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Stories of Ethnicity in Scripture

October 18th, 2007 by Jason · 6 Comments

In a few days we’re hosting the annual faith and race conference at Quest. One of the ways I’m involved is in looking at how a few stories in Scripture relate to that theme. As I’ve been preparing it’s struck me just how often the issue of ethnicity comes up—there’s hardly a chapter in Scripture that doesn’t mention it. However, I also think that these stories that deal with ethnicity are often missed by modern readers for various reasons. The main reason being that readers lack the background information that would make it evident that ethnicity is a factor in the text. So, descriptions of a person being a Moabite or a Hittite or Canaanite are blazed right over or the fact that Stephen was a Greek name is no longer common knowledge.

Before looking at some of these stories it’s worth noting that the culture of the Old and New Testaments was not identical to ours in the area of race/ethnicity. Back then they did not have the exact same problems when it came to race that we, in America, do today. A racial hierarchy based on skin color had not been created. Nor had there been a form of slavery centered solely on skin color. In fact, race is a modern idea that didn’t exist in ancient societies. But there were hierarchies and divisions based on religion, class, social status, ethnicity, and culture in both the Old and New Testament worlds. This was most clearly seen in the divide between Jews and Gentiles, and even the divisions within those groups. There were Jews born in Palestine, Jews from the Diaspora, Godfearers (Gentiles who inclined towards Judaism, pagan Gentiles), barbarians, Scythians, and the list goes on. So while there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the issues the church faces today in matters of race and ethnicity there are plenty of stories in Scripture that provide the foundation for the vision of a new community where the dividing wall of hostility has been destroyed.

One, perhaps lesser known, story that deals with the issue of ethnicity is the book of Ruth, a short Old Testament book sandwiched between Judges and 1 Samuel. The placement of Ruth between these books is important because both of them deal with defining Israel as an exclusive nation (i.e. there’s very much an us vs. them mentality) while Ruth is about the inclusion of outsiders into the Israelite fold. The beginning of Ruth provides a clue that one of the themes this book is dealing with is ethnicity:

Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth.

Before this we learn that there had been a famine in Israel so Naomi’s family emmigrated to Moab. The whole introduction is so short and compact that it’s easy to skip over, but eyebrows probably would have been raised and mururs murmurred by an ancient Israelite reading this text. Why? Because Moabites were outsiders, foreigners, aliens. Deuteronomy 23:3 makes it clear what their status is in the Israelite community:
No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation.

And here comes Ruth, a Moabite woman, marrying an Israelite man and becoming the great-grandmother of David, and eventually one of the four women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy. Ruth, it turns out, is not just a book about friendship or the Old Testament version of eHarmony. It’s a book with strong implications on issues surrounding ethnicity: intermarriage, immigration, and how we treat the marginalized. And it also presents some challenging questions about how Scripture challenges Scripture. Ruth and the Deuteronomy passage mentioned above don’t exactly make great bedfellows. Rather, they present two different visions of who is allowed into the community of the faithful. The fact that Ruth is mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy is an indication of which vision Jesus and the early Christian community chooses.

Another story easily passed over, but has definite implications for how the early church lived out this commitment to being a gather of people from all nations is Acts 6:1-6. The story is important for two reasons. First, because it shows that the early church was actually multiethnic and that right from the beginning it wasn’t easy. On the surface this story is about a crisis that emerged regarding social services provided to widows in the congregation. Some complained that the widows born in Palestine were being favored over the Greek-speaking widows who immigrated to Israel from other parts of the Roman Empire. A hierarchy had formed based on ethnicity—some problems never go away.

More interesting than the problem is the solution proposed. The leaders could have trivialized the problem as being something the widows could sort out on their own and not worth the attention of an apostle. Or they could have gotten “rid” of the problem by creating a new church for the Greek-speaking Christians—that sort of thing has certainly happened plenty of times in the history of the church. But instead they chose seven new leaders were selected to oversee the ministry. But note the names: “Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus.” Each of those is a Greek name. The apostles addressed the problem at the structural level by changing the leadership. To change who is in leadership addresses the issue of the power imbalance created by a hierarchy of ethnicity. It’s not that multiethnic churches can only be created from a top-down approach, but for there to be reconciliation and a move towards multiethnicity the leadership (which often equates to those in power in a church) must change.

Tags: church life · race & ethnicity · theology

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Oct 19, 2007 at 10:41 am

    Hey, Jason, good stuff. I loved your line about how Ruth isn’t an OT version of eHarmony.

    Here are some things I wonder about. Isn’t the primary distinction for Scripture between Jews and Gentiles (i.e., the nations)? And doesn’t that change how we think about this thing called race and ethnicity? I mean, even the word, “ethnicity”, alerts us to an interesting story: it looks like it comes from the Greek word ethne, which means “nations” or “gentiles.” If we want to talk about the divisions of peoples according to Scripture, it’s about Jews and Gentiles. And, guess what, we’re all gentiles! Talk of “ethnicity”, when it comes to the bible, means we have to wrestle with the fact that we are a bunch of presumptuous latecomers to the story of God’s redemption of the world, and we somehow think we call tell the Jews that we have what they always wanted: the Messiah! It’s scandalous. And it gets worse, our people, the ethne people of God, have created this category called “race” to kill off the chosen people, the Jews, the non-ethne!

    The tragic irony is that we gentile people of God created a concept to separate ourselves from the Jews and make them outsiders, when we are the outsiders… we are the only ones with this thing called “ethnicity”!

    What does this mean for us when we talk about “race”? I’m not too sure. Maybe it means that we remind ourselves of the primary division when it comes to God’s story of our world. And that’s the division between Jew and Gentile, and the vast majority of people who call themselves Christians are on the wrong side of that line, through no fault of our own. We are the outsiders. We come from the wrong bloodline. Then maybe we can start thinking about how silly it is for us to make racial divisions between all the “ethnicities” (i.e., the nations)—it’s like the losers arguing for last place.

    Then, after this, maybe we can hear what grace is all about. Grace is that Israel gave us her son, for our salvation, and we killed him too, then spent most of our history killing off his people. And yet, after all this, this Jesus the Jew, offers us forgiveness, and God grafts us into the true vine, the Israel of God.

    Does any of this mean anything for discussions of race?

  • 2 Jason // Oct 22, 2007 at 8:52 am

    Isaac, thanks for the comments. Does it mean anything for race? I would think so! You crystallize so well the fact that the “we” in this discussion are nearly all outsiders to begin with. It reminded me of Paul in Romans reminding the Roman church that they are “wild olive branches” who have been grafted in to the tree of Israel. And the ethical outcome of this fact is that Christians are “not to think highly of themselves, but fear what could happen.” That seems a relevant word for the discussion of race in the church today.

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    Hi Jason. Great post. I remembered it as I was writing a recent post. I hope the internship is going well.

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