Question: Do the scriptures promote racism?

FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Do the scriptures promote racism?

First Gabon Baptisms, photo by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

No, the scriptures contain explicit condemnation of disparaging those who are foreign.

Some have questioned if the scriptures sanction racism whether implicitly or explicitly. The scriptures contain specific language affirming the equality of all people before God. Just a small sampling:

  • Genesis 1:26-27 – Man is made in the image of God.
  • Exodus 22:21 – foreigners are to be given respect in Israel
  • Leviticus 19:33-34 – Foreigners are not to be vexed while sojourning in Israel.
  • Leviticus 25:39-42 – If foreigners are poor, they are to be hired with contracted, paid labor. Not slave labor.
  • Deuteronomy 24:7 – If someone kidnaps another to sell them into slavery, the thief was given capital punishment.
  • The Book of Ruth – Ruth, a Moabitess (Moabites receiving a restriction from entering the congregation of the Israelites) was permitted to enter the congregation and was even given the opportunity to canonize her writings that had the object of opposing the restriction of intermarrying with the Moabites.
  • 2 Chronicles 19:6-7 – The Lord is not a respector of persons.
  • Mark 12:31 – Love thy neighbor as thyself
  • Philippians 2:3-4 – let everyone esteem each other better than themselves.
  • 2 Corinthians 8:14 – A look towards Equality
  • 1 John 4: 19-21 – If a man says he loves God but hates his brother, he is a liar.
  • Romans 1:16 – Both Jew and Gentile receive Gospel.
  • Romans 10:12-13 – No difference between Jew and Gentile
  • Mark 16:15 – The gospel should be preached to every creature.
  • Acts 17:26 – God hath made one blood of all nations.
  • 1 John 3:15-16 – Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer.
  • John 7:24 – Judge not according to appearance.
  • Colossians 3:25 – there is no respect of persons.
  • Acts 10: 34-36 – God is no respector of persons.
  • 2 Nephi 26:29 – all are alike unto God.

The Challenging Texts

Interracial Marriage

The majority of the texts of the Bible for which racism is claimed have to do with interracial marriage. All passages that do have to do with marriage are not distinguishing based on race but rather the worship of other Gods. All idolatry and worshipping of other Gods in the Old Testament was strictly forbidden to all Israelites on the penalty of death (Exodus 20:5 22:20). This is the focus of every passage dealing with intermarriage.

  • Deuteronomy 7 (The Canaanites)

The text of Deuteronomy 7 consists of the Lord’s preliminary commands to Israel for the conquest of Canaan. Verse 3 states that

3 Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.

As stated before, this had to do with idolatry and the worshipping of other Gods. The very next verse states:

4 For they will turn away they son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.
  • Numbers 25 (Intermarriage with the Moabites)

Numbers 25 is another example of the discouragement of intermarriage based upon the fear of worship of other Gods. The chapter begins by indicating that Israel began to commit whoredoms with the daughters of Moab and that the Moabites seduced Israelite men into orgiastic adultery and worship of Baal (this becomes crucial to the Lord’s decision in Numbers 31 to kill them). God then commands that the heads of the Israelites to be arrested and executed (likely my impalement), and hung up to show the severe punishment brought for this idolatry. Moses issues another command: to kill any idolaters. Because the wrath of God is not turned away by following God’s command to execute a few, a plague follows (see 25:8-9; cf. 25:18; 31:8-16). The second story follows the beginning of this plague. Zimri, an Israelite man, marries Cozbi, a “Midianitish woman” (“Midianitish is translated simply as “Midianite” in the NIV, NET, and NRSV). Phinehas, an Israelite man, slays Zimri and Cozbi with a spear (translated as “javelin” in the KJV). The plague is turned away but it is recorded that roughly 24,000 had died. The Lord declares he (Phinehas) “hath turned my wrath away from the Children of Israel…” He then rewards him with a “covenant of peace” interpreted as a covenant of “everlasting priesthood.” By turning away the idolatry and harlotry away from Israel, God was pleased.

  • Nehemiah 13: 1-3, 23-30

Nehemiah contains prohibitions against Moabites and Ammonites from entering the congregation of the Lord. Both Deuteronomy and Nehemiah state that this prohibition is “forever.” Deuteronomy is the first to mention the prohibition against Moabites and Ammonites. Genesis 12:3 implies judgement on those who do wrong against Israel. Deuteronomy gives the actual rationale for the prohibition in 23:4

4 Because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, and because they hired against thee Mesopotamia, to curse thee.

5 Nevertheless the Lord thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the LORD they God loved thee.

The prohibition was not because Israel was racist. Rather, it was that Israel had to have the Moabites and/or Ammonites accept Yahweh and be genuine worshippers of him.[1] For instance, as has been noted elsewhere "[s]ome scholars believe that the book of Ruth was written (or, at least, finalized) during or just after [the fifth-fourth centuries before Christ." Ruth the Moabitess was allowed into the congregation and allowed to canonize her "protest or caution against overemphasis on racial purity. Ruth, a Moabite woman — the Moabites were despised neighbors of Israel — converts to the religion of the Israelites, marries into Israel, and becomes the ancestor of the royal house of David and, thereby, of the Messiah himself."[2]

The Jews as a “Chosen People”

Some have seen the Jews as being a “chosen people” as a type of ethnocentrism and racism. This is an interesting accusation considering they were trying to preserve the covenant that eventually blessed “all the families of the earth.” (Genesis 12:3; 28:14). This also disregards passages that provide explicit injunctions for the inclusion of foreigners among the Israelites such as has been listed above.

The Canaanite/Syrophoenician woman

Some have criticized the Savior for being a “racist” for the encounters with the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman of Matthew 15 and Mark 7. This has been addressed thoroughly by author Ian Paul.[3]

Anti-Semitism

Some have criticized certain passages of scripture that are claimed to promote anti-semitism. These passages include Matthew 23:31-35; 1st Thessalonians 2:14-16; Acts 2:22-36; 3:15; 10:39; John 8:44; Titus 1:10-11; Titus 15-16; and 2 Nephi 10:3. These passages have been used by Christians in the past to justify prejudiced sentiments and actions towards Jews. That cannot be disputed. What can be disputed is that there's is the only way to understand them. One way to interpret these passages is that they all relate specifically to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Readers have and should always normally separate the larger group of people from the people and specific actions they take. The Book of Mormon is actually one of the best guides in this regard as has been demonstrated by author Bradley J. Kramer.[4]

Regarding 2 Nephi 10:3-5 specifically, Kramer insightfully observes:

[D]uring the rare times when the prophets in the Book of Mormon do attempt to identify Jesus' killers, they do so sing vague terms such as "the world" or "wicked men" (1 Nephi 19:7-10), or they employ phrases that while they may appear at first to indict all Jews everywhere actually absolve the vast majority of Jews of any involvement in Jesus's [sic] death. Jacob's "they at Jerusalem" (2 Nephi 10:5), for example, may seem to some readers unfamiliar with Jewish history to prophesy that the Jews in general will crucify Jesus. These readers link this phrase with "the Jews" in verse 3 and see it as both affirming and intensifying Jewish culpability. To them, the statement that "there is none other nation on earth that would crucify God" seems to damn all Jews everywhere. However, only a relatively small percentage of the world's Jews in the first century lived in Jerusalem and the area around it. During the time of Jesus, most Jews were still residing in Babylon or were scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean, in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Ephesus. These "diaspora" Jews were the descendants of the vast number of Jews who did not return to their ancient homeland after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and instead took advantage of the new opportunities afforded them by their conquerors to spread themselves throughout the region. Indeed, David Klinghoffer, a Jewish historian and essayist, estimates that during Jesus's time there were about a million Jews living in "Jewish Palestine" while five million Jews were dispersed around the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East.[6] Other scholars, such as Samuel Sandmel, think that this 5 to 1 ratio could have been even higher, possibly even 10 to 1.[7] And Jerusalem was only one city in this "Jewish Palestine." As a result, "they at Jerusalem" instead of prophetically spreading the responsibility of Jesus's death to all Jews everywhere actually limits it to a smalls segment of the overall Jewish population...


But were all Jews living in the 1st century Jerusalem responsible for Jesus's death? Not according to the Book of Mormon. Just as the subject of 2 Nephi 10:5 prophetically reduces the number of Jews who will be involved in Jesus's death to a small fraction of the Jews living during the first third of the first century CE, its predicate softens what that involvement will be. Here, "they shall crucify him" of verse 3 becomes "they...will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified." In other words, not only will a small number of Jews contribute to Jesus's death sometime in the future but their contribution will also be small--possibly consisting only of an unwillingness to speak up against it or a reluctance to challenge publicly those pushing it. Furthermore, as the introductory phrase of 2 Nephi 10:5 points out, whatever these people will (or will not) do will occur not because of an informed, deep-seated, conscious conviction but "because of priestcrafts and iniquities." In other words, many of these first-century Jerusalemites will be manipulated, psychologically or physically, by corrupt priests and leaders. Consequently, it is these Jewish priests and leaders who bear most of the non-Roman responsibility for Jesus's death, not the general Jewish populace.

[. . .]

In this way, by analogy, the Book of Mormon renders a verdict as to who was responsible for Jesus's death. Ruling decision-makers, mostly Roman, are clearly guilty, as are to some degree their advisors, those who pressed for his death. However, the general population of Jerusalem was not. And neither were the vast majority of Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem. Some Jewish leaders at that time were most likely involved in Jesus's death in some way or other and therefore bear some guilt, but given the methods used to execute him, even they cannot, strictly speaking, be called Christ-killers. Since only Romans crucified people, that term can only be applied to Romans--not to Jews then and certainly not now.[5]

One may be able to hedge on Kramer's interpretation of Jacob 10:3-5. For example:

  • "Priestcrafts" could refer to Jewish leaders but it could also be referred to generally as those that set themselves up as a "'light unto the world,' in order to 'get gain and praise' without concern for the welfare of [God's people] (2 Nephi 26:29; cf. Alma 1:16; 3 Nephi 18:24)."[6]
  • "Iniquities" is ambiguous since it could refer to the priests, Roman leaders, the general populace, a small subsection of the general populace, or some other combination of them. Whose iniquities are we referring to? The question remains unanswerable.
  • The references to "nation" and "they at Jerusalem" could refer to 1st century AD Jerusalem but could also refer to 7th century BC Jerusalem with no diaspora Jews--thus the entire race of Jews could be condemned. Under this line of logic, the Lehites would have felt prejudice towards those at Jerusalem who chased them out of their land and thus Jacob here would be issuing a polemic against them. The Jews are those most guilty for being complict, orchestrating, and/or facilitating in any other way the death of Jesus. If one adopts this interpretation, then the only possible apologetic response would be to suggest that this is a hyperbolic yet mistaken indictment. This wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility for Latter-day Saints since The Book of Mormon states that some mistakes may be present in the record. Are we really to going to claim that no other nation would crucify Jesus?

All this said, Kramer's argument still works within the syntactical structure of the verses as a fully-viable interpretive possibility--demonstrating that some measured skepticism should be had towards those that would seek to make these verses have only one possible interpretation: the most negative one possible.

”Dark mark” on Lamanites and the racist perception of the Nephites?

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #57: What Does it Mean to be a White and Delightsome People? (Video)

Some have claimed that the “Dark mark” on the Lamanites (2 Nephi 5:21) is the result of a type of racism that the Nephites practiced against blacks. Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles specifically disavowed this interpretation of 2 Nephi 5 on behalf of the Church.[7] Additionally, this is not the only possible interpretation of the verses. It does not hold the distinction of being even the most likely correct interpretation of these verses. Brant Gardner has marshaled a lot of evidence to suggest that these verses and others that refer to skin in the Book of Mormon refer to moral/spiritual purity that led to a change in countenance.[8] Ethan Sproat argues that references to skin color are in fact references to “a kind of authoritative garment. The relevant texts further lend themselves to associating such garment-skins with both the Nephite temple and competing Lamanite claims to kingship.”[9] Gerrit M. Steenblik argues that references to skin in the Book of Mormon refer to “an ancient Maya body paint tradition, chiefly for warfare, hunting, and nocturnal raiding. This discovery shifts possible explanations from the Old World to the New and suggests that any ‘mark’ upon Book of Mormon people may have been self-applied.”[10] Steenblik’s explanation enjoys a lot of popularity among scholars of the Book of Mormon. David M. Belnap has outlined other possibilities for interpreting and understanding these passages from the Book of Mormon in a long, beautiful paper in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship on the inclusive, anti-discriminatory message of the Book of Mormon.[11]

Another meaningful way to look at this might be to look at how Egyptians labeled their enemies. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt notes that, in their murals and other iconography, Egyptians used to colorize foreigners and their enemies as black even when they were not black since "[w]ithin the scheme of Egyptian/non-Egyptian skin color, black was not desirable for ordinary humans[.]" Black "marked out figures as foreign, as enemies of Egypt, and ultimately as representatives of chaos; black thereby contrasted with its positive meaning elsewhere."[12] Something similar may very well be going on in the Book of Mormon.

Even if we are speaking about a literal skin change, the Book of Mormon does not argue that the Nephites are inherently superior because of their white skin as racism entails. 2 Nephi 26:33 immediately refuted that. The skin was applied to the Lamanites because the Lord did not want the Lamanites to be sexually appealing to the Nephites and thus so that the Nephites would not have unbelieving posterity with the Lamanites. As anyone from the Lamanites repented, the curse was removed from them. This is about moral responsibility; not stratifying people according to different races and assigning them less or more inherent moral worth.

Obviously, there's not one way to interpret these texts and further revelation will be needed to clarify them; but this should be sufficient to demonstrate, against critics, that immediately going for a literal skin change interpretation and charging the Book of Mormon of racism has serious issues.

Darkness on the Canaanites (Moses 7)

Moses 7 is part of a vision of the prophet Enoch. Verses 8 and 22 have caused some concern for some. The texts state:

8 For behold, the Lord shall curse the land with much hear, and the barrenness thereof shall go forth forever, and there was a blackness came upon all the children of Canaan, that they were despised among all people.
22 And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them.

Author Stephen O. Smoot explains clearly why these verses should not be interpreted as a literal skin change.

The text describes a curse of barrenness upon the land of the people of Canaan as well as a “blackness” covering the people. The curse applies only to the land, however, with no mention of a curse upon the pre-Flood Canaanites themselves. The “blackness” of the people of Canaan is never explicitly depicted in a racialized manner (that is, as speaking of skin color). Elsewhere in the text, “blackness” is used to describe the presence of Satan in contrast to the brilliant glory of God, suggesting that a spiritual or metaphorical reading of the “blackness” of the Canaanites and the descendants of Cain (Moses 7:22) is to be preferred. (See the commentary at 1:15.) Modern leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have officially rejected any racist interpretations of these and related passages of scripture that attempt to link personal worthiness and value in the eyes of God with skin color.[13]

That race that was cursed according to the Priesthood (Abraham 1:24-27)

Some have held that the Book of Abraham preserves doctrines of the African race being cursed by God relevant to the priesthood. Stephen O. Smoot has pointed out the main problems with this interpretation.

These verses have in the past been (mis)read to justify a ban on men of African descent from holding the priesthood, even though the text says nothing about the curse and priesthood restriction being associated with skin color. From the immediate context it is apparent that the issue is more along the lines of rightful priesthood succession rather than skin color (compare Abraham 1:3–4, 25–27, 31). The racist reading of these verses that links worthiness to hold the priesthood with skin color has been officially rejected by modern leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[14]

As can be seen, claims of the scriptures being racist generally lack context and depth.

Notes

  1. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense Of The Old Testament God (Ada, MI: Baker Books, 2011) Ebook loc 313. Copan cites Douglas K. Stuart, Exodus, New American Commentary 2 (Nashville: B & H Publishing Company, 2008) 478; John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 618.
  2. Daniel C. Peterson, "A note on race and ethnicity in the scriptures," Sic Et Non, June 8, 2020, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2020/06/a-note-on-race-and-ethnicity-in-the-scriptures.html.
  3. Ian Paul, “Did the Syrophoenician woman teach Jesus to be Jesus?” Psephizo, January 4, 2019, https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/did-the-syrophoenician-woman-teach-jesus-to-be-jesus/.
  4. Bradley J. Kramer, Gathered in One: How the Book of Mormon Counters Anti-Semitism in the New Testament (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2019).
  5. Kramer, Gathered in One, 54-55, 57. Kramer cites the following in order: (6) David Klinghoffer, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 44. (7) Samuel Sandmel, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005), 19-20.
  6. Terry B. Ball, "Priestcraft," Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2003), 656.
  7. Gary E. Stevenson, "At NAACP Luncheon, Elder Stevenson Reiterates ‘All Are Alike Unto God’; Addresses Printing Error in ‘Come, Follow Me’ Regarding Race," LDS Living, January 21, 2020, https://www.ldsliving.com/at-naacp-luncheon-elder-stevenson-reiterates-all-are-alike-unto-god-addresses-printing-error-in-come-follow-me-regarding-race/s/92253.
  8. Brant Gardner, “ What Does the Book of Mormon Mean by ‘Skin of Blackness’?” FAIR Publications, accessed March 20, 2022, https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/archive/publications/what-does-the-book-of-mormon-mean-by-skin-of-blackness.
  9. Ethan Sproat, “Skins as Garments in the Book of Mormon: A Textual Exegesis,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 24 (2015): 138-165.
  10. Gerrit M. Steenblik, “Demythicizing the Lamanites’ ‘Skin of Blackness’,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 49 (2021): 167-258.
  11. David M. Belnap, “The Inclusive, Anti-Discrimination Message of the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 42 (2021): 195–370.
  12. Gay Robins, "Color Symbolism," in Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, ed. Donald B. Redford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1: 293.
  13. Stephen O. Smoot, The Pearl of Great Price: A Study Edition for Latter-day Saints (Springville, UT: Book of Mormon Central, 2022), 38.
  14. Ibid., 61.