A Biblical Theology of Race

From one man

In Acts 17:26, Paul, speaking to the philosophers of Athens says about God.

“From one man[f] he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries.”

. A Biblical Theology of race must start with the truth that there is in fact only one human race.  We start with unity, the Bible teaches that we are all descended from the first man and woman.  In fact, theologically, this means that as human beings we were all, in a sense “in Adam”.[1]  However, there is also diversity arising out of that unity.  God forms families, clans, tribes and nations out of Adam.  It is from the Greek word for nation, “ethnos” that we get our modern word “ethnic” so that we might do better to talk in terms of a Theology of Ethnicity.

In Genesis, people groups and nations are associated with lineage. Different family trees or genealogies which punctuate the book describe the emergence of such nations.  This begins in Genesis 4:17-5:32 with the genealogies of Cain and Seth. So, we have one human race but two lines of descendants.  Given its proximity to Genesis 4-5, as well as other factors, I’m personally inclined to see Genesis 6:2’s description of “The Sons of God” as a reference to Seth’s line, so that they marry the daughters (female descendants) of Cain’s ungodly line.

If so, then it is important to grasp what the issue was in Genesis 6:1-8. It seems to be that boundaries have been crossed but we should not see that in terms of “interracial mixing.” Rather, there are potentially two issues. First, that the wording concerning seeing, desiring and taking echoes Genesis 3, there is a sinfulness which is self-centred that goes against the leaving and cleaving paradigm of Genesis 2.  Second, that there is a religious dimension. If one line has shown signs of being godly and the other line, ungodly, then by implication, there are other things such as beliefs, practices and idols that the godly line acquire along with their wives.  In fact, the Old Testament is far more concerned with ideology and idolatry than it is with ethnicity.

In Genesis 10, we have the first setting out of a table of nations.  Then in Genesis 11 we are told how the people are divided into those nations at Babel as God responds to their hubris by confusing their languages and scattering them. This confusion may well have been as much about religion and ideology as it was about linguistics. There is a negative dynamic to this, the scattering and confusion reflects judgement and exile.  However, there is also a positive element too.  God had commissioned Adam and re-commissioned Noah to fill and subdue the earth. The Babelites had sought to resit this and remain in one place.  I would suggest that diversity of nations and potentially of languages too was always part of the plan, however potentially without the problem of confusion.

A father of many

In Genesis 12, God promises Abram that he will make him into a great nation.  The promised people of God will come through him. In Genesis 17:4-5, God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and expands the promise so that Abraham will be “father of a multitude of nations.” This will happen of course through Ishmael’s descendants, Esau becoming the founder of Edom. Whilst Abraham is not the physical father of Lot, he seems to have an adoptive parent relationship so that Lot is within his household and through Lot sleeping with his daughters, we have the Moabites and Ammonites. 

The primary focus however, is on one line, through whom blessing will come. The promise is all about Isaac and his descendants, or as Paul emphasises in Galatians 3:16, his descendant (singular).  There is an exclusiveness to the promise, it is all about and only about Jesus. However, there is an extensiveness and generosity to this as well.  Through Jesus, blessing will be poured out on all the nations.

Israel as God’s portion

Israel becomes God’s chosen nation.  However, this is never about ethnic purity.  The people of God leave Egypt for the Exodus but accompanied by a multi-ethnic crowd.  Foreigners are welcomed and drawn into the life of Israel. Moses marries a woman from another nation.

It’s important then, when we read the commandments against intermarrying in Deuteronomy 7 to keep the perspective in mind that God’s concern is with ideology and idiolatry.  The restriction on intermarrying with the people around is religious not racial.  God’s concern is that the people will be spiritually unfaithful and acquire gods as well s wives.  This is of course exactly what happens when Solomon takes many wives for himself.

There is an important emphasis throughout the Old Testament that Israel are God’s unique possession, the nation through whom the promise will be fulfilled for the benefit of all nations.  They are a called out people, set apart, holy as a priesthood. 

One way this is expressed is in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 which says:

When the Most High assigned lands to the nations    when he divided up the human race,
he established the boundaries of the people according to the number in his heavenly court. “For the people of Israel belong to the Lord; Jacob is his special possession.

Notice that the focus here is meant to be on Israel and how God chose her as his special possession. In other words, we are not meant to get involved in an over literal analysis of God carving up  a map of the world and assigning territories as though there are permanently fixed nation states n( a fairly recent concept).  There is the general point that God is the one who oversees each and every nation but that does not mean those nations are fixed forever.  The point is that when God divided things up, he was primarily concerned for Israel.

Humanity re-commissioned and re-united

If humanity were scattered and confused at Babel, then we can see that when Christ comes, there is a sense in which he reverses the curse element of that event.  First, he says, speaking of his crucifixion:

“when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”[2]

There is a reuniting of humanity in Christ, so that if, naturally, we were in Adam, then now through the Spirit we are in Christ.  This means that God’s people are one, they are united and are all from Christ too. Adam was the first fruits of Creation, Christ is the first fruits of the New Creation.  Oaul in Galatians declares that we “are all one in Christ Jesus”, with the result that:

“There is no longer Jew or Gentile,[a] slave or free, male and female.”[3]

The identification of Israel as God’s people had led to a distinction between Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) but that distinction is not known in the New Covenant, ethnic barriers are removed because:

“14 For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us.”[4]

The removal of barriers does not mean that the erasing of ethnic distinctions.  It is noteworthy that on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was sent, this did not lead to a narrowing down of language but of an end to confusion.  The people did not find themselves speaking the same language but they were able to hear the disciples praising God and understand them in their own tongue. This is important because Pentecost is often presented as a reversal of Babel and in one sense it demonstrates healing or correction of the curse of that event. However, we might consider to be more of a transformation, or a subversive fulfilment of Babel.[5]

Scattering therefore can be a curse but also an aspect of blessing.  God’s creation mandate was for his people to spread out, the scatter, to fill and subdue the earth.  There is a new focus and dynamic to this with the coming of the Gospel.  Jesus tells his disciples to:

“go and make disciples of all the nations,[b] baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”[6]

The peoples of God’s new kingdom in his new creation

Revelation offers us a glimpse into heaven and a vision of the future day when Christ returns to make all things new and put everything right.  One aspect of that day is the gathering in of the Harvest.  Jesus will draw the peoples to himself, to worship him as the lamb upon the throne.  On that day, we see people coming to worship, united as one but continuing to carry their renewed and sanctified distinctiveness. John writes:

“After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands.”[7]


A Biblical Theology of race, or of ethnicity will both emphasise our unity. We are one people, one race not many because we were created from the same one man. There is no place for barriers or hierarchy between different ethnic groups. All people were created equally in the image of God.  However, unity allows for diversity and distinctiveness. There are many ethnicities or people groups.  The coming the Holy Spirit renews the unity and oneness of people in Christ but does not erase that beautiful diversity. It will be present, even in Heaven.

[1] C.f. Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-23.

[2] John 12:32.

[3] Galatians 3:28.

[4] Ephesians 2:14.

[5] Acts 2:1-13.

[6] Matthew 28:19.

[7] Revelation 7:9.

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