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Vol. VII • 1984

Race and Interracial Marriage: A Biblical Survey and Perspective
Thomas M. Brown, Jr

If one is to apply the Bible to the subject of race he must first be sure that in his own mind he is giving the term "race" the same meaning that it has in the Biblical perspective. For most of humanity today the notion of race is tied primarily to the physical characteristics of a certain population. The Bible, however, is rarely concerned with appearances either of individuals or of populations. It divides men largely in terms of whom their forefathers were, or in other words, in terms of descent or lineage.

This alteration of perspective results in something of a reversal in the way in which one sees the cause-effect relationship between a man's racial identity and the reason for that identity. We tend to think that a man is a Black because he has black skin, but if descent is the ordering guideline then we would say that a man has black skin because he is a Black.

Consider a man who has a long nose and who begets a son who also has a long nose. If a stranger were to observe the family resemblance he might surmise a relationship based on this similarity of physical feature, but in the final analysis one would say that the son has a long nose because he is descended from his long-nosed father, not that he is related to his father as a consequence of his long nose. The identity superficially based on appearance is actually a family identity.

In the same way, the physical features that identify a certain population, such as the fair skin and large eyes of the Europeans, are the outward features signifying an underlying family identity in this case the family is grown so large as to be recognized as a race.

While the Bible is only rarely concerned with physical features, it persistently observes the family (Joshua the son of Nun), tribe (Saul the Benjamite), or race (Uriah the Hittitel from which individuals came. There is a parallel perspective in the way the Bible pictures man-made structures such as the Ark of Noah or the Tabernacle. Most of the descriptions have to do with materials, proportions, or superstructure, the details of appearance being left to the imagination. In an analogous way, family descent is the superstructure on which the physical features of race are overtaid, and the Bible directs us to the superstructure.  

In treating race as a product of descent the Bible enables us to view the phenomenon of race against the historical landscape. The science of anthropology enters into the middle of history and does its best to classify populations as it finds them, but the Bible gives us the actual origin of race.

The genealogy in Genesis l0 is dubbed "The Table of the Nations." Nation in this case is understood not in terms of dominion or kingdom so much as tribe. The Table concludes:

These are the families of the sons of Noah, after their generations, in their nations; and by these were the nations divided after the flood.

Hence, one begins with the premise that all people living today are descended from the people or tribes listed in the Table. This premise, of course, dispenses with such things as higher criticism, "late dates," or a "local flood," all of which throw the interpretation of Genesis 10 into a hopeless confusion. The Table taken to the second generation is as follows:

Japheth Ham Shem
Gomer Cush Elam
Magog Mizraim Asshur
Made Phut Arphaxad
Javan Canaan Lud
Tubal Aram

A survey of the commentaries of conservative writers leads to a generally consistent, if incomplete, tracing of the names in the Table down to present-day populations.1

Among the descendants of Gomer would be the peoples of northwestern Europe: Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, English, and hence most Americans.2 Magog, Meshech (Muscovites), and Tubal enter into the Slavic population. Madai is the father of the Medes. The Greeks come from Javan (lonians). A number of related peoples inhabit the general vicinity of the Black Sea whither the Japhethites apparently migrated after the Flood or after the Tower of Babel

The sons of Ham again are partly located. Cush is associated with Ethiopia, Mizraim is clearly Egypt in Biblical usage. Phut is associated with Libya. Some of the descendants of Canaan are listed in connection with the Land of Canaan at the time of Moses and Joshua: for example, the Jebusites, Amorites, and Hivites in Gen. 10:16-17 and again in Ex. 3:8.

Among the descendants of Shem, Asshur gave his name to Assyria, Lud to Lydia, and Aram to the Arameans or Syrians. Arphaxad is ancestor to Abraham; hence his descendants, the Hebrews, the Ishmaelites, the Midianites, and the Edomites, are from Shem, as are the Moabites and Ammonites who are descended from Abraham's nephew Lot.

Linguistics enables us to enlarge the list of nationalities which may be identified with Japheth or Ham or Shem, though not with any particular son of these. The Table in Genesis 10 written in connection with the Tower of Babel episode in Genesis 11. Verses 5,20, and 31 of Genesis 10 tell us that the lines of the human race are divided linguistically ("tongues") as well as geographically ("lands" or "countries") and ethnically ("families" and "nations"). Hence, nationality, language, and geographical boundaries are to be associated with one another as, say, the Japanese who speak Japanese and who inhabit Japan, or the French who speak French and inhabit France.

After some millennia the relationship between language and nationality is obscured here and there: some languages have achieved trans-national status for political or commercial reasons, and some ethnic groups speak the language of a surrounding population while maintaining their identity as a distinct people. But there remains an overall ethno-linguistic structure in the world as a whole which is visible in spite of the obscurations.

Largely due to the efforts of the German philologists of the nineteenth century, linguistic science affirms a language group called the Indo-European family of languages which is spread geographically from Europe across the Caucasian mountains and down into India. This language family includes, starting with the oldest:

The Greeks. Slavs, and Germanics (Teutonics), descended from Japheth, are readily found in this list. Hence, by linguistic comparison, one is led to conclude the Romans (Italic) and Aryan Indians (Sanskrit) as among the descendants of Japheth.

The Shemites are also joined in one language family:

The Semitic family is almost as well defined as the Indo-European. To it belong the Assyrian, the Hebrew, the Phoenician, the Aramaic, the Syrian, the Arabic, and the Abyssinian.4

Most of the names in this list of Semitic languages are recognizable to the Bible student. The Abyssinians are one of two nationalities who have shared the kingdom of Ethiopia since ancient times. The other nationality, known as the Cushites, is Hamitic and speaks a Hamitic language. (Note how the ethnic and linguistic distinction between these two nationalities living together in one realm has endured for thousands of years.) The presence of the Phoenician language is hard to explain since the Phoenicians were probably descended from Canaan through Sidon who gave his name to their capital city.5 If the Indo-European and Semitic language families are easy to classify, the remaining languages of the world are elusive.

After leaving the Indo-European and Semitic families we face a bewildering conglomerate. We turn from forms of speech which present orderly and intelligible inflection, and hence are subject to systematic analysis. and approach a mode of expression which is monosyllabic, or agglutinative, or both. One is immediately seized with the impression that they all belong to a single family, but philologists have been unable to reduce the matter to any such solution.6

But there is a curious consistency to all this lingual chaos. Consider the following populations who comprise the greater part of the non-Semitic, non-Indo-European world:

The Egyptian, Libyan, and Ethiopic languages are classed together as Hamitic,7 and so we have neatly placed them into the Table of the Nations (see p.4).

The Chinese, Mongolians, Japanese, Himalayans, Southeast Asians, Eskimos, and physically similar nationalities are classed by anthropologists as mongoloids. American Indians generally are included in the same morphological category. The Africans, then, would be a third group, physically classed as negroid.8 Hence, we have conceivably reduced the above list to three categories. the Hamites (by language), the mongoloids (by physique), and the negroids (by physique). Moreover, even though the mongoloids and negroids, unlike the Indo-European and Semitic speaking peoples, are not bound together by cognate language families, they do have one common lingual trait: an unrestrained proliferation of languages.

The eighteenth verse in the Table of the Nations reads,.... and afterward were the families of the Canaanites spread abroad." This terse remark may be telling us that the vast populations of Asia, Africa, and the Western Hemisphere are descended from Canaan. It is also tempting to speculate that the myriads of languages formed among them are related to the curse on Canaan in Genesis 9: that is, the confusion of tongues was doubly reinforced upon his descendants; but the Bible gives us only the merest suggestion.

The overall picture with which we are left, when combining the Bible itself with modern scientific knowledge, is that the descendants of Japheth are the same people as those from whom come the Indo-European languages, the Shemites those from whom come the Semitic languages, and the remainder the descendants of Ham, through one line or another.9  

The Table of the Nations tells us the source of the many diverse ethnic groups. It does not nor does any other scripture address the variations in physical characteristics in men today. The gene pool of Postdiluvian humanity would consist of that supplied by Noah and his wife and his three daughters-in-law. Either all the physical characteristics found today were in that gene pool or else something was added to that pool. Any addition to the gene pool would have to have been miraculous since new genetic information does not arise spontaneously. Natural changes in the gene pool are limited to mutations, which do not actually add new genetic information.

The Bible expressly says that the nations were miraculously thrust apart by the confounding of their tongues, not by any alterations in their bodies, but the separating of the nations would in itself bring about some degree of variation in physical characteristics.

Noah's sons would each have a somewhat different makeup. Since they each had different wives the children of one would be further differentiated from their cousins (especially in the more probable case that Noah's sons wives were not also their Sisters). As long as they were living close to each other and speaking one language their offspring would be prone to intermarry and differences would minimize. Physical characteristics would tend toward a statistical norm. But if these offspring were kept apart, marrying within their own tribes, each tribe would possess a gene pool which would be a subset of the original gene pool, no two subsets being identical. Physical characteristics within each tribe would tend toward a statistical norm particular to the individual tribe. This selective breeding would be further affected by the fact that each population would be adapting itself to a different regional environment, the more remote the greater the difference.

At face value, then the separation of nations by languages into different territorial regions is sufficient to produce physical races. Some would contend that God has accomplished miraculous changes in some groups, say in connection with the curse on Canaan, but insofar as the Bible does not tell us of any miraculous modification in the human race, other than with respect to language, such contentions are speculative and cannot serve as a Biblical position.  


Now that the meaning of race in the Biblical sense has been established, discussion will hereafter turn to relations between races. The first step is to present a list of the interracial marriages, betrothals, and cohabitations out of wedlock which are found in the Bible. Again, race is used in reference to lineage, not to physical characteristics; since the Bible does not deal with the physical features of races (except, rarely, in regard to stature), if one were to insist on defining race in terms of physical features he would find nothing said on the subject in the Bible.

The races found in this list are:

from Shem from Ham from Japheth
Hebrew Egyptian Persian11
Ishmaelite Canaanite Greek
Midianite Hittite10 Roman
Moabite Philistine
Ammonite Phoenician

One might consider a marriage between any two of the three main lines -such as between Hebrew and Egyptian (Shemite and Hamite) or Hebrew and Greek (Shemite and Japhethite) as an interracial marriage of more distinct order than between two nationalities of the same main line such as Hebrew and Moabite (both Shemite), though the Bible itself appears indifferent to this kind of distinction.

All nationalities in the list are Hebrew where the nationality is not cited.

The following list deals only with explicit prohibitions of interracial marriage. Biblical passages dealing with the dividing of the nations (often cited in defense of racial segregation), a subject already treated above, are nor included in the list since they are not, strictly speaking, prohibitions; nor are they called upon in the passages which do impose restraints on interracial marriage.

Concerning the above list of prohibitions against interracial marriage one may make the following observations:

Prohibitions against interracial marriage, therefore, apply to the Old Testament Hebrew nation alone because of its unique place among the nations at that time as the agency maintaining the true worship of the God whom the other nations had forsaken. Moreover, the exceptions made to these prohibitions underscore the fact that the underlying concern is not race, but faith. 2 Corinthians 6:14, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers," when applied to marrying, is precisely the New Testament counterpart to the Old Testament prohibitions.

On the one hand there was great providential care in the founding of a genetically distinct Hebrew race; on the other, once that race was established, there was little if any concern for maintaining genetic purity.

Concerning the establishment of the Hebrew race note the following:

In the next generation the line becomes more mixed. Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebekah. His two wives, Leah and Rachel, were daughters of Laban, who was Rebekah's brother (Gen. 24:29). Jacob bore eight sons through Leah and Rachel. Jacob also bore four other sons through Zilpah and Bilhah, his wives' handmaids, who would have been from outside the family. These twelve sons became the twelve patriarchs of the Hebrew nation.

Now, concerning the relaxing of the genetic purity of the race, note the difference in genetic makeup among these twelve sons. The sons of Leah and Rachel would have been very inbred within the family of Terah, Abraham's father. The sons of Zilpah and Bilhah, by contrast, would have been genetically one-half Terahite at best. Yet all twelve of them were considered equally Hebrew, equally patriarchs.

The Old Testament is far from rigid in its regard for the genetic makeup of the member of a given race. It is much more rigid in its patrilineal system of ancestry; that is to say, in all but one case, for purposes of identity in the Hebrew race, the Biblical genealogies consider only the nationality of the father. (The one exceptional case will be treated below.)

As a result of the strictly patrilineal reckoning, foreign women occasionally enter into the line without disrupting the line. Moreover, they may do so with God's blessing. Rahab was a Canaanite "under the ban," due to be annihilated with all the residents of Jericho. Because of her righteousness she was kept alive. Matthew 1:5 shows her to have married into the Hebrew line. Later, Ruth, a Moabite, married Boaz, himself an offspring of the interracial marriage between Rahab and her Hebrew husband.

Matthew 1:5 reads:

Assuming no gaps in this part of the genealogy of Christ, Boaz would have been genetically one-half Hebrew and one-half Canaanite. Obed, then, would have been one-fourth Hebrew, one-fourth Canaanite, and one-half Moabite, yet by patrilineal reckoning wholly Hebrew.

One will naturally ask how far patrilineage can be stretched. Suppose there is an Englishman who moves to Japan and marries a Japanese woman. He has a son half English, half Japanese who marries a Japanese woman. The son has a son one-fourth English, three-fourths Japanese who marries a Japanese woman. The third-generation son has a son one-eighth English, seven-eighths Japanese. What is the nationality of the fourth generation son? By patrilineage English. even though genetically overwhelmingly Japanese.

Very well then. If the above sequence is continued to, say, the seventh generation, one has an Englishman who is only one-sixty-fourth English. Is the patrilineal system so rigid as to require US to apply it ad in finitum? Or would it allow that at some numerically imprecise point we may view the Englishman's posterity as absorbed into the Japanese race?

The one exception in the Old Testament patrilineal reckoning would seem to tell us that the system is not altogether rigid. In 1 Chronicles 2:34 we find a Hebrew man who gives his daughter in marriage to his Egyptian servant, but the descendants are reckoned with the mother's tribe of Judah. The exception is justified by the fact that (50 long as the family remained in the territory of Israel and the descendants married Israelites) in a few generations the genetic makeup of the descendants would indeed become overwhelmingly Hebrew. By the same token the entrance of foreign wives into the Hebrew Jino, even en masse as captives of war, does not upset the eventual balance in favor of a predominantly Hebrew genetic makeup.

Applying the Hebrew patrilineal system to the world as a whole, as in the Table of the Nations, one may conclude that a moderate amount of interracial marriage does not encroach upon the basic identity of the nations which God has brought into being. The Bible does not deal in terms of genetically pure lines. but only in terms of an overall genetic continuity traceable from son to father back to the original progenitors of the lines. Assuredly, if the human race as a whole married without respect to national lines, national identities worldwide would disappear. But the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel, and the resulting cultural and physical differences which have ensued, are sufficient to make interracial marriage the exception, which is all that is necessary in the patrilineal system to preserve national identity.

Perhaps the most noteworthy lesson which comes out of the Old Testament treatment of race, in comparison with modern attitudes, is the absence of any purely racial antagonism. Not only did various nations of Old Testament record accept interracial marriage matter-of-factly, they were willing to have foreigners in high places. Joseph was Pharaoh's right-hand man. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were groomed for important responsibilities in the Babylonian government. Ahasuerus eventually exalted Mordecai in the Persian government. By the same token three of David's thirty mighty men listed in 1 Chronicles 11 were foreigners: an Ammonite (v.391, a Hittite (v.41), and a Moabite (v.46). Also, Jeremiah 38:7-3 tells of Ebed-Melech, a godly Cushite in the court of Zedekiah, who brought about Jeremiah's rescue from the cistern into which he had been lowered.

Nor is there any manifestation of egotistical racial pride in the Old Testament. Israel considered itself a chosen people by the grace of God. Their human weaknesses are laid bare in the Scriptures. They are not treated as a superior race. Indeed, when they depart from God and lose His protection they come under foreign domination. The Ubermensch doctrine which has made notorious history in our own century is the exact antithesis of the Biblical mentality. For that matter, those who, upon occasion, use the Biblical geneajogies to prove the superiority of one race usually their own over another merely pervert the purpose of the genealogies.  

The perspective on race found in the Bible itself differs from that of our own twentieth-century American culture on some major points. First, it focuses on descent rather than on physical characteristics. Second, it reckons racial identity by patrilineage rather than by genetic makeup. Our reference to persons of mixed descent as half-breeds" or of some other proportion serves a descriptive purpose, but strictly speaking, a person belongs only to one race. Interracial marriage was prohibited in the Bible only when it was interreligious as well. Moreover, such precautions were limited to the Hebrews since "unto them were committed the oracles of God" (Rom. 3:2) as a race at that time. These prohibitions were far from rigidly enforced upon all members of that race. While some interracial partnerships were clearly wrong, multitudes of interracial marriages were sanctioned (see ~1 1, 12, p.10), a number of specific cases were blessed, and a few were acts of divine providence.

In the New Testament age there is no longer any exclusive identity between the Hebrew race, or any other race, and the true worship of God. Hence, the one spiritual barrier against interracial marriage in the Old Testament is no longer in force. The point of distinction today is belief in Christ: a believer should not marry an unbeliever.


1 For a random sample: Henry Alford, The Book of Genesis (Strahan & Co., 1872; reprint ed.. Minneapolis: Kiock & KIock, 1979), pp. 43-51. Derek Kidner, Genesis: an introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, Ill. InterVarsity Press, 1987; reprinted 1972), pp. 105-109. H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis. vol.1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1942; twelfth printing, 1972), pp. 359-377. Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), pp. 246-257. Leon J. Wood, Genesis: a Study Guide Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), pp. 53-55.
2 One frequently hears ii said that the United States is not found in eschatological literature. But if it indeed is a branch of Gomer then note that Gomer is mentioned in Ez. 36:6.
3 H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto: Macmillan, 1927; reprinted 1957), pp. 1-4. A Dana and Mantey, p.4.
5 The Canaanite language is also Semitic. "During their progress from east to west the Canaanites would find time and opportunity for appropriating the Semitic language." Franz Delitzsch, A New Commentary on Genesis. vol.1 (T. & T. Clark, 1888; reprinted., Minneapolis: Klock & Klock, 1978), p. 318.
6 Dana and Mantey, p. 4.
7 Dana and Mantey, p. 5.
8 For an excellent illustrated exposition of the human races see The World Book Encyclopedia. s.v. "Races of Man."
9 See Arthur C. Custance, Noah's Three Sons (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975; third printing, 1978) for an expanded treatment of Gen. 9-11. A fascinating mixture of Scriptural analysis and scientific hypothesis. Custance identifies three types of thought and behavior patterns in the nations of the world historically: the Hamite line is disposed toward solving physical problems, the Japhethite toward intellectual, and the Shemite toward religious.
10 Some sources regard the Hittites as possibly a mixture of Hamite and Japhethite.
11 The Persians are either Japhethite or a mixture of Japhethite and Shemite.

"Race and Interracial Marriage: A Biblical Survey and Perspective"
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