Book Review: From Every People and Nation: a biblical theology of Race, by J. Daniel Hays

This is a very brief, very informal review of a book I read more than a year ago. It is an excellent book, for what it is. Written in 2003, it is not a commentary on any current trends in scholarship, national politics, etc. There is no mention of hot issues like being ‘woke’, systemic racism, or intersectionality.

Hays is writing to fill a void. In the introduction, he points to surveys that show black Christian scholars identify racial divisions in the church as a central problem, while white Christian scholars do not tend to see a problem at all. Consequently, black Christians, even those who are conservative in their theology, do not tend to identify with the evangelical movement and feel excluded. His book “is an attempt to help fill the need for a serious exegetically based study of passages that relate to the race issue” (21). It is not agenda driven, it is not liberation-theology under the guise of exegetical study. The study explores two kinds of texts – “those texts that have a general bearing on the theology of race” and “because I am particularly concerned with the relationship between Black and White Christians in the Church today, we will those texts that make specific reference to Black Africans” (22).

The book acknowledges that our images of the Bible and Bible characters of often white-washed (my words, not his). Charlton Heston plays Moses, British actor Richard Harris plays Abraham. And, “clear portrayals of Black Africans in the Bible are all but ignored. “Therefore,” he writes, “the perception conveyed to the Church, both through the popular media and through serious scholarly work, is that there was a significant Caucasian involvement in the biblical story but not Black African involvement” (27). The early chapters seek to help the reader identify the different ethnic groups that play significant roles in the Old Testament: Asiatics, Semites and their cousins, Cushites, Egyptians and Indo-Eurpoeans.

Hays then begins looking at OT narratives, beginning in Genesis, looking for texts that give insight into race and ethnicity. Of Adam and Eve he corrects, “It is incorrect for the White Church to view them as white or for the Black Church to view them as black” (47). He considers the image of God, the curse of Ham, the table of nations, and the call of Abraham to be a blessing to the nations. The next chapter, chapter four, delves into Israel’s laws concerning foreigners, sojourners, Moses Cushite wife and the [non]issue of intermarriage, and Phineas the priest. Chapter five examines the role of Africans during the period of the monarchy. Chapter six follows this up by considering the racial issues in the writings of the prophets, giving particular attention to Isaiah with other sections on Amos, the Psalms, and Zephaniah.

Chapter seven moves the reader into the world of the NT and the ethnic diversity that characterized the Roman empire. Chapter eight is more prescriptive (rather than descriptive) as Hays considers the race and theology of Luke and Acts. Hays points to the work of Bock and Witherington on Luke and Acts, both of whom identify race and the universalization of the the gospel as a key theme. Hays goes further, “Luke is also concerned with discipleship and Christian community. God’s plan is not just that the gospel will go to all peoples, but that all peoples will be brought together through the gospel to form on people in Christ” (157). He rightly sees the expansion of the church as the continuation of the story rooted in the Abrahamic covenant. Hays also considers the importance of the Good Samaritan parable as it relates to racial issues and how this story differs from other similar Jewish parables by placing “the hated, despised one as the hero who does the helping” (170). The Ethiopian eunuch, and Simon called Niger are also considered.

Chapter nine is the last substantive chapter, covering race in the Pauline corpus and the Apocalypse. Attention is paid to texts from Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians. Lastly, several pages are devoted to the beautiful images of the multi-ethnic, multicultural people of God in the book of Revelation.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to conclusions and applications. It is a helpful summary, but application is very sparse (and somewhat dated given our cultural situation).

On the whole, the book is particularly helpful in pointing out aspects of the Old Testament that may have been overlooked by many readers. I will pull this book off the shelf when preaching/teaching any of those passages or the more familiar passages of the NT (harder to miss the ethnic diversity in the NT, but still Hays does a good job of pointing these out and getting the reader to consider some of the implications of Acts, Galatians, etc.). The book is not one that will help develop a program or address current issues like the BLM movement. Still, it is a good resource for pastors and teachers to have on their shelf.