Previous installments in this series:
Purported Examples of Interracial Marriage in Scripture and Basis for Biblical Norm of Intra-Racial Marriage
The Biblical exceptions to the norm of intra-racial marriage are murky depths to plumb, as the Bible does not have as a primary objective the communication of racial information about its subjects. Many times people were referred to as a certain type based on a convenience of geography (the ancient world lacking last names as we use them, simply calling people by their first name and distinguishing based on place of origin, e.g. “Jesus of Nazareth”).
With a limited stock of first names, it is clear distinctions of geography might be made on very little pretense, even if someone had only spent a short time in the nominal place of origin. Add to this historical uncertainty about what ethnic groups occupied which geographical areas (often with errors of several centuries) and it becomes almost impossible to determine the racial composition of many individuals in the Bible.
To give a modern example, say we referred to an individual as “the Mississippian”. If future scholars don’t know precisely when what groups occupied the state of Mississippi, it is entirely unclear whether this person is a Native American, African American or American of European descent.
When someone is described as an “Ethiopian” or a “Hittite” we may in some cases know their geographic origins but little conclusively about their ethnic origins. Given the strict assimilatory regulations for foreigners under the Old Testament Law (requiring some groups to wait ten generations before full acceptance into the covenant community), it is likely more often than not these individuals were ethnic Jews or closely kindred groups for whom the geographic moniker was a title of convenience.
Though I am by no means a professional theologian, over the past few years a number of possibly inappropriate Biblical examples of purported interracial marriage have entered the Christian consciousness as common knowledge. This section will serve to look at these examples more closely for alternative explanations.
Moses’ “Ethiopian” Wife
The most popular example of purported interracial marriage in the Bible is based on Numbers 12, where a wife of Moses’ is referred to as an Ethiopian.
Christian and Jewish tradition both hold that Moses had only one wife, Zipporah. Her entry from the Jewish Enclyclopedia is reproduced below:
Daughter of Jethro and wife of Moses. According to the Bible, Moses met the daughters of Jethro when they were being driven away from a well by shepherds; he assisted them, and was invited into the house of Jethro, who gave him Zipporah to be his wife (Ex. ii. 21). On his return to Egypt, Moses was accompanied by his wife, who saved him from great danger during their journey (ib. iv. 24-26). She appears to have returned with her children to her father’s house; for after the exodus from Egypt, Jethro brought Zipporah and her children out to Moses in the wilderness (ib. xviii. 2-5). Zipporah is mentioned only once more in the Bible; namely, in Numbers xii. 1, where she is referred to as “the Ethiopian woman,” for having married whom Moses is upbraided by Miriam and Aaron.
Exodus 2 explicitly states that Zipporah was a Midianite, not an Ethiopian. Midian was a descendant of Abraham (see Genesis 25). Now the Midianites lived near Ethiopia, but were racially distinct from the black Cushites, descendents of Ham. Several mainstream Christian sources confirm that Miriam and Aaron called her an Ethiopian as an ethnic slur against her Midianite origins. For example, the 1599 Geneva Bible states:
Zipporah, Moses’ wife, was a Midianite, and because Midian bordered on Ethiopia, it is sometimes referred to in the scriptures by that name.
Matthew Henry explains also in his commentary on Numbers 12:
Zipporah, who on this occasion they called, in scorn, an Ethiopian woman, and who, they insinuated, had too great an influence upon Moses in the choice of these seventy elders
The mainstream of Christian and Jewish thought confirms that Moses was the husband of one wife, Zipporah, who was of Semitic, Abrahamic descent; alternative explanations of Numbers 12, implying that Moses was a polygamist who married a sub-Saharan African, are suspect because they have only been promoted as a sophistic device by those already committed to a pre-ordained agenda of interracial marriage.
Ruth As a Moabite
A less-used example of purported interracial marriage is the marriage of Ruth, described as a Moabite, to Boaz. This is a very weak claim of interracial marriage. The Moabites were the descendents of Moab, a son of Lot (Genesis 19:37), and thus a kindred Semitic group to the Israelites.
In addition, Ruth may have herself actually been an Israelite. Biblical history shows that the Moabites were wiped out by the Amorites (Numbers 21:26-29) and the Amorites subsequently wiped out by the Israelites (Deuteronomy 2:23-43, Numbers 21:33-35), and the land occupied by the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manessah (Deuteronomy 3:12-16 and 29:8). Thus it is likely that Ruth’s being known as a Moabite was a mere geographic term of convenience, much like Moses’ being referred to as an “Egyptian” in Exodus 2:19. While much remains unexplained (for example, how Ruth was not religiously an Israelite until her marriage, though apostasy to foreign gods was not an uncommon state for racial Israelites in the Old Testament), it is clear Biblically that Ruth could not have been a racial Moabite, despite her residing in that territory.
Ezra and Nehemiah
Perhaps the strongest Old Testament example of interracial marriage is that of the Israelite congregation under Ezra and Nehemiah after their release from captivity in Babylon. Ezra and Nehemiah, speaking for God, commanded the men of Israel to “put away” their foreign wives and children.
Most contemporary Biblical commentators spiritualize this passage, emphasizing that the separation was of a religious, not racial or ethnic, nature. However, the verses make no exception for foreign wives or children who have converted. For the absolute separation described in Scripture (“Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” Nehemiah 9:2) to be purely spiritual, we would have to believe that not a single foreign wife or child converted to the Israelite faith. In addition, surely some of the children would have been infants, incapable of belief, perhaps some of them circumcised; yet these too were ordered to be put away.
This spiritualizing interpretation also conflicts with Paul’s elucidation of the Law in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, where he explicitly forbids divorce of unbelievers except in cases of abandonment. Since God’s Law is the same at all times and places, how is it that a divorce of a non-believer is permitted in Nehemiah and cited as a righteous act of repentance but is then forbidden as a sin by Paul?
The only explanation that does not implicate a contradiction is that the “putting away” in Nehemiah was of a different kind with a different basis than the marriages referred to by Paul (all of which, in Corinth, were likely intra-racial intra-ethnic marriages among the Gentiles there).
We must be careful here theologically about proving too much. All I seek to show is that God has at times protected and cared for Israel on a racial and not exclusively religious basis. This can help show that racial concerns for our own children and people are not inherently sinful.
Ethnic Considerations in the Bible
Before proceeding to further discussion, let us look at one other Biblical episode: A strong positive example is that of Abraham’s seeking a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24:2-4):
And Abraham said unto his eldest servant of his house, that ruled over all that he had, Put, I pray thee, thy hand under my thigh:
And I will make thee swear by the LORD, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell:
But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac.
This command of Abraham’s occurred before the Law of Moses, and to the extent any sort of religious boundary existed (i.e. Abraham’s faith, the covenant of circumcision), that boundary would have included Abraham’s circumcised servants. But Abraham specifically commanded that Isaac have a wife of “my kindred”, despite the fact that his own Canaanite servants would have been more religiously similar to Abraham than his own pagan kindred in Ur. Thus, we see Abraham making considerations of ethnicity and descent an important factor in selecting a mate for his son Isaac.
The theologian R. L. Dabney makes an important point in his essay Anti-Biblical Theories of Rights. He says that ethnic considerations cannot be inherently sinful (i.e. always sinful) because God Himself makes ethnic distinctions between people in applying His Law:
[Speaking of distinctions among non-Israelites in admission to the Old Testament Church] “The descendants of Amalek were forever inhibited. The descendants of Ammon and Moab were debarred to the tenth generation. The Egyptians and Edomites could be admitted at the third generation; the one, because their patriarch Esau was brother to Jacob, the other, because the Israelites had once lived in Egypt.
“Let the inference from these histories be clearly understood. It is not claimed that these caste distinctions established by God himself obligate us positively to establish similar distinctions in our day. But the fact that God once saw fit to establish them does prove that they cannot be essentially sinful. To assert that they are, impugns the righteousness of God. Whence it follows, in direct opposition to the Jacobin theory, that should suitable circumstances again arise such “caste distinctions” may be righteous. It will be exclaimed that the New Testament reversed all this. We shall be reminded of Paul’s famous declaration (Col. iii. 11): “Where there is neither Jew nor Greek, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free, but Christ is all and in all”; or this (Gal. iii. 28): “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” But before a literal and mechanical equality can be inferred from these, it must be settled what the Holy Spirit meant by being “one in Christ,” and whether the parts which are combined to construct a component unity are not always unequal instead of equal. The latter is certainly the apostle’s teaching when he compares the spiritual body to the animal body, with many members of dissimilar honor. The apostle himself demonstrates that he never designed the leveling sense to be put upon his words by proceeding after he had uttered them to subject women in one sense to an inequality by imposing upon them ecclesiastical subordination, and even a different dress, in the church. The Scriptures thus teach that all distinctions of caste are not unjust in the sense charged by the current theory.”
As Dabney points out, it would be an overstatement to say based on these Old Testament examples that the consideration of ethnicity in legal or marital contexts is always a positive good. However, we can with certainty say that ethnic considerations are not always bad.
If God, at certain times in Biblical history, either ordains or commands ethnic consideration, then it follows that such considerations cannot be universally evil. Such a conclusion invalidates at least some arguments of the sinfulness of such positions and removes the question to the realm of Christian liberty, conscience and practical wisdom.
Thus, our question: May a parent have the liberty to instruct children in the wisdom of making ethnic distinctions when choosing a mate?
Let us consider, then, not so much whether interracial marriage is legally permissible under God’s Law, but whether it is wise to reverse the historical norm of intra-racial marriage given the information available, or at least whether enough credible, rational evidence exists to make parental guidance towards intra-racial marriage a question of liberty and wisdom for families rather than universally condemned as a vestige of “hate” or “racism”.
1. This might be comparable to someone slurring an Italian-American as a “mafioso” or gangster because of the association of Italy with the mob. However, the mafia is actually a Sicilian cultural artifact, not Italian, but the close geographical association of Sicily to Italy makes the slur both offensive and inappropriate towards Italian-Americans.