The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

God & Ethnicity: Understanding Cultural Bans in the Bible

God & Ethnicity: Understanding Cultural Bans in the Bible

AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

Do you think that God loves certain ethnicities more than others? This is an easy misconception to form as we read through the Bible and discover that God bans His chosen people—the Israelites—from marrying with certain other ethnicities. The Ammonite and Moabite women, for example, were strictly off limits for Jewish men. But why? Well, back when Israel was trooping through the wilderness on her way to claim the land God had promised her, she had to pass through land that was already populated. It would be like you trying to drive from Italy to Poland today. If you look on a map, you’ll see that the quickest way is to drive straight through Austria and the Czech Republic. But suppose when you reach Austria, the border patrol is very rude to you and won’t let you pass through. Well, what a pain—now you have to go all the way around either to the north or the south. To the north is Switzerland. They’re friendly and they let you pass through their territory. Now you get to massive Germany, but they’re rude. They refuse to let you pass. In fact, when they see you coming, they even send soldiers out to shoot at you. Well, now what do you do? Germany is big—trying to get around it will add a lot of time and hassle to your journey. And meanwhile, there are bullets flying past your head.

This is the kind of trouble Israel ran into as she tried to get to the Promised Land. Other nations who already lived in the area refused to let her pass through their territory, even when Moses asked very politely. Some nations even came out and attacked Israel as soon as they heard she was coming towards them. Ammon and Moab were two nations that were quite hostile to Israel as she tried to reach the Promised Land. God used their rudeness as an excuse to teach His people to shun these two people groups and never intermarry with them.

“No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, not even in the tenth generation.” (Deut. 23:3)

This “tenth generation” thing isn’t supposed to be taken literally. What God means is “never,” He doesn’t mean “count off ten generations and then it’s okay to let them in.” The Jews understand this, for in Nehemiah, when they are re-reading through all of God’s commands, we read:

“On that day they read the Book of Moses to the people, and they found that it said no Ammonite or Moabite should ever be allowed in the meeting to worship.” (Neh. 13:1)

Now foreigners who are seeking Yahweh have always been invited to join with Israel in worshiping Him, so this exclusion of Ammonites and Moabites sounds disturbingly harsh. Is God really going to shun some Moabite woman because hundreds of years ago her ancestors were rude to some Israelites? This sounds rather petty, doesn’t it? And since when does God love and hate people based on their genetics? Happily, He doesn’t, and to understand this ethnic banning, we need to understand things from God’s perspective.

Rudeness is not the real reason God is shunning the Ammonites and Moabites—that was just the excuse He gave to Israel because it works to teach humans “Stay away from those people—they’re a bunch of bullies.” But the real reason God commanded the Israelites to stay away from these two groups is because the Ammonites and Moabites were dedicated idol worshipers. Let’s remember that God sees the future. He knows in advance what kind of spiritual choices a nation is going to make. Looking down the road at the Ammonites and Moabites, He sees nothing but idol worship. If the Jews intermingle with these people, what will happen? The Jews will start worshiping idols, too. And since the Jews do such a lousy job of following instructions, this is exactly what did happen. Even though Yahweh told them to ice these two nations, the Jewish men found themselves quite attracted to the Moabite and Ammonite women. Soon they’re rolling about in bed with these women, and the next thing we know, all the Jews are bowing down to the nasty Ammonite and Moabite gods. This is a very common theme which we see over and over again in the Bible: men worship the gods of the women they are having sex with. Apparently Yahweh just couldn’t compete with sexy idolaters in the minds of Jewish men. We never hear about men wooing their idolatrous wives towards Yahweh. Instead, the women consistently prove to have the strongest influence over who the family ends up worshiping. Does God know about this dynamic ahead of time? Of course He does, and that’s why He told Israel over and over again that she was supposed to STAY AWAY from idolatrous cultures and their demonic idols. This was such a serious issue that God actually ordered the death penalty to be served on any Jew who tried to entice his neighbor to sneak out and check out the idol worship of other cultures.

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from Yahweh your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again. (Deut. 13:6-11)

It’s never about bloodlines, it’s always about heart attitude. God could see from the beginning that the Moabites and Ammonites were never going to stop worshiping their evil gods, and He used their hostility towards Israel in the wilderness as a logical excuse for why the Jews should strictly avoid cohabitating with these two groups of foreigners.

Okay, so God has banned these two ethnicities. But what if some Moabite woman sincerely turned to Yahweh in her heart and wanted to follow Him? Is God going to say, “Ick, no! Get away from Me! You have cursed blood in your veins!”? Not at all. Read the book of Ruth and you’ll find a wonderful story of God richly blessing a Moabite woman (Ruth) who sincerely honors Him in her heart. What does God do for this poor foreigner who has turned her back on her culture’s idols in order to follow Yahweh? He leads her straight into the loving arms of a very kind Jewish man who is financially able to take care of her needs, as well as support her in her spiritual journey. That’s how Yahweh responds to a woman from a nation He has banned His people from. And He also makes a point of telling us that Ruth becomes a direct ancestor of Jesus—another striking reminder of how delighted God is to accept ANYONE who is sincerely seeking Him.

So when you come across references of God banning certain ethnicities in the Bible, pull up a mental image of people bowing down to ugly demonic statues because that is what God is really telling His people to stay away from. It’s never about bloodlines, it’s always about dangerous spiritual influences. God loves every soul He creates and has always wanted ALL people to come to Him.

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