Is the Bible racist?

August 02, 2017

Is the Bible racist?

Does God treat all peoples equally, or favour certain racial backgrounds over others? Is there warrant for racist attitudes in the Bible, as is sometimes argued, or is racism condemned? Kirk Patston works through seemingly contradictory aspects of the biblical narrative to find answers.


It seemed self-evident at the time but just irrational years later. My parents knew who was Catholic and who was Protestant. You had to know so that you could throw the rocks in the right direction as you walked home from school. You had to know so that you didn’t save the last dance on Saturday night for someone who was from the other religion. If you weren’t sure you could probably listen for an Irish accent or an English surname. In mid-20th Century Australia, the Catholic-Protestant divide mattered in business relations, in sporting teams and in family life, but it looks perplexingly irrational decades later.

Humans seem prone to categorise people into groups that are like and unlike the self. We notice surnames and accents; we give attention to skin colour and the shape of someone’s eyes. We want to know if the person we have just met is one of us.  And, even though critical thinking in genetics and anthropology is suspicious of the notion of race, we tend to cluster together along so-called racial lines.[1]

Religion gets caught up in the reinforcement and rationalisation of racial discrimination. Irish-English tensions, that might be explained adequately through analysis of geography, politics and economics, are conceptualised around the differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Before long, we start talking about the Irish race and the English race as though it is self-evidently true that people fit in one category or another. The complexities of family trees and migration get forgotten. Similarly, anti-Semitism has sometimes been defended on supposedly religious grounds. There are Jewish-Gentile tensions evident in the pages of the New Testament—an understandable phenomenon as human cultures responded to the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth. Some then conclude that ‘The Jews’ is an expression that refers to all Jewish people, rather than a highly particular group of people in a unique historical moment.[2] It can then follow that the Bible incidentally gets tangled up in racist sentiment. The policies and practices that follow can be devastating. In a similarly disheartening way, apartheid is defended by some on allegedly biblical grounds.[3]

A particularly odious use of the Bible to prop up racism is the misappropriation of a curse on Ham’s son, Canaan, found in the early pages of Genesis. Following the flood story there is a curious incident when Ham looks upon his father Noah’s nakedness. Noah announces the consequences and, intriguingly, the curse skips a generation, perhaps as an anticipation of the later occupation of the land of Canaan.[4]

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said, 

            ‘Cursed be Canaan!

                        The lowest of slaves 

                        will he be to his brothers.’ (Gen 9:24­–25)

Misunderstandings and embellishments across centuries have linked Ham with black skin or with populating the African continent. There is a small but persistent voice amongst Bible readers that claims a biblical justification for the enslavement of African people. After a fascinating historical survey, Yamauchi concludes that the passage from Genesis 9,

has been interpreted by medieval Jews to explain the ‘blackness’ of Africans, and was later used by Arabs, Europeans, and North Americans to justify slavery and until recently by Mormons to exclude blacks from their priesthood. Critical exegesis of the text, however, exposes the fallacy that the ‘Curse of Ham’ has anything to do with judgment on the black race.[5] 

If we think it is self-evident that human hair colour, eye shape, language and surname should make no difference to access to freedom and justice, such reasoning can lead to Christian (or any religious) discourse being held in suspicion.

One might argue that the examples mentioned above represent a misuse of religious modes of thought, but there is still a deeper problem that cannot be ignored. The Bible itself seems to command and defend racist behaviour. Even texts that suggest a value that transcends categories of race draw on racial categories and stereotypes. How can we read these texts rightly?

Racist texts of the Bible

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses addresses the generation of people who are going to move from the wilderness into the land of the Canaanites. They will possess it and begin to live as a new political entity called Israel. This will not be achieved through peaceful negotiation but through decisive violence.

Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. (Deut 20:17)

From a human point of view, there are disturbing moral questions here.[6] One group of people will classify those who live in particular cities, and who can be named as something other than ‘Israel’, as objects of destruction, and claim a divine mandate for doing so. If the utter destruction is not thoroughly effective, Moses makes other demands that will have ongoing consequences for relationships between the people groups. In a manner that also raises ethical questions, Moses tells Israel to hold future generations accountable for the decisions of their ancestors.

No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, not even in the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt, and they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in Aram Naharai  to pronounce a curse on you. However, the LORD your God would not listen to Balaam but turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the LORD your God loves you. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.

Centuries later the people of Israel found their history caught up in the grand movements of the ancient empires of Assyria, Babylon and Persia and a remnant of Israel tried to express its identity. Ezra the priest saw how intermarriage had clouded what it meant to be Israel and offered this command:

Now honour the LORD, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate

yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives. (Ezra 10:11)

To our modern ears, this command seems severe, with unjust implications for families and children. The justification seems xenophobic and racist in a way that is perplexing at best and potentially abhorrent.

We may lessen the offence of these verses by noting that the laws of Moses can be understood to have application in a particular time and place and need to be interpreted carefully. The event in the book of Ezra may be an illustration of moral confusion and uncertainty, perhaps more than it is an endorsement or a normative model. What is needed to make sense of these Old Testament texts is a larger sense of the story that the Bible is telling.

Inclusive texts of the Bible

Described above are violent and divisive laws, but the Bible has much more than this to say about the way God sees people groups, and the way those who follow him should live out relationships across historical, geographical and cultural diversity.

Much of the text of the Bible, all the way from Genesis to Revelation, is an account of how God makes and keeps promises. In Genesis 12 God announced a project to bring blessing to the families of the earth (Gen 12:3). Strangely, his purposes to bless all humankind will come through the blessing that he first grants to only one particular family line: to Abraham and his seed. This is not without precedent, for in the pages of Genesis 1–11 a pattern has already been established that some family lines are associated with the positive work of God, while others demonstrate an escalation of violence and strife. The idea that universal blessing is available through only one family seems paradoxical. It can create an impression of unjustifiable discrimination in the story of the Bible. We experience the Bible as outside of our usual ways of thinking often because the prerogatives of divine grace do not always accord with anthropocentric theories of justice.[7]

From Genesis 12 onwards, the story of the Bible is pulled in two directions at once. There must be a clear line of descendants from Abraham so that this family can function as a blessing point for the world. But we expect to see blessing beyond Abraham’s line. This explains why Moses, Ezra and others can seem too particular in their instructions to Israel. But it also explains why the Bible’s own story of particularity is punctuated by episodes and characters who seem not to fit the very restrictions that story sets up.

The descendants of Abraham eventually become slaves in Egypt and the Bible narrates a wonderful escape for them but takes time to notice that the group was not pure: ‘Many other people went up with them…’ (Ex 12:38). The laws that this new community would live by did exclude some but also made constant reference to the dignity and value of the alien or stranger. Consider the following:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Ex 22:21)

Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt. (Ex 23:9)

The story of Israel shows them embracing Rahab the Canaanite woman, who technically should have been eliminated. Ruth from Moab marries into an Israelite family and, in a development that raises questions about Moabites and the assembly, becomes the ancestor of Israel’s royal family. Kings like David and Solomon who consolidated land and built the temple had Moabite blood in their veins. When the prophet Jeremiah was facing persecution from within the political and religious leadership of his own people, he was given help by a Cushite or Ethiopian man, Ebed-Melek (Jer 38). The inclusion of such episodes destabilises racist stereotypes. The prophets could see where the purposes of God were heading and in Isaiah we find visions such as:

And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD

                        to minister to him,

            to love the name of the LORD,

                        and to be his servants,

            all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it 

                        and who hold fast to my covenant— 

            these I will bring to my holy mountain

                        and give them joy in my house of prayer. (Isaiah 56:6­–7)

Jesus, the Seed of Abraham

The paradoxes of the Abrahamic covenant found their answer in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Apostle Paul makes this point in a wordplay around the fact that ‘seed’ can be both a singular and a collective noun. One way of reading the Bible is to see it as a racist text that grants privilege to the seed—the offspring, the race—of Abraham. Another way of reading the Bible is to see it as a story that comes to a climax in the person of Jesus who is the seed—the true, best, promised descendant—of Abraham. Just as the Old Testament presented Abraham as a conduit of God’s presence and blessing, the New Testament presents Jesus as the fullest expression of this idea.

In his lifetime, Jesus gave attention to Israel. But some could sense that all that he had to offer could never be contained in such a way. A Canaanite woman came asking for a miracle for her daughter and Jesus raised a riddle about whether he should just focus on Israel. In a shocking and subversive way the woman was willing to picture herself as a dog eating crumbs that fell from the master’s table (Mt 15:27). It was a picture of God’s purposes extending beyond Israel. Jesus did not treat her as lesser and her daughter was healed.

Following the death and resurrection of Jesus there is nothing less than an explosion of activity showing the purposes of God for all the nations. On the day of Pentecost the new Christian community finds itself able to speak in many languages; God was eliminating a barrier that had previously reinforced racial distinction (Acts 2). A leader from Ethiopia became a Christian (Acts 8:26ff). The gospel spread into Europe, and Paul made the revolutionary claim that humanity’s hope is found as people join their lives to Jesus by believing in him. This faith in Jesus is primary and other barriers between human beings are relativised. He writes:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28).

Given such a radically inclusive vision, it is fitting that the final book of the Bible pictures a throne room in which Jesus receives worship from people of every tribe and nation (Rev 7:9).

Historians will inform us that Jesus was a Jewish man. Christianity can be analysed as a Jewish sect that evolved into a Gentile religion that turned against the Jews and other non-Europeans. But the purely historical account misses something. While historically particular, Jesus opens up access to God for all kinds of people. The Christian message should undermine the assumptions of racism. Perhaps you have heard the expression, Jesus is a black woman.[8] It’s a fanciful overstatement but it signals something about the fruit that grows from the true seed, Jesus.


Rev. Dr. Kirk Patston lectures in Old Testament at Sydney Missionary and Bible College.


[1] Michael James, ‘Race’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edn), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Accessed 22 June 2017.

[2] James W. Voelz, ‘Anti-Semitism in the New Testament: Is It a Problem of Semantics?’. Concordia Vol 24, 1998, pp121–129 and Peter M. Marendy, ‘Anti-Semitism, Christianity, and the Catholic church: Origins, Consequences, and Responses’. Journal of Church and State Vol 47, 2005, pp289–307.

[3] The policy of Apartheid articulated in 1945 referred to the boundaries ascribed to different nations in Deuteronomy 32:8 and Acts 17:26. See Edwin M. Yamauchi, ‘The Curse of Ham’. Criswell Theological Review Vol 6, 2009, p57. The Bible has continued to influence South African discourse on race. See Jeremy Punt, ‘Post-Apartheid Racism in South Africa: The Bible Social Identity and Stereotyping’. Religion and Theology Vol 16, 2009, pp246–272.

[4] J.Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race (IVP/Apollos, 2003), pp55–56.

Another possibility is that Noah wishes to give Ham a troubled experience of being a father since he has treated his own father with so little respect. See Yamauchi, op. cit., p48.

[5] Yamauchi, p60.

[6] See Stanley Gundry (Ed.), Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003).

[7] The God of the Bible makes the perplexing claim that he loved one brother, Jacob, and hated the other, Esau (see Mal 1:2 and Rom 9:13). The stark language highlights that while God is under no obligation, he can freely choose to bless Jacob.

[8]; Both accessed 24 May 2017.

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