Does this question make you uncomfortable? It should! The answer that any Christian wants to hear to this question is “NO!” But how do we answer people who claim that the Old Testament (OT) itself promotes racism? Perhaps we secretly fear that this claim is somehow true.
The claim that the OT promotes racism usually comes up because it seems that God gives the Israelites preferential treatment in the OT. God calls the Israelites His chosen people (Deut 7:6). Did God choose them because they were a superior race? Did God not care about other races? Is the God of the OT different from Jesus, who offers salvation in the New Testament (NT) to all people regardless of race (John 3:16)?
When I was a young person growing up in church, I was never brave enough to ask my parents or church leaders these questions. I was afraid that if I did, it would mean that I was doubting God. Years later, I discovered that these are important questions that godly Christians have already asked. I was relieved to know that I was not a “bad Christian” for having these questions. In fact, asking them showed that I cared about what the Bible says and who God really is. If you are asking similar questions, I hope my experience is an encouragement to you. In my search for answers, I was able to find several reasons for a definitive “no” to the claim that the OT promotes racism.
I WAS NEVER BRAVE ENOUGH TO ASK THESE QUESTIONS. I WAS AFRAID THAT IF I DID, IT WOULD MEAN THAT I WAS DOUBTING GOD.
CHOSEN FOR OBEDIENCE, NOT SUPERIORITY
First, God did not choose the Israelites because of any idea of racial superiority. God’s choice was instead based on obedience to Him. To understand this, we need to go back to God’s calling of their ancestor — Abraham, also known as Abram. Genesis 12:1–9 records this important event in OT history, when God called Abram to leave his homeland to go to a faraway place. The incredible thing was that Abram obeyed God, no questions asked! Obedience to God was the only thing that set Abram apart from his kinsmen/tribe in Ur (Gen 11:31), who were likely worshippers of false Chaldean gods.
Generations later, when God acted on His promise to Abraham and began nation-building with his descendants, He chose an equally unlikely group of people — the Israelite slaves in Egypt (Deut 7:7–8). If anything, they were inferior, not superior! With these acts, God showed that His grace can overcome the racial prejudice that the Egyptians had against the lowly Israelites.
CHOSEN TO BE A BLESSING
Second, when God chose Abraham and the Israelites, He did not disregard other races. In fact, God chose the Israelites with a purpose to bless everyone else (Gen 12:3) and to defend the marginalised (Deut 10:17–19). The Israelites were given a special mission to be examples of holy living so that all other nations would learn about God’s holiness (Exod 19:6; Deut 4:5–8). This was important because they were living in an evil world where kings and false gods were cruel and capricious (Exod 1:8–16; 2 Kings 17:31). God was calling the Israelites to live as shining examples of holiness and justice in a corrupt world.
CHOSEN, BUT WITHOUT SPECIAL TREATMENT
Third, God did not give the Israelites preferential treatment because they were His chosen people. We can see this in the stern warnings against evil that God gave to the Israelites. For if, instead of serving as examples of holiness, they acted like other nations, God would judge them and remove them from the promised land (Deut 28). The sad history of Israel was exactly this — they neglected God’s warning against sin and began to imitate the evil ways of other nations. Israel thought that God would give them preferential treatment because they were His chosen people (Hos 8:2; Jer 14:13–14). However, God took issue with their sense of racial superiority (Amos 3:2; 9:7). The sinfulness of the kings and people finally led to God’s judgement after their repeated rejection of God’s warning (2 Kgs 17:7–20). Hence, God’s favour to the Israelites was based on holy living, not race.
WHEN GOD CHOSE ABRAHAM AND THE ISRAELITES, HE DID NOT DISREGARD OTHER RACES.
THE GOSPEL FOR ALL, REGARDLESS OF RACE
Looking at how God chose the Israelites in the OT, something should begin to sound familiar to us as Christians today. In the NT, Jesus has also called us to obey God’s commands (John 14:15), and Abraham is mentioned as an example of faith for us (Heb 11:8; 12:1). Just like the Israelites, Christians have a responsibility to live as examples of holiness to draw others to God (Acts 1:8; 1 Pet 2:9). For those of us who have grown up in Christian homes, the negative example of the Israelites reminds us that salvation is not automatic because of family or race. A genuine and active faith in God is required, and it is in fact the only requirement for salvation. In many ways, God’s selection of the Israelites in the OT foreshadows the call to Christians of all races in the NT (Luke 10:25–37; Acts 10; Rev 7:9–10).
In fact, even in the OT, God’s favour was not only toward the Israelites. There are many OT stories where God was gracious and loving to non-Israelites who turned to him. Some examples are Rahab (Josh 6:22–25), Ruth (Ruth 1:16; 2:6, 11–12), a Sidonian widow (1 Kgs 17:8–24), and Naaman (2 Kings 5:1–14).
GOD IS NOT RACIST. HE IS THE BIGGEST ADVOCATE FOR RACIAL RECONCILIATION!
God was gracious and loving not only to individual non-Israelites; He was also compassionate to whole groups of them. A good example would be the story of Jonah. Unlike the well-loved children’s version of the story with a big fish, the focus of the book is actually about God’s heart to warn, forgive, and save a foreign people (Jon 1:1–2; 3:10; 4:2). When the people of Nineveh were willing to repent from evil and worship God (Jon 3:4–9), He was more than willing to forgive them and remove the judgement against them (Jon 3:10). But when Jonah acted like a racist and was unhappy that God saved the people of Nineveh (Jon 4:1–2), God even scolded Jonah for his racism (Jon 4:10–11)!
Reading these parts of the OT should help us know that God is not racist. In reality, He is the biggest advocate for racial reconciliation and delights in true worshippers from all races! From all these examples, we see that God is passionately interested in working against the sinful human tendency toward racism. As His followers, this should be our passion as well.