Interracial relationships of the absurd: From Solomon to Phineas to Ruth and beyond

During a facebook discussion last evening (actually, it was a shrill argument), an interesting comment was posted about the contents of the Bible. My friend indicated that he thought it was a good thing that the Bible had nothing to say about interracial relationships ( I think our actual context was interracial dating). Undoubtedly, it is pretty easy to draw such an assumption from the well of Hebrew literature, but I think a lot of folks will be surprised that such an assumption is a little off the mark.

First, I’ve heard it said that race is a human construct, and I will leave the resolution of such questions to sociologists and natural and human science experts. I believe it is true that contemporary human make racial distinctions according to varying criteria. I also believe it to be true that our contemporary racial constructs may be quite a bit different than the assumptions that people had in the ancient mid-east cultures that produced the Bible. That being said, it may in fact be true that the Hebrew Bible has little to nothing to say to us about modern human race relationships. I believe the New Testament is foundational to what our contemporary views should be – especially the Galatians baptismal hymn (Gal. 3:27-29). There is also something to consider in Titus 1:12, where the Apostle Paul writes: “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, "Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons." Now that sounds like contemporary language that would bring consequences. Still, it has little to say to us in the 21st century, as compared to the end of distinctions brought about by baptism.

However, let’s return to the Hebrew Bible and its concern for “interracial dating” if I can use that term without frustrating too many academics. The Bible may be more concerned with intermarriage. I would like to offer three separate narratives to show how diverse the older texts can be in regard to marriage and cultural differences. The best place to start is always Song of Songs. It’s foreplay for healthy conservatives!

In the very first chapter of Song of Songs, we might be surprised to find that the entire book is written about an unmarried couple, and an “interracial” couple at that.

1 The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.

2 “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine. 3 “Your oils have a pleasing fragrance, Your name is like purified oil; Therefore the maidens love you. 4 “Draw me after you and let us run together! The king has brought me into his chambers.”

“We will rejoice in you and be glad; We will extol your love more than wine. Rightly do they love you.”

5 “I am black but lovely, O daughters of Jerusalem, Like the tents of Kedar, Like the curtains of Solomon. 6 “Do not stare at me because I am swarthy, For the sun has burned me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; They made me caretaker of the vineyards, But I have not taken care of my own vineyard. 7 “Tell me, O you whom my soul loves, Where do you pasture your flock, Where do you make it lie down at noon? For why should I be like one who veils herself Beside the flocks of your companions?”

Interestingly enough, this Shulamite woman of the text is almost always portrayed in classic art as a light-skinned if not European looking woman. Of course, so is Jesus, for that matter, but the Shulamite woman is portrayed as such despite the obvious textual indicator of her skin tone. So, this is the first example of the reality that skin-tone was not only recognized as an identity marker of sorts, but was not a barrier to sexual relationships, or human desire.

Yet, intermarriage is not neccesserily concerned with skin tone. The next question is one of Hebraic or Israelite “racial identity.” I won't venture to speculate on how ancient Hebrews thought of themselves in terms of contemporary racial constructs. The very fact that they considered themselves a Chosen People, or, The Elect of YHWH God Almighty, indicates they had an identity based upon specific distinctions that drew boundaries of varying permeability through history. Whether or not skin tone had anything to do with this is not my concern, so much as a few points of biblical evidence that shows the boundary did indeed vary, and the bending of this boundary had various effects of the editors of the text. Let’s start with one of my favorites, Phineas the High Priest. In the Book of Numbers, it seems Israel felt God’s wrath because of intermarriage with nations that worshipped Ba-al.

25 While Israel remained at Shittim, the people began to play the harlot with the daughters of Moab. 2 For they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. 3 So Israel joined themselves to Baal of Peor, and the Lord was angry against Israel. 4 The Lord said to Moses, “Take all the leaders of the people and execute them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel.” 5 So Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you slay his men who have joined themselves to Baal of Peor.”

6 Then behold, one of the sons of Israel came and brought to his relatives a Midianite woman, in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, while they were weeping at the doorway of the tent of meeting. 7 When Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he arose from the midst of the congregation and took a spear in his hand, 8 and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and pierced both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman, through the body. So the plague on the sons of Israel was checked. 9 Those who died by the plague were 24,000.

10 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 11 “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy. 12 Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.’”

In this type of narrative, it is shown that the primary concern was intermarriage with ethnics that worshipped other God was felt to lead Israel astray from the God of her election. Notice the main concern seems not to be for racial purity, but religious purity. The question remains whether the motivator was influenced by differences in physical characteristics, as other texts indicate that foreigners could marry into the Hebrew communities if they made YHWH their God. We will return to that thought later.

First, there is another narrative that barely mentions intermarriage, and in fact is overlooked for the most part even though it leads in to one of the most well-known and important narratives in the Bible. It is important to this discussion, however, because it actually might be considered to play a prominent role in how Israelite viewed their election as it related to matters of marriage.

One of the best-known stories of the Bible is how Jacob stole Esau’s birth- right, and then, his father’s blessing. Esau was the eldest son, and should have been in line for Isaac’s inheritance. That’s just the way it was then, right? However, the narrative tells us a few things about Esau that might indicate he was not right to be the one that would be chosen as one of the Patriarchs that led to the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah. The first indication of this is – what kind of an idiot sells his birth- right in exchange of some red stuff that will barely satisfy his hunger. Anyone who cannot wait for a full meal to satisfy hunger but instead trades his inheritance to satisfy a rumbling tummy is of suspect leadership qualities.

However, possibly do to the addition of chapters and verses to the text, just before we get to Chapter 27, which sort of provides a false beginning to the narrative, there is something overlooked at the end of Chapter 26. As it turns out, just before the story of the stolen blessing, we are informed that Isaac and Rebekah were not too excited with Esau’s choice of a bride. In fact, after Jacob receives the blessing that was supposedly intended for Esau, the first thing Rebekah instructs Jacob to do after he gets far away from Esau’s wrath is to marry the right kind of woman, a relative of the family and “not from the daughters of Caanan.” (Gen. 28:1-2) But, back to Easu. This is about Esaus’s marriage. Read Genesis 26:34-35:

“34 When Esau was forty years old he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite; 35 and they brought grief to Isaac and Rebekah.”

Seems that this little mistake by Esau may have played a role in the following narrative, thus a big role in how the lineage of Israel is established. It is Jacob who will be called Israel.

But remember, the Bible is diverse in literary form and nature if nothing else. This leads me to my favorite story about intermarriage, the story of Ruth and Naomi, which is in reality a story about King David and, for Christians, a story about Jesus and our own adoption into the Elect, from which we were all originally excluded! Read from Deuteronomy 23:3-6:

“3 No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the Lord, 4 because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. 5 Nevertheless, the Lord your God was not willing to listen to Balaam, but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the Lord your God loves you. 6 You shall never seek their peace or their prosperity all your days.”

It is important to understand that the phrase “not even to the tenth generation” basically means “not ever, ever, forever, or even ever.” (that’s a paraphrase…) However, a little later in Israelite history, we get to the Book of Ruth. A woman, Naomi, and her husband decide to leave Israel because of a famine in the land. (Ruth 1) Not only is it a display of unfaithfulness (distrust) for Naomi and Elimelech to leave Israel due to famine, but they go to, of all places to Moab. The text can be interpreted any number of ways, but it is rather easy to suggest that, related to their distrust of YHWH to meet their need in the Promised Land despite the famine, and the fact that their sons took foreign daughters as brides, all three males die in tragic circumstances, leaving Naomi and her two Moabite daughter-in-laws as widows, and perhaps without much of a future. Not only was Ruth and the other women left without support, they were left childless, which was an indicator of God’s disfavor – a curse.

Naomi recognizes that God is not looking favorably on this situation, and sends her daughter-in-laws away so they can be cared for by their own people. May God bless you both, she says. At first, both in-laws refuse to leave her side, but one grudgingly decides it is best that she goes. Ruth, however, says something rather remarkable considering her luck with Israelites. The text reveals the loyalty of Ruth in an extraordinary way as Ruth declares she will never leave Naomi’s side.

“16 But Ruth said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God. 17 Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.’”

This is followed by another interesting turn of events. The text reads that when Naomi returns with the Moabitess Ruth, Ruth ends up welcomed into the assembly of Israel. Incredibly, Mosaic law indicates that a kinsman redeemer may marry Ruth, which in effect welcomes her into the tribe despite her ethnic origins. Not only that, it secures Naomi’s inheritance and legitimizes it, as Ruth’s ensuing marriage and child through Boaz keep Naomi’s matriarchal lineage going. The storyline indicates that it is Naomi who is blessed with another child, every bit as much as the once childless Ruth.

And just who belongs to this line? Obed, and then David, of course. And who is of David’s line, and explicitly in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew? Ruth! What makes this all the more amazing is the other narratives of punishment related to intermarriage with Moabites. Lot is the patriarch of Moab, through the incestuous acts of his daughters according to the narrative of Genesis 19:30-37. Such stories make the fact of God’s working through Ruth and Naomi all the more indicative of how YWHW is faithful regardless of human unfaithfulness. Or, such stories are simply indicative of how God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah, and all of creation. Will be fulfilled regardless of our own projections of ethnic or racial purity onto the God we know through Jesus.

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