Whitewashing Biblical Characters

The world of the Bible is not our world. Yet generations of readers, including non-Western readers and hearers, have been taught to approach biblical texts from primarily Western perspectives and to apply Western, Eurocentric dominant cultural characteristics to the texts and its characters.

 The geographical context of the Hebrew Bible is the confluence of North Africa and West Asia. Neither of those continents is Europe, and none of their native peoples were what have come to be constructed as white folk. You would not know that from the vast majority of Jewish and Christian art and popular-culture productions depicting biblical characters. Quite simply, biblical characters have been whitewashed in cultural and religious arts, theology and popular imagination; whiteness has been spackled on to biblical texts and characters. Similarly, “the Middle East” is not a continent. “Middle East” is a perspectival designation, encoding the seer who is also the namer; the Middle East is the middle of the Eastern world from a particular, Eurocentric perspective.

As a Black woman who was once a little Black girl, I have always been keenly aware of and disturbed by portraits of white Jesus, though I did not always know why. At some point, I became aware of my own discomfort with the images of biblical characters in Sunday-school and Bible-camp curricular materials and in my own Bible storybooks. I also had some books with Black and brown biblical characters. What I remember most about my own reception of those images was that I always rejected the blonde characters, and if I were coloring them, I would always make their hair dark and would darken their skin. Indigenous blondness in the Afro-Asiatic world was a bridge too far for this burgeoning Hebrew Bible child-scholar. Later, I would be delighted upon discovering that Leviticus 13 pronounced yellow hair to be a potential indicator of scalp disease requiring quarantine for diagnosis.

As a young adult who began teaching myself biblical Hebrew before I accepted a clergy vocation or enrolled in seminary, I was also the product of the civil-rights movement and was keenly aware of my own blackness in a world that stigmatized it, particularly visually — that is, in its beauty standards and media representations. I carried these understandings with me into the academy. I came into my teaching and scholarly career committed to unmasking the whiteness that is applied to the biblical text through which it is often interpreted, including by many persons and communities of color, and to decentering the white male scholarly voice that masquerades as normative and neutral.

In my introductory biblical studies classroom, the Hebrew Bible (not the Old Testament) takes center stage, interpreted in its cultural, canonical and literary contexts, not with regard to how Christians have interpreted it subsequently (though we are in conversation with those readings). We use the language “ancient Afro-Asiatic world” rather than “ancient Near East,” and occasionally, I show the Semitic language family tree identifying the standard scholarly classification for the region, its people and languages, Afro-Asiatic. We do a fair bit of geography, in order to reinforce that Africa and Asia meet at the Dead Sea Rift in the Great Rift Valley where the African and Asian tectonic plates come together in the Jordan River Valley, with Israel on the African plate and Jordan and Syria on the Asian plate.

When we name as “Afro-Asiatic” the continents, contexts, literatures, peoples and languages of the Hebrew Scriptures, we immediately call into question the white imagery that is applied to the biblical world. This imagery underlies the construction and consumption of white images and icons produced for religious and popular-cultural audiences, and is imposed on peoples of color by their conquerors, colonizers and enslavers. It is also read back a-historically by subsequent white-identified and adjacent Jews.[i]

Whitewashing of biblical characters arguably begins in Christendom, with the imperial and imperializing Church and its conjoined monarchies in which leading and ruling figures identify themselves with and as the people of Israel. This was facilitated by the supercessionist[ii] language in Christian Scriptures, particularly in the Pauline epistles. As a result, antisemitism and anti-Judaism are among the first fruits of white supremacist, nominally Christian biblical interpretation. It would be centuries if not a millennium before visual representation of biblical characters could be identified as a feature in some expressions of Judaism.

The entire enterprise of Western biblical scholarship, itself the offspring of the Church, along with the rise of classical Western art, its sibling, is ultimately responsible for what has become the normative presentation of biblical characters — and the deity — as white. The foundation of modern biblical scholarship is generally placed within the rise of the Enlightenment movement, a movement I learned to regard as enwhitenment during my theological education at the Howard University School of Divinity. I now also think of it in terms of entitlement. David Hume is an exemplar of the kind of white-supremacist rhetoric and worldview nurtured and disseminated by the so-called Enlightenment, which would redound to the biblical scholarly enterprise:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. (Essays: Moral, Political and Literary, “Essay XXI: Of National Characters.”[iii]

Hume’s legacy can be seen in the relatively contemporary scholarship of Martin Noth, whose scholarship on the Deuteronomistic History is still influential. Noth argued against the blackness of African peoples in an extreme example of biblical whitewashing. He took issue with the way in which Egyptians documented their own neighbors. Noth wrote in the 1960s, when images of Black folk in the United States would have invaded his own living room through the miracle of television as they publicly insisted on the right to vote. Noth nevertheless utterly rejected any similarity between American Negroes — his word — and the great peoples of the ancient world who have been his life’s work.

In his The Old Testament World published by Fortress Press,[iv] writing in the year my birth, Martin Noth characterized the “races of the ancient world” as being “[e]xclusive of Negroes.” (Fortress, 1966, p. 234) That is, that there were no Black folk in the ancient Afro-Asiatic world in spite of the art the Egyptians left of themselves and their neighbors behind. In his words, “Language distinctions must not be confused with racial ones.” (p. 234) He denied that the people who spoke Afro-Asiatic languages were themselves Afro-Asiatic people. In his wishful thinking, “the Aryan race also had a part in the population of the ancient Near East.” (p. 235). In Noth’s analysis, it was critical that Nubia, biblical Kush (corresponding to eastern and central Africa), not be understood as Black. This was because he recognized that the Nubians and Egyptians were related, and he had to by all means rule out any taint of blackness for the Egyptians.

In whitewashing the Nubians in order to whitewash the Egyptians, Noth leaves undisputed the presumptive whiteness of the rest of the biblical cast of characters. He writes:

The ancient Egyptians called Nubia (Cush in the Old Testament); and the Greeks and Romans named the Nubians Ethiopians. Nubia must not be confused with the land or people of modern Abyssinia, [then contemporary Sudan, Ethiopia, Eretria, Djibouti and Somalia, in whole or in part] situated much farther to the south. The Nubians were ethnically related to the Egyptians.” (p. 236, emphasis mine) Railing against the Egyptians, Noth writes: “The Egyptians … portrayed the people living along the Nile south of Egypt in a generalized and certainly incorrect manner, with typical Negro faces, beardless, and with large earrings, especially in the stereotyped lists of conquests in foreign lands…by incorrectly classifying the Nubians as Negroes.” (p. 236)

More contemporarily, biblical scholars have debated whether Kush/Cush in Zephaniah’s genealogy indicates African heritage, Zephaniah ben Cushi ben Gedaliah ben Amariah ben Hezekiah. I address the issue and implications in my commentary on Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah in the Wisdom series[v]:

Zephaniah is the son or descendant of a person identified as Cushi, a name that evokes the ancient African nation of Nubia called Kush/Cush in the Hebrew Bible. This area corresponds with parts of contemporary Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Likewise, according to the legendary genealogy in Genesis 10:6-20, Cush, כוש, is the ancestor of peoples in North, East and Central Africa, Mesopotamia, and Canaan. Cush will come to be identified with ancient Ethiopia via its translation in the Greek-speaking world …

Cushi, כושי, Zephaniah’s father’s name, is a gentilic in form, i.e., “Cushite,” which would normally mean a person with a Cushite ethnic identity. The apparent gentilic form raises the question for some scholars as to whether Cushi is indeed a personal name (either given at birth or a moniker based on his appearance), an ethnic identity indicator, or a combination of the two …

Speculation about the name, origin, race and ethnicity of (either) Cushi reveals much about the assumptions and understanding of race that shape biblical scholars and our scholarship. (For example, see the baseless claim that Cushi was a slave because he was Black, as asserted by Judith E. Sanderson, “Zephaniah,” in The Women’s Bible Commentary.[vi])

Kush and its identification have long served as a bellwether for the portrayal of biblical characters in racialized terms and depictions. The appropriate characterization of ancient African folk as Black, brown or the ill-advised “people of color” is the lowest of low branches in discussing the multinational, multi-ethnic complexity of biblical peoples. Ultimately, what is at stake is whether the Israelites and their God-story, which has become the dominant global God-story due to Christian imperialism, can be claimed by and for whiteness. The question of the appearance of the Israelites (with its contemporary racial implications), however, is not just a Christian question.

Mishnah Bekhorot describes a number of skin colors, conditions and appearances as mumin (blemishes) that disqualify an Israelite man from the priesthood, even with the right lineage. This is based on the prohibitions against blemished men serving as priests in Leviticus 21:16-23 and the prohibition against blemished animals being offered as sacrifices in Leviticus 22:17-25. In this context, Rabbi Shimon bar Lakhish, known as Resh Lakhish, says in Bavli Bechorot 45b:A-white-man should not marry a white-woman lest they produce a boheq, a-too-white-child, and a-black-man should not marry a-black-woman lest they produce a tefu’ah, a-too-black-child.”

This text is not about blackness or whiteness as we use the terms now or about European versus African ancestry. It is likely simply acknowledging a recognition of a diversity of skin tones and the desire for adhering to a cohesive center rather than extremes on either end of a complexion continuum. (The associated mishnah, Mishnah Bekhorot 7:6, rules out albinos and hakushi, black [appearing?] men from priestly service. It is worth questioning to what visual diversity they might have been responding.)

The rabbis asked and answer the question of what the Israelites looked like with regard to their complexions in Mishnah Nega’im 2:1. They are discussing how plague-spots would appear on different hued flesh:

The bright spot in a Gennan (germani) appears as dull white and the dull white one in a Kushite appears as bright white. R. Ishmael stated: the children of Israel — may I atone for them! — are like boxwood (eshkero’a), neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.

“Boxwood” has never been successfully identified, leaving a generalized notion of the ancient Israelites having the complexion of some sort of wood in the rabbinic imagination. Wood like human skin runs the gamut from palest white to ebony, so arguably, the Israelites were some color between those poles (which we already knew).

Visual (and descriptive) representations of biblical texts and characters are acts of biblical interpretation. Using those images to nurture, inform and maintain white supremacy while inculcating children into a white-supremacist biblical and theological worldview is not only a-historic; it is idolatrous. Contemporarily white iconography continues that work, without the active reflection of those whom it shapes. Seeing God in your image and only in your image makes it hard to see those who are not like you as the image of God; it is even harder when nothing in your experience has ever portrayed God as significantly different from you.

Drawing attention to the naked white supremacist history of biblical studies and visual biblical interpretation is a necessary part of an education in the text and its interpretation, whether for classroom or congregation. Dismantling racism in the biblical guild, broader academy and wider world is a reluctant vocation; that work most properly falls to its maintenance engineers — its original architects no longer accessible — and this work most properly belongs to those who have inherited the legacy of white supremacy. All too often that work is left to black folk and other people of color. Instead, the great whitewashed biblical characters and their images continue to further white-supremacist ideals, particularly when used to indoctrinate children through otherwise ethical religious education.

[i] The relationship of contemporary Jews to whiteness is far more complicated than can be addressed here. It should be noted, however, that whatever degree of white privilege some Jews can be said to possess is regularly violently and lethally revoked by antisemitism.

[ii] The Church teaching that Christianity superceded Judaism and that Christians are the new Israel.

[iii] 1758, FN 10, p. 372 [Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 2011].

[iv] Fortress Press would one day publish my first monograph.

[v] Liturgical Press, 2017, pp. 129-131.

[vi] Edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998, p. 240.

8 Responses

  1. This reading was brilliantly written and it makes so much sense to me. I’ve been conflicted all my life as a black women about the imagery of the characters of the Bible and why every show ever created even till today with the new bible series The Chosen Jesus and his twelve disciples are still portrayed as white men. It leaves me feeling like I have no part in the story of Jesus or Christianity for that matter. There once was an audio version of the Bible called The Bible Experience and that was created with all the voice of many black actors singers and other famous black peoples. It was the closest thing to making me feel like I could possibly be apart of the Bible Experience. Just hearing the voices of the people made me feel better. Thanh you for the work you do in helping people see that whitewashing is real and until it’s changed I don’t see white peoples ever really changing how they feel about black people or any other nationality they will always feel superior as long as the God they serve is white.

    1. The Chosen disciples are not played by white men. They are ethnically Arab, Latin, North African, and southeast Asian. All the white men play the Romans.

      1. White denotes skin color. Nothing more. So yes, ethnically they may be diverse but still white skinned, when the people they are depicting were not by and large.

      2. The US classifies all people (including the actors) from those locations as Caucasian/White, regardless of their complexion. The peoples from those locations mostly consider themselves likewise.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I was just sitting in my bed thinking about why is every character of the Bible white then I put the question in google and your reading came up. It was very interesting and enlightening for me as a black women. Keep putting out more content like this we need to see ourselves in the Bible.

  3. Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D..

    You know, incidentally, I was strolling through the internet asking how did the Bible become the white man’s legacy, and how is that men like Wycliff, Tyndale, King Henry VIII, and King James become the authority of the word of God? I ask these questions, with the understanding of knowing that the original Hebrews had all darker pigmentations of skins. Well done Doctor, I would love to have you visit us in Texas to give a lecture on this subject matter.
    Pastor Emanuel Berry

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