Race, Racism, and the
Cain Hope Felder
The aim of this chapter is to discuss the questions of race and ethnic identity in the diverse biblical narratives. I hope to clarify, for modern readers, the profound differences in racial attitudes between those in the biblical world and in the subsequent history of Eurocentric interpretation. In antiquity, we do not have any elaborate definitions of or theories about race. This means that we must reckon with certain methodological problems in attempting to examine racial motifs as contained in the Bible. Ancient authors of biblical texts did have a color consciousness (awareness of certain physiological differences), but this consciousness of color/race, as we shall show, was by no means a political or ideological basis for enslaving, oppressing, or in any way demeaning other peoples.1 In fact, the Bible contains no narratives in which the original intent was to negate the full humanity of black people or view blacks in an unfavorable way.2 Such negative attitudes about black people are entirely postbiblical. In this regard, the following observation by Cornel West is most instructive:
1. See Frank Snowden, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1983), 14–17, 43–46; and Nicholas F. Gier, “The Color of
Sin/The Color of Skin: Ancient Color Blindness and the Philosophical Origins of Modern
Racism,” Journal of Religious Thought 46, no. 1 (Summer-Fall 1989): 42–52.
2. See Charles B. Copher, “3,000 Years of Biblical Interpretation with Reference to
Black Peoples,” The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center 30, no. 2 (Spring
1986): 225–46; see also his “The Black Presence in the Old Testament,” included as chapter
7 in this volume.