Awakened Church: Race Relations in the Pentateuch and Hermeneutical Interaction with Woke Church
When it comes to discussions on race relations, sides are quickly chosen, and the battle lines are drawn. Each side is ready to do whatever it takes to destroy the other. While this reaction is expected in the broader culture, unfortunately it is true in the Church as well. To make matters worse, the battle lines are not always drawn between exegetical differences, but rather between right and left politics.
It is true, as is quickly pointed out by the right, that the Social Justice Movement is fraught with hermeneutical issues. But the truth is, the exegesis on the right seems more concerned with tearing down the left rather than comprehensively understanding social justice. And in the end, they neglect to hear the cries of their brothers and sisters.
Eric Mason cries out to the Evangelical Church in his book Woke Church. He points out that the Church is “regeneration-focused in a way that ignores the outworking of new life in the world. Historically, when it comes to race and justice, conservative evangelical Christianity didn’t have a theology by and large that moved them toward activism.” This lack of a positive theology of social justice must be met. And in a small way, it is the purpose of this paper to explore the Pentateuch in order to build a theology of God’s laws concerning racial relations.
The reason I chose the Pentateuch is that I am operating under the assumption that the commands of God given in the Pentateuch illustrate God’s ideals for a fallen society. Israel was God’s unique society apart from the other countries of the world (e.g., Babylon and America). Because of this, some of the laws were specifically directed to them. However, the general principles of the laws can be applied to other nations as well. For example, Obadiah and Nahum are prophecies based on this law that were directed to other nations. In addition, there are large sections of the other prophets that directly address the nations. Thus, it is appropriate to apply the Law to other nations. And whatever information may be gleaned from the law can be useful for American society today.
The focus of this paper will be ecclesiological. Most of the discussion will not be about societal impact, even though this is warranted. The political and sociological issues are far greater than what can be sufficiently addressed in an essay. Rather, it will be on how the church should approach racial relations.
For the purposes of this paper, race is viewed as “a group of people belonging to the same family and descended from a common ancestor; a house, family, kindred.” In this context, race is equivalent to ethnicity. This is important because the Bible does not have the American concept of race (e.g. White, African American, or Hispanic). But it does address ethnic minorities in a way which approximates the American concept of race.
While there are many different perspectives to analyze racial relations in Israel, I will choose only two. First, I will consider several topics from Genesis 1-11 that establish a universal view of ethnicities. Second, I will explore the rest of the Pentateuch from the point of view of the גֵּר, stranger. The laws and customs regarding the stranger are the best information concerning ethnic minorities in Israel.
Genesis 1-11: Foundational Equality among Men
Three concepts must be addressed regarding racial relations. First, the creation of humanity in the image of God sets forth the equality of everyone. Second, the creation blessing sets the equality between ethnic groups. Third, the curse of Ham is an important digression because theologians have extensively abused the interpretation for racist ends.
The Imago Dei
When God created the world, he made male and female “in his image” (Gn 1:27). Summed up in these two people is the whole of humanity. This implies that all people, no matter what their genetic code, are made in the image of God. Through his image, God infused into all people dignity and respect because all are blessed with the dominion and subjugation of the earth (Gn 1:28).
The Creation Blessing
Genesis 1:28 is what is commonly called the “creation mandate.” This label, however, is probably inaccurate. It should be called the “creation blessing.” First, the term mandate idea comes from the imperative verbs. But imperatives and jussives are often part of blessing formulas as well as commands (cf. Gn 27:19). Second, the genre of the text is clearly stated by the term blessing. Third, this parallels the blessing God gave to the animals (Gn 1:22). If this were a command, it seems odd that God would lay it on animals who do not have the moral capacity to be obligated to a command. But if this is a blessing, then it is something that the animals will do. In this way, Genesis 1:28 is a blessing not a mandate. The force of this passage “is not a command that Christians need to obey. Rather, it is a blessing that humans cannot avoid.” Within this creation blessing, the phrase “fill the earth” necessarily implies the development of ethnicities. Ethnicities develop by the very fact that people groups are separated by each other. Relative social isolation because of geographic limitations means that each group will develop differently.
The tower of Babel account furthers this point. Humanity in its sin rejected the blessing from God. They built a city so that they would not be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gn 11:4). They denied the diversity that God programmed into humanity. But God was determined that his blessing would be carried out. For this reason, he broke up the people by confusing their language (Gn 11:9). And the direct result of the scattering was that ethnicities were developed (Gn 10:32, cf. Gn 10).
From this data, we can conclude that if diversity is inevitable when people are scattered, then God must have known this beforehand. And if God foreknew this and he still gave the blessing anyway, then ethnic diversity is part of God’s blessing. And since this blessing came in God’s original creation, ethnic diversity must be a part of God’s good creation.
The Curse of Canaan and the Conquest
Genesis 9:25 is perhaps the single most misinterpreted passage which has led to the destruction of many human lives. The text reads: “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” The white supremacists argued that the word cursed is a judicial decree against Ham and all his descendants. This curse means that all of Ham’s posterity should be slaves. The critical error in this argument is that the curse is not on Ham, but on Canaan. Only the Canaanites were cursed in this way, not all Hamites.
The purpose of Genesis 9:18-29 is only hinted in the initial narrative. When Moses compiled this story from Israel’s history, he made two editorial comments to indicate his purpose. In verse 18, he says, “And the sons of Noah were Shem and Ham and Japheth (And Ham—he was the father of Canaan)” (personal trans.). Moses singles out Ham because of his son Canaan. He makes a similar statement in verse 22. If Moses compiled Genesis during the wilderness wanderings, then it is reasonable to assume that he included this passage to justify the conquest of Canaan.
While Moses does not refer to Genesis 9:25 in later texts, he does list Canaan and his descendants in several conquest passages. These passages are limited to this family tribe (not to any other sons of Noah or Ham), so it seems reasonable to connect these passages together. The first such list is Genesis 15:18-21. God makes a covenant with Abraham to give him the land. He defines the boundaries from the Nile to the Euphrates. But then he adds that he will give “the Qeynite, and the Qənizzite, and the Qadmonite, and the Ḥittite, and the Pərizzite, and the Rəphaˁim, and the ˁemorite, and the Kanaˀanite, and the Girgašite and the Yəbusite” (personal trans.) Five of the names (Ḥittite, ˁemorite, Kanaˀanite, Girgašite, and Yəbusite) are listed in the genealogy of Canaan in Genesis 10. The other names do not appear in the other genealogical lists. It is reasonable to assume that they belong to Canaan’s line along with the others.
There are several things to note about this passage. First, each word is a direct object of the verb נָתַתִּי as signified by the אֶת particle. This indicates that the people, in addition to the land, will be given to Abram. This may be an indication of the fulfillment of Noah’s curse on Canaan—that these should be slaves to Shem. Second, in this passage there is no declaration of total annihilation. Verse 16 says that the Hebrews would “come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete.” Based on Genesis 9:25, the assumption should be in Genesis 15:16 and following that the Canaanites will be slaves to the Hebrews (the annihilation passages come later). Third, also from verse sixteen, the sons of Canaan are not judged just because of the curse laid on Canaan but also because of their own sin. Fourth, the covenant does not absolutely exclude Canaanites from becoming part of the covenant community. Several Canaanites later became a part of Israel. Women could marry into the community. And men, like Uriah the Hittite, could voluntarily join the community.
Several other significant passages for this discussion appear in the covenants God gave through Moses. The first covenant appears in the Book of the Law, Exodus 23:23-24, 28-33. God promises that his angel will go before Israel to destroy the Canaanites. The responsibility of the Hebrews was to destroy all religious objects in the land. He further adds that they “shall not make with them and with their gods a covenant” (v. 32). God connects the people of the land with their cult so intrinsically that the gods and the people are one group. To make a covenant with the people is to make a covenant with their gods. This is further expounded in Exodus 34:10-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-11. God repeats the command not to covenant with the Canaanites and to destroy their cult. Then he adds that this prohibition includes marriage. The reason for this is that the women would cause their “sons also [to] prostitute themselves to their gods” and “would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods” (Ex 34:16, Dt 7:4). Finally, Deuteronomy 20:16-18 commands that “anything that breathes” should be killed so that Israel would not follow “all their detestable things which they have done for their gods.” The ultimate reason was so that they would not sin “against the Lord.” In these passages, the “sin of the Amorite” was so much that there was nothing redeemable in them. And so, the curse of Canaan moved from simply slavery to utter destruction.
In sum, the destruction of these people is not based on their ethnicity but on their cult. In other words, it was not an ethnic cleansing but a religious cleansing. Why, then, do the passages mention the ethnic groupings so often? The answer is simple. In that time as well as ours, religion was closely tied to one’s ethnic identity. If a person rejected his/her gods, it was tantamount to rejecting his/her ethnic identity.
The cases of Ruth and Rahab support this point. Ruth denounced her people and her gods so that she could join Naomi’s people and God. While she maintained her genetic distinction as a Moabitess, she became an Israelite in her identity. Also, Rahab rejected her Canaanite identity, although not stated as clearly as Ruth. When she helped the spies escape, she said, “The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below” (Jo 2:10). Because of her traitorous actions toward her ethnic group and her declaration of faith, she and her clan could live “in the midst of Israel” (Jo 6:25). Because these women had denounced their ethnic/religious commitment, Salmon and Boaz were right in marrying these foreign women despite God’s prohibition. And further, God blessed them by putting them into the messianic line (Mt 5:5).
Therefore, we can conclude that God was not concerned with the genetics of the individuals but with their religious affiliation. The attempt to link the curse of Ham with the slavery of African Americans is unbiblical. The curse of Ham was only on Canaan and was fulfilled in the Israelite conquest.
. Eric Mason is one of the leading black Evangelical leaders on race relations. Eric Mason, Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice (Chicago: Moody, 2018), 37.
. Oxford English Dictionary, Online ed., s.v. “Race.”
. John H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 38.
. Brian Collins, e-mail to the author, November 16, 2017. Cf. Brian Collins, “Kingdoms and Covenants: Evaluating David VanDrunen’s Two Kingdom, Natural Law Approach to Culture” (paper presented at the Bible Faculty Summit 2015, Central Baptist Seminary: 2015), 5.
. This passage has several logical difficulties. For example, why was Canaan cursed when Ham was the sinner? There are several reasonable answers to this question. My goal is not to solve these questions, but simply to operate on the text as it stands. To fill in the gaps of the text or to argue for a composite authorship is speculation. An example of this speculation: E. A. Speiser, Genesis, vol. 1, The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Double Day, 1979), 60–3. Hamilton deals with these problems sufficiently: Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 469.
. Josiah Priest, Slavery, As It Relates to the Negro, or African Race, Examined in the Light of Circumstances, History and the Holy Scriptures; with an Account of the Origin of the Black Man’s Color, Causes of His State of Servitude and Traces of His Character As Well in Ancient As in Modern Times: With Strictures on Abolitionism (Albany: C. Van Benthuteen and Co., 1843), 83–84. This view was purportedly the view of Bob Jones III. In an interview with Robert Sherrill, Jones stated this:
“‘But now understand this. God’s ways are not man’s ways, see, and man in his condition can’t see and will refuse to accept the judgment of God. Now, very frankly. and I don’t think there is any way around it—and it’s been the position of most conservative Bible scholars—that Ham and the Canaanites. the sons of his son Canaan, were cursed of God because of their indiscretion and sin and looking at their father naked when he was drunk after the flood and mocking him. God had blessed Ham. Seth and Japheth. the sons of Noah. He couldn’t bless them and then turn around and curse them. His dealings with men are consistent and just, so he cursed one of the sons of Ham—Canaan—and he decreed that he would be a servant’s servant.’
[The interviewer] asked if that wording is in the Bible.
‘Yes, sir. “Servant’s servant” is in the Bible, 20th chapter of Genesis. I think. Until we have our redeemed, supernatural bodies in Heaven we’re not going to be equal here, and there’s no sense in trying to be. Here’s what I say. The Negro—and I’m not, it’s not my own feeling—hut a Negro is best when he serves at the table. when he does that, he’s doing what he knows how to do best. And the Negroes who have ascended to positions in government, in education. this sort of thing, I think you’ll find, by and large. have a strong strain of white blood in them. Now, I’m not a racist and this school is not a racist institution. I can’t stress that enough. But what I say is purely what I have been taught, and what I have been able to study in the teaching of the Scripture.’” Robert Sherrill, Gothic Politics in the Deep South: Stars of the New Confederacy (New York: Grossman Publishers, 1963), 228.
This view, however, seems to have gone by the wayside. Modern white-supremacists, such as those in the Kinist movement, do not use this passage to advance their argument. Davis Carlton states: “I’m certainly not convinced that the curse of Canaan was the origin of the black race, nor do I know of any Kinist who would dogmatically assert this, much less as a critical or foundational issue.” Davis Carlton, “Kinist Orthodoxy: A Response to Brian Schwertley, Part 1,” accessed December 7, 2019, https://faithandheritage.com/2014/12/kinist-orthodoxy-a-response-to-brian-schwertley-part-1/.
. This list is unique among all the other boundary lists in the OT in that it mentions the people as the direct object, and not the land. It is further unique in that it is longer (ten names) than all the other lists (five-six names). There are also three names (Qeynite, Qənizzite, and Qadmonite) which are rare if not missing from the other lists. The assumption on the part of most commentators is that the people on the list are metonymy for the land (e.g., Zecharia Kallai, “The Patriarchal Boundaries, Canaan and the Land of Israel: Patterns and Application in Biblical Historiography,” Israel Exploration Journal 47, no. 1/2 (1997): 74; Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis בראשית, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 117; Sailhamer, “Genesis,” 380. While the land is in view (v. 18), it seems the author is drawing attention to the people in the land. Thus, it seems that God is promising the land and the people to Abraham.
. Jephunneh the Qənizzite father of Caleb (Nm 32:12, Jo 14:6, 14), Ahimelech the Ḥittite (1 Sm 26.6), Uriah the Ḥittite (1 Sm 11:3, 6, 17, 21, 24; 12:9, 10; 2 Sm 23:39, 1 Kgs 15:5, 1 Chr 11:41), Bath-Shua the Kanaˀanitess mother of Er, Onan, and Shelah wife of Judah (Gn 38:2, 1 Chr 2:3), unnamed Kanaˀanitess mother of Shaul wife of Simeon (Gn 46:10, Ex 6:15). Finally, Hobab the Qeynite, Moses’ father-in-law (Jdg 1:16, 4:11, cf. 4:17, 5:24), was associated with Israel. We can assume that Moses’ wife was also Qeynite, and their children were incorporated into Israel.
. The first covenant was given at Mt. Sinai (Ex 20-23) and the second was given before they entered the land (Dt). There are several more passages besides these four, but they do not add much to the discussion: Exodus 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:2; and Numbers 13:29.
. William G. Dever, “Ethnicity and the Archaeological Record: The Case of Early Israel,” The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research 60/61 (2006): 56.