This article is about the biological and sociological sense of the term "race." For the athletic event, see Race (sport).
The Bible does not refer to the term “race”; nor is there a concept of race developed in the Bible. Yet, the Bible has been made the center of very deep-rooted feelings regarding race. Such feelings as well as the theories that have sustained them, have derived from sociological sources rather than Biblical sources. Within specific societies, racial distinctions have arisen that have developed into racist attitudes. They derive mainly from ethno-centric orientations to the universe that make one kind of peoples the center of the universe, so to speak, and all other peoples inferior to them. Once such racial distinctions are made, a variety of authorities are naturally called upon to substantiate the point of view selected. It is at this time, and for this purpose, that the Bible is utilized, since it has been an authoritative source for a large portion of the civilized world since its writing.
Historically Erroneous Thoughts on Race
The early chapters of Genesis are susceptible to the interpretation that the races were separate species created by God as they are today. The range of interpretation is quite broad. There are those who have taken the Adam and Eve account to apply only to Caucasians. It has even been argued that the Black people appearing in Egyptian monuments, as well as the skulls of the Native American mound builders of Ohio, differed in no way from their living descendants. This would imply that there was no important change in living creatures in the only slightly longer time since the creation itself, established time-wise by Archbishop Ussher at 4004 b.c. Some others have argued that Cain was black and thus the progenetor of all Black people, an idea very attractive to racists since they can then associate Cain’s behavior with all Black people.
Another interesting, though wholly unfounded, theory is that Caucasians are connected with the “man” in God’s creation, while Blacks are connected with the concept “beast” in the creation story. The details of what a beast looked like were not included in the Biblical account. This means that the reader was expected to associate the linguistic symbol with what he knew in the real world. There is no indication that the Hebrew speakers of the language ever associated the beast with some living being with a dark skin. The association is always made with that which we know to be animal, with no intelligence.
Noah and Ham
Other points of view centered on the family of Noah. Some firmly believed that Black people differentiated slowly from the racial type of the family of Noah. Others considered him a direct descendant of Ham who, tradition supposedly tells us, was born black. This tradition may well have originated with the linguistic base of the name Ham meaning “black.”
One variation on the “Hamite” theme is that Shem and his descendants moved eastward into Asia; Japheth moved westward into Europe; and Ham moved southward into Africa. Since people who lived in Asia are reddish brown, apparently Shem was of that color; since those who come from Europe are of lighter skin color, therefore Japheth must have been of that color; and since Africans are dark-skinned people, therefore Ham was a dark-skinned person. None of these arguments takes into consideration the possibility that all three of the brothers were of a darker skin pigmentation, one that characterizes the peoples of the Near East. The differentiation of color likely came many hundreds of years after the time of the sons of Noah.
Another variation on the Hamite theme is that Ham was turned into a dark-skinned individual through the curse placed upon him. The curse of Noah was really on Canaan, one of four children of Ham, not on Ham himself. Apparently the curse had no lasting import, since history tells us that Canaan’s descendants dominated the whole land of Palestine until long after the death of Moses. There is further no indication that the curse had any “spiritual” import; that it had any sanction of God that would make it an enduring curse; that it had any relation to skin pigmentation; and that Canaan was in any way connected with Black people. W. F. Albright even went so far as to indicate that all known races in the region of the Old Testament world belonged to the so called “white” or “Caucasian” race, with the exception of the Cushites (Ethiopians) who were strongly dark skinned in type.
Tower of Babel
The tower of Babel account has become the focus for other theories of the origin of race. Some have considered that God miraculously produced the races in the same instant that He confounded the languages. A man by the name of Ariel even suggested that the tower of Babel was built by Black people only who had no connection with the family of Noah.
Such theories or fancies have been utilized to establish racial distinctions as they relate to racists’ arguments. At any one point in the history of civilization it has been difficult to distinguish the truth from the false interpretations of Scripture. Present-day scientific schemes, on the other hand, do not serve to negate the Scriptures nor the truth of Scripture; rather they negate the myth, the untruth that has grown up around the truth of Scripture, as men have “seen in part” and dogmatically asserted that they have seen the whole.
Race in the Bible
With such a background, it is possible to suggest what the Bible does say about the question of the races of man.
It does talk about ethnic groups by name, going so far as to describe specific customs characteristic of the ethnic groups such as in the Book of Acts, where, in
In three instances, black skin color is referred to: the first of these by Job when his skin took on a darker hue due to his illness (
Prior to the building of the tower of Babel, “the whole earth had one language” (
Whether the confounding of the language was instantaneous or not does not appear to be the point of the story. It appears rather that there was a causal effect, that in order to confound their language, they were scattered. Such scattering was certain to produce two effects, effects that are known today from the genetic and linguistic sciences: the separation of inbreeding populations produces distinct phenotypic characteristics within each separate population; and through the process of language change, isolated populations develop distinct languages. Just when this scattering took place is not clear from the Biblical account. The narration may be in the proper temporal sequence. It appears rather that this may have been interjected here by the author to clarify a point in the genealogical listing, which point is lost to us due to the writing/translation process. Either way, we have a very clear insight into the scientific process of genetic and linguistic differentiation. The best scientific minds today tend to agree that Homo sapiens appeared and began to differentiate into races at the same time. The Bible does not need to be contradictory at this point.
Finally, two concepts become clear in the Biblical record. The first is that when dealing with people of distinct ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, one must deal with them in keeping with their backgrounds, as for example in