Tracing the Meaning of ‘Gentiles’ in the Bible, Part 1

It’s never fun to find yourself in the out-group. Something about the way humans organize themselves almost seems to require excluding others for the sake of self-promotion, and it never comes without a cost. Whether by merit or circumstance, the tendency to identify ourselves in opposition to our lessers drives conflict, and maybe that’s why it’s been foundational to empire-building in all of human history.

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But imagine how jarring it is to be spoken ill of by the society that’s poorer, smaller, less advanced (technologically), and most of all: literally ruled by yours. It was a head-scratcher for the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Something about the children of Israel—whose very name practically means “God-fighter”—does not fit with traditional conquest and oppression. If the way of the world shows in-groups dominating out-groups, the Hebraic lens sees this in negative: God has appointed His own in-group, with a goal to eventually include any and every one who is willing—and the way in can’t be bought or won by conquest.

It’s no wonder each of these ruling kingdoms regarded their circumcised subjects with such contempt. To them it would be insolent—entirely unhinged from reality—that the haves should be just a minor character in the story of the have-nots. And it’s the perpetuation of this narrow, two-dimensional understanding of Hebraic anthropology that inspires so much needless antisemitism still to this day. Jews as the darling protagonists in God’s play, overcoming all the antagonistic Gentiles in the Bible, is just not the biblical story at all. Nor is its inverse: that the Gentile church would overcome Jewish antagonists and replace them as God’s people.

Both views are born out of a bad anthropology that is decidedly not Hebraic, and both spell disaster for Jews and Gentiles in the Bible alike by pitting them against one another in the created order. But that’s not how the God of the Bible designed us. If we want to read Scripture well and appreciate our respective places in its world, we’ll need to pay close attention to the terms it uses for us. So let’s consider again how the biblical authors speak of themselves and their neighbors throughout history.

Gentiles in the Bible: Goyim (‘Nations’) in Torah

The first mention we have of “nations” (Hebrew: goyim, Greek ethnē, Latin gens, from which we get the familiar root gentilis) in the Hebrew Bible comes after a hard reset for humanity: the Flood of Noah. Prior to his days, there had been a blip in the mission of mankind. God’s initial command for humanity to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen 1:28) was met with utter disaster. Genesis 6:1–2 tells us that “when man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God . . . took as their wives any that they chose.” Wickedness abounded to a degree the world won’t see again until its end, (Matthew 24:47) and God preserved just one family, to whom He gave that same initial command again. And from this family descended a whole host of different peoples. Genesis 10 tells us of tribes, clans, languages, and peoples (goyim) that spread across the world in earnest . . . at least until they congregated again at Babel (Gen 11), and had to be forcibly dispersed—a far cry better than destroyed, at least.

So we get a host of “nations” across the earth. Everyone on earth belongs to one or another, including Abraham of Chaldean Ur. But just as his ancestors Noah and Shem before him, God purposed to make out of him a great “nation” (goy, Gen 12:2). And more than this, to make him the very father of many “nations” (Gen 17:4–5). “Goyim” here is a fairly neutral and universal term. The descendents of Abraham will grow large enough to join the status of a biblical “nation”: a really big group of people with common ancestry, culture, land, language, and self-determined identity.

Through the rest of Genesis, we find goy describing the future peoples (often called nations) that would come from these hero-ancestors, and one curious description of Abimelech’s kingdom as “an innocent people” (goy gam tzadiq). But where Genesis was about national origins, Exodus through Deuteronomy are about nation-building. Here we see Israel emerge as a “holy nation” (goy qadosh, Exodus 19:6) that stands as an example to the other “nations become unclean” (nitma’u ha-goyim, Leviticus 18:24).

We should notice that at no point in the Torah do we find God detesting Gentile nations for their ancestry, but rather for the extreme wickedness—such as prostituting their daughters and sacrificing their children—that arose from their fealty to evil false gods. If Israel has enemies, they are the servants of these false gods within those nations, under whose power even the innocent are held and exploited. Yes, Israel will be at war with Gentiles in the Bible, but they are not eternal enemies. In fact, the ideal relationship is not one of animosity or competition at all. Deuteronomy 4:6 pictures the keeping of Torah as “your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation (goy) is a wise and understanding people.’” So non-Israelites are supposed to hear Torah and be impressed, led on to righteousness by their holy neighbors.

Goyim in the Histories

But words change meaning over time. We see a steady shift in usage to focus on seven large nations of people who will oppose God: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, (Deut 7:1) and he will drive them out from before Israel. Again, not because of some intrinsic factor decided at birth—a “mixed multitude” of non-Israelites came out with Israel from Egypt, after all—but because of the horrific social evils downstream from their idol worship. He says very frankly in Deuteronomy 9:5, “Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” This word he swore was more than just a promise of land, though. Remember that the promise of nationhood was so that, in them, “all the nations of the world will be blessed” (Gen 18:18).

The paradigm hasn’t changed, but the language has. “Nation” (goy) gradually becomes synonymous with “wicked idol-worshiping people” across Joshua, Judges, and the histories of the Israelite and Judean kingdoms. Though it occasionally still describes Israel itself (Josh 3:17, 4:1, 5:8, 10:13, 2 Sam 7:23), these are the vast minority of uses, and the frequency of its other uses reveals a growing tendency to speak in “us-them” terms. We also see with the righteous kings’ successes a near-return to something like a “good neighbors” paradigm, wherein the Israelites/Judahites praise God in front of the nations, (2 Sam 22:50, 1 Chr 14:17, 16:24, 31) and garner wealth and fame among them (2 Chr 32:23).

The Prophetic Vision for the Nations

Through the prophets and wisdom writings, we find some of the harshest rhetoric about “nations,” where they do seem by definition opposed to the people of God. Psalm 2:1 famously asks, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” But still we see an integrity to their standing before God. Psalm 9:17 specifies that “The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God,” whereas Psalm 22:27 foretells that “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” It is among the nations that God will be exalted (Ps 46:10) and over them that He reigns (Ps 47:8). In honesty, the list of statements like these is exhaustive—and exhausting.

When all thrown together, Scripture seems eclectic in its commentary on these non-Israelite peoples. And if that tells us anything, it’s that while the God-Israel relationship is well outlined in covenant, the God-Gentile relationship is as varied as the peoples themselves. He gives them land (Deut 32:8), power (Job 12:23), freedom, and blessing (Acts 14:16–17). It’s hard to say exactly how he deals with them, but there is no question in the minds of the prophets that he does deal with them and their leaders (Exo 9:16, Isa 45:1–7). At no point in Scripture do we see an erasure of their national identities.1Though some modern nationalist movements arguably belong to  a different category, and may not endure. In fact, we see its preservation until the end of time.

God is not a globalist, but he has a global vision. Through covenant, Israel’s example makes the way of God known to the world, and His saving power is shown among the nations (Ps 67:2, 98:2), resulting in their allegiance to him over the false gods that they used to serve (72:11, 117:1). Isaiah sees all the nations coming to the Temple (Isa 2:2, 26:2), as does Jeremiah (3:17, 16:19), who sees the nations blessing themselves in the God of Israel (4:2). Zechariah promises that “many nations shall join themselves to the LORD” (2:11), and the former enemies of Jerusalem will even participate in yearly Israelite worship (14:16).

If the vision of the prophets is to be trusted, then the familiar in-group/out-group paradigm needs some serious reworking in our minds. Israel’s covenant with God is unique, yes, but it is not set up as an antithesis to the status quo of humanity. It is the microcosm of God’s providence in the lives of all people, and through it God invites all people to come to know Him by Israel’s example. Even members of the most detested, wicked nations (like Moab, Philistia, Phoenicia, Egypt, Babylon) have found themselves blessed in Israel’s covenant—either by joining the people at a national level, or coming alongside them as neighbors and friends in holy work.

Sadly, that would not be the case for most Gentiles in the Bible in Israel’s history. Even after Judah’s return from exile, we find some of the worst Jew-Gentile relationships ever recorded. Tensions were so strained for so long that the vision of the prophets seemed more like a pipe dream. And it would take a revolution within both Judaism and the pagan world to re-envision this future peace between peoples.

Read part 2.

End Notes

1. Though some modern nationalist movements arguably belong to  a different category, and may not endure.

Image created by Rubner Durais

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