What Does the Bible Say (and not say) About Racism?

Racism involves assaults against the image of God in man, often to the point of denying the full humanity of those of another race. In modern American society, racism is decidedly unpopular. Politicians try to gain advantage over others by playing the “race card,” accusing the other side of racism whenever a slip of the tongue occurs or whenever anyone says anything that can be misinterpreted as racist language. Too often, however, politically-correct language masks what is in the heart rather than revealing it; what people say in unguarded moments often indicates attitudes quite different from those displayed for public consumption. Despite significant progress in the last fifty years, no one could seriously argue that America is now a post-racial country.

The issue is an important one for Christians, not only because of the biblical mandate to love one’s neighbor, but also because of the sad track record of the church on the issue in American history. The segregation of the American church remains in many ways a scandal. But the worst part of the problem is that Christians have all too often been defenders of racial bigotry. While today such attitudes are written off as the province of ignorant rednecks, in the nineteenth century many moral and upright Christians seriously attempted to argue from Scripture that blacks, in particular, were inferior to whites. Thus we should note that the arguments below were not simply advocated by crackpots from the lunatic fringe, but have been seriously advanced by competent biblical scholars in the past. We will approach this subject by focusing on arguments used by Christians and taken from the Bible on both sides of the issue.


• The Curse of Ham (Genesis 9:20-27) – Probably the best-known passage used to support racism, it has been directed explicitly against blacks, and thus became a defense, first of slavery, and later of segregation. The incident itself is a peculiar one. Noah plants a vineyard and partakes of the fruit thereof, getting himself thoroughly drunk in the process, so much so that he lies down naked in his tent and dozes off. Ham sees his father’s condition and tells his brothers, who back into the tent with a cloak and cover Noah with it. When Noah recovers from his hangover, he becomes furious when he finds out what Ham did and issues a horrible curse, condemning Ham’s descendants to perpetual servitude to the descendants of his brothers. This raises all kinds of questions.
• How is this passage used to justify racial discrimination? According to Genesis 10, the Table of Nations, which describes the regions of the world where the descendants of Noah settled, the children of Shem settled in the Middle East, those of Japheth settled in Europe, while the children of Ham settled in Africa. Thus, the conclusion goes, Africans are the descendants of Ham and have been cursed by God, through Noah, to perpetual servitude, thus justifying the enslavement of millions of Africans by Arabs, Europeans and Americans. This interpretation encounters several significant problems, however.
• Who is cursed? Strangely, Noah’s fury at the behavior of Ham leads him to curse, not Ham, but Ham’s son Canaan. Note that, of the sons of Ham, Canaan was the only one who did not settle in Africa. Thus the curse has nothing to do with Africans at all, but sets the stage for the later wrath of God against the Canaanites when He ordered Joshua to exterminate them during the Conquest.
• What did Ham do that was so bad anyway? The whole situation seems rather innocuous, and critics have struggled to explain the precise nature of Ham’s sin. Some have suggested that he ridiculed his father before his brothers, not showing him proper respect, or criticize him for not covering Noah up himself. One of many explanations I have encountered over the years proposes an interesting solution, though it does not by any means answer all the questions in this difficult passage. This commentator pointed out that the phrase translated “saw the nakedness of his father” is a Hebrew euphemism for sexual intercourse (cf. Leviticus 18:6-19; 20:17-21). If this is indeed what Genesis 9 is saying, Ham was actually guilty of the homosexual rape of his father while he was in his drunken stupor, and thus Noah’s rage and the resulting curse were totally understandable.
• If this is true, why did Noah curse Canaan rather than Ham, who had been the perpetrator of the nefarious deed? The only possible suggestion I can make here is that Canaan, alone among the sons of Ham, shared his father’s perverted proclivities, and thus Noah did not want the curse to fall on the innocent sons. One possible substantiation for this interpretation is the later history of the Canaanites, who were surely among the most sexually perverse civilizations ever to leave their blot upon the earth. They openly practiced male and female ritual prostitution in their worship, along with child sacrifice and other abominations. In any case, however, the so-called “Curse of Ham” cannot be used to support racial discrimination against Africans.

• The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) – This became an argument to justify segregation after the end of slavery in America. The gist of the argument is that, as a judgment against man’s arrogance, God separated the different peoples of earth by confusing their tongues (resulting in the population distribution recorded in Genesis 10). Unlike the marriage ceremony, which uses the words of Jesus in saying, “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6), racists here argued, “What God has separated, let not man join together.” If God intended man to live in separate groups (Acts 17:26), is it not rebellion against God to try to bring them together again? Did He not intend for them to live apart so they would no longer become arrogant and rebel against Him? Note the following:
• If God thought separating people into distinct groups would prevent rebellion, He was sadly mistaken. Clearly this is not the case, and one might even argue that segregation is just one more pathetic example of man’s infinite creativity in rebelling against God.
• Pay attention to the basis on which people were separated – it was language, not race. In fact, one might easily argue that races arose following this division of peoples as certain groups lived in geographic isolation and recessive genetic traits emerged and became dominant, producing what we know today as secondary racial characteristics (which occupy only a very few of the myriad genes in human DNA). Have you ever heard anyone argue that an English-speaking man should not marry a French woman because the mixing of language groups would involve rebellion against the judgment of God?
• Besides, the judgment of Babel was reversed at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). Here, instead of confusing the tongues of a linguistically-uniform people, God took a linguistically diverse people and brought them together so that they could all hear and understand the same speech. God’s redemptive work overcomes the consequences of His judgment of human sin.

• The Segregation of Israel (Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-4) – In these passages, God clearly orders the Israelites not to marry people from the surrounding nations. These passages have often been used not only to justify segregation, but also to support the prohibition of miscegenation – the intermarriage of people from different races. Yet several highly-visible interracial marriages are clearly blessed by God in Scripture. Joseph married an Egyptian princess (Genesis 41:45); when Moses married a Cushite woman (Numbers 12:1-2), Aaron and Miriam put up strong objections, but God silenced them, even to the point of punishing Miriam with leprosy; Rahab was a cursed Canaanite from Jericho, but she married an Israelite man, became the mother of Boaz, and is found in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5); Boaz, in turn, married a Moabite girl named Ruth, who was the great-grandmother of David and also appears in the Messianic line (Ruth 4:18-22; Matthew 1:5). What is the answer to this apparent contradiction between the commandments of the Old Testament and the actual practice of God in dealing with His people? The obvious solution is that the prohibition of marriage with the surrounding nations had no racial intent at all, but rather a religious one; God was not prohibiting interracial marriages, but interreligious ones (cf. II Corinthians 6:14-18). As long as someone like Rahab or Ruth became a worshiper of the true God, she could be readily accepted into the nation.


Here we will look at three common arguments that make absolutely clear God’s hatred of discrimination based on race.

• The Unity of the Human Race – Human beings are ultimately one, both on the basis of common descent (Genesis 3:20) and common plight. All people are alike in being created in God’s image and being lost in sin. If you go back far enough, we are all related.

• Jesus’ Treatment of the Samaritans – Perhaps the most notorious example of racism in the Bible is the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans originated following the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. The policy of the Assyrian conquerors was to prevent rebellion by mixing populations; they thus took many people from the Northern Kingdom and scattered them throughout their various conquered territories and brought in people from those places and forcibly settled them in Israel. The eventual result was intermarriage, along with a mingling of languages and religions, i.e., the Samaritans. The Jews looked down on and despised the Samaritans as ethnic half-breeds and followers of a mongrel religion (they worshiped in a temple on Mount Gerazim in Samaria – see John 4:20 – and practiced religious rites that combined Jewish and pagan elements), while Samaritans hated Jews because they were despised by them. Animosity was so great that Jews going from Judea to Galilee and back again would walk forty miles out of their way to avoid going through Samaria, which was located between the two.
Jesus, however, pointedly ignored this common prejudice and did everything He could to oppose it. In His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar (John 4:1-39), He took the road through Samaria, asked an immoral Samaritan woman for a cup of water, and preached the Gospel to her and her neighbors; when He was asked what it meant to love one’s neighbor, He told a parable about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) – surely an oxymoron in the minds of His listeners; when Jesus healed ten lepers, Luke goes out of his way to point out that the only one who returned to thank the Lord was a Samaritan (Luke 17:11-19); even when Jesus was rejected by a Samaritan village He visited, He responded with mercy while His disciples were quite eager to call down fire and brimstone upon them (Luke 9:51-56). Later, when the Gospel spread beyond the Jews in the region of Jerusalem, the Samaritans were among the first to be evangelized (Acts 8:4-8), as Jesus intended (Acts 1:8).

• The Universality of the Gospel – We have already noted that Pentecost broke down the barriers between people resulting from the sin of man and God’s judgment of that sin. The Church is intended to bear witness to this removal of sin-caused barriers – Ephesians 2:11-18 speaks of Christ breaking down the wall between Jews and Gentiles, while Galatians 3:28 speaks of other artificial barriers as well that no longer exist in the Kingdom of God. The Church should thus be a place where prejudice and favoritism are unknown (James 2:1-9). This was a difficult task for the early church, as Peter’s vision of the sheet lowered from heaven in Acts 10:9-16 illustrates and Paul’s later confrontation with the same apostle in Galatians 2:11-14 confirms, as it is for the modern church. Progress has unquestionably been made in recent decades, but much remains to be done even though most barriers now are based more on cultural differences than on racial prejudice. The only difference that is of any importance at all for the child of God is that which divides the sheep from the goats, the Children of Light from the Sons of Darkness.

[This blog is excerpted from my Eternal Values for a Valueless Age]