Book Review: Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race

Review
03.03.2010

Race as a theological category has not had much play in the history of theology. That’s what J. Daniel Hays says at the beginning of his book From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race. This is of particular note given the fact that race has been such a major issue of discussion and contention in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Even though some contemporary systematic theologies have significant chapters on anthropology, few deal directly with the subject of race. Consequently, to write a book on a theology of race sounds foreign to our evangelical ears. But isn’t this kind of title and this kind of biblical theological discussion long overdue?

I must admit that when I began to read Hays’ book with an eye toward writing a review, I had a few questions. What qualifies someone to write a book on the theology of race? Can a white American write a book on race with the necessary pathos and sympathy to garner credibility from minority readers? Will his majority cultural existence hinder the writer from forthrightly speaking to the issues? Will such a work really find wide acceptance and use in broader evangelicalism?

These are some of the questions I had as I began to read this book. I admit I was skeptical. However, Hays’ work more than adequately answered most of my questions. For this I am grateful.

One of the most helpful aspects of the book is that Hays disassociates Ham from the black race and debunks the all too-long held myth of the so-called “curse of Ham.”

The curse of Canaan in Genesis 9:18-27, often mislabeled the ‘curse of Ham’, has absolutely nothing to do with race. The gross misuse of this text to justify slavery or to defend theories of inferiority has done immense damage to the Church in America. Unfortunately, echoes of this misinterpretation can still be heard in the Church today, a distortion of Scripture that is in clear opposition to God’s revelation (63).

Hays’ discussion of this familiar misinterpretation, given the fact that it’s still in print today, is itself enough to make the book worth reading.

But more than that, Hays successfully shows that, as a biblical study, race has much material in the canon of Scripture.

  • After the introductory chapter 1, chapter 2 deals with the ethnic make-up of the Old Testament world. The diversity of the nations in the early biblical record is far greater than most of us realize.
  • Chapter 3 sets forth the significance of race in the pivotal chapters of Genesis 1-12.
  • In chapter 4 Hays discusses how the formation of Israel into a nation, the giving of the law, Israel’s interaction with foreigners, and her laws concerning intermarriage relate to a biblical theology of race.
  • In chapter 5 Hays shows the interaction the nation of Israel had with black African nations during the years of her monarchy.
  • Chapter 6 discusses the issue of race as it is found in the Old Testament prophets.
  • In chapter 7 Hays moves the discussion to the New Testament and again shows that the Son of God came into a world apparently as racially and culturally diverse as the United States today.
  • In chapter 8 Hays discusses the impact and significant role race plays in Luke-Acts. He gives particular space to Luke’s attention to ethnic distinctions.
  • In the penultimate chapter 9, Hays examines race in the Pauline corpus and the Apocalypse, and gives special attention to what he considers to be the most important texts on racial equality found in the New Testament. He writes, “Although texts that have implications for racial equality can be found throughout the New Testament, the strongest and clearest texts are found in Galatians, Colossians, Ephesians, and Revelation” (181).

Hays demonstrates that while the topic of race is raised throughout the biblical record, it’s not used in the sense that we commonly think of race, namely, in categories of superiority and inferiority. Racist thinking has no warrant in Scripture, though some have erroneously used the Bible to justify their racism. Hays does a genuine service to the body of Christ by making this point biblically.

Like most authors on this subject, Hays goes to great lengths to identify and prove the prominence of black Africans in the Bible. And he does an excellent job pointing out that “the trajectory of this Black presence appears in numerous places and plays a significant role in the early story of Israel” (85). Admittedly, this is necessary because of erroneous teachings like the ‘curse of Ham.’ However, while I commend Hays at this point, it is a reminder to me of the racism that yet remains. A better study may be discovering evidence for the presence of a people who reflect northern European culture in the Old Testament record. Hays makes this point early on when he writes:

In order to tackle the biblical texts that relate to ethnic issues it is critical that scholars, pastors, and parishioners open their eyes to the fact that the people of the biblical world did not look like the people of rural Minnesota (27).

Unfortunately few have really embraced this truth. Instead, the perception has been that there was significant Caucasian involvement in the Scriptures, but very little black African presence. According to Hays,

“This perception is erroneous, and it has fostered disastrous theology within today’s White Church that has contributed to the continued, and almost total, division of the North American Church into Black and White” (27).

In the final analysis, Hays shows that, far from being an opportunity for the development of racial and cultural superiority attitudes, race in the Bible shows the desire of God and the power of the gospel to redeem all types of people and to populate the kingdom from every people and nation. Hays reminds us that the gospel took root and blossomed and thrived in a culture that was racially and culturally mixed, which demonstrates the gospel’s unique ability to bring unity out of diversity by solving the problem that plagues every race—sin.

The fact that the kingdom of God has people redeemed “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and language” (Rev. 7:9) should remind us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23); and that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, and has thus entrusted to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). Hays makes this biblically clear. May the church of Jesus Christ today make it practically so.

This book is a fine and needed supplement to the many systematic and biblical theology books we already have on our shelves.