Question: Suppose you did not know humans came in different skin colors. Could you figure out that fact just from reading your Bible?
I think you’d be hard pressed to discover the fact of varying levels of melanin just from the Scriptures. Yes, Scripture acknowledges different ethnicities, tribes, languages, etc., but it is (oddly, to modern sensibilities) totally silent about the relation of ethnicity to skin color. In fact, it is almost totally silent on skin color altogether. This is really astounding when you think about how much we focus on skin color in the modern world.
Jeremiah 13:23 mentions the Ethiopian’s skin, but only in passing. The bride in Song of Solomon mentions she is dark (though that could be from sun rather than melanin). Other than those incidental texts, the Bible seems just as uninterested in skin color as in eye color or hair color. If we are biblical, shouldn’t we imitate this total lack of emphasis? The Scripture acknowledges the existence of different people groups and nations (more on this below), but never ties this to skin color, so why should we? Biblically, language, culture, and ultimately faith determine the identity of a people, not melanin. Biblically, a person's identity is never defined by his melanin any more than it is defined by other incidental physical features.
Perhaps there is one exception in Numbers 12 when Moses marries a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman. Presumably her skin was black since she was from Africa. Miriam objected to this marriage (and Moses' role in the nation). Her punishment was leprosy, which (as we know from Leviticus) means her skin turned white. It's as if God said to Miriam, "You like white(r) skin? I'll give it to you -- in the form white leprous sores!" But what's striking about the whole story is the skin color of Moses' wife is supposed to be completely irrelevant. If she is a fellow believer and is willing to live in terms of God's covenant with Israel, her level of melanin has no bearing on the lawfulness of the marriage. The Bible forbids inter-faith marriage for obvious reasons. Believers must marry fellow believers. But the Scriptures are full of marriages between people of different ethnic groups (e.g., Ruth and Boaz), different melanin levels, etc. Scripture does not require us to marry people of the same skin color any more than it requires us to marry people of the same eye or hair color. The only real issue in Scripture is faithfulness to the Lord. What modern people call race is a non-factor in marriage.
Even when we might expect the Scripture to invoke the category of biological race, such as in Acts 17:26, it does not do so. In his sermon on Mars Hill, Paul says the many "ethnos" have come from "one blood." But these "ethnos" are not genetically defined "races" in the modern sense. They have "times" and "boundaries." In other words, they are nations that can come into and go out of existence (e.g., ancient Assyria), modern America, etc.). And they have borders, which cannot be said of any melanin-defined group since even in the ancient world nations very often contained people with various shades of melanin.
All that to say: our modern obsession with race is just that - a distinctly modern obsession. It has nothing to do with the Bible or godliness at all, and therefore cannot serve a biblical agenda for missions, ministry, etc. Indeed, if our mission and ministry work are concerned about melanin, it's a sign we are being shaped by some agenda other than the Bible's. (Perhaps this agenda comes from Charles Darwin? The full title of his most famous work is The Origin of the Species By Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The modern obsession with race is as much a legacy of the racist implications of Darwin's theory of evolution as any other factor.)
I am not claiming the Bible requires us to be “color blind” in every sense. In some ways, it is appropriate to be "color blind" while in other ways it is appropriate to be "color conscious." In other words, U2's line "I believe in kingdom come, then all the colors will bleed into one" is right in a important sense, but wrong in another significant sense.
Certainly, we are to be color blind as far as matters of law and justice are concerned. We are not to show partiality (James 2). We are not to judge based on appearances (John 7). We are all imago Dei. We are all descendants of Adam, fallen in him. We can all become co-heirs of salvation in Christ. Skin color, ethnicity, whatever -- none of these things matter in these areas. There is one law and one gospel for all humans. When it comes to our spiritual standing before God, it is sin, not skin that matters. Whatever our skin color, only the red blood of Christ can save us. Much of the NewTestament is written to make just this point: Jews and Gentiles (all non-Jewish peoples) come into the kingdom in the same way: by faith in Jesus and baptism into the Triune name. This is why it was so abominable for Peter to refuse table fellowship with Gentile believers (Galatians 2:11ff) and why Paul insisted that we are all one in Christ in Jesus (Gal. 3:28). This is also why Paul said Jew and Gentile believers are being formed into one new temple as a dwelling place for the Lord (Eph. 2:11ff). Further, this is why we should see the task of the Great Commission as undergirded by God's promises of global salvation (Gen. 12:1ff; Ps. 2:9ff, etc.)
But at the same time, we can and must recognize different ethnicities for other purposes, remembering that each ethnicity is called to Christ and to the fellowship of the saints. We do not need to blind ourselves to the fact that the human race is a veritable kaleidoscope. We do not have to ignore biological and cultural differences between us in our relationships, including differences in melanin. Indeed, we can and should appreciate those differences so long as they are not tied to sin or used sinfully (e.g., as a basis for political discrimination). I can love my family, state, and nation -- indeed, I ought to do so, provided that love is subordinate to my higher love for Christ and his church. I can appreciate the wonderful culinary contributions of the Chinese and the French. I can appreciate the wonders of German engineering and Japanese manufacturing. I can appreciate the fact that there are blondes and brunettes and gingers. I can appreciate that some people have ebony skin and others ivory, with still other shades in between those two. I want doctors to know that certain skin colors are associated with various other genetic features, which ought to be factored in to providing the best medical care. I can recognize the scientific fact that certain shades of melanin often cluster with other genetic and cultural traits. I can approve of the fact that some cultures play baseball while others play cricket. I can appreciate that God assigns us into different bordered, geographic entities called nations, with their own governments, customs, and so forth (Acts 14:16, 17:26). The biological and ethnic/cultural diversity of the human species is one on the great glories and joys God has granted to us, and it will be truly spectacular when all the nations of the earth bring their unique treasures into Christ’s kingdom in fulfillment of the dominion mandate (Gen. 1:26-28).
But it would be hard to imagine anything more unbiblical, or anti-biblical, than categorizing and defining people according to skin color, especially if done so for political purposes. Identity politics (such as Critical Race Theory) always produces idolatrous politics. Race as we define it today (that is, melanin level) is simply not a biblical category. It’s hardly even acknowledged at all in Scripture. It is certainly not used as a the basis of identity. I do not think a reader who did not already know people come in different skin colors would figure that out just from reading the Bible. So if we want to be biblical, we should not use it as a category either. This fact of general revelation - varying skin colors among humans - must be interpreted through a scriptural lens. In other words, Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said we must judge others not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.
If we listen to what God says about skin color in Scripture, we will conclude that skin color as such just doesn’t matter. It should have no bearing before the law, no bearing in how we love one another, no bearing on how we live together in the church or in the wider society. While we do not ignore differences in skin color, we should not exaggerate the importance of those differences, as so much of the modern world has done. Run a thought experiment: Suppose a black Christian family lives next door on one side of me and a white progressive family lives next door to me on the other side. Who do I have more common in common with? Genetically, I share more in common with the white family, but in the most central aspects of life, I have more in common with the black family. So, for example, I would not allow one of my kids to marry a kid from the white family even though we are more closely related biologically, I would not object in principle to one of my kids marrying a kid from the black family. Water is thicker than blood. Choose grace and over race and melanin. The church is our ultimate family, nation, tribe, and city.
If Scripture does not acknowledge skin color or race, what does it acknowledge? The biblical categories are found in Revelation 7: nation, tribe, people, language. While these distinctions do indeed matter, none of them maps easily onto the modern conception of race (defined by skin color). Not all whites belong to the same nation or speak the same language. And many blacks and whites belong to the same nations, speak the same languages, etc. While nations are perfectly within their rights to maintain their integrity as nations (e.g. their borders and their inherited way of life), biblically, nations are always permeable (or at least should be). No people group can treat its identity as air-tight. When Israel came out of Egypt, a mixed multitude joined them, and that mixed multitude was incorporated into the people of Israel over the course of their 40 years of wilderness wandering (foreshadowing the way a mixed multitude would be incorporated into the new Israel of the church during the forty year apostolic era of 30-70 AD). We have already noted the huge number of what we would call mixed-race (or mixed-ethnic) marriages in Scripture -- Judah's tribe intermarried with Canaanites in Genesis 38, Moses married a Cushite woman, Salmon married Rahab, Boaz married Ruth the Moabite, Bathsheba was married to Uriah the Hittite, etc. The genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17) underscores the "outsiders" who were incorporated into Israel via marriage. Further, the old covenant Torah clearly acknowledges that immigrants could live in the promised land of Israel provided they assimilated in certain ways; indeed, the Torah protected such immigrants from discrimination by establishing their legal rights and reminding Israel to treat such aliens with kindness. Not only that, but Gentiles could be incorporated into Israel if they trusted in YHWH and received the sign of circumcision. All that to say: If the chosen family of Abraham and the nation of Israel was not strictly tied to racial or blood purity, why should any other nation be? In the Scriptures, national identity matters but it is never absolute and it is definitely malleable over the course of history.
The biblical vision of the human race holds two key components together. On the one hand, nations, tribes, peoples, and language groups will continue to exist. These groupings have been established by God in his providence and seem to be permanent features of our humanity. All attempts to completely homogenize the human race (say, under oner world government) are bound to fail, just as the Tower of Babel failed. We know this because the Scripture's eschatological vision includes these various groupings bringing their distinctive treasures into the kingdom of God. That can only happen if nations, tribes, etc. continue to remain distinct and identifiable groupings. But there is another side to this. In the church, these various nations, tribes, peoples, and languages are brought together into one human family -- the family God promised to Abraham, the family of families who are blessed in Abraham's seed (Gen. 12:1-13). In this family, the many different ethnicities of the world share in one faith, one Lord, one baptism. This is the biblical hope: All the nations of the earth are destined to become one holy nation in Christ - which does not mean they lose their diversity but that their diversity will be sanctified. As the nations are baptized and discipled in terms of the Great Commission of Matthew 28, as Christ claims all the nations of the earth as his promised inheritance per Psalm 2, as the kingdoms of this world are more and more absorbed into the kingdom of Christ as prophesied in Revelation 11, the differences between these different groups that give rise to so much division at the present moment will give way to a beautiful harmony. Thus, the Christian will not deny the existence of nations and people groups. But neither will he absolutize and idolize his own group. Instead, he will come to see that each nation, tribe, people, and language has its place in God's redeemed new creation.
Addendum (5/27/21): Based on some internet discussion of this article, I decided to provide some additional clarifications.
To be clear, my own view is that there is more to what we call "race" than melanin. I acknowledge that in the article, as I advocate “color blindness” in some respects and “color consciousness” in others. While I open the article with a biblicist question, it is a rhetorical move. I am not not a strict biblicist. I am more than happy to learn from empirical studies, biology, anthropology, history, etc. But I believe natural revelation and all data gleaned from study of the creation and cultures must be interpreted through a biblical lens. That’s what the opening question is intended to establish. Again, in the article, I gladly incorporate extra-biblical data about the "races."
In the modern world, what is commonly referred to as “race” is most certainly about melanin. What is the “B” in BLM about? Melanin. What is the “R” in CRT about? Melanin. What are “white privilege” and “white fragility” about? Melanin. Any one paying attention to our culture right now can see that - your melanin is your most important feature and determines what you are (or should be). White skinned people are oppressors and intractable racists. Dark skinned people are victims and are due reparations. That is the current view dominant in much of our culture. CRT advocates are racial reductiontists -- everything reduces to race and race reduces to melanin.
My overarching point is that the Bible gives us a different set of categories for interpreting this data concerning the makeup and diversity of the human race. The biblical categories of tribe, people, nation, and language might be related to melanin levels in some way but they are far richer and far deeper. But those categories also do not map onto melanin levels in a clear cut way, and so these categories in Scripture are permeable and malleable in certain ways that racists from neither the right or left will allow. Skin color cannot change, but many other things can. Borders can change. Languages can change. Old nations can die out and new nations can form. Nations can intermix, even intermarry. Etc. Plus, no matter how much we learn about the biological and cultural differences between various people groups, Scripture always brings us back to the reality that all people descended from one man. The variety found in different people groups can never be used to subvert or negate our fundamental shared humanity as fellow descendants of Adam.
Again: In contemporary culture, melanin supposedly predestines you, or obligates you, to live and act a certain way. So, for example, those with darker melanin levels are supposed to vote Democrat, oppose police, and embrace progressivism. If they do not, they are accused of betraying their blackness. Meanwhile, if whites insist on objective truths in mathematics and logic, expect employees to show up on time, advocate for law and order, and champion the nuclear family structure, they are supposedly acting as racists oppressors. That entire view of race needs to be challenged and shattered because it is false, through and through. In our day, racial stereotyping, pigeon-holing, and profiling mainly comes from the left. We need to call CRT, identity politics, and anti-racism what they are -- namely, viciously racist movements that will destroy any hope for racial reconciliation and national cohesion. CRT is an acid that will ultimately eat through everything if we allow it.
My article is aimed much more at the CRT crowd than anyone else. That being said, I do not expect kinists or racists to like it, because, in the end, kinism and racism are just the mirror image of CRT.