Race in the book of Judges

March 20, 2015 // Articles

Summit Pastors Chris Green and Chris Pappalardo collaborated together to write this article on race in Judges:


The Bible can be a messy book. Most of us don’t like to admit it, but the hand the Bible to someone who has never read it and you’ll quickly learn how bizarre (and offensive) it can be.  It’s not sanitary. It’s not safe.

Some of us do our best to avoid the messiest parts of Scripture. So we stick to Philippians and Ephesians, every now and then venturing into the Old Testament to read a Psalm or two. But sooner or later, we stubble across a book like Judges. And Judges is as messy as it gets. Here we find a story filled with deceit, murder, sexual assault, and apparent genocide. And all this . . . from the people of God?

One of the most puzzling aspects of Judges, especially considering our nation’s recent events, is the issue of race.

Judges is often trotted out as proof of Christianity’s intolerance and racism. After all, in Judges we find one tribe of Israel ruthlessly murdering another (chapter 12); we find a man marrying across racial lines with disastrous consequences (chapters 14-16); and at every turn we find Israel battling agains other nations and tribes, in what may critics have called a divinely mandated genocide.

So what are we to do with all this racism? More importantly, what are we to do about the racial issues that still linger in our own hearts and communities?

What we offer here are five principles–some related specifically to Judges, but most in a more general vein–that address the issue of race.

1, Race Matters.

In a strict sense, there is only one race–the human race. And that race shares one common problem–sin. And for every one of us, there is one common solution–the blood of Jesus. We need to remember that what unites us as humanity is much more significant than what divides us.

And yet we all have a sense that something does divide us. We apply labels–black and white and Arab and Hispanic–that segment us into distinct (albeit sometimes confusing) racial categories. This is nothing new. Since the Tower of Babel, humanity has been endlessly splintering into rival factions. This is the situation we find in Judges, as Israel comes face to face with other nations and races. The disastrous violence in the book of Judges–often of one race against another–should be seen as the fruit of humanity’s decision to rebel against God, not as God’s ideal.

If we are to make any progress toward racial reconciliation, it must begin with the awareness that racial differences are real. Those differences can lead to outright warfare, as the pages of history amply demonstrate. But it doesn’t start there. It usually starts with personal discomfort. Let’s face it: different is uncomfortable. Instead of ignoring that discomfort, a first step is to own it. As we often say, we need to get used to being comfortable being uncomfortable.

A lot of people are hesitant to point out racial differences, since differences have often been used to justify negative stereotypes. But the way for us to move beyond racial strife isn’t to bury our heads in the sand, but to understand our differences in a new way. Race may threaten to divide us, but the gospel can still unite us. After all, the goal isn’t sameness, but biblical oneness.

God draws us together with our various differences; he doesn’t wash them out.

2. Culture Matters

Closely tied to race is the notion of culture. Whereas race describes people of similar physical backgrounds, culture is broader. It takes into account language, history, customs, religion. Thus, for instance, the slaughter of the Ephraimites in Judges 12 is a startling example of a cultural difference, not necessarily a racial one. It is the language barrier that tragically marks the Ephraimites and leads to their demise.

In many ways, culture is a more powerful force than race. Thus in the United States today, skin color matters, but the accompanying culture usually carries a lot more weight. For instance, many in the church still operate under “the great white myth,” this idea that because most white Christians repented of their racism, all the African Americans in our community would come rushing back into our churches, thanking their lucky stars that we were so magnanimous. Very few of us would put it in these terms, but the idea of this myth underlies a lot of what we say and do.

Part of what makes this myth so absurd is the reality of cultural preferences. Some churches make whites comfortable; some make blacks comfortable; some make Latinos comfortable. We all come from distinct cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and it should not be a surprise to us that we are comfortable around people like us. Whether this preference is sinful or not, we need to recognize that it is real. So as we pursue a multi-cultural vision for our church, we need to temper our expectations. A passion for multiculturalism is a fruit of the gospel, and we cannot expect everyone we’re reaching to display that fruit before they know Jesus.

Not all cultural differences, of course, are neutral. As the book of Judges repeatedly shows us, God finds the cultures surrounding the Israelites despicable because they are entrenched in idolatry. Religion is at the heart of culture, and a crooked religion will produce a crooked culture. This is why God so strictly urges Israel to drive these nations out. The problem was never that God hated the Canaanites, but that he hates the Canaanite gods. (As proof of this, for example, Rahab among many other foreigners, was allowed to join the Israelites precisely because she renounced pagan gods.)

Our situation differs dramatically from that of Israel. We still face idolatry in our society, and God is just as passionate that we avoid it. But idolatry doesn’t follow cultural lines for us as cleanly as it did then. We need to recognize that every culture–including our own!—has idolatry it needs to overcome. And this is precisely what makes multiculturalism so valuable: each culture can learn from the strengths of other cultures. We need the correction that other cultures give us as we strive together to worship Christ.

3. The Gospel Matters more than Race and Culture.

We’ve already hinted at this, but it bears mentioning explicitly. Race matters. Culture matters. But the gospel matters infinitely more than both.

It can be easy to miss this in a book like Judges. But we have to remember the big picture. Judges doesn’t stand alone as a condemnation of the nations, it is merely one chapter in a larger story, a story of God bringing back together various races in one common salvation. The redemption that Jesus purchased for us was not merely an individual salvation; it was also an inter-personal, inter-cultural, inter-racial reconciliation.

From Genesis 12 to Revelation 7, God brings back together what sin has driven apart. The Pentecost event of Acts 2 is intentionally multi-cultural. Mark recounts Jesus’ vision of the church as distinctly multi-cultural: “My house shall be a house of prayer for al nations” (Mark 11:18). Paul calls the racial integration of the church evidence of the “manifest wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10).

In Acts 13:1-2, Luke takes special care to point out that the leadership of the Antioch church was multi-cultural. Paul was a Hellenistic Jew from tarsus, in Asia Minor. Barnabas was Jewish as well, but hailed from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Manaen was from Herod’s household, indicating a privileged upbringing. Simeon had the nickname “Niger” (which literally meant “black”), because he was from the region of Sub-Saharan Africa that the modern nation of Niger sits. And Lucius was from Cyrene, modern-day Libya. Of the five leaders mentioned, then, one is from the Middle East, one from Asia, one from the Mediterranean, and two from Africa. And all of this in a predominantly Jewish context!

The leadership in Antioch was not an accidental conglomerate of races and cultures, but an intentional sign to the surrounding world. It is no surprise, then, that in Antioch this fledging group was first given the title “Christian,” since there was no other uniting factor other than what they had in Christ. This congregation—and not the congregation in Jerusalem—was also the first to send out missionary journeys through the entire region.

Revelation 7:9 records people from every nation, tribe, people and language worshipping in unity around the throne of Jesus. What sin had marred, Christ repairs. The fracturing dissonance of racial segregation is overcome, and can only ever be overcome, through the unifying power of Christ.

4. We Have Something Israel Didn’t–A “Third Race”

Racism wasn’t an Israelite problem or a Canaanite problem. And for us, it isn’t a white issue, or a black issue, or a Latino issue, or an Asian issue. It’s a sinful, depraved, human heart issue, and we all have that in common. As John Owen said, “The seed of every sin is in every human heart.” The less we admit this to ourselves, the greater our blindness. We each need to acknowledge the racism in our hearts, and repeatedly posture ourselves in repentance.

One way to train our hearts to repent is to pick up the concept of the “third race.” Essentially, this concept seeks to define a Christian not as black or white (or Asian or Arab), but as a third race–Christian. The distinctions that the world would use to classify us into two different races are dwarfed by the fact that in Christ, there is no “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal 3:28).

Paul even said that to the Jew he “became a Jew” (1 Cor 9:20). How could that be? After all, Paul was a Jew. But his ethnic identity was not his primary identity anymore: it was something he felt he could take on and off, like a garment. His “third race” (being in Christ) was more permanent and more central to his identity.

Paul even said that to the Jew he “became a Jew” (1 Cor 9:20). How could that be? After all, Paul was a Jew. But his ethnic identity was not his primary identity anymore: it was something he felt he could take on and off, like a garment. His “third race” (being in Christ) was more permanent and more central to his identity.

Paul says elsewhere that those of us who are in Christ are bound together into one body, making us “one new man” (Eph 2:11–22). Paul never ceased to identify with his Jewish and Roman background, using either when it served the purpose of the gospel (cf. Acts 21:39; 22:25, 1 Cor 9:20). But his Christian identity was weightier to him than his race.

The problem is not always that our cultural desires are wrong, but that they are too weighty for us. The Hebrew word for “glory” is kabod, which literally means “weight.” When we give glory to something, we are assigning weight to that thing. So we might believe all the right doctrines about Jesus, but in our daily lives, we are tempted to make Jesus “light” and other things “heavy.” That is the root of all idolatry. It was the problem for Israel during the time of the Judges, and it is still our primary snare today.

There is nothing sinful about our race, our ethnicity, or our culture; we simply possess a unity that is weightier than all these things. But this is a perspective that Israel simply couldn’t have grasped at the time of the Judges. For Israel, religious identity was tied so closely to cultural and racial identity that they couldn’t conceive of a believer who wasn’t also a Jew. So when Samson marries a woman from outside of Israel, his parents are peeved. And the result—because of her religious commitment and hatred of Samson’s God—is disaster.

Samson’s parents and peers would have warned him, “She’s not our blood.” We may find this a bit strange. But bloodlines matter. The difference between Samson and us is that we, as believers, don’t draw our family lines based on physical bloodlines, but by the blood of Christ. Because of Christ, we have a new family, one in which race is not a barrier to us seeing each other as brothers and sisters. Blood runs deep. But the blood of Christ runs deeper.

5. Our Goal is Oneness, Not Sameness

The vision of heaven given in revelation is not one in which our cultural differences are once and for all wiped away. What we see around the throne of the Lamb is a crowd of people from every tribe and language and nation and race. The distinctions remain. But instead of driving us apart, God uses them to reflect his beauty. The gospel light shines more brightly through the diamond of racial and cultural diversity.

The gospel provides us with both the motivation to cross cultural lines and a vision of a new community. This is a vision of oneness, not sameness, as Jesus promised for us (John 17). As we seek to grow toward oneness, God draws us from ignorance to awareness to interaction, and finally to gospelized community.

We all start in ignorance, harboring certain presuppositions about race and culture. Some of these might be true, but most are myths. And as Tony Evans says, “Myths don’t need facts, they just need supporters.” To move from ignorance to awareness, we need to have a posture of humility, admitting that we just don’t know other ethnicities as well as our own. And if we walk in humility, we can begin to open ourselves up to the experiences of people from other cultures. At minimum, awareness means we’re in the know. At maximum (and this is the goal), our awareness pushes us to interact.

The jump from awareness to interaction really begins to change our presuppositions. Healthy interaction puts us in situations with other ethnicities, where we desire to respect and listen to one another. This is tough work. It’s uncomfortable. And our first attempts at interaction will reveal a lot of embarrassing assumptions from both sides. But it moves us toward the reality of Revelation 7.

Interaction, however, is never the end goal. The ultimate goal is gospelized community. This kind of interaction moves beyond listening and respecting to treating one another with love, as a family. The world might be able to work up to multi-ethnic interaction, but it can’t offer anything else. We know a secret they don’t: grace. As Tim Keller says, the gospel is the grand leveler.

And here’s the great irony of it all: as the gospel equalizes us, it also frees us to enjoy our cultures in a new light. Look at the tragic downward spiral of Israel through the book of Judges, and notice how predictable it is. There were dozens of gods available to Israel, but the result of every one of them was the same: oppression. Sin not only destroys us; it also makes us pathetically uniform. In contrast, God offers only one way—the way of the gospel—but the result is freedom, life, and a community full of diversity.

The world longs for diversity, but can never approach oneness without sameness. We in the church have the opportunity to show the world the manifest wisdom of God through our unity-in-diversity. The promise is already ours in Christ. So let’s live it out, today.