[41] By listening to Yahweh’s voice and obeying his covenant, Israel would be a holy, that is, a set apart nation, distinct from those around them. This would do two things for them. First, it would protect them from the surrounding nations that acted corruptly before Yahweh by worshiping other gods. Second, it would allow them to model what a gôy should really be like, and in this way act to bring blessing to the other nations in fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham.

As gôy and ʿam signify limited-sized groups of people, they in some sense correspond to our reference to an ethnic group or nation of people. Their use in the Bible, however, helps us see that God treats the peoples or the nations as part of one humanity to whom he has promised his blessings at creation and through Abraham. This is nowhere better seen than in Isaiah 19:24–25 where the prophet proclaims:

24 In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”

Here, Israel and their almost perpetual enemies Egypt and Assyria are joined together by Yahweh as a blessed triarchy, within which Egypt is specifically referred to as “my people” (ʿammî). That the nations are counted as God’s people is frequently seen in the Psalms.

1 Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! 2 For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth. 3 He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. 4 He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah 5 God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. 6 Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! 7 For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! 8 God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. 9 The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted! (Psalm 47:1–9 ESV)

While one might initially think that the command in v 1 for “all peoples” (cāl hāʿammîm) to clap their hands and shout in praise concerns Israel alone, that interpretation should be quickly abandoned. Twice the psalm declares that Yahweh is the king over all the earth (ʿal cāl hāʾereṣ, vv 2, 7) and it further announces that he “reigns over the nations” (ʿal gôyîm, v 8). Since he is the ruler of all, all people bow before him. Indeed, when we read that “the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham” (v 9), it is clear that the first group is distinct from the second. The “princes of the peoples” (nedîbê ʿammîm) must be from the Gentile nations that join righteous Israel in their worship of Abraham’s God. The blessing that God promised to come to the world through Abraham has come to them. And while we should rejoice that ethnicity is irrelevant when God the king rules over the peoples of all the earth, we should also note that the categories pertaining to the peoples are not reduced to one. The individual nations continue to be recognized in their particularities as people who praise Yahweh along with Israel.

In the New Testament, laos, ethnos, and genos are all used in reference to groups of people. As with ʿam and gôy, laos and ethnos are sometimes used to distinguish between Jews and Gentiles. At other times, they are synonymous. Perhaps the most significant New Testament use of genos, from our perspective, is when Paul addresses the Areopagus and describes the Christian God as one who does not need be served with human hands and quotes Greek poets in order to emphasize that even they knew that “In him we live and move and have our being” because “we are indeed his offspring (genos)” (Acts 17:28). Paul the Jew recognized that he and the Athenians were one family under God, even if they didn’t recognize him as such. This fact, however, did not negate Paul’s identity as a Jew or theirs as Greeks. The identity humans share under God does not negate their national or ethnic identity any more than it does their being male or female, slave or free. Unity and diversity are held in common though not in tension.

Like ʿam, the term laos can be used in the New Testament to refer to the Jews as distinct from the Gentiles, the ethnē. Even so, there are signs that laos can be used for all mankind. This comes to light in Luke’s birth narratives where the angel proclaims that “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people (panti tō laō)” (Luke 2:10). Reflecting on this passage, Marshall concludes that even though “The ‘people’ means Israel rather than the gentiles,” in the context of Luke-Acts, “it is just possible that a wider reference is beginning to creep in, since the message echoes Hellenistic announcements affecting the whole world.”[42] And though Bock insists that laos in Luke 2:10 “is not a statement about both Jews and Gentiles,” but about Jews only, he acknowledges that in Simeon’s prophecy recorded in Luke 2:31–32 laos points to both Jews and Gentiles.[43] So, whether or not we should see a universal proclamation of the coming of the Messiah from the first announcement of his birth, it is clearly in view from the time he was presented at the temple. It is also present in Jesus’ final command to “make disciples of all nations” (panta ta ethnē) where both Jews and Gentiles are in view, so that his disciples would see both groups in their distinctiveness and oneness in needing to be discipled.[44] Rising from this, our acceptance of other people in the world and in Christ should emerge from this biblical understanding of the ethnē as one people made up of many.

Sojourner (גֵּר gēr)[45]

That the “other” can be united with “us” can be further seen in biblical treatment of gēr, the Hebrew word derived from a verb for “to sojourn” that refers to a “sojourner”, “stranger”, or “foreigner”. But a gēr is not just any old foreigner. Usually, he is one who has settled down in the land and become part of it. Thus, after living in Canaan for many years, when Abraham was seeking a grave site for his wife Sarah, he said to the Hittites, “I am a sojourner (gēr) and foreigner among you” (Gen 23:4). Similarly, when Elimelech left Bethlehem during the famine, he “went to sojourn (lāgûr) in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons” (Ruth 1:1). In both cases, these families, after leaving their home countries, became what we might today call “permanent residents” in what had been a foreign land. Some, like Israel in Egypt, could build a diasporic community in their new home. In the case of Elimelech and Naomi, their sons were allowed to marry into the population of their new homeland.

Der Auszug der Israeliten aus Ägypten (Departure of the Israelites) by David Roberts. Oil on canvas, 119 × 212 cm, image by Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0.

Israel’s experience as sojourners in Egypt was to give them empathetic hearts towards sojourners who came to live in their land (Exod 22:21; 23:9; Lev 19:34; Deut 10:19). Indeed, there is good reason to think that a gēr could become a recognized member of the people of God.[46] In Exodus 12, when Israel is given instructions for celebrating the Passover, they are told:

43 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, 44 but every slave (ʿebed) that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. 45 No foreigner (tōšāb) or hired servant (śākîr) may eat of it. 46 It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 If a stranger (gēr) shall sojourn (yāgûr) with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land (keʾezrāḥ hāʾāreṣ). But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. 49 There shall be one law for the native (ʾezrāḥ) and for the stranger (gēr) who sojourns (hagār) among you.” (Exod 12:43–49)

In addition to the Israelites, this passage mentions four different categories of people who are said to have come out of Egypt: circumcised “servants” or “slaves” (ʿebed), “foreigners” (tōšāb), “hired servants” (śākîr), and “sojourners” or “strangers” (gēr). In all likelihood, these categories give us a breakdown of who was included in the “mixed multitude” (ʿēreb rab) mentioned in Exodus 12:38. A crucial distinction is made between the gēr and ʿebed and the tōšāb and śākîr.[47] The ʿebed spoken of here is one who has been bought with money, and, in accordance with the covenant God established with Abraham, had been circumcised (Exod 12:44; cf. Gen 17:12–14). A gēr is an outsider who aligns himself with the community by living with them and worshipping Yahweh as demarcated by the sign of circumcision. These two groups of people can share in the Passover. The tōšāb and śākîr cannot. The first is someone who, though living with the community, has not integrated with it religiously through circumcision. A śākîr is simply a hired hand who apparently is more interested in his daily wage than in the Lord. This distinction opens up an important theological truth. By allowing the “sojourner” and circumcised “slave” to partake of the Passover, the nation of Israel recognizes them to be full members of God’s covenant community. As Hays says:

The presence of other ‘peoples’ or ‘nationalities’ at this juncture of the story has strong implications as to the nature of ‘true Israel’. It also suggests a partial fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: ‘and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed’ (NRSV). Finally, Exodus 12:43–49 indicates that participation in the celebration of Yahweh’s great redemptive act was not based on birth or ethnicity but rather on relationship to Yahweh and his covenant.[48]

This integration of sojourners and circumcised slaves into national Israel is an indication that Abraham really is the “father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4–5) and opens the door for others who are not physical descendants of Abraham to be counted, along with Israel, as members of God’s family. Interestingly, the Bible occasionally spotlights individuals who are joined to the nation, some of whom proved somewhat controversial while others were accepted with open arms. It is worth considering several examples.

  1. Though we often think that Israel unfailingly refrained from marrying outside their own people, the Bible shows that this was not true. Though they did not mother any of the children of promise, Abraham’s wives Hagar and Keturah were not from his people. When Isaac sent Jacob away to Paddan-aram to take a wife from his mother’s brother Laban, he obediently left, and soon met and married both Rachel and Leah. The rivalry between the sisters over having children, resulted in Jacob taking two other wives—Bilhah and Zilpah. As they were servants of Rachel and Leah, it is likely that they were not related to Abraham’s kin, and thus, from the very beginning, “foreigners” were an indelible part of Israel. And though we don’t know the background of the wives of all of Jacob’s sons, Judah married a Canaanite woman named Shua who bore him three sons (Gen 38:2–4). Judah’s eldest son, Er, married Tamar (whose ancestry is uncertain but may well have been Canaanite)[49] but was “put to death” by the Lord due to his wickedness. After Judah’s second born died for refusing to raise up offspring for his brother, Tamar gave birth to twin sons—Perez and Zerah—through Judah. Jacob’s son Simeon is said to have had six sons, and at least the last of whom—Shaul—is said to be “the son of a Canaanite woman” (Gen 46:10).[50] Jacob’s second to youngest son—Joseph—married an Egyptian woman who bore him two sons—Ephraim and Manasseh, who became tribes in their own right. From an early age, the descendants of Abraham included people with bloodlines that could be traced to nations such as Aram, Canaan, and Egypt. It should not be surprising to find others who married foreigners.
  2. Though little detail is given, it seems clear that Moses had two wives. Exactly when he had them (i.e., which order they came in) or if he was married to them at the same time is unknown. His only wife to be named in the Bible is Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest (Exod 2:16, 21), who bore his son Gershom.[51] In addition to Zipporah, Moses had a Cushite wife (Num 12:1). Her Cushite roots are emphasized by being repeated twice. Though some have tried to explain the text differently,[52] the fact that Cush was the land to the south of Egypt and was inhabited by black Africans and the people of Egypt and Cush had a long history of interaction, it is likely that Moses was married to a black African woman.[53] Whether she produced any heirs is never stated.
  3. When the Israelites were about to enter the land, they were commanded to destroy all Canaanites. During the first battle, the whole population of Jericho was destroyed except for Rahab and her family. The text records that she “has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho” (Josh 6:25). Rahab’s salvation clearly came as a result of her faith that Yahweh would give Jericho and the land into Israel’s hands (Josh 2:9–20). And though the book of Joshua says nothing about her marrying anyone from Israel, the genealogy of Jesus records that she and Salmon were the parents of Boaz (Matt 1:5).[54]
    Ruth og Naomi (Ruth and Naomi) by Laurits Tuxen (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons


  4. We earlier mentioned that Elimelech and Naomi went to sojourn in Moab, where their sons took Moabite wives. After the death of her husband and sons, Naomi returned to Bethlehem because she heard that the Lord had visited his people by giving them bread. Though Ruth was encouraged to return to her people and gods, she protested, insisting that “where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). By joining her mother-in-law in Bethlehem, Ruth exchanged being in the position as a sojourner with her. However, after she married Boaz, the people of the town blessed Boaz by saying, “May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman” (Ruth 4:11–12).[55] Ruth, the gēr, became an integral member of the people of Israel, equal to the original matriarchs.

Household (בָּיׅת bayit; οἶκος oikos)[56]

As with many other words, the semantic range of bayit is quite broad, though the basic meaning is “house,” usually distinct from but can include a “tent” (ʾōhel). By extension, bayit can be used for “temple,” “sanctuary,” “shrine” (i.e., “house of God”), one’s personal property (that is, the things kept in one’s house), one’s family (the people who dwell in one’s house), and a dynasty (the house and lineage of a king).

More important for our consideration is its use for the whole tribal or national order, such as the “house of Ephraim,” “house of Jacob,” and even “house of Israel.” Viewed through New Testament eyes, the concept can apply to the whole community of God’s people. Thus, the author of Hebrews compares Moses, who “was faithful in all God’s house [i.e., the people of Israel] as a servant,” to Christ, who “is faithful over God’s house [i.e., all the people of faith] as a son” (Heb 3:5–6).[57] Significantly, in the same sense that the Old Testament viewed all of Israel as the people of God, the New Testament identifies all believers in Christ as the one people of God. Paul thus considers believing Gentiles to be “fellow citizens with the saints” and counted as members “of God’s household (oikeioi),” who are “built together into a dwelling (katoikētērion—notice the oikos root) of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:19–22 NASB). No room remains for treating any member of God’s household differently from another. Racial, social, and economic backgrounds are irrelevant since we are citizens of the same kingdom, members of the same household (i.e., family), and united as the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. And this is all described in plural, not singular, terms that even more clearly united us.

Biblically, it is more important that we unite ourselves with the whole people of God through faith than segregate ourselves according to “pure” bloodlines or political, geographical, linguistic, cultural, or other groupings. Over and over, the biblical message for Israel—as a people—is that those who fail to keep God’s laws will be “cut off”. In some cases, this meant that they would be executed for their sins. At the very least, it meant that they would no longer be considered part of the people of God. Membership in God’s family is based on faith, not blood. This requires that our views on race and ethnicity be radically relativized in the context of faith that fashions our identity as the one people of God.


As I come to the end of this study, I need to ask whether I have made any progress through the billows and storm. I would hope to think so. And yet, as is intimated in the title of this essay, what I have produced is, at best, a tentative biblical theology of race and ethnicity. The major reason for this is, as we have seen, that the word of God is not as interested in addressing issues of race and ethnicity as we might like it to be. Though Scripture acknowledges that differences exist between tribe and tongue and people and nation, between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, it is more concerned that humanity—ʾādām, to use the term that has united us since creation—should experience God’s blessings that were built into the fabric of the universe. Its focus on blessing moves the narrative from the negative impact of sin that causes our relationship with God, one another, and the whole of creation to be turned upside down to showing how God has intervened so that those who come to him in faith can be truly blessed as spiritual descendants of Abraham and fellow-heirs of Jesus Christ. As we catch hold of what this means for us, the categories that can be used to divide us are set aside and we can only work “toward” a theology of race and ethnicity as we pursue the clearer and higher emphases the Bible places on blessing and reconciliation and unity.[58]

According to Paul, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28; cf. Col 3:11). The emphasis on unity and reconciliation is further developed in Ephesians where Paul tells his Gentile friends that although they had been separated from the people of God, they had now been brought near “by the blood of Christ” who broke down the wall of division so that we could become one people who are fellow citizens with each other and all indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Eph 2:11–22). If the Old Testament and New Testament people of God are united with others who share the same faith and the same Spirit, it is imperative that Christians today accept everyone who shares their faith as brothers and sisters—no matter their race, ethnicity, social standing, or gender. Hays rightly says:

The New Testament proclaims that in Christ believers form a new humanity. The old barrier of hostility and division between ethnic groups has been demolished by the Cross, and now all peoples of all groups are to be one in Christ. Our primary identity as humans is to be based on our union with Christ, and no longer based on traditional human sociological connections. Christians of other races are not just equal to us; they are joined to us. We are both part of the same body, united by the presence of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us both. We are also fellow heirs, brothers and sisters of the same family. While there may be practical and sociological reasons for creating and maintaining Churches that are ethnic specific (Black Churches, Hispanic Churches, White Churches, Korean Churches, etc.), this division into ethnically based worshipping communities is contrary to the imperatives of Paul.[59]

And what is true for the American context that Hays writes into, is equally true in the rest of the world. While there may be many pragmatic reasons to plant churches according to the “homogenous unit principle” or something similar, biblical theology demands that all marks of division be cast down so that those who are in Christ by faith are recognized to be, and recognize themselves to be, the one people of God. Not part of the people of God, but the people of God that includes many diverse groups.[60]

The biblical message is that God created all people in his image and that, in Christ, whatever differences developed over time for whatever reasons are demolished. As much as anything else we have seen, the picture painted on the last pages of Scripture showing all the nations worshipping God should move us to receive them as they receive us and as God has received us all—in Christ. As I have written elsewhere:

The scenes described in Revelation 4, 5, and 7 reveal a riot of sights and sounds as God’s worshippers joyfully encircle the heavenly throne to proclaim his eternal praise. The angels, living creatures, twenty-four elders, and the redeemed who come from every tribe and nation and people and tongue worship the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb by their words and actions…. Each group worships God in unique ways that enhance everyone’s experience. And when one group exhausts itself with praise, another steps up to worship God in a totally different way. Significantly, … cultural and linguistic distinctions can be readily discerned. If this is how worship is done in heaven, should we be overly concerned about variations in style or language on earth? Could we not combine a few when we come to meet God? Should we not learn from the worship of others and join them so that we can multiply their praise and ours? When we pray that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” should we not consider how our worship on earth can be done like it is in heaven?[61]

As we focus our attention on the biblical theological truths that humans are one in creation, one in Christ, and one throughout eternity, we should do all we can to put distinctions between race and ethnicity behind us and live in harmonious relationships with everyone who shares our common faith. But however good this may sound in theory, we face winds and waves thrown up by our cultures and personal circumstances that may cause us to fear that we might not make it through. Like Peter who caved in to the pressure brought on by the “circumcision party” and refused to eat with Gentile believers (Gal 2:11–14), we may lose our resolve to accept others in Christ and prove that we are nothing more than hypocrites who delude ourselves. In times like these, we especially need to look to Jesus because he is the only one who can help us keep our heads above the water. When we struggle to accept a coworker who looks different from us or speaks languages that we don’t know or who comes from a different social or educational background, we need to look to Jesus who makes us one. When we find ourselves bewildered that the people we have come to serve do not exhibit the kind of cultural attributes we expect or display the kind of Christian ethics we think they should, we need to seek Jesus who unites us through the same Spirit.

The differences we experience do not negate the fact that since these people are made in God’s image they are one with us. Nor does the unity we share negate the differences we experience. But since God has promised to bless the nations through Abraham and his descendants, we need to see that we are sent to be his means of blessing them and that they are his means of blessing us. Being “in Christ” means that we are bound together as brothers and sisters. And just as brothers and sisters can so easily misunderstand each other, become jealous of each other, or fall into petty fights, we need to look to Jesus because all the theories and postulates we might devise about race and ethnicity can be easily ripped to shreds when we come into contact with real people who we feel are in some way different from us. At such a time, we need to look to Jesus and reach for his hand to help us and the others around us climb into the safety of the boat where we will join those who are our family members through faith and where race, ethnicity, and social backgrounds become irrelevant.


Questions for reflection

  1. How can a better grasp of biblical theology inform your understanding of God’s view of race and ethnicity and help you to put it into practice? How would the kind of questions biblical theologians, systematic theologians, and historical theologians ask impact the way they describe racial and ethnic issues?
  2. Was the approach to anthropology you learned more influenced by essentialist/primordialist or constructivist ideas? What difference would these make in the way you understand different ethnic groups? Do you feel you need to adjust your anthropological thinking about ethnicity? If so, in what way? If not, why not?
  3. What have you learned from the terms the Bible uses for people and nations that will influence your thinking about those you would have considered “other”? How will this new understanding impact the way you treat others? What difference do you think this will make in your ministry?


[1] Thus, broadening Sailhamer’s statement that “Old Testament theology is the study and presentation of what is revealed in the Old Testament.” John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 17.

[2] Phyllis Trible, “Five Loaves and Two Fishes: Feminist Hermeneutics and Biblical Theology,” in The Flowering of Old Testament Theology, ed. Ben C. Ollenburger, Elmer A. Martens, and Gerhard F. Hasel (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1992), 451. See the similar statement made about Old Testament theology by Ralph L. Smith, Old Testament Theology (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 72.

[3] Walter Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 9–10; Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 11–29; Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 28–114.

[4] Ralph L. Smith, Old Testament Theology (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993), 87–91.

[5] Edward W. Klink III and Darian R. Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology: A Comparison of Theory and Practice (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012); Brittany Kim and Charlie Trimm, Understanding Old Testament Theology: Mapping the Terrain of Recent Approaches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2020).

[6] James Barr gives “doctrinal theology and philosophical theology” as potential contrasts. He could, no doubt, add more. Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 1.

[7] Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology, 2–3.

[8] We have no time to survey the associated issue of the extent of the canon and how that impacts biblical theology or the storms that topic can raise.

[9] Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology, 3.

[10] We need to keep in mind that it is not possible to make an absolute distinction between biblical, historical, and systematic theology, in part because they are all used by the same people. Carson’s statement is worth repeating. “To relate the nature and functions of systematic theology and biblical theology respectively proves distractingly difficult because various scholarly camps operate with highly divergent definitions of both disciplines, and therefore also entertain assumptions and adopt methods that cannot be reconciled with those of other scholarly camps.” D. A. Carson, “Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. D. Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Leicester and Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 89.

[11] John Goldingay, Biblical Theology: The God of the Christian Scriptures (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), 13.

[12] Some biblical theologians are quick to point out that biblical authors could articulate different theologies. See Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Theologies in the Old Testament, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002).

[13] This was well noted by Hays. “Developing precise definitions and distinctions of ethnic groups in the Ancient Near East or even within the Hellenistic world can be an even more difficult task, one that falls more properly within the realm of cultural anthropology or sociology than that of biblical theology.” J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Leicester: Apollos and Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 28.

[14] John Howland Rowe, “The Renaissance Foundations of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 67, no. 1 (1965): 1–20.

[15] Raymond Scupin, “Race and Ethnicity: Anthropological and Sociological Perspectives,” in Race and Ethnicity: The United States and the World, 2nd ed., ed. Raymond Scupin (Boston: Pearson, 2011), 4.

[16] Scott MacEachern, “The Concept of Race in Contemporary Anthropology,” in Race and Ethnicity: The United States and the World, 2nd ed., ed. Raymond Scupin (Boston: Pearson, 2011), 37.

[17] The American Society of Human Genetics, “ASHG Denounces Attempts to Link Genetics and Racial Supremacy,” The American Journal of Human Genetics 103, no. 5 (1 November 2018): 636, (accessed 20 December 2023).

[18] Christoph Antweiler, “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective,” in Ethnicity as a Political Resource: Conceptualizations across Disciplines, Regions, and Periods (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2015), 25.

[19] For an introduction to the subject, see David A. Snow and Catherine Corrigall-Brown, “Collective Identity,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd ed., ed. James D. Wright (Oxford: Elsevier, 2015), 174–80.

[20] Though developed along other lines and for different reasons, this identification of one’s self in community with others is reflected by Charles Taylor when he says, “One is a self only among other selves. A self can never be described without reference to those who surround it.” Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 35. Building upon this idea as it impacted her self-identity as a Korean-American growing up in northern Minnesota, Michelle Lee-Barnewall says that “A critical aspect of our identity is formed in community, in relationship with others.” And as she strikingly demonstrates, our relationships within community do not always result in a positive self-image. Michelle Lee-Barnewall, A Longing to Belong: Reflections on Faith, Identity, and Race (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2023), 18.

[21] Antweiler, “Ethnicity from an Anthropological Perspective,” 27.

[22] Snow and Corrigall-Brown, “Collective Identity,” 177.

[23] Scupin, “Race and Ethnicity,” 6.

[24] MacEachern, “The Concept of Race in Contemporary Anthropology,” 34. MacEachern later gives clear reasons why “race” is such a difficult topic to discuss. “Anthropologists working within the different subfields of our discipline have different conceptions of race and the meaning of racial identifications, and like nonanthropologists they sometimes use the term without specifying exactly what they mean.” MacEachern, “The Concept of Race in Contemporary Anthropology,” 35. If anthropologists can’t understand what someone means by “race”, what chance do the rest of us have?

[25] George Yancey notes that “the concept of race did not exist at the time when the Bible was written.” He adds that “If you went back into biblical times and talked about individuals as whites, blacks, or Hispanics, you would likely receive a confused look. God knew the concept of race would eventually develop, but it made no sense to discuss it in the Bible since it was an unknown concept at that time.” George Yancey, Beyond Racial Division: A Unifying Alternative to Colorblindness and Antiracism (Downers Grove: IVP, 2022), 130.

[26] Graphic from D. I. Block, “Nations,” ISBE 3:493.

[27] See Claus Westermann, “אָדָם ʾādām person,” in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (TLOT), ed. Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1997), 1:31–42; Fritz Maass, “אָדָם ʾādhām,” TDOT 1:75–87. Joachim Jeremias, “ἄνθρωπος, ἀνθρώπινος,” TDNT 1:364–67. Though it is not a common use of the word, בָּשָׂר bāśār can be used as a synonym of ʾādhām and thus unite all humanity, particularly in a negative way. See N. P. Bratsiotis, “בָּשָׂר bāśār,” TDOT 2:326–28.

[28] TLOT says 554x, TDOT says 562x.

[29] Maass, “אָדָם ʾādhām,” 83–84.

[30] Contra Phyllis Trible’s claim that God first created a sexually undifferentiated “earth creature,” upon whom he later performed a surgical operation in order to make two. Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress and London: SCM, 1978), 72–73. It is better to say that God’s initial design was to create one ʾādām to be “male and female.”

[31] The interpretive, theological, and practical issues surrounding the concept of “the image of God” are legion. For an introduction to the concept, see Walter McConnell, “In His Image – A Christian’s Place in Creation,” Asia Journal of Theology 20 (April 2006): 114–27. For more information, see James Barr, “The Image of God in the Book of Genesis—A Study of Terminology,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 51, no. 1 (Autumn 1968): 11–26; David J. A. Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” Tyndale Bulletin 19, no. 1 (1968): 53–103; Edward M. Curtis, “Image of God (OT),” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 3:389–91; Gunnlaugur A. Jónsson, The Image of God: Genesis 1:2628 in a Century of Old Testament Research, Coniectanea Biblica: Old Testament Series 26 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1988); J. Richard Middleton, The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).

[32] In addition to recognizing them as a historical couple, the New Testament typologically views Adam and Eve as “everyman” and “everywoman” whose sin impacted all who followed them, so that everyone who was marred by their sin that leads to death have need of the “second Adam” who could bring them life (Rom 5:14–15; 1 Cor 15:22).

[33] Hamilton says that the use of benê hāʾādām “reduces these pretentious human beings to their real size. They are but mere earthlings.” Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 354.

[34] See Hays, From Every People and Nation, 51–56.

[35] See, for instance, Zechariah 8:20–23 that prophesies of peoples (ʿamîm) from many cities (ʿārîm) and nations (gôyîm) coming to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh. Revelation similarly speaks of people coming from every tribe (phulē) and tongue (glōssa) and people (laos) and nation (ethnos) to worship the Lord (Rev 5:9; 7:9; 14:6).

[36] Bauckham states the important truth that “Blessing is a rich biblical notion that has been rather neglected in Christian theology. Blessing in the Bible refers to God’s characteristically generous and abundant giving of all good to his creatures and his continual renewal of the abundance of created life. Blessing is God’s provision for human flourishing. But it is also relational: to be blessed by God is not only to know God’s good gifts but to know God himself in his generous giving. Because it is relational the movement of blessing is a movement that goes out from God and returns to him. God’s blessing of people overflows in their blessing of others and those who experience blessing from God in turn bless God, which means that they give all that creatures really can give to God: thanksgiving and praise.” Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission (Milton Keynes: Paternoster and Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 34.

[37] The theme of promise or blessing is so important in the Pentateuch that David Clines identifies it as the main theme of the corpus, adding that it includes the three elements of posterity, divine-human relationship, and land. David J. A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, JSOT Supplement Series (Sheffield: JSOT, 1978), 29–43. Note that these promises or blessings are not intended for Abraham’s descendants only, but for all people.

[38] A. R. Hulst, “עַם/ גּוֺיʿam/gôy people,” TLOT 2:896–919; Ronald E. Clements and G. Johannes Botterweck, “גּוֺי gôy,” TDOT 2:426–33.

[39] Gôy is also found in parallel with mamlaḥâ (kingdom), mišpeḥâ (family), and leʾōm (people).

[40] Note that the New Jewish Publication Society version of the Hebrew Bible regularly refers to the “judges” as “chieftains.” This is more in character with their role in society than what we usually think of as judges. In the book, only Deborah is said to make judgements for the people in a way that might resemble a modern judge (Jud 4:4–5).

[41] Israel can also be referred to as an ʿam qādôš (Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21, etc.). The distinction between ʿam qādôš and gôy qādôš is not clear and any attempt to differentiate between them would likely be fruitless.

[42] I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, NIGTC (Exeter: Paternoster and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 109.

[43] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, ECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 215–16.

[44] R. T. France notes that while ethnē is regularly used in Matthew for Gentiles, in several passages it clearly includes the Jews among the nations (Matt 24:9, 14; 25:32) as it does here. Though “all the nations” is popularly said to support mission to individual “people groups”, Jesus’ command, in context, unites all groups into the one without dissolving their distinctions. It thus parallels the way Galatians 3:28–29 and Ephesians 2:11–22 treat groups that were historically considered dissimilar to be united in Christ and thus one people.

[45] R. Martin-Achard, “גוּר gûr to sojourn,” TLOT 1:307–10; D. Kellermann, “גּוּר gûr,” TDOT 2:439–49.

[46] Thus, Kellermann says that “under the sign of religious integration the concept develops more and more toward the proselyte, the non-Israelite who becomes an adherent of the Yahweh faith.” Kellerman, “גּוּר gûr,” 443.

[47] The word tōšāb is rarely found in the Hebrew Bible. In some settings, it is fairly equivalent to gēr, though the current setting distinguishes between them in that one is recognized as being part of the community by undergoing circumcision and the other is not because he is remains uncircumcised.

[48] Hays, From Every People and Nation, 69–70.

[49] Wenham and Waltke surmise that she may have been a Canaanite, possibly due to her name which means “palm tree”. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1994), 366. Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 510.

[50] The word “son of” is singular in Hebrew, so grammatically it should refer to the last son only, though it may refer to all of them. As the text never explicitly says so, we would expect that this Canaanite woman was his wife or concubine. If not, he had an illicit relationship with her.

[51] It may be significant that Gershom means “sojourner there”, as Moses was sojourning in Midian at the time (Exod 2:22). As we have seen, sojourners attach themselves to the locals economically and matrimonially.

[52] For different interpretations of the passage, see Philip J. Budd, Numbers, WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), 136. Budd personally accepts that Moses married a woman from Cush.

[53] For a deeper investigation into this relationship, see Hays, From Every People and Nation, 70–81. See also his arguments that Phinehas the priest may have had a Cushite mother as his name means “the Cushite” or “the Negro”. Hays, From Every People and Nation, 81–85.

[54] This does, of course, presume that the Rahab mentioned in Matthew 1:5 is the same as the prostitute spoken of in Joshua. See R. T. France, Matthew, TNTC (Leicester: IVP and Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 74. Note that, at Jericho, Rahab and her family are incorporated into Israel due to her faith while Achan and his family become ḥerem—devoted to destruction—because he disobeyed God’s clear instruction by taking the things that had been proclaimed ḥerem. Those with no blood tie are counted with Israel due to faith and those with blood ties are cut off for their lack of faith.

[55] Note that Tamar, who bore two sons to Judah, is included in this blessing that includes Rachel and Leah, the original wives of Jacob, which shows that she was also a fully accepted member of Israel. Note also that Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—“the wife of Uriah”—were included in Jesus’ genealogy (Matt 1:3–7). Though it is not known whether Bathsheba was originally from Israel or not, her first husband, Uriah, was a Hittite who was an honored member of David’s army. It may be significant that these four women in Jesus’ genealogy, along with his mother Mary, had what can be called unusual relationships with the fathers of their first sons. As the first four were indisputably in the line of the Messiah, Matthew may have intended that anyone who had qualms about the possibility that Mary could bear the Messiah would see the connection. Though not mentioned in Matthew 1:7, the fact that the wife of Solomon’s son Rehoboam was an Ammonite further waters down the blood of the Messiah (1 Kings 14:21, 31).

[56] Harry A. Hoffner, “בַּיׅת bayith,” TDOT  2:107–16; E. Jenni, “בַּיׅת bayit house,” TLOT, 1:232–36; O. Michel, “οἶκος,” TDNT 5:119–59.

[57] For an extended argument, see Michel, “οἶκος,” 125–28.

[58] The use of “toward” in the title is a nod toward the series of books written by Walter C. Kaiser Jr. who used the term to acknowledge that his was not the final word on the subject being addressed.

[59] Hays, From Every People and Nation, 204–205. Millard Erickson rightly discerns that the biblical teaching that removes racial distinction between people should be extended to many other groups. “After examining the origin, purpose, and destiny of all humanity, the characteristics of race, gender, economic status, age, the unborn fetal state, and marital status become incidental to one’s basic humanity. God has regard for all persons. Since God takes that view, it is incumbent upon the believer to adopt a similar view and to practice a godly reverence for all humanity. This is especially true for those who may be subject to discrimination.” Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 494.

[60] This theological truth does not require every congregation to be multicultural. As Jarvis Williams wisely says: “The people of God consist of members from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation. But this does not mean that every church will be multiethnic.” He then adds that “A church should strive to reflect the ethnic makeup of its majority culture and of the demographic in the community in which the church exists. The diversity of a church depends in part on the success of that church’s engagement with its community and its members’ engagement with their neighbors where they live. Christians of color should not go into White churches or White communities that have an all-White leadership and membership and try to compel them to be what they can never be: non-White and multiethnic with diverse people of color. In fact, if Christians of color ignore this advice and proceed in this impossible and fruitless task, they will waste time and energy and will become frustrated and maybe even burned out and bitter. Similarly, Christians in monoethnic communities of color should not try to make multiethnic churches out of monoethnic churches of color if the leadership and ethnic demographic are not conducive to this desire. This too will lead White Christians and Christians of color to frustration, burnout, and bitterness. White churches in monoethnic White communities will always be White churches if those communities are predominantly White. Monoethnic churches of color in monoethnic communities of color will always be monoethnic churches of color if those communities are filled with people of color. And that’s okay! Gospel faithfulness is the goal, not multiethnicity or diversity.” Jarvis J. Williams, Redemptive Kingdom Diversity: A Biblical theology of the People of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 180–81. What is true in the American context is equally true in other contexts.

[61] Walter McConnell, How Majestic is Your Name: An Introduction to Biblical Worship (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2021), 259.

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