2017 was jam-packed with racial tensions: debate over Confederate statues in Charlottesville, VA, attempts at immigration policy “reform”, and organizations known for racial aggression claimed a Christian foundation to justify their “holy” war. Does God’s apparent preference for a particular race of people in the Old Testament prove their point? Is the God of the Bible racist? How can we reconcile what looks like Old Testament ethnic cleansing with Jesus’ New Testament Great Commission?
The good news is we do not glorify a two-faced God.
The Imago Dei
From the beginning, the Old Testament makes clear God’s stance on race. Despite differences in physical characteristics, cultures, and politics, Genesis 1:26 still stands. Would a God who says, “Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness,” then make one race better than another? The image of God (imago dei) in all humanity gives us a great lens by which we can accurately view race. God’s view of humanity, including race, has not changed since the beginning of time. If we can’t accept this, we are doomed to see God differently than who He really is.
Does God play racial favorites in taking Israel as His chosen people (Gen 12:1-3)? Is entry into the Kingdom of God racially exclusive to the Israelites? No, not at all. God choosing Israel as His people did not mean He did not also choose all other people groups who also call on Him. He clearly desires to have a relationship with even those outside of Israel (Gen 12:3, Gen 22:18, Is 2:2, Jer 4:2, Gal 3:8).
The Old Testament describes a God who commands the Israelites not to oppress other people (Ex 22:21, 23:9; Jer 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Lev 19:33) and to love foreigners (Leviticus 19:34). We see numerous accounts where God includes other people groups into the fold of the Israelites, such as with a Gentile (non-Israelite) named Rahab and a Moabite named Ruth — both women are in Jesus’ messianic line.
God choosing Israel had more to do with His messianic promise, not Israel’s righteousness or ethnicity. God does not play favorites. He executes judgment even on the Israelites (Ezekiel 18:30, Jer 32:28) and his salvation was not exclusive to the Israelites. The Old Testament depicts a God who was as inclusive as the God who declared there is, “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Ethnic Cleansing or Divine Judgement?
What about God commanding the Israelites to destroy other people groups? Judgement for sin was the primary thrust of these events. God was not necessarily concerned with ethnic differences between the Israelites and the neighboring Canaanites. No, God was supremely concerned with the threat of sin and “judgment, not displacement” (https://bible.org/article/canaanites-genocide-or-judgment). This was not so much ethnic cleansing as it was another reminder that all people may know the Lord is God. God created a Kingdom of people that includes both Jew and Gentile. Ethnic cleansing and genocide center around mistreatment due to ethnicity or ideology. This is categorically different than what we see pictured in the Old Testament (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/how-could-god-command-genocide-in-the-old-testament-2). God did not execute judgment based upon racial differences but rather an intolerance toward sin in all peoples.
Let’s keep in mind the overarching Gospel story. The Great Commission includes all peoples of all nations. God is above choosing based upon physical characteristics. Had the prophet Samuel anointed Israel’s king based upon physical looks or social distinction we would never have seen David anointed as king. (1 Sam 16:6-13).
The value of a person derives straight from God. With all the racial differences in our world, we know we serve a God who is building a Kingdom of people made up of all races. We should let the reality of God’s Kingdom filled with all languages, ethnicities, and cultures (Rev 7:9) be the very motivation for our personal engagement on the issue of race.