Scholar Strike 2: Race in Biblical Texts

This afternoon, I’ll turn to my academic specialization: the Hebrew Bible.

What is there to say about race in the Bible? I’ll make two points:

1. There is no race in the Bible.

2. Thus, there is no racism in the Bible.

Class dismissed. Thank you for your time.

Ok, of course I can’t let you go without saying more. So let’s dig in a little deeper. What does it mean that there is no race—and thus no racism—in the Bible?

Obviously, people in antiquity had different skin colors, and the writers of biblical texts knew this. So we get verses like jeremiah 13:23: “Can Ethiopians change their skin, or leopards their spots?” This rests upon the assumption that Ethiopian skin tone differed from Israelite skin tone and was marked as different, but note the woman speaking in Song of Songs 1:5, who says

שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה

“Black am I, and beautiful.”

Thus, dark skin was known and admired, even if it was not the norm. Several other Israelite characters are described as אדמיני, “ruddy” or “earthy” (e.g., Esau in Gen. 25:25 and David in 1 Sam. 16:12 and 17:42). Though it is quite a bit later,the Mishnah provides support for the idea that the skin tone considered normal in Israel was a reddish mid-brown. In the 2nd century CE, Rabbi Ishmael said “The children of Israel (may I be atonement for them!) are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.” (Mishnah Negaim 2:1). 1Thus, statements that crop up from time to time saying Jesus was white are not true either in a literal or a racial sense. Credit to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for the reference.

Mid-brown seems to be the default for the residnts of ancient Israel, then, and darker skin tones were known, but no mention is made of white or light skin in any biblical text.

But, as I wrote in my previous post, race is not color and color is not race. The existence and acknowledgment of different shades of skin does not necessarily imply any concept of race.

To clarify this point, it will help to expand on what “race” is as a concept and what it isn’t, and how concepts of race developed. I say concepts of race in the plural, because the definitions and theoretical underpinnings of race have changed over the years, even as its function in creating a stratified social order has remained relatively stable.

What ties concepts of race together is the idea that the global human population can be divided into a small number (usually 3–5) of subpopulations according to meaningful (i.e., biological) criteria. Different theories of race have rested on varied historical models—most involve early branching of the human family tree into distinct populations, but some have held that different races were the result of separate acts of divine creation (polygenesis).

These theories began to emerge in the context of European expansion and conquest in the 15th century, most directly as justifications for slave trafficking. In Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi locates the first attestation of a racial theory in Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s biography of Prince Henry of Portugal, published in 1453. The prince had sought to enter Portugal into the European slave trade in earnest at a time when the traditional source of slaves—Eastern Europe—was building up defenses against Westerners. Prince Henry had shifted his efforts to the west coast of Africa, sailing south to avoid paying the premium charged by North African Middlemen who trafficked slaves across the Sahara.

In his presentation, de Zurara referred to all Africans as belonging to a single people, from the light-skinned Tuareg to the dark-skinned Ethiopians and sub-Saharan populations. They were all members of an inferior race, whom Prince Henry, according to de Zurara, had undertaken to enslave in an altruistic act of evangelism.

The reality, of course, was not so benevolent. Prince Henry had grown fabulously wealthy trading slaves, and de Zurara had laundered his reputation with assertions of his Christian charity and the Africans’ natural savagery.

Thus, the racialization of Africans arose as justification for a strategy of domination and exploitation. This is perhaps the most important thing to realize about race—it has never been disinterested, but serves always to organize groups of people into hierarchies of domination and subordination. Race did not emerge from the studies and laboratories of careful, objective scholars, but was created to defend oppression and justified with science only afterward. Even as the biological arguments for its validity have changed and finally evaporated, therefore, it has continued to serve its function stratifying society.

Thus, the statements above that race and racism do not appear in biblical texts is interesting, but it does not quite reach the heart of the issue. Biblical texts provide evidence for many kinds of oppression and exploitation.In some cases they are condemned and resisted (e.g., slavery in Egypt in Ex. 1–3, economic predation throughout the Law and Prophets, and the unaccountable power of kings in Deuteronomy, Judges, and 1 Samuel); in others they are accepted or even celebrated (e.g., rape marriages to war widows in Deuteronomy, slavery in the laws of the Torah). In each case, acts of oppression were justified by existing or invented social, legal, or political structures supported by appeal to tradition or divine mandate.

Biblical texts contain many faces and types of oppression, racism just isn’t one of them. There are several lessons to learn from this. For one, race is not eternal. It was invented and it can be dismantled. But dismantling racism will not necessarily bring about the end of systemic oppression. Racism is just one manifestation of a pernicious and persistent human drive to dominate others, to gain from others even at their great expense.

In our contemporary context, combatting racism is an urgent and necessary part of building a world that allows for the freedom and flourishing of all. Yet we ought never forget that other vectors of oppression persist alongside systemic racism—discrimination according to class, disability, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. A fully-realized anti-oppressive ethic must approach all of these in their distinct forms and logics, never imagining that there is only one vector of oppression or that more cannot be contrived.

And regardless of how oppression is enacted and justified, it is also important to remember the biblical texts that confront and resist it in any form—the calls to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18), to break the bonds of oppression (Isaiah 58), to avoid theft, exploitation, and excess wealth (Amos 8:6, Proverbs 30:7–9)), to care for the needs of orphans, widows, and immigrants (Deuteronomy. 27:19, Jeremiah 22:3, Zechariah 7:10), and to speak up for the rights of the poor and destitute (Proverbs 31:1–9). These ideals contain the seeds of resistance against unjust systems in any form, in any time, place, or society.

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