Defining “Race” and “Ethnicity”

To probe the question of race in the Torah (Genesis—Deuteronomy), we need to first define race, and also clarify the relationship of “race” to a closely related word, “ethnicity.” There are no biblical Hebrew words for “race” (or “ethnicity”), meaning that an interpreter must infer that biblical texts impart such a concept. To contend that a concept of race or ethnicity can be found in the Torah, or other Hebrew Bible passages, is to necessarily make an etic assessment of these texts. The anthropological and sociological literature about race and ethnicity is vast, and their definitions debated. Adding to these complications, the definitions of both words can overlap. One person’s definition of race can share features of another’s definition of ethnicity, and vice-versa.

Some define ethnicity as the use of cultural practices to distinguish between groups of people. Among those who take this approach, many note that only certain carefully selected cultural practices are chosen to differentiate between one ethnic group and another (Barth 1969). Others contend that an ethnic group consists of those who share cultural practices and hold a belief in the common “origin” of group members (Yinger 1985). Many also maintain that ethnicity involves the belief that group members share common descent (Weber 1968, 389). Others theorize that ethnicity revolves around a belief that a group of people share common ancestry and a common “homeland” or sense of territorial origin, among other common features (Hutchinson and Smith 1996, 7).

Race, some argue, differs from ethnicity because it is a way of dividing people that highlights perceived physical characteristics, or phenotype (Smedley 2012). Typically, ideologies of race claim that one can infer a variety of behavioral, moral, and cognitive information about people based on their physical appearance—and especially based on skin color. Others further argue that race, as a way of classifying people, is a product of the modern world, specifically the age of European imperialism. Peter Wade contends that race is not simply based on an interpretation of physical differences between populations, but highlights “the particular aspects of phenotypical variation that were worked into vital signifiers of difference during European colonial encounters with others” (Wade 2010, 14). However, classicist Benjamin Isaac maintains that the beginnings of racism—a “proto-racism”—can be detected at least as early as the Greco-Roman period (Isaac 2004). Notably, Isaac defines a race as “a group of people who are believed to share imagined common characteristics, physical and mental or moral which cannot be changed by human will, because they are thought to be determined by unalterable, stable physical factors: hereditary, or external, such as climate or geography” (Isaac 2004, 34–35). This understanding of race is not limited to distinctions based on physical differentiation, making his view overlap with many definitions of ethnicity.

Considering this introductory review of the myriad perspectives on race, whether or not one can apprehend a concept of race in the Torah will depend on the definition of race that one adopts. For this brief survey, instead of assuming one definition of race, different theoretical viewpoints on race when assessing passages from the Torah will be entertained.

Portrayals of divinely ordained divisions between peoples—especially between Israelites and non-Israelites—based on descent, and also territory, are abundant in the Torah (e.g., Gen 9—11; 17; Deut 7; 23:4–9 [ET 23:3–8]; 32:8–9). If race is defined as a group of people who share characteristics that are perceived to be hereditary or otherwise innate and unchangeable, one can point to certain passages in the Torah that resonate with these notions of race. For example, when Yahweh divides the descendants of Noah’s sons into their own lands and according to their own genealogies (tôlĕdōt), kinship groups (mišpāḥōt), and languages (Gen 10:5, 20, 32), these chapters make permanent demarcations based on common origins and descent. Additionally, Genesis 10 grounds the division of peoples in Yahweh’s design, which is unalterable, permanent, and outside of human will. When Noah curses the descendants of Ham’s son Canaan to be slaves for the descendants of Noah’s other sons Shem and Japheth, this might suggest a hierarchical arrangement of “races” (Gen 9:26). Similarly, when Deuteronomy 7 differentiates between Israelites and Canaanites it claims that Canaanites possess unchangeable traits that warrant their extermination (7:1–6).

Physical Characteristics

Divinely ordered separations of people in the Torah rarely mention physical differences between groups. If physical distinctions are significant for a concept of race, there is little evidence of the concept in the Torah. Consequently, later interpreters must read skin color and race into some Torah passages.

The “Blackness” of Ham

Many biblical interpreters have connected dark skin color to the descendants of Ham, one of Noah’s sons who commits an unclear offense against his father (Gen 9:21–26; Goldenberg 2003), and contend that the Hebrew root for Ham (ḥmm), refers to his dark skin. It is true that the Semitic root ḥmm refers to heat, and in some Semitic languages, such as Arabic, the root can denote making something dark by heat (e.g., “to blacken,” “to char”). Additionally, ḥmm could be related to the root ḥwm, which is perhaps used to describe the dark wool of sheep, though it is unclear what the color might be (Gen 30:32, 35, 40). But based on its transliteration in LXX (otherwise known as the Septuagint, the earliest Greek translations of the original Hebrew scriptures), David M. Goldenberg has shown that the name Ham derives from the Semitic root ḫmm, not ḥmm (Goldenberg 2003, 144–149). The Hebrew letter, ḥêt () performs double duty for two Semitic fricatives, and , a distinction that seems to be preserved in LXX, where the sound is represented by a Greek vowel, and the sound is represented by chi. Because LXX renders Cham, with a chi, Goldenberg convincingly argues that the name Ham derives from ḫmm, a Semitic root whose meaning is obscure, but is attested in some Arabic/Arabian names and epigraphy. The possibilities for the root’s meaning are not complimentary (“to feel bad, ill,” “to stink,” or “to go bad [of food],” Goldenberg 2003, 149), but none of these potential meanings refers to darkness or blackness.

Moses’s Cushite Wife

Some exegetes suggest that the skin color of Moses’s wife is an important theme in Numbers 12. In this story, Moses marries a Cushite woman, which prompts the objections of Miriam and Aaron:

"Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses on account of Cushite wife he had taken, because he had taken a Cushite wife. Then they said, “Has Yahweh, in fact, only spoken with Moses? Has he not also spoken with us?” And Yahweh heard (Num 12:1–2, lit)."

Yahweh is clearly unhappy with Miriam and Aaron, because Miriam becomes afflicted with ṣāraʿat, a skin disease that makes her “like snow” (12:10).

By using the feminine gentilic, Aithiopis to translate “Cushite” (kûšît), LXX Num 12:1 could be the earliest interpretation suggesting that skin color is relevant to this story. The words, “Ethiopia” and “Ethiopian” (Aithiopia, Aithiops/Aithiopis literally, “burnt face”) make explicit references to skin color, but there is no evidence that the Hebrew words “Cush” or “Cushite” (kûš, kûšî/kūšît) carry skin color associations in and of themselves. More recent interpreters argue that the double reference to the Cushite woman in 12:1 emphasizes that it is her Cushite background that is objectionable. Some maintain that the reference to “snow” shows that the dark skin color of the Cushite woman is important (Sadler 2005). The “whiteness” of Miriam’s skin is read as a fitting punishment for her opposition to the dark-skinned Cushite. It is indeed curious that of all the punishments that Yahweh could have imposed on Miriam, she is punished with something that affects the skin.

Yet, this reading is contestable. Numbers 12 does not say that the skin color of Moses’s wife prompts the objections of Miriam and Aaron. Also, according to some biblical texts, the land of Cush sits in the far southern region of the world (Gen 10:7; Ezek 29:10; Zeph 3:10; Est 8:9), which could mean that Moses’s wife was seen as extraordinarily foreign. Moreover, it is possible that snow, here, does not connote skin color, but is associated with this particular skin disease because of a scaly or flaky rash that develops as a result of the condition (Goldenberg 2003, 27–28). Contrary to what many English translations suggest, the word lābān (“white,” as in “white as snow”) does not appear in Num 12:10; the passage only states that Miriam “became afflicted with ṣāraʿat, like snow (mĕṣōrat kaššāleg).” Leviticus 13, which also outlines how the community should handle this skin disease, suggests that the “white” associated with this skin disease comes from a localized rash (mispaḥat) that eventually spreads.

That Jeremiah 13:23 mentions the skin of Cushites supports the idea that skin color could be an issue in Numbers 12. To some Judahites, there was clearly something distinctive about the skin of the Cushite, otherwise the reference could not have resonated with Jeremiah’s audience. Furthermore, the visual image of a leopard’s spots, which is compared to the Cushite’s skin, could suggest that Jeremiah refers to pigmentation. Nevertheless, Jeremiah 13:23 may not necessarily concern skin color. Isaiah 18 associates “smoothness” (potentially of the skin) with Cushites (18:2, 7), so it is possible that smoothness is the distinctive feature of Cushite skin that Jeremiah 13:23 references. Notably, no depiction of Cushites in the Hebrew Bible mentions color (e.g., šĕḥôr, ʾādōm) or tint (e.g., ʾāpēl, hšk, ṣlm). If Miriam’s skin disease is supposed to serve as a fitting punishment, a scaly skin rash would certainly contrast with the reputed smooth skin of Cushites.

The idea that skin color would be an important feature for biblical writers may stem from the significance that it holds for modern readers as a marker of difference. It is conceivable that the skin tones of ancient Israelites ranged from light to dark (from a European vantage point), which could mean that dark skin was not a special marker of Cushite background. Greek and Roman writers, as well as some Rabbinic texts, do associate dark skin with certain foreigners, such as Ethiopians and Egyptians. These later writers probably do not illuminate what biblical texts from the pre-exilic, exilic and Persian periods might convey about skin color.

Other Physical Distinctions

Deuteronomy 1:28; 2:10–11, 21; 9:2 highlight the extraordinary size of the Anakim, a people indigenous to Canaan who live among the “Amorites” (Deut 1:20). Along with another indigenous group, the Emim, Deuteronomy 2:11 says they are descendants of the “Rephaim” (rĕpāʾîm). The large size of the autochthonous “Amorites” may have been a trope in some Israelite literary circles, as earlier texts, such as Amos, composed in the eighth century B.C.E., mention it (Amos 2:9–10). Joshua purges the Anakim from the land of Israel, but some remain in Philistine cities (Josh 11:22). The association of the Anakim with Philistine territory explains why the book of Samuel says that descendants of the “Rephaim” (hārāpâ) live among Philistines, and preserves the traditions about Israelite heroes who defeat Philistine giants (1 Sam 17; 2 Sam 21). This people of large stature can also have other physical differences, such as extra digits (2 Sam 21:20). Deuteronomistic texts mention physical characteristics only with respect to the Anakim, but present no taxonomy or hierarchy of all peoples based on physical characteristics, unlike modern race ideologies.


Some passages in the Torah may convey a concept of race, if race imbues inheritability or unchangeable permanence to groups of people, and to traits associated with them. If race is a way of grouping people in which physical characteristics are important, only passages about the Anakim, found exclusively in Deuteronomy, unequivocally highlight physical traits. The paucity of references to inherent physical characteristics with respect to other peoples in the Torah suggests that if references to the Anakim are “racial” distinctions at all, the concept is rudimentary and radically different from modern racial ideologies. It does seem clear that more contemporary biblical interpreters have used passages that divide people into distinct groups based on origin, descent, and territory, among other features, to promote racism—especially from the seventeenth through early twentieth centuries C.E.


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  • Sadler, Rodney S. Can a Cushite Change His Skin? An Examination of Race, Ethnicity and Othering in the Hebrew Bible. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 425. New York: T & T Clark, 2009.
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Brian Rainey