This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. God has a purpose for peoples.
The early chapters of Genesis, and much of the rest of the Bible, are often read as primarily concerned with the relationship between God and the individual. That, of course, is a very important part of the story, but it is not the whole story. From its opening pages right through to the end, Scripture attests to the importance of peoples in God’s purpose for humanity. This is not to neglect or negate the central importance of the individual’s relationship to God but to acknowledge that groups distinguished by cultural difference matter to God.
2. The command to “fill the earth” aims to produce not just a world populated with people but a world filled with culturally diverse peoples.
The command God gives to the first humans is “to multiply and fill the earth.” It is often assumed that this is one command, not two. On this understanding, to fill the earth does not require obedience but is simply the byproduct of reproduction. But the multiplication is not profligate. It is given marital bounds, giving rise to families. The early chapters trace the development of these families in genealogies, within which the biblical author traces the emergence of cultural differences between groups. The so-called “table of nations” in Genesis 10 is best understood as symbolic geography: the seventy nations is a symbolic picture of the earth filled with cultural diversity. The episode at Babel in Genesis 11 describes the circumstances through which God achieved this intended outcome, despite human resistance.
3. Human beings were not created with cultural identity but for cultural identity.
We often feel that the differences between culturally distinct peoples are hard-wired. However, if the command to fill the earth is a command to fill the earth with culturally distinct peoples, the formation of cultures is very much a part of what we do (and are meant to do!) as humans. Cultural identity is not an innate and fixed essence of human existence written into our genes. This is particularly important to remember when thinking about ethnic or racial identities. People do not all share the same culture just because they share the same skin color. That would require us to think that the people of sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, all share the same culture, when, in fact, there are thousands! Similarly, marriage between ethnic groups has been happening for millennia, making the myth that people of a given ethnicity share the same blood nothing more than a very potent fiction. There is no such thing as ethnic purity in Scripture or in our world. As one form of cultural identity, “ethnicity” does not name genealogical purity but group affinity. The fact that Jesus had a Moabite and three Canaanites in his genealogy did not make him any less an Israelite (Matt. 1:1–17). These interactions between peoples help explain why cultures are constantly changing.
A better account of cultural identity reflects the reality of cultural change as people interact with the world and with one another. Cultures are always under construction, always evolving. As they change, individuals may embrace or reject a given change. At the same time, individuals are often the spark for change. Individuals innovate new ways of doing things, and then groups normalize them. When this happens in God-honoring ways, a culture returns blessing to God and becomes a rich source of blessing to other peoples.
4. In response to God’s command to “fill the earth,” humanity responds by seeking to destroy difference with both violence and uniformity.
The initial human response to God’s command to “fill the earth” corrupted the divine purpose for peoples. Instead of filling the earth with God-honoring diversity, they “filled the earth with violence” (Gen. 6:11). One Jewish writer plausibly describes Cain’s murder of Abel as “the first genocide.” The murder is narrated not so much as the product of a personal grudge but as an affront to God’s purpose. But that is only the beginning of the violence that accompanies the diversification of humanity prior to the flood. Following the flood, rebellion against God’s purpose takes a new form. At Babel, humanity resists the divine command to fill the earth by seeking to establish a monolingual monoculture in order not to be “dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). Both forms of rebellion constitute a rejection of difference and a distortion of unity. Both remain very much a part of our world.
5. Human beings experience cultural identity in a variety of forms.
Though the various Hebrew and Greek terms that designate “groupness” in Scripture are translated in a variety of ways, both Old and New Testaments attest variety in the kinds of groups to which people belonged. Most frequent are terms that designate groups based on kinship—clans, tribes, peoples, and nations who trace their origin to a common ancestor. In the ancient world, a “nation” was a kinship group who had a king and a land and who worshiped a god or gods associated with that land.
This ancient form of cultural identity is most similar to “ethnicity” in the modern world. Other familiar forms of cultural identity include nationality and race. In its modern form, nationality is associated with a state or government. A nation is the people governed by a state, and nationality is the sense of identity that comes from belonging to that nation. But a state typically governs a people with many constituent peoples. In this respect, a modern state often resembles an ancient empire where one people enjoy a kind of cultural hegemony.
Although it is a major form of cultural identity in our world, racial identity has no clear analog in Scripture. Though differences in skin color were known in the ancient world, those differences do not seem to have played much of a role in the way that people thought about what distinguishes one group from another. Racial identity in the modern world is, in part, the legacy of the pseudo-science of “scientific racism” that assigned people to broad categories and hierarchies based on observable traits, especially skin color. Its use as an instrument of oppression has led many Christians who live in racialized societies, like the United States, to repudiate race as a form of identity, especially when that identity is widely used to claim the supremacy of one group over another. Other Christians have sought to free racial identity from its horrific history. However we think about our cultural identity, the complexities and corruptions that afflict cultural identity in all its forms should make us quick to listen and slow to speak, especially when the cultural group to which we belong is dominant.
6. Many people in the world experience more than one form of cultural identity.
When God called Abraham and promised to form from him “a great nation,” he constituted that nation as a nation of twelve tribes. From the earliest stage, Israelites not only had a national identity that distinguished them from the people of other nations but also a tribal identity that distinguished them from other Israelites. It was, in this sense, a nation of peoples. This early form of Israel as a nation anticipated the fulfillment of God’s purpose to constitute a renewed humanity as a people of peoples. The fulfillment of this purpose took a surprising form: in the Messiah, Israel died and rose again so that all who believe are now in the Messiah. In this way, Israel has been constituted as one people made up of all peoples. Every believer is part of “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16), but the striking affirmation of the first church council (Acts 17) was that believers need not become Jewish in order to become part of Israel restored in the Messiah.
In an analogous way, we need not insist that every citizen of a modern nation have only a national identity. Of course, all citizens of a country will share a common national identity, but in addition to that many will have cultural identities (based on, for example, ethnicity, race, or country of origin) that distinguishes them from their fellow citizens. Nationalism is the rejection of this pattern in favor of the idea that every cultural group should have its own state or that one cultural group should dominate all others within a state.
If the command to fill the earth is a command to fill the earth with culturally distinct peoples, the formation of cultures is very much a part of what we do (and are meant to do!) as humans.
7. In Scripture, the subjugation of peoples by worldly kingdoms serves as a foil for the formation of a people of peoples under the reign of the God.
A central claim of empires in Scripture is to be a great unifier of peoples—a claim mocked and ultimately debunked in Scripture as idolatrous, self-serving propaganda. Powerful figures like Nebuchadnezzar boast about the unity they create between peoples, but they achieve this unity by violent conquest, exploitation, and the suppression of difference. Babylon turns out to be very much like Babel. The towering statue that Nebuchadnezzar erects on the plains of Dura in Daniel 3 and compels all peoples, nations, and languages to worship turns out to serve the same idolatrous and culturally homogenizing aim as the tower of Babel. In Revelation, the same boastful propaganda lead John to depict Rome as Babylon. Over the course of many centuries, nationalisms—new and old—have offered terms that many find attractive. But the peace and prosperity they offer come at a high cost. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the Caledonian leader Calgacus rendered a famously bitter assessment of Roman propaganda: “To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a wasteland and call it peace.”
That sort of aggression of one people toward others remains very much a part of our world, often supported with the rhetoric of unity and peace. Christ’s kingdom is not like that. In fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, the people of God’s kingdom are formed as a people of peoples. This is not achieved through conquest and oppression but through Christ's crucifixion and resurrection.
8. Every nation, people, tribe, and tongue will be destroyed, but every nation, people, tribe, and tongue will also unite in worship of the one true King.
A paradox found throughout Scripture is that idolatrous nations are subject to utter destruction, and yet the cultural identities persist. Both in the conquest narratives of the OT and the judgment scenes of Revelation attest the complete destruction of all nations. At the same time, those nations and peoples that have been completely destroyed remain in some form. The language of complete annihilation is probably best understood as the dissolution of national identity. This is effectively what happened to Israel in the exile. In its idolatrous form, the nation died. Its vital connection to its God was severed, kingship was cut off, its connection to their homeland broken. In short, the constituent elements of ancient conceptions of nationhood all came to an end. The nation was compared to a valley of desiccated bones. When asked if a nation that had died could yet live, Ezekiel equivocates: it would take an extraordinary act of God. But the NT insists that this is exactly what happened in the death and resurrection of the Messiah: a nation capable of taking into itself all nations came to life in the Messiah.
9. To embrace God’s purpose for peoples means that we must repudiate both assimilationism and the politics of identity (e.g. nationalism, racism, ethno-centrism).
Many countries have a constitutional order founded on the rights of individuals—an order whose roots many trace to the Judeo-Christian conviction that all individuals are made in the image of God and are therefore equal in value. This conviction has led many to assume that a nation is best served when individuals lay aside particular cultural identities that distinguish them from others within the nation in order to adopt the culture of their new nation. The conception of America as a “melting pot” is one example of this. However, this Babel-like concept, known as “assimilationism,” is pursued elsewhere where minority cultures are suppressed in the interests of a single national culture. But the fact that constituent cultural identities are not accounted for in the constitutional order of a country does not mean that they do not exist. When their existence is not broadly valued as a common good, cultural identities will almost inevitably become an unending competition for power. In that environment, nationalists, ethno-nationalists, and racists will seek the dominance of their group over all others. Sadly, some who claim Christ as Lord fall prey to their beguiling message. But as Christians we “did not learn Christ in this way” (Eph. 4:10).
10. Can a nation or people hold other peoples inside of itself? Yes, as a people raised to new life in the resurrected Christ. Until then, we live in hope.
We live in hope of the kingdom of God when we find ways to value and embrace the constituent cultures of our churches and nations, while also seeking to affirm the cultural significance of the whole. We do not fear the change to our own cultures that comes from encounters with other cultures. We do not cling to the false memory of some culturally pristine past. We do not aspire to be free of cultural particularity in favor of Christian identity. “Christian identity” may accurately describe the culture of a people of every nation, tribe, and tongue who share the way of Christ. But it also names a people capable of holding within itself the cultural particularity of all peoples. That should make us endlessly curious about cultures that differ from our own as a crucial feature of a holy curiosity about all that pertains to the purposes of God.
Steven M. Bryan is the author of Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God: A Biblical Theology of Ethnicity, Nationality, and Race.
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