Does Cultural Diversity Change Scripture?

  • Al Mohler President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • Published Feb 27, 2015
Does Cultural Diversity Change Scripture?

The world around us is changing at a velocity unprecedented in human history. But we must realize that while the world seems to be changing almost regularly before our eyes, the task of the ministry remains absolutely the same. The founders of this school were convinced that Christian ministry should be modeled on the life and teaching of Jesus and his Apostles and later handed down to men such as Timothy, Paul’s protégé in ministry.

Increasingly, the world is recognizing that to be human is to live by the light of a story — a story that tells us about the past, explains the future, and situates us in the present. Yet from a Christian worldview we recognize that the stories promulgated by the world are not only inadequate as metanarratives but toxic to human flourishing. Ministers of the gospel also have a story to tell — the story of Scripture, the story of Jesus and his love. This is the story that leads to salvation and a story we must not get wrong.

A prominent question many worldviews and metanarratives are now wrestling with is the question of human diversity. Diversity is a fact that cannot be denied. The insularity of other cultures — which has always been partial — has now given way the phenomenon of globalization. It is hard to miss the fact that we are living in an age of increasing diversity; not just the world at large but even in our own nation and communities. In fact, some sociologists are now indicating that may soon be a majority-minority nation — a fact which is already a reality in some states. If our churches are truly going to represent the kingdom, if they are truly going to be gospel churches, then our churches are going to start to look more and more like our nation’s changing demographic map. Furthermore, our churches will rejoice in those changes.

As I indicated above, non-Christian worldviews are also wrestling with the issue of diversity and are providing woefully inadequate, even toxic explanations. Racism is of course one of those toxic approaches to the issue of diversity. Racism — a story that is not new and seems never to go away — suggests that human beings have permanent differences that must be evaluated along a spectrum of superiority and inferiority. Racism is one of the primal human sins and one of the most difficult to eradicate. It is the very antithesis of the gospel of Jesus Christ and everything that Christians should know, believe, teach, and live.

Another approach is the pluralistic cosmopolitan story which suggests that somehow humanity will arrive at the creation of a global community sharing a cosmopolitan ideal and a cosmopolitan citizenship that eradicates not only race and ethnicity but also citizenship and nation.

Another approach to the issue of diversity is that of radical individualism — a story that promotes the notion that we belong only to ourselves and are basically a people of one. Few people would admit that this is indeed their worldview. However, our individualism shows through in our lives even when it does not show up in our speech.

For Christians, the question is essentially the same as that asked of Jesus by a lawyer: “Who is my brother?” As a gospel people, our responsibility is to see the world, its headlines, and its heartaches through gospel eyes. To do so is to discover a counter-narrative to the stories the world is telling and the stories that are tearing the world apart. This counter-narrative is both hopeful and real. What we need is biblical theology in service to the gospel and a clear proclamation of the gospel as the key to our biblical theology.

In order to get there, I invite you to consider one of the most neglected passages in Scripture: Genesis 10. Here we find what is commonly referred to as the table of the nations.

1 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood.

2 The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras.

3 The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah.

4 The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim.

5 From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations.

6 The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan.

7 The sons of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

8 Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man.

9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.”

10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

11 From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and

12 Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city.

13 Egypt fathered Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim,

14 Pathrusim, Casluhim (from whom the Philistines came),

15 Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn and Heth,

16 and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites,

17 the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites,

18 the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the clans of the Canaanites dispersed.

19 And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha.

20 These are the sons of Ham, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

21 To Shem also, the father of all the children of Eber, the elder brother of Japheth, children were born.

22 The sons of Shem: Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and

23 The sons of Aram: Uz, Hul, Gether, and Mash.

24 Arpachshad fathered Shelah; and Shelah fathered Eber.

25 To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother’s name was Joktan.

26 Joktan fathered Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah,

27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah,

28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba,

29 Ophir, Havilah, and Jobab; all these were the sons of

30 The territory in which they lived extended from Mesha in the direction of Sephar to the hill country of the east.

31 These are the sons of Shem, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations.

32 These are the clans of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, in their nations, and from these the nations spread abroad on the earth after the flood.

One of the most important affirmations of biblical anthropology is that every single human being is created in the image of God. This means that there is a unity to the human race. We all bear the imago Dei. Even beyond that we share a common descent. We all spring from our first parents Adam and Eve. The biblical story only makes sense and we can only rightly understand the gospel if those for whom Christ died are all sons of Adam.

As we consider the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 we must remember that these nations are dispersing for a particular reason. That reason is provided in Genesis 11: The Tower of Babel. “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). Not only do we have a shared ancestor in Adam but at one point we all shared the same language. Moses continues:

“And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar in Mesopotamia and settled there. And they said to one another, come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar. And then they said come, let us build ourselves a city and tower with its top in the heavens. And let us make a name for ourselves lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men had built, and the Lord said ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have one language. And this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will be impossible to them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth and they left off building the city, therefore it was called Babel, because the Lord confused the language of all the earth and from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth” (Genesis 11:2-9).

Notice a peculiar repetition in the passage. Three times the word “come” appears in the text. In the first two instances “come” is spoken by the inhabitants of the city of Babel: “Come, let us make bricks,” “Come let us build a city.” They are calling one another to conspire and rebel against the Lord. Yet the Lord mocks their words when he says, “Come, let us go down, and see this thing which they have done.” Of course, the Lord didn’t just go down and see the thing that they had done, he went down and undid the thing that they had done.

What was the real problem with the Tower of Babel? Some have posited, and probably rightly so, that the Tower may have been part of an astrological cult. But that’s not the ultimate issue. Others have noted that the Tower represents human pride. It certainly does, but that’s not the ultimate issue either. What is the real issue? Look again at 11:4 “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top to the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” This statement is a direct defiance of the command of God in Genesis 1:28. God never commanded us to build a great city that would house all of humanity. We were told to fill the earth. What we find in the Tower of Babel is that those who were building this city did so lest they be dispersed. And yet God judges them by dispersing them while confusing their languages. Had these people been obedient and dispersed in obedience to Genesis 1:28 there is at least the possibility, that in that dispersion, every one still would have had the same language. But as it is the Table of Nations shows us that after the incident at Babel, the nations dispersed according to “their clans, their nations, and their languages.”

Let’s consider a few points about this passage. First we must note that here we find an explanation of ethnicity but significantly there is no mention, whatsoever, of skin color or physical appearance. Instead, race and ethnicity are considered a matter of shared family heritage, beliefs, and language. This is very foreign to our modern idea of race so often closely tied to one’s skin color and other physical attributes.

Second, we ought to notice how Genesis 10 ends: with the notation that there were 70 nations. As you can see, if you follow the way that these lines of decent are explained, these names alone don’t account for all of humanity as we know it today or where all of humanity lives.

People groups beyond this, of course, multiplied out of the dispersion. How many people groups? Well, according to the IMB, there are now at least 11,489 people groups in the world. So out of the 70 we read about in Genesis 10, there have developed 11,489. Of those, 6,832 are, at least by the best Christian reckoning, less than two percent Christian. And of those 11,489 people groups, 3,264 have no Christian witness.

The defiance of the mandate in Genesis 1 is what leads to the judgment in Genesis 10, and that leads to the dispersion. But we must remember something critical. The dispersion was not itself the judgment. The dispersion was God’s plan all along — remember Genesis 1:28. The judgment was that instead of being dispersed in communion, they were dispersed in confusion — a story that continues even into today.

Third, we should remind ourselves of the horrors of the interpretative tradition that arose from this text promulgating the so-called “Curse of Ham” interpretation. This interpretation, which said that the descendants of Ham were cursed with black skin, does violence to the text and slanders the character of God (furthermore, the text indicates that it is not even Ham who is cursed but Canaan).

While originating in the medieval world, this interpretation became very culturally significant when it was disastrously used to justify the slave trade. Of course the only real Curse of Ham was the cursed biblical interpretation and a horrifying distortion of Scripture that promoted the worst forms of racism imaginable.

The only rescue from heresies like the infamous curse of Ham is the truth of the Gospel and the authority of Scripture. Our common ancestry in Adam (and Noah) points to our common need for a Savior and, for believers in Christ, a common new humanity. But there is more to the story — there is the glory of God in our differences as well as in our more fundamental commonality. That glory, visible even now, points to an infinitely greater glory yet to come. We are headed for the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Next: Part 2

This is Part 1 of a two-part series based upon my Spring Convocation address at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “The Table of Nations, the Tower of Babel, and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb: Ethnic Diversity and the Radical Vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” delivered Tuesday, February 3, 2015.

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Publication date: February 27, 2015