I thought I might share a research project I put together during my seminary days. It will take a quite a few parts. Enjoy.
Racism lingers more subtly than perhaps any of humanity’s stubborn pathologies. It is certainly true vicious racial hatred is a hallmark of American and Southern Baptist history. However, the sin of racism persists today not so much through direct action or legal infrastructure as it does through glancing suspicions based in media stereotypes, structural momentum, and the social isolation of groups outside the mainstream. Kenyan Baptist leader Douglas W. Waruta, in his address to the International Summit on Baptists Against Racism and Ethnic Conflict, contends racism not only lingers but prospers under such indirect auspices. Waruta states, “It feeds on the fear of the dominant groups that they may be on their way to losing their dominant but unmerited privilege and advantage.”1; He goes on to say racism is much like asthma. It may seem to have disappeared for a season, but when agitated, roars back with vengeance. Therefore, racial progress cannot be measured accurately by the oscillations of overt incidents such as racial violence and discrimination, though we must deal with those as well. We must guard also against racial undertones in the self-sustaining desperate language of jingoism, lost economic prosperity, and even religious methodologies. Indeed, it is possible and even likely those perpetrating racism are not even aware of it.2 This lack of awareness is the main reason it is crucial for 21st Century, American Christians and especially white, Southern Christians to examine their souls for nefarious intentions and divided loyalties.
This examination requires a fresh look at the normative guide for Christian life, the bible, and in particular a renewed examination of God’s plan for the world and his treatment of the various nations found in scripture. An excellent place to begin looking at race in the bible is the book of Exodus. The first reason for this is the use of the book’s thematic resources for racial struggles in recent centuries and decades.3; Secondly, Exodus fueled the theological identity of God’s people into the New Testament era and right on through to the modern age.4 Therefore, understanding its presentation of racial strife is critical if God’s people are to live according to the themes presented in Exodus.5 Lastly, Exodus records the earliest, large scale, racial conflict in scripture. It must therefore, be able to shed some light on how to live faithfully in the midst of oppression’s ever-present reality.
Before beginning, however, a word needs to be said concerning methodology toward the text. A good place to start is that of assumptions. First, the Old Testament is foremost concerned with the holiness of God and his reputation among humanity. All ethical behavior is done and written about in the context of this truth.6 This is to say the scripture is not primarily a guide for racial reconciliation, but the story of God’s ultimate, redemptive reconciliation. Secondly, Walter C. Kaiser discusses the importance of a historical basis for Old Testament ethics, meaning readers are urged to act justly in light of mighty works done by God in actual history.7 In other words, because God acted accordingly, his followers must follow suite. Thirdly, scripture is consistent, universal, and thus applicable for believers today when used in context as a holistic story.8 Lastly, this project upholds Christopher J. H. Wright’s paradigmatic model for Old Testament ethics. He argues Israel was to be a model for a more just way to live to nations in its own time as well as for the rest of history.9 What God is up to through Israel therefore is not just redeeming individuals, but providing means for redeemed individuals to live redemptively in an unjust, corrupt world.10 As a result, the expectations of Israelites concerning the treatment of outsiders reflects normative, universal principles for Christians today to emulate.
Determining a theology of race in Exodus is complicated, however, by the slippery nature of race and ethnicity itself.11 Ethnicity can be tricky to define in today’s world with easily observable people groups, cheap transportation, and readily available mountains of scientific data. The proposition is compounded to near impossibility when dealing with people groups and events at least three millennia removed from the present.12 The situation is further compounded by the presence of many people groups in ancient Egypt with the likely result of Egyptians themselves bearing a variety of skin colors.13 The Egyptians did however reflect some notion of ethnic groups in their artwork and literature. One example of ethnicity in art is particularly helpful in that it dates to within the temporal framework of the exodus event, the paintings in the tomb of Seti I who ruled from 1291-1279 BC. The paintings portray four ethnic groups, Cushites, Libyans, Asiatics, and the Egyptians with each group appropriated to its corresponding geographic locale.14 So while one can safely assume some racial differences were evident at least in a majority of Egyptians and Israelites, can anything be said to distinguish Israel from other Asiatic neighbors? In short, no. Israel is in the beginning of Exodus in fact nothing more than an extended family of mixed Mesopotamian origin, likely without even a distinctive language.15
So while a modern reader cannot know for certain if there was a racial difference between an Israelite and an Egyptian or an Israelite and an Amelakite, it can nonetheless definitely be determined that Israel had clear lines of inclusion and exclusion around its community. This is possible because ethnicity is much more than race. It also involves cultural boundary markers which ethnic groups use for self-identity.16 The task of this project then is to examine how Israel viewed and treated those outside of its cultural boundary lines as described in the book of Exodus. To do so, it is not necessary to comprehend fully the differences in culture or race historically, but only to recognize these differences as they are attributed to in the text.
Admittedly a complete ethic of racial interaction for today’s world cannot be drawn from Exodus. One would need to build from at least the entire Pentateuch and probably from the entire witness of the Old Testament in order to accurately reflect God’s intentions. This is however a first step, and I believe a needed one. It also needs to be said it is beyond the scope of this paper to proscribe a complete program for Christian action. The concluding section will include some suggestions based upon conclusions drawn from Exodus, but that is all they are, suggestions.
Next time, we’ll look at a couple of other preliminary matters.
1) Douglas W. Waruta, “The Socio-historical Structures of Racism,” in Baptists Against Racism; United in Christ for Racial Reconciliation: Addresses and Papers Delivered at the International Summit of Baptists Against Racism and Ethnic Conflict, January 8-11, 1999, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA. Ed. Denton Lotz (Falls Church, VA: The Baptist World Alliance, 1999), 32.
3) Judith W. Kay, “The Exodus and Racism: Paradoxes for Jewish Liberation,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 28 no. 2 (2008): 27.
5) Tremper Longman III, How to Read Exodus (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 68.
6) Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: MI, Zondervan, 1983), 29.
7) Ibid., 33.
8) Ibid., 3.
9) Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 65.
10) Ibid., 65.
11) Mark G. Brett, “Interpreting Ethnicity: Method, Hermeneutics, Ethics,” in Ethnicity and the Bible, ed. Mark G. Brett (Lieden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 9.
12) J. Daniel Hays, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race. New Studies In Biblical Theology 14 (Downer’s Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2003), 28.
13) A. H. Sayce, Races of the Old Testament (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1895), 105.
14) Ibid, 29.
15) From Every People and Nation, 32.
16) Rodney Steven Sadler, Jr., Can A Cushite Change His Skin? An Examination of Race, Ethnicity, and Othering in the Hebrew Bible (New York: T & T Clark, 2005), 11.