I’ve been cataloging everything the Bible has to say about various forms of discrimination. One type of discrimination that gets a lot of attention in modern times is racism. And the version of the Bible I’m working with does appear to use the word “race” in that sense a couple of times. But back in biblical times, they didn’t really have the same concept of “race”. So rather than write about “racism” in the Bible, I’m going to discuss the closest thing the ancients actually did have: Discrimination by nation.
Let’s look at the least discriminatory parts of the Bible first. It says Israel isn’t the only nation God cares about; the nations are all the same to him. He cares about what people do, not who their ancestors are. God loves foreigners and wants his people to love them too. He says his people shouldn’t mistreat or oppress foreigners. They should judge everyone fairly and justly and treat the foreigners among them the same as the native-born Israelites, because they once lived as foreigners in Egypt.1
In fact, there’s one passage that just assumes Israelites want to help foreigners in need, and encourages them to help each other the same way they would help foreigners. (That’s not going to do much good in the cases where that assumption is wrong.)
Sometimes the Bible says its laws should be applied equally to Israelites and foreigners living in Israel. I’m not so sure that’s a good thing, though. Mostly what that means is that people will get stoned to death if they don’t follow the rules of the religion of the people of the country they happen to be in. But if foreigners do worship and obey him, then God will… allow them to worship and obey him.
God did occasionally disapprove of his people oppressing foreigners. (At least when they did it without fearing him.) But that didn’t do much good when he was telling them to oppress them most of the time. Foreigners were amazed and confused on the occasions when Israelites actually decided to be nice to them.
An angel who was the commander of God’s army said he was not on Israel’s side or on their enemies’ side. God thinks all nations are worthless and just wants everybody to die.2 Equality! David once entrusted the ark of the covenant to a Philistine, and later he allowed hundreds of Philistines to join his army.3 That’s quite a difference from how he normally treated Philistines. Solomon asked God to answer the prayers of foreigners, though I’m not sure it says God agreed to that part.
When Ezra said all the Jews should disown their foreign wives and children, there were about four people who disagreed. Jesus once healed a girl even though she was a Canaanite, though it took some convincing. There was one Samaritan who was willing to help a Jew… in a story Jesus made up.
After Jesus died, Peter convinced himself that foreigners could be saved, which his peers thought was a pretty weird idea. He decided he should preach to Gentiles even though it was against God’s law to associate with them. Paul, too, thought God now judged people according to their actions, their beliefs, or his own whims, and not by their nationality.
Ambivalently unequal ordinances
Sometimes the Bible says things about certain nations that I’m not sure whether to classify as favorable or unfavorable treatment.
It says God gave his laws to Israel, and not to any other nation. Some of those laws suggest that being a foreigner living in Israel automatically makes you disadvantaged and unable to provide for yourself somehow. But to make up for that, God’s law says Hebrews have to give foreigners free food. It says Hebrews aren’t allowed to eat animals they found already dead, but they can give them to foreigners to eat.
It says every seven years, an Israelite has to cancel any debts that another Israelite owes them. But they don’t have to do the same for a foreigner. And an Israelite isn’t allowed to charge another Israelite interest. But they can make a foreigner pay interest.
Jesus told his followers to only preach their message to Jews, at least at first.
Between Gentile nations
The Bible says God had his people wipe out a lot of other nations and steal their land. But it says God didn’t want them to invade the land of the Ammonites.
The Moabites and the Midianites both led Israel into sin in the Peor incident. God told Israel to go to war against Midian because of this. But he told them not to go to war with Moab, even though they did the same thing.
The Romans thought it was okay to violently punish people without a trial, as long as they weren’t Roman citizens.
The Bible says Egyptians thought Hebrews were detestable and refused to eat with them. It says there was a pharaoh who had all the Hebrew boys killed at birth. And it says the Egyptians enslaved all the Hebrews for 400 years. God didn’t approve, because those were his people.
Moses called Israel “a nation without sense“. Joshua said they were incapable of serving God. The way Micah described Israel made them sound kind of evil (though judging by the context I’m not sure if that’s what he was going for). When Jesus was planning to spend a weekend in heaven, he told the Jews they couldn’t go where he was going.
God threatened to let other nations overpower the Hebrews if they disobeyed him. One time, God decided to punish Israel because they were his chosen people. And another time, he decided to punish Israel and Judah for being Israel and Judah.
David, one of God’s favorite kings, once pretended he was slaughtering his own people. He seemed strangely eager to actually do it, and eventually, he did. Haman tried to get all the Jews in Persia killed, just because one Jew wouldn’t bow down to him. Daniel had a vision where he was told that a future king would destroy the holy people.
At one point, when God had given up on the kingdom of Israel but not the kingdom of Judah, the king of Judah tried to hire some soldiers from Israel to fight for Judah. But God said he was against Israel so much that he would have turned against Judah too if they had gone through with that.
Elijah helped foreigners, but God chose not to send him to help any of his own people who were in need, because prophets are never accepted in their hometowns. When the king of Babylon allowed the Jews to return from exile, some of his officials were “very disturbed” that people were trying to help the Israelites.
Paul thought Christians should consider Jews enemies, even if God was willing to save them. He said his own status as a Jew would have been a reason to be confident, if it was worthwhile to put confidence in “the flesh”. But as a Christian, he didn’t think that was the case, and he actually considered it a loss.
God says he wants his people not to despise Edomites and Egyptians. He wants them to treat them better than they would treat other nations. But even people with origins in those nations are still not allowed to do things Hebrews can do, unless their families have been living in Israel for several generations. Foreigners aren’t allowed to eat the Passover meal, unless they’re circumcised slaves. They’re not allowed to enter God’s temple. And foreigners certainly aren’t allowed to become king of Israel.
The father of Israel blessed him so that other nations would have to serve him. God’s law allows Israelites to enslave each other to some extent, but the worst forms of God-approved slavery are reserved for foreigners. He says if his people want real slaves, who they can keep for life, pass on to their children, and treat ruthlessly, then they can enslave people from the nations around them, and their descendants. But he doesn’t allow his own people to be treated quite that badly, by foreigners or by each other.
When Ezra brought some of the Jews back from Babylon and they were rebuilding the temple, they wouldn’t even allow foreigners to help them. When Nehemiah brought some of the Jews back from Babylon and was getting them to behave the way God wanted, he had them “separate themselves from all foreigners“. Later, the Jews convinced themselves that it was against the law to have anyone of foreign descent among them at all. So they kicked all the foreigners out of their country.
In the New Testament, the Jews still believed it was against their law to associate with Gentiles. (Though Peter convinced himself that his never-changing God had changed his mind about that.) The early Christian leaders were “too busy” to feed their culturally Greek followers, even though they did provide food for their culturally Jewish followers. They did do something about that when the Hellenists complained, though.
Even Paul, who was quite antisemitic most of the time, thought of anyone who wasn’t born Jewish as sinful. He told his followers not to live like Gentiles, who he thought were too stupid to figure out how to stop being evil. He thought all Arabs should be slaves, and could never get any share of God’s blessings for his people. And he agreed with a Cretan’s assessment that all Cretans were liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons.
Abraham wanted his son Isaac to marry someone related to him. He made his servant promise not to find a wife for his son from the people of Canaan. So Isaac ended up marrying his first cousin once removed.
Isaac and his cousin Rebekah hated it when their son Esau married two Hittites. Rebekah said her life wouldn’t be worth living if their other son Jacob married a Hittite too. So Isaac told Jacob to marry one of his first cousins instead, and he ended up marrying two of them. And Esau also married his cousin in addition to those Hittites. So much better than marrying foreigners, right?
God’s law says priests are only allowed to marry virgins from their own people, or their offspring will be “defiled”. The priests should set an example for the rest of the Israelites and show them how to distinguish between “the unclean and the clean”, “the holy and the common”. No Israelites are allowed to marry any of the Canaanites whose land they’re taking over. God wants them to kill all the Canaanites, so they won’t make that deadly mistake.
After the Israelites settled in the promised land, they still preferred their sons to marry their relatives rather than foreigners. One Israelite man was about to buy a piece of land, but he backed out when he heard that it came with a Moabite woman. The Bible blames Solomon’s foreign wives for corrupting him and making God decide not to let David’s descendants rule Israel forever, as he had led David to believe he would.
When Ezra found out that the Jewish men had intermarried and “mingled the holy race with the peoples around them“, he was appalled and made a huge deal out of it. He tore out his hair, and worried that God would kill them all for such a crime. He made those men send their wives and children away. And when Nehemiah found out that the Jews had intermarried with foreigners after promising not to, he cursed them and beat them and pulled out their hair.
God declared war on the Amalekites and said he would completely blot them out. Moses told the Israelites to help with that. The biblical law says murderers should be punished with the death penalty, but apparently that doesn’t apply if you’re murdering foreigners. After his people committed genocide, Moses said all the killers needed to do was stay outside the camp for a week, purify themselves and wash their clothes, and then they could go on with their lives.
In addition to killing all the native Canaanites, Moses said God wanted his people to attack foreign cities that were well outside of the promised land, and enslave all the people in those cities. That’s if the people there accepted their offer of “peace”. Otherwise, he said they should kill all the men in the city, and only enslave (and “use”) the women and children.
God told Jeremiah he was planning to bring disaster and destruction on several other nations, for no apparent reason. With God’s help, the supposedly good king David slaughtered tens of thousands of foreigners. He thought of them like animals.
When the king of Persia gave the Jews permission to defend themselves from people of other nations who “might attack them“, the Jews apparently went a little overboard. It says people of other nationalities had to start converting to Judaism so the Jews wouldn’t kill them for being part of the “enemy” nations.5
In favor of Hebrews
God loved Israel even before their forefather had done anything to deserve it. He told the people of Israel they would be set apart to be his own special nation, far above all the other nations.6 God thought Jerusalem was the center of the world. He said he would bless his people by letting them rule over all the other nations. He said they would lend to the nations but never borrow from them.
There’s one passage that says God doesn’t punish Israel and Judah when they deserve it, but he does give other nations the punishments they deserve. God once said that even if he completely destroyed all the other nations, he wouldn’t completely destroy Israel. Only partially.
Hating Israelites is against God’s law, but hating other people isn’t. There’s a psalm that seems to equate Israelites with people who are “pure in heart”. The only reason Jesus was willing to save the sinner Zacchaeus was that he was a descendant of Abraham.
There’s a biblical law that tells people in a certain situation to say something that’s ambiguous and could possibly mean at least three different things. One possible interpretation of what they’re saying is an obvious lie. Another is a suspiciously unprompted denial of guilt. And the other is that they’re unreasonably declaring that the person who committed a crime in Israel can’t possibly have been an Israelite.
Even Paul said the Jews were the ones who were really supposed to be God’s people. So even though he thought other people were taking their place, he said the status of God’s new people was precarious, and they shouldn’t consider themselves superior to the Jews.
God foresaw that Egyptians were going to enslave his people. Instead of doing anything to prevent that from happening, God decided he was going to punish all of Egypt for what some of its people were going to do. He sent disaster after disaster on the Egyptians, but made sure the disasters didn’t affect the Hebrews living in Egypt. He punished all the Egyptians just for being Egyptian, even though they were generally friendly to the Hebrews.
Moses was raised by Egyptian royalty, but when he grew up, he didn’t want anything to do with them. When Moses saw a Hebrew hitting a Hebrew, he talked to him and tried to find out why he was doing that. But when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he just killed him.
By David’s time, Egyptians found in Israel could be assumed to be slaves themselves. Solomon married an Egyptian princess, but he didn’t think she was fit to live with him in his holy palace. (He made her her own palace.)
Noah cursed his son Canaan for nothing in particular, and said he would be a lowly slave to his brothers.
The promised land that God wanted to give his people was already inhabited by the Canaanite peoples. God didn’t want those people to influence his people with their pagan ways,7 so he tried to prevent that by forcefully getting rid of them all.8 He told his people to “drive out” the inhabitants of the land they were taking. (By which he meant they were supposed to totally destroy them.) He wanted them to enslave people who lived outside that area, but he thought slavery was too good for the Canaanites; they all had to die.
One king of Moab once displeased God (by trying to defend his nation from the genocidal people God was sending his way). So God told Israel to treat all Moabites and all Ammonites as enemies forever.
When the Israelites had settled in the promised land, but were still in the process of trying to get rid of all the natives, Joshua warned them not to associate with the nations that remained among them. He said if they did, God would stop trying to get rid of those peoples, and then the Canaanites would be the death of Israel. And the Israelites did refuse to associate with Canaanites, at least sometimes.
Solomon enslaved the peoples who remained in the land after the Israelites failed to completely exterminate them. But he didn’t make any of his own people slaves.
God told Jeremiah it was time to destroy all the Philistines, and that he was planning to bring disaster on Edom, but he gave no reason for doing those things. He did give a reason when he told Obadiah he was going to kill all the Edomites, but that reason doesn’t justify killing them all. Really he just hated them, and had even before their forefather had done anything to deserve it.
When Zechariah was describing how “good” everything would be after God rescued his people from a disaster he was going to cause, he concluded by saying Canaanites would no longer be allowed in the temple.