Black and White in the Bible: a Biblical Reflection

by Inderjit Bhogal.

This is the fourth of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. 

I want to question and reject the idea that white is the colour of purity, and black is the colour of profanity; that white is good, and black is bad.

Let me illustrate by considering words that should be familiar to readers of the Bible.

Isaiah 1:18 where we read, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (KJV).

These words are traditionally taken to mean, though your sins are dirty they will be made clean, as white as snow.

It is illuminating always to consider the context in which scriptural words are said or written.

Biblical scholarship is broadly agreed that the Book of Isaiah can be divided into three sections.

In section one (Chapters 1-39), there is a warning and prophecy about exile; section two (Chapters 40-54) reflects the time in exile and promises a return from exile; section three (55-66) follows exile.

In section one then there is a focus on things getting worse because people have again turned away from God. They will be taken into exile.

In this context the words of Isaiah 1:18, though your sins are as scarlet, they will become white as snow may be taken to mean, you are going to go from scarlet to white. Things are going to get worse.

Let us look at the use of the term “white as snow” in the Bible, by examining the first appearance of this phrase in some English translations of Numbers 12 where  we read in verse 10 that “Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow”. What led to this?

What does the phrase “white as snow” mean here? Does the original Hebrew text even use the term “as snow”?

Whatever the gloss, clearly it is pointing to something bad rather than something good, it is referring to impurity rather than purity.

The context is criticism of the leadership of the great Moses. To criticise him Aaron and Miriam pick on the choice of his wife. All we know about her is that she is a Cushite. We know nothing else about her.

Cush is the ancient designation of territory on the Upper Nile, south of Egypt. It can be reasonably assumed that the Cushite woman is of black African appearance.

Did Aaron and Miriam object to Moses being married to a black woman, and see this as the greatest weakness of Moses’ leadership to exploit? What results from this prejudice in the community?

God “heard” the criticism (verse 2), and challenges it, saying to Aaron and Miriam, and Moses, there is something we need to talk about (verse 4). The discriminatory reasoning of Aaron and Miriam is challenged in the meeting with God. Then we read, “and the anger of the Lord was kindled against” Aaron and Miriam (verse 9), and there are consequences. God departs.

Miriam becomes “white as snow”. The progress of the community is halted (verse 15). Moses prays for the healing in the situation (verse 13).

From here on, where ever the term “white as snow” appears in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have to read it in the light of the Numbers 12 story.

White as snow is a reference to impurity.

When Black theologians point this out, they are challenging bible-based communities to examine how we use colours in our language and liturgy and hymnody. It is important to note also that people of the “ancient world regard black people favourably” on account of their high esteem and status (see for example Randall Bailey in Felder, 1991, Stony the Road We Trod. Fortress Press, Minneapolis. Pages 135, 179-180). Moses’ black wife may have faced prejudice for her class as much as her colour.

There is evidence that black Africans, of Cushite or Ethiopian backgrounds, were held in high esteem. For example, we read in Amos (9:7, the words where Israel is contrasted with Cushites/Ethiopians, “are you not like the Ethiopians/the Cushites to me, O people of Israel, says the Lord.”

What intrigues me is that in the Biblical texts like the ones I have referred to, white is a negative colour.

The association of white only, with holiness, has to be questioned in Bible based practice. What are the implications of this for example in our language, liturgy, theology, ethics, pastoral care and dress codes?

Questions:

  1. How careful should we be in our use of language? What do you think about ‘political correctness’?
  2. Should there be a ‘black theology’? Has theology been too ‘White’ and European in its orientation?
  3. Is the Bible truly inclusive in its record of events?

9 thoughts on “Black and White in the Bible: a Biblical Reflection”

  1. I have found this uncomfortable since being made aware of the connotations of the Ruwadzano Manyano uniforms in Zimbabwe and what that was saying to the black women who wore them.
    But what about the white robes being worn before the throne in Revelation? How does that fit in – surely those in that throng have been made pure?

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  2. ‘White contains an equal balance of all the colours of the spectrum, representing both the positive and negative aspects of all colours. Its basic feature is equality, imparting fairness, impartiality and neutrality.’ (Empowered by Color)

    We can read good and bad connotations into any colour if we want to make an issue of it. Skin colours come in a wide range of shades; they are never at the extreme ends of the spectrum, black or white.
    ‘Have you been to Jesus for his cleansing power, are you washed in the blood of the lamb, are your garments spotless, are they white as snow, are you washed in the blood of the lamb?’ Please note this song refers to the garments we wear (our character) not our skin colour!

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  3. “Are your garments spotless?” “Will you qualify for pure white robes in Heaven?”

    How does that fit in with Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

    I wonder what the Samaritan’s clothes were like after he’d finished tendering to the needs of the man who had been robbed and beaten and left bleeding in the dirt at the side of the road – very different, I expect, from those of the priest and the Levite, who were concerned to keep themselves pure for worship,

    “The valuers for the television series, Clear Out and Cash In, came across two teddy bears as they searched the latest home for items that could be sold to raise funds. One expert was very excited by an antique Steiff bear, still in its box and good as new. “It’s hardly been touched; there’s not a mark on it,” he enthused. ‘It will fetch a tidy sum at auction.’

    “He then turned to the second bear and laughed, ‘What a contrast!’ This one was bald in places, had lost an eye and one arm was hanging off. It was badly stained and one paw had been heavily sucked. ‘The kindest thing you could say about this,’ he remarked, ‘Is that it might have sentimental value.’

    “His companion reflected, ‘To appreciate the real value of these two bears, we should remember that they were made as toys. Perhaps we should view them through children’s eyes. The first has been too precious to play with. It has been kept clean and safe and admired like an ornament. It has never fulfilled its prime purpose and as a toy has been worthless. The second has certainly suffered but that’s the risk of a relationship of love. It is going bald, because it has been hugged and stroked so often. The stains and damage come from sharing all a child’s activities. It has provided comfort and listened to secrets, hopes and fears. Its battered state comes from living and loving to the full. To the child it has been beyond price. It has been all that its maker intended.’ “

    We at times seem so obsessed with getting ourselves saved and safe in Heaven that we ignore the uncomfortable statement from Jesus; “Take up your cross and follow me!” That seems to imply that we should put more emphasis on spending ourselves, with all that involves
    In the sometimes messy, uncomfortable and costly business of caring for others. Loving in this way makes us vulnerable, and we may have to take some knocks in the process. I think Christ may take far more notice of the scars and the stains we’ve acquired than the shininess of our spiritual clothes.

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    1. That all resonates with me! I find it much easier to do practical stuff than ‘pray for people’!
      And I screen print t-shirts with that Micah verse!
      I was simply questioning what the piece in Revelation might be saying in the context of Inderjit’s reading of other relevant verses.

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  4. Is it not possible to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly and still be concerned with our own salvation? Why must one preclude the other? Any humble Christian should know that it is impossible for us to keep ourselves pure, which is why we rely solely on the grace of God and the blood of Jesus.

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    1. Of course, it is not only possible, it ought to be the case, that we are concerned with both justice and with salvation. However, the emphasis within the church has tended to be on personal salvation and there has been a mistrust of those of us heavily involved in community work, who have been accused of trying to earn our way into Heaven. Let me illustrate this with part of an internal report by a sub-group of the Evangelical Alliance in 2005

      “The unique claims of the Christian faith are fundamentally challenged by our pluralist society. Pluralism is not just about religious diversity: it is the summary of the competing, multiple values which inform our culture, and which are eroding the Judeo-Christian absolutes which held sway for over 1,000 years. Most people do not link God with the few absolutes left standing in this culture. Against such a background, truth-telling faces enormous challenges.

      “Regrettably, it must be admitted that evangelicals themselves have contributed to the problem. For many years until the late 1970s, we were anxious about being linked to what was termed a social gospel – a view that good works without grace was an acceptable substitute for the Cross. It meant that much of our preaching was concerned with individualistic piety and stringent orthodoxy, at the expense of holistic biblical application. Social, political or institutional evil was rarely on our agenda.

      “We neglected to interpret and apply our scriptural knowledge not only to the “big questions” of concern to God, such as justice, but to the matters of everyday living – the themes that Jesus often took. So we are now in a position where the Church largely exists in a parallel reality: our hearers, as it were, speak Swedish while we shout at them in polished Spanish.

      “Contemporary, life-changing preaching will examine community, family and human relationships. It will pay attention to what is happening in the world beyond the Sunday experience and will equip disciples for Monday morning realities. It will seek to whisper truth into the world of the arts, business, sports and politics, and to relate to the student, office worker or parent.

      “This shift in emphasis may be unnerving for evangelicals, who will be forced to move beyond orthodox insularity and preoccupations with moral issues such as abortion and sexuality. We have to encompass a wider repertoire of concerns about which God is equally passionate, such as justice and poverty. The move from a message of condemnation to the language of compassion is an imperative for the people of the Kingdom.”

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      1. Pavel. Yes. Well said. “We are now in a position where the Church largely exists in a parallel reality”, even though it was obvious that Jesus prioritised concern for others over individualistic notions about piety and salvation. I would hope that I may be considered a Swedish speaking Christian.

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  5. Inderjit’s message seems to have been lost in some of these comments.
    To address the question: ‘What do you think of political correctness?’ I would say that political correctness is society’s noble but futile attempt to put the world to rights. I say noble, because it is surely God’s will that all human beings be equally valued and treated with dignity and respect. I say futile, because of the human mindset which errs towards judgement and prejudice, inclusion and exclusion. Jesus said we would always have the poor among us, which means we will always have the rich. There will always be winners and losers, weak and strong, oppressors and oppressed. It is the way of the world, which is why we live in hope of a better world to come, which we call Heaven. God does not force his will on us, and we cannot force his will on each other.

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