Is the Bible racist? Richard Dawkins thinks so, and the big reasons given in this general accusation are these: some 19th Century Christians justified new world slavery by appealing to the Bible; and YHWH commands Israelites to kill all the Canaanites. But “racism” is about “race” and most ancient Semite people are of the same race, but … but … but if we understand racism as prejudice based on nationality or ethnicity, then find texts in the Bible that can be taken as racist. David Lamb, in his excellent book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, examines with this question: Racist or Hospitable?
Any attitude that denigrates any human on the basis of ethnicity or race is contrary to God’s creation of all humans as divine images. This insults God. David contends the geneaologies show that all humans derive from one family — that is a biblical perception of all humans.
Can this theme in the Bible be adequately explained by appealing to election, to wickedness and to God’s holiness that leads to judgment? This stuff is in all our Bibles: What do you do with the material?
Further, he agrees with Bill Webb that the biblical material, while not what we believe today, struck redemptive moves in the ancient world.
Fine, but what about the genocide texts? Here are two texts, the first from Joshua 10:40 and the second from Josh 11:14-15:
So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded.
14 The Israelites carried off for themselves all the plunder and livestock of these cities, but all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed. 15 As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded Moses.
This is the central kind of text that needs explanation. Genocide, of course, is not simply an OT practice but something tragically occurring as we speak. Some observations by David Lamb:
1. The ancient context was one of annihilation of one’s enemies’ armies and sometimes entire villages and families.
2. The Bible shares hyperbolic language in descriptions of such actions. Though it states they killed “all” the texts clearly show they didn’t kill all; they killed some. The damage was not as severe as it appears.
3. Joshua’s victory over the Canaanites was less excessive than the typical descriptions in the ancient world.
4. The big issue is Israel’s need and battle for a homeland.
For me, these are tough issues. David explores some more themes:
1. God promises the Land to Israel.
2. The destruction is seen as after God’s patience and rooted in the sins and wickedness of the Canaanites. E.g., Deut 18:9-14.
3. There is an abundance of hostility and an absence of hospitality.
4. God punishes his own people, showing that YHWH is not racist.
5. Every Canaanite who was hospitable was shown mercy: Rahab, Gibeonites, man from Bethel, Amalekites, Kenites…
6. Though God punishes, yet God loves.
7. God demands loving the sojourner, and think of Ruth, Daniel, Jonah…
8. Naaman the Syrian, a military and violent man, was healed by YHWH.
9. Jesus has foreign grandmothers.