Morality Ch. 19: Racism

Moses was almost deposed by a race riot when he married a black woman. Jesus’ only recorded sermon concerned racism. The church listened, and the first Gentile convert was black. This is an issue the Bible doesn’t hide.

My mother was an assistant in a stationery shop in Hamburg during Nazi rule. In 1938, the shop owner dismissed her and sent her to a shop owned by a friend. She was hurt, but he said it was for her own good. He was right; he was a Jew, and a few nights later came Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”) – a pretty name for an ugly event. Thugs roused by Hitler’s anti-Semitic speeches smashed the windows of properties owned by Jews, looted their shops, and burned down synagogues. Over thirty thousand Jewish men were soon imprisoned in concentration camps, and this night started the movement that ended in six million deaths. The existence of pro-Nazi movements today reminds us that such racism hides just under the surface of many societies.

All nations are prone to xenophobia, and Jews themselves have not been immune. The Old Testament sometimes stresses the purity of Judaism, especially when the Israelites return from exile in Babylon. As they are needing to reassert their national identity, Nehemiah tells them to separate from all “foreigners” (Hebrew erevNeh 13:3). However, this same word is also used to describe the large number of non-Israelites who are welcome to join them when leaving Egypt (Exod 12:38—where it is often translated as “mixed” or “other”). They not only march across the Red Sea with the Israelites, but presumably marry into the tribes that form a new nation in Palestine. So although the Israelites regarded themselves as descended from one family of twelve brothers, their ancestors actually included people from other nations.

When the nation had been established, foreigners continued to join them – sometimes to simply visit, and sometimes to stay. Foreigners didn’t have the right to own land, though they could buy a leasehold till the next Jubilee – an event that came every fifty years, when all land was returned to the family it had been originally allotted to (though we don’t know whether this was often carried out in practice). Even so, many foreigners chose to stay because they didn’t face discrimination. This was thanks to a clear command protecting foreigners: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34).

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As white as snow

However, color was a huge unspoken issue in early Israel. There was no problem when Moses married a Midianite, even though she was a foreigner (Exod 2:16-22). But when Moses married a black woman from Cush (modern-day Ethiopia/Sudan), a lot of people wanted to depose him from leadership, and his sister Miriam led a rebellion against him. God punished her in a frightening and dramatic way that highlighted her racism: he covered her completely with leprosy so that she was “as white as snow” (Num 12:10).

They probably picked up this racist attitude while living in Egypt. The lighter-skinned Egyptians looked down on the black Cushites. We see their attitude from the oath regularly sworn by witnesses in ancient Egyptian courts, saying that if they lied, “May my nose and ears be cut off, and may I be banished to the land of Cush.”1 They also looked down on any foreigners and couldn’t bring themselves to eat with them. Even when Joseph invites his brothers to stay for a meal, he and his Egyptian friends eat apart “because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians” (Gen 43:32). Racism wasn’t a problem just in Israel – it was everywhere.

Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth is on the subject of racism – and the congregation is so outraged that they try to kill him. They drag Jesus to a cliff top and try to push him over, presumably in order to stone him (Luke 4:29). He angered them by pointing out that God healed the Gentile leper Naaman and sent Elijah to look after a Gentile widow during a famine. This implied that the many Jewish lepers and widows who were not helped lacked the faith shown by these Gentiles (vv. 25-27). This was a particularly sensitive issue for Jews at the time because they were fighting for their national identity in the face of the Roman invasion.

When Rome took over the governance of Palestine shortly before Jesus was born, their culture was far more disruptive than their army. Their gymnasium in Jerusalem offered the best education in the country, including unsurpassed facilities for sports, but these were carried out in the nude, which offended Jewish standards of decency. Elite households started copying Roman dining customs, lying on couches (which Jews normally did only at Passover) while being entertained by lady “sinners” (as the Gospels euphemistically call them). To stop their nation falling into these pagan ways, the Jews reacted jingoistically, teaching that all Gentiles were hated by God.

When Jesus criticized this xenophobia, it must have seemed as though he was siding with the enemy, but he continued to challenge it. Jews of his day were especially suspicious about Samaritans, whom they regarded as permanently ritually unclean. They had a saying: “Eating a Samaritan loaf is like eating the flesh of a pig.”2 Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan and his chat with a Samaritan woman at the well show that he didn’t share these prejudices.

Jews living outside Palestine were not so racially intolerant. They knew there were good Gentiles because an increasing number of them even attended synagogues. The Jews called these Gentiles “Godfearers,” and many synagogue inscriptions referring to them have been discovered in modern-day Turkey. This movement helps explain the enthusiastic welcome for the gospel in that area. However, the Jews weren’t happy when Gentiles started becoming Christians and were accepted as equal members of this new faith. For example, Jews in Pisidia are happy to listen to Paul, but when Gentiles join the crowd they plot against him (Acts 13:43-45).


The early church included black members, though it may be significant that we only hear about it incidentally. In fact, the first Gentile convert was black – a government minister from Ethiopia (Acts 8:27). We also know of Simeon Niger (i.e., “the Black”), a leader of the church of Antioch (Acts 13:1). He wasn’t called this to emphasize his color but because Simon/Simeon was an extremely common name, so Jews normally accompanied it with a second name. The Simon who helped Jesus carry his cross may also have been black because he was from Cyrene (modern-day Libya), though he may have been one of the many Jews who lived there. Mark recorded the names of his sons in his Gospel, as if his readers would recognize them (15:21), so probably the family became Christians and were well known to his readers. The interesting point in all of this is that no one bothered to mention the color of any of these people – it simply wasn’t an issue in the early church.

The command against racial discrimination must be regarded as timeless because it is found in both Old and New Testaments, and it is countercultural in both. Most ancient societies were like Egypt – they considered themselves better than others and actively discriminated against foreigners. But Israel had a law specifically forbidding legal discrimination and telling Israelites about foreigners to “love them as yourself” (Lev 19:34).

When Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), he uses the parable of the good Samaritan to remind his audience of the command, even though his sermon against racism in his hometown was received so poorly. The church succeeded where Israel failed: we have to dig between the lines to spot black people in the early church, because early Christians appear to have been colorblind. There were all kinds of races in the early church, and this was so normal that they hardly noticed.

Racism, ethnic conflict, and other forms of xenophobia are present in all societies today, as then – including, unfortunately, in many churches. It is difficult to comprehend how some church leaders encouraged the 1994 Rwandan massacre, or how Afrikaner churches in South Africa used to preach the superiority of white races. Secular politicians have argued that Turkey could not join the European Union because it is not “Christian” – which is ironic because Turkey had churches before Europe did. But we mustn’t be too quick to blame others without examining our own attitudes. Most of us subconsciously look down on those in society who have different lifestyles, dress codes, or attitudes from ourselves.

The church in the US is still struggling with the issue of racism, and in the UK secular society is often more integrated than churches. Blacks and whites tend to meet in separate congregations, and there are churches for specific nationalities such as Chinese. I’ve watched struggling Welsh-heritage Baptist churches in the valleys north of Cardiff (where I used to live) close down rather than join with nearby English Baptist congregations, even though very few of the Welsh members could actually speak Welsh. And when English Christians live abroad, they often attend expatriate congregations even if they have learned the local language.

The uproar that ensues when Moses married a black woman is a powerful story, especially when God punishes the racism in such a visually appropriate way. It occurred to me that I’ve never heard a sermon on this, so I searched the huge database at Among the two hundred thousand sermons uploaded there, I found thirty-eight on Numbers 12—which is impressive! – but only one of these mentions racism in this chapter. It seems that the church isn’t very interested in this problem … or maybe it’s something we aren’t willing to tackle yet.

1^ Alexandre Alexandrovich Loktionov, “May My Nose and Ears Be Cut Off: Practical and ‘Supra-Practical’ Aspects of Mutilation in the Egyptian New Kingdom,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 60 (2017): 263-91 (
2^ Mishnah Shebiith 8:10 (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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