Like many Christians, I grew up thinking the Bible was a story about people who looked a lot like me. This natural assumption was strengthened by my pictorial Bible (with Renaissance-era paintings of European-looking characters), Sunday school material, and Hollywood movies like The Ten Commandments (with Charlton Heston playing Moses). Perhaps you grew up with this same impression.
As I grew older and began to study the Bible more seriously, however, I realized this was a rather naïve and immature perspective. I discovered that the Bible’s storyline reflects quite a bit of fascinating ethnic diversity. And this diversity appears to be an important part of the storyline.
Here are six brief observations that changed my understanding of ethnic diversity in the Bible—and thus my perspective on ethnic diversity in the church.
1. All People Are Created in God’s Image
Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t begin with the creation of a special race of people. In Genesis 1 and 2, the first human is simply identified as ādām, which means “humankind.” Adam and Eve are not Hebrews or Egyptians or Canaanites. Their “race” or “ethnicity” is not identified. And they become the mother and father of all peoples and all ethnicities. The beginning of the biblical story, then, is not about white people or black people or brown people. It is a story about all people.
Further, Genesis 1:26–27 tells us that God created them (“humankind”) in his image. This truth has profound implications, for it insists that people of all races and ethnicities are created in the image of God. And since all bear his image, all deserve to be treated with special dignity and respect.
2. Israel Was Ethnically Diverse
The composition of ancient Israel reflected the multi-ethnic makeup of the biblical world. The Old Testament world was multi-ethnic, and the ethnicities of the biblical characters reflected that.
While many of the characters in the Bible are Semitic (and thus looked like modern-day Israelis or Arabs), the story frequently includes individuals and groups from a wide spectrum of ethnicities. Abraham, for example, was from Mesopotamia, and ethnically he was probably an Aramean/Amorite. He and his family migrated to Canaan, where two of his descendants (Judah and Simeon) married Canaanites, while their brother Joseph married an Egyptian.
Later, when God delivered Abraham’s descendants from Egypt, a “mixed multitude” went with them as they left Egypt (Ex. 12:38), implying that people from other ethnic groups accompanied them and thus became part of Israel. Indeed, throughout the Old Testament there is a frequent influx of persons from other ethnicities into the people of God, including the Cushite wife of Moses (Num. 12), Rahab the Canaanite (Josh. 2–6), Ruth the Moabite (Ruth 1–4), Ebedmelech the Cushite (Jer. 38–39), and so on.
3. Black Africans Were Involved in God’s Plan of Redemption
One distinctive ethnic group that shows up repeatedly in Scripture is the Cushites. The terms “Cush” or “Cushite” occur in the Hebrew Bible more than 50 times. In English Bibles it’s often translated as “Cush,” but sometimes as “Nubia” or “Ethiopia.” Cush was a powerful Black African kingdom located along the Nile River just to the south of Egypt.
Black Cushites were active players in the geopolitics and economics of the ancient Near East throughout most of the Old Testament period. The Cushites even controlled Egypt for a short while (during the time of Isaiah) and allied themselves with Jerusalem against the Assyrians. Later, the Black African Ebedmelech played a crucial role in Judah’s theological history, saving the prophet Jeremiah and symbolizing the inclusion of future Gentiles who will come to God by faith (Jer. 38–39).
The first non-Jewish believer in the New Testament was a Black African.
In the New Testament, this region is usually referred to as “Ethiopia,” even though it differs from modern Ethiopia. The “Ethiopian Eunuch” in Acts 8 was a Black African from this region along the Nile River, south of Egypt. He was the first non-Jewish believer in the New Testament and, like Ebedmelech in the book of Jeremiah, he seems to symbolize or foreshadow the approaching Gentile inclusion in the rest of Acts.
4. Moses Married a Cushite (Black African) Woman
In Numbers 12, Moses, while walking faithfully with the Lord and in the power of the Lord, marries a woman from Cush. There is little doubt that this woman was a Black African. And in the story, God seems to give his total approval to this marriage.
This is a strong statement on the biblical acceptability of interracial marriage. In other Old Testament texts there are prohibitions against marrying Canaanites and other inhabitants of Canaan, but these prohibitions weren’t due to ethnic differences but theological differences, since the Canaanites worshiped pagan gods. The prohibition was against marrying outside of the faith.
5. People from All Ethnic Groups Are United in Christ
In the New Testament, Paul demands active unity in the church, a unity that explicitly joins together differing ethnic groups because of their common identity in Christ. Paul proclaims that, in Christ, believers form a brand-new humanity. The old barrier of hostility and division between ethnic groups has been demolished by the cross; and now, all peoples are to be one in Christ (Rom. 4; Gal. 3–4; Col. 3; Eph. 2).
Christians of other races aren’t just equal to us; they are joined to us.
Paul insists that the primary identity of Christians is to be based on their union with Christ—not on traditional sociological, geographical, and ethnic connections. Again, the implications are profound. Christians of other races aren’t just equal to us; they are joined to us. As Christians, we’re all part of the same body, united by the presence of the same Holy Spirit who indwells us all. We’re not just friends or fellow worshipers in the same religion, but brothers and sisters in the same family.
6. The Book of Revelation Portrays a Multi-Ethnic Congregation
John gives us a glimpse of the people of God at the consummation of history, describing them as people from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15). This fourfold formula of tribe, language, people, and nation stresses the ethnic diversity of the people of God who will worship around the throne. It’s a picture of the climactic kingdom of Christ, and, as such, provides a model for us to strive toward. John clearly sees the kingdom of Christ as a multi-ethnic congregation.
These six brief observations are far from exhaustive, but hopefully they will help you get started on rereading and rethinking what the Scriptures really say about ethnic diversity.
Author’s note: For further discussion of these themes, see my book From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, in the New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT) series edited by D. A. Carson.