RACE — A group of humans possessing characteristics passed down genetically that are sufficiently recognizable for distinguishing between groups. Such characteristics may be physical, including such external and visible features as height, color of hair, kind of hair, and skin pigmentation. Others may be more subtle and involve such matters as blood types (O, A, B, AB). It is unlikely any one individual ever possesses all of the characteristics or traits that mark his or her race.
Although the only reference to “race” in the NKJV is Zechariah 9:6, and the subject of race is not developed in any comprehensive way in the Bible, various passages of Scripture have often been used to promote racial prejudice. Ranging from relatively harmless to extremely vicious, they tend to cluster around the early chapters of Genesis. It has been suggested, for example, that the stories of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2–3) apply only to Caucasians. Others have argued that Cain was the black ancestor of the so-called Negroid stock, a theory that plays into the hands of racists (in the light of Cain’s sinful behavior; see Gen. 4:1–15). Still others have proposed the especially reprehensible idea that “(hu)man(kind)” in Genesis 1 refers to members of the Caucasoid race and that “beasts” in the same chapter refers to members of the Negroid race, thus giving aid and comfort to those who might wish to exercise dominion over their fellows since—by definition—“beasts” are subhuman. Needless to say, none of these theories is worthy of adoption—or even consideration—by serious students of Scripture.
An equally false theory, however, has unfortunately gained popular belief among some Bible readers. They have understood Noah’s curse on Canaan (Gen. 9:25) and his blessing on Shem and Japheth (Gen. 9:26–27) as providing adequate justification for the enslavement of blacks by whites. The theory is usually connected to the possibility that the Hebrew word “Ham” (the father of Canaan) means “black.” But the problems with this line of argument are many: (1) The proper name Ham may very well not mean “black” at all. (2) Even if it does, Noah’s curse is not against Ham but against his son Canaan. (3) All known peoples grouped under the name of “Canaanites” (descendants of Canaan) were Caucasoid, not Negroid. (4) Nothing in the text of Genesis 9 indicates that the curse was lasting and could be expected to surface again thousands of years after it was originally uttered. (5) Noah’s prediction that Canaanites would some day be subservient to S(h)emites was adequately fulfilled in, for example, Joshua 9. Because the inhabitants of Gibeon and other cities (Josh. 9:17) had “worked craftily . . . and pretended to be [peace-loving] ambassadors” (Josh. 9:4), Joshua said to them, “You are cursed, and none of you shall be freed from being slaves—woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God” (Josh. 9:23). In other words, Noah’s curse in Genesis 9 was part of the Lord’s overall strategy of subduing the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua and the armies of Israel.
In addition, nowhere in the Bible is dark skin a sign of inferior status. Job’s skin became black as a result of his illness (Job 30:30). Although the Shulamite is “dark,” she is none the less “lovely” (Song 1:5). Lamentations 5:10 states: “Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine” (KJV). And as far as Jeremiah 13:23 is concerned, John Calvin notes appropriately that “learned men in our age do not wisely refer to this passage when they seek to prove that there is no free will in man; for it is not simply the nature of man that is spoken of here, but the habit that is contracted by long practice.” To put it in the vivid imagery of the text itself, it is no more possible for people who are accustomed to doing evil to then suddenly start to do good than it is for an Ethiopian to change his skin color or a leopard to change its spots. Just as there is nothing inherently evil in the color of the leopard’s spots, so also there is nothing inherently evil in the color of an Ethiopian’s skin—whatever that color might have been. The subject of Jeremiah 13:23 is not skin color but the extreme difficulty of altering ingrained habits.
If the Bible speaks anywhere of the origin of what we would today refer to as “races,” it is in Genesis 10 (often called the Table of Nations). In that chapter the peoples of the Biblical world (basically the eastern Mediterranean basin) are divided on the basis of their descent from one or more of Noah’s three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth). Since the Hebrew word for “son” can also mean “descendant” or “successor” or even “nation,” and since the word “father” can also mean “ancestor” or “predecessor” or even “founder,” we should not be surprised that some of the “sons” listed in Genesis 10 are in fact ethnic or tribal groups (see Gen. 10:13–14 and especially 10:16–18). As it turns out, therefore, the Table of Nations is a kind of literary map of the ancient Near East. The “sons” of Japheth (10:2–4) inhabited the territories north of Canaan and also lived in the maritime regions of southeast Europe. The “sons” of Ham (10:6–19) settled down in Canaan and along the southern shores of the Red Sea (including northeast Africa, notably Egypt). The “sons” of Shem included the Hebrew people (the “children of Eber,” 10:21) and other S(h)emitic peoples such as the Assyrians, Arameans and Arabs (10:22–30). They occupied large tracts of territory in western Asia.
It is important to observe that the three main divisions of peoples in the listing of nations (Gen. 10:32) are not always (or only) racial in origin. With respect to the “sons” of Ham, for example, we are told that they were separated out “according to their families, according to their languages, in their lands and in their nations” (10:20; see similarly 10:5, 31). “Families” is an ethnic term, “languages” is a linguistic term, “lands” is geographic, and “nations” is political. It is clear, therefore, that several criteria were used in describing the “ancestry” or location of this or that group of people. This may help to explain why a few of them, such as Sheba (10:7, 28) and Havilah (10:7, 29), are listed more than once. Perhaps, in one case, the division was based on ethnic or linguistic considerations while in another case a geographic or political concern was most important. It is worth noting that skin color and other “racial” characteristics are totally absent from the Table of Nations.
Conveniently summarized in the genealogical lists of 1 Chronicles 1, the total of nations is seventy, a number that often symbolizes completion: 14 from Japheth (1 Chron. 1:5–7), thirty from Ham (1:8–16), and twenty-six from Shem (1:17–23). Before the Israelites occupied Canaan, seven (again, a number signifying completion) groups of people inhabited it: Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, Hittites, Hivites, Jebusites, and Perizzites (Deut. 7:1; Josh. 3:10; 24:11). Sometimes the list is reduced to as few as two (Gen. 13:7; 34:30; Judg. 1:4–5) or expanded to as many as ten (Gen. 15:19–21)—another number often symbolizing completion. Israelites sometimes intermarried with people from one or more of those nations (Gen. 34:2, 9, 16, 21). Since all members of the human race are of the biological species Homo sapiens, such intermarriage is not wrong in and of itself. But since marrying into a foreign tribal group implied accepting that group’s religion, the people of God were warned not to do so. Indeed, Nehemiah called curses down on a number of Jewish men in his day because they had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab (Neh. 13:23–25). He reminded them that King Solomon had committed a grave error in this regard: “Pagan women caused even him to sin. Should we then hear of your doing all this great evil, transgressing against our God by marrying pagan women?” (13:26–27). The fact that the women were foreign, or of another racial or ethnic stock, was not the issue. The sin was in marrying someone who was “pagan.” In short, no Old Testament text should be interpreted as condoning racial prejudice or declaring any one “race” to be inherently inferior to any other.
The teachings of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament are equally clear. Christ died to redeem everyone, and the gospel is to be “preached in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:46–47). God loved all the people in the whole world so much that He gave His Son for them (John 3:16). Although in Jesus’ day Jews had “no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:4), He made a special effort to minister to the needs of a Samaritan woman (4:4, 10–26). Christ draws all people to Himself without regard for race or nationality (John 12:32). The distinguishing mark of true disciples is love for every believer, regardless of race or color (John 13:34–35). No ethnic group is inferior to any other (Acts 10:28). All nations have a common origin and constitute a single human family (Acts 17:26). There is no partiality with God (Acts 10:34–35; Rom. 2:11), and we must follow His example (James 2:1). Diversity in the church, the body of Christ, is part and parcel of its unity (1 Cor. 12:12–20), and each member of Christ’s body, however weak or unpresentable, depends on all the others (12:21–27). Our unity in Christ transcends all false distinctions, whether ethnic, social, or sexual (Gal. 3:28). The blood of Christ abolishes any barrier that would tend to pit one group against another (Eph. 2:13–17; Col. 3:9–11). When the redeemed people of God stand before the throne and the Lamb, they will constitute “a great multitude which no one [can] number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues” (Rev. 7:9).
Minority racial groups can be brought into the mainstream of public life only if and when groups that are in the majority welcome them to do so. Discrimination against minorities takes away from them the right to own and possess. Segregation takes away from minorities the right to belong. Stereotyping takes away the right to be what they are naturally and culturally. Racist actions spring from racist attitudes, and therefore people of good will on all sides—members of majority and minority groups alike—must rid themselves of every form of racial prejudice, whether blatant or subtle. Because racism is sinful, it must be rooted out wherever God’s people harbor it or find it. It has no place in any community of believers. It is sanctioned neither by common sense nor by Holy Scripture.
Christians of every racial stock and ethnic group must learn—and soon—to worship together, to study together, to pray together, to have fellowship together, to live together in peace and harmony. Since we have already been reconciled to God through Christ, we must now get on with the business of becoming reconciled to each other. The same God who has committed to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19) has also given to us the ministry of reconciliation (5:18)—first to Himself, and then to one another. It is not enough for us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. We must also take the second step: We must be willing—indeed, eager—to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mark 12:30–31).
Ronald F. Youngblood, general editor; F.F. Bruce and R.K. Harrison, consulting editors, Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary: An authoritative one-volume reference work on the Bible with full color illustrations [computer file], electronic edition of the revised edition of Nelson’s illustrated Bible dictionary, Logos Library System, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson) 1997, c1995.