I remember being in a Christian bookshop that was shutting down. Books I’d been after for ages were being sold off at ridiculous prices. (I literally blinked and missed Ben Witherington’s commentary on Acts for 99p – some conniving little weasel snuck in and nicked it off the shelf from before my very eyes. I nearly beat him to a pulp with a £2 copy of Lloyd-Jones on Romans volume 1 – a book I think is far more suited to inflicting pain with than reading) And in the midst of the sale I ended up picking up a random, dull grey covered book that I had no interest in, but was in a series I’d heard of… and would set me back about 30p.
That book was J. Daniel Hays’ From Every People and Nation. I got it home, read the back, discovered it was bound to be even less exciting than I had thought. A survey of the ethnic make up of the Bible – made up almost entirely of non-extant people groups, 80% of which I couldn’t even begin to pronounce.
I shelved it. Wouldn’t you?
Some years later, I had read a couple of other books in the series, and recalled that I had this volume sitting on my shelf. I thought I would give it a go. So I packed it as holiday reading (!!) along with another couple of books. My philosophy with holiday reading is that if I only take boring looking books that I know I should read, but have little desire to, in the hope that I will have no choice but to get through them… and then I can steal one of my wife’s novels as a treat!
Hays’ book was a surprise. Essentially it went through the Bible, beginning to end, listing nation after nation, telling us where they came from and what they looked like. Not exactly what you would call a riveting premise! But as I read it, I have to say, I was amazed at the picture it painted. I had never quite realized how prominent black Africans were in the Biblical narrative! It’s not that I’d though they weren’t there – and I certainly didn’t hold the old ‘all the holy people of Scripture were beautiful European Aryans’ view, characteristic of so much anachronistic (quasi racist?!) western artwork – but I guess I’d never stopped to think that the Cushites were a black African people. And I’d certainly never noticed how frequently they occur in the Biblical narrative. Was Zephaniah a Cushite? (Zeph 1:1) How about Phineas? Says Hays:
‘Ph’ functions like the definite article. ‘nehsiu’ means inhabitant of the region along the Nile. Thus Phinehas means ‘the negro’ or ‘the Cushite.’ He is ‘the only leader other than Joshua that takes the initiative in any action within the book of Joshua.’ (p81).
Ok – so his writing could perhaps be a little punchier. But an interesting insight I’d not picked up before.
The section on Moses’ marriage to a Cushite (possibly the daughter of the Cushite King, according to Josephus; Ant 10:1-2) was brilliant, and unlocked the narrative in a way I’d never previously appreciated:
‘Yahweh’s punishment on Miriam is swift and severe. He strikes her with a skin disease and she becomes (white) as snow […] an intentional, appropriate response to Miriam’s prejudice against the black wife […] More important, and much clearer, is the theological dimension of Miriam’s punishment. She was sent outside the camp, a temporary expulsion from the family and the people of God. While the Cushite woman becomes part of Moses’ family and the people of Israel through marriage, Miriam, through her opposition to Moses, is separated both from the family and the people of Israel.’ (p76)
Slightly less seriously, (but almost equally interesting!) I was amused to learn that ‘the leopard changing his spots’ was a Biblical phrase – I’d always attributed it to Aesop, or some other peddler of fables. But no:
‘Can the Cushite change his skin or the leopard his spots?‘ (Jeremiah 13:23)
Perhaps I’d always been naïve… but I was astonished as I read about the way various people had used and abused texts to endorse and condone racism over the years, in particular Genesis 9:18-27. It amazed me that people could so twist the word of God to create division between people based on their skin colour.
The final chapter was an appeal to the church to root out and deal with racism. It puzzled me. Hays laid out seven concluding thoughts, as follows:
- The biblical world was multi-ethnic, and black people were involved in God’s unfolding plan of redemption from the beginning
- All people are created in the image of God, and therefore all races and ethnic groups have the same status and unique value that results from the image of God
- Genesis 10 and the Abrahamic promise combine to form a theme that runs throughout Scripture, constantly pointing to the global and multi-ethnic elements inherent in the overarching plan of God
- Racial intermarriage is sanctioned by Scripture
- The gospel demands that we carry compassion and the message of Christ across ethnic lines
- The New Testament demands active unity in the Church, a unity that explicitly joins differing ethnic groups together because of their common identity in Christ
- The picture of God’s people at the climax of history portrays a multi-ethnic congregation from every tribe, language, people, and nation, all gathered together in worship around God’s throne
‘Sure’ I thought. ‘But don’t all Christians agree with those points?‘ I had friends who were dating or married to people with a different skin colour. I’d never even questioned it: ‘Surely people aren’t that racist these days?‘ I thought. ‘Not in England? Not in English churches?’
Bizarrely enough, the two other books I’d chosen to take away with me were Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama, and William Hague’s biography of Wilberforce. Hague seems to have a peculiar habit of only writing biographies of people who share his first name. William Wilberforce. William Pitt. I half imagine we might see an account of the life and times of William Shatner in the coming years. Or seeing as Liam is a Gaelic shortening of William, perhaps I might even be the next lucky subject! Had ‘Just William‘ not already been taken, it might have made a suitable title for the series. But I digress…
Together these three books really challenged me on the issue of race. Reading again the story of the abhorrent racism that Wilberforce and friends fought to bring down, and the rather more modern account of Obama facing mockery and abuse over his mixed race parentage, really helped me to realise that it is by no means an issue relegated to the long grass of distant history. The combination of this trio of books made me question whether I had been quite naïve in my assumption that racism isn’t that prevalent in the church these days. Perhaps it doesn’t take the same recognisable form today, but it’s still there, and still an evil to be rooted out and destroyed mercilessly.
One of my favourite books to teach on is Ephesians. I have the joy of being able to spend a whole day teaching through it to hungry volunteers on a Newfrontiers training course, and the beauty of the truth that God has made for himself one new man, reconciling the irreconcilable gets me excited and emotional every time. Even preaching this summer on Genesis 10 and God’s plan to regather the nations to Himself through the Church excited and stirred me afresh.
Let’s not make the mistake of Miriam. And let us not think arrogantly that we have reached the pinnacle of history, from which we can survey the past and think ‘aren’t I glad we’re no longer like that unenlightened lot.‘ Racism is always a danger, especially in its subtle, passive forms – more about what we don’t do for those who are different to us than what we do. But the Biblical narrative does not allow for it. Neither does the Gospel. And neither should we.