Racism in the Bible

When Jesus refused at first to grant the Canaanite woman’s request to heal her daughter, was he giving in to racist impulses, and then learning a lesson from the woman? Or was he trying to teach his followers a lesson all along? Both interpretations are valid.

On Sunday evening, surprised to find ourselves locked out of Viking Union, EPIC punted and met in a lounge on the second floor of Nash. Many thanks to Emilie Han for securing the room!

We talked about racism in the Bible, specifically following the contentious relationship between the Israelites and the Moabites through Genesis 19:30-38; Numbers 25:1-9; Deuteronomy 7:1-6; Ezra 9-10; the Book of Ruth; and Matthew 15:21-28. By Jesus’ time the Moabites were no more, but the descendants of these and other ancient, non-Jewish people were still a thorn in the side of the people of YHWH.

It is especially fascinating to read Ezra 9-10, in which the Israelites repent for the horrific sin of intermarrying with Moabites, and then to read the Book of Ruth, a short story in which a Moabite woman becomes the grandmother of King David. Is David’s supposed ancestry literally factual and revealed through a story contemporary with his reign (around 1000 B.C.E.)? Or could Ruth’s story have been an attempt in Ezra’s time (over 500 years later) to set a more compassionate story alongside the culture’s prevailing racism, which the people’s leaders truly believed was sanctioned by God? Scholars aren’t certain which is more likely, but both possibilities are provocative.

We talked about the ways that people throughout history have dealt with people nearby who seemed threatening to them, and we named genocide, enslavement, deportation, segregation, and assimilation as solutions that employ racism, all of which are inadequate to our call to be children of God living together in harmony. We talked about economic tolerance, that is, allowing those who are different to exist only because we help each other prosper financially. Does such a philosophy live up to God’s dream for our world? Finally, we wondered about the difficulty of actual diversity, of living side by side with people who are different from ourselves. How new is this idea? To what degree is it possible in this world? How can we help make it happen in our own lives?

One thing that has always struck me is that, although it is the definite chronicle of Jewish history, most of the Bible’s narrative drive comes from the Jews’ failure to do what God asks of them. How many other cultures in our world so carefully preserve their failings, spotlighting the ways they have fallen short? How many other cultures even resist the temptation to whitewash their legacy?

How about you? Do you carefully hide the ways you have screwed up, or do you shine a spotlight on them in order to learn from them? If we love and trust God to lead us, we can be assured that we are not irredeemable. Indeed, the Jewish story is that God has created a people to be a blessing to all the peoples of the world, despite any and all flaws, never giving up on this special relationship. And the Christian story is that we fallen, flawed people have already been redeemed through Jesus Christ, and that the degree to which we fall short is as nothing compared with God’s never-ending love and mercy. That’s some incredibly Good News.


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