Thinking Biblically about Diversity

Abson Joseph

Diversity is an intrinsically complex concept. It is not redundant, nor a case of circular reasoning, to say that there multiple ways to think about diversity. The term itself invites as many perspectives as there are readers who would pause long enough to think about its meaning and implications. Diversity earns this intrinsic multivalence because creation itself bears witness to a God whose creativity and artistry know no bounds. Unfortunately, the concept of diversity may evoke conflicting and contrasting emotions from readers of different backgrounds. For some, it evokes a long struggle toward belonging. For others, it evokes pressures to become hospitable, at times against one’s will. Some embrace diversity; others resist it. Some prefer the comfort of homogeneity, while others have not been exposed to realities that challenge their presuppositions.

As a person who grew up on a tropical island in the Caribbean, I have witnessed the beauty of nature and the diversity in nature. However, my experience was limited to the reality that tree leaves can only be one color: green. I admired the ingenuity and imagination of artists who added colors to the trees in magazines and calendars that came to our shores from North America. I was a first-year student at Asbury Seminary, in the fall of 2001, when Dr. Reg Johnson invited me and couple of other students to join him on a road trip to Lake Junaluska in North Carolina. During that trip, I discovered that creation had expressions of beauty and diversity that went beyond what I had come to know and experience. The colors of the leaves were real!

This experience shattered and reshaped my worldview in ways that allowed me to develop a posture to appreciate diversity in other areas of life, including the Bible. This leads to the question: What does it mean to think biblically about diversity? How does thinking biblically about diversity shape our posture to life? Scripture portrays, embraces, and promotes diversity. A survey of God’s interaction with humanity from Genesis to Revelation reveals that diversity plays a central role in the unfolding story of God’s people.

Theological and Anthropological Diversity

The story of creation demonstrates the first and perhaps the most important aspect of diversity. Diversity—in this context, plurality—exists in the Godhead. A way of interpreting the creation account in Genesis is to view it as a polemic against other nations and their polytheistic practices. Judaism rests on the core belief that Yhwh alone is the true God. This reality is etched in the opening words of the covenant God made with Israel, “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me” (Exod 20:2–3, CEB). Israel’s religious practices, liturgy, and worldview have their starting point in this conviction. This belief finds a solemn expression in the Shema, “Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” (Deut 6:4, NLT). Given Judaism’s stance on monotheism, it is significant that the term used for God in Gen 1:1, Elohim, is in a plural form. The plurality in the Godhead is expressed further, as a self-referent, in the story of the creation of humanity: “Let us make humanity in our image, as our likeness” (Gen 1:26). One finds similar language in Gen 11:7, in the narrative of the Tower of Babel: “Let us go down”; and in Isa 6:8: “Whom should I send, who will go for us?”

In the New Testament, the plurality in the Godhead is further demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1–4). However, Jesus’s contemporaries struggled to make sense of his identity. He acted in ways that only Yhwh could, and did things that only Yhwh could do (e.g., Mark 2:1–12; 4:35–41). While the answer to their questions was evident, a significant shift was required for them to get a full grasp of the theological reality that Yhwh had now revealed himself through his son, Jesus (John 20:28–31). In addition, the Old Testament attests to the activity of Spirit of Yhwh in the context of God’s relationship with humanity (Gen 6:3; Judg 3:10; 6:34; 1 Sam 10:6; Isa 11:2). In Luke-Acts this is further developed as Luke narrates the Spirit’s activity in the lives of the Spirit-empowered ministry of Jesus and his disciples. As the resurrection and ascension affirm Jesus’s claims of being one with the Father, so Pentecost affirms Yhwh’s continuing presence through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believers.

Consequently, the New Testament writers will use for Jesus language that the OT associates with Yhwh (cf. Jas 4:12 and 5:9; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Pet 1:11). One should not take for granted the theological challenges the children of Israel, and even Jesus’s followers, had to overcome when thinking about who God is vis-à-vis the role of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Plurality in the Godhead is a counter-cultural reality with important theological implications. The great I AM exists in community.

Diversity is evident in creation itself. The narrative speaks of God’s creation of every genus (kind, type) of trees, birds, and animals. The refrain that echoed through the creation narrative reads, “God saw how good it was!” (Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25 CEB). The differences between types in nature are expressions of God’s creativity. The creation of humanity, male and female, in God’s image and likeness, was supremely good (1:31)! The parallel creation narrative in Gen 2 sheds additional light on the crucial role community plays in what it means to be human: “It is not good that the human is alone” (Gen. 2:18 CEB).

Multicultural Diversity

The narrative of the Tower of Babel plays a crucial role in discussions about diversity in the Bible. The narrative depicts a monolingual and monolithic group united in purpose. Unfortunately, it was a misguided and misplaced endeavor. While it is clear that humanity was created in God’s image, Scripture is also clear that humanity is not God and should not attempt to usurp God’s place. The words used by the people at Shinar echo the creative language that God himself used: “Let us make …” (Gen 1:3); “Let us build … and let us make a name of ourselves” (Gen 11:4). The text conveys a sense of unity that is driven by a desire for self-sufficiency. By appropriating Yhwh-type creation language, the text may also be conveying a potential desire, intended or unintended, to replace God with self. This is like Adam and Eve’s predicament. The movement of God’s coming down also contains echoes from the Fall narrative (Gen 3). There is also a parallel between God’s responses (cf. Gen 3:20–24 and 11:6–8). God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden. God mixed up the language of the people and dispersed them throughout the earth.

God’s actions in the plain of Shinar are an act of grace, not a punishment. By creating linguistic diversity, God protects humanity and rescues them from a self-destructive path. This mirrors his purpose in expelling Adam and Eve from the garden. He is protecting them from the possibility of living forever in their current state (cf. Gen 3:22). The dispersion at Babel also forces humanity to fulfill the initial mandate to fill the earth (Gen 1:28). The geographic dispersion and linguistic differences will naturally give rise to cultural and other forms of diversity.

As Jesus’s coming justifies God’s actions in the garden and fulfills his purpose for humanity to live forever in a redeemed state, so the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost reaffirms linguistic diversity, making possible the proclamation of the good news of the resurrected Christ. The God who came down and mixed up humanity’s language at Babel is the same who came down at Pentecost and enabled the Galileans to speak in other languages. It is worth noting that the verb the LXX uses to describe God’s action at Babel (συγχέω, sygcheō) is also used in Acts to describe the people’s confusion to the miracle they witnessed in Jerusalem (Gen 11:9; Acts 2:6).

The Church as a Diverse Community

The Bible depicts the people of God as a diverse community. When God delivered Israel from Egypt, the people that came out were a homogenous group. Exodus 12:37–38 reads, “The Israelites traveled from Rameses to Succoth. They numbered about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A diverse crowd also went up with them along with a huge number of livestock, both flocks and herds” (CEB). This implies that the community that ratified the covenant at Horeb and became God’s people included outsiders who were not Israelites.

The ethnic diversity within Israel is also evident in Moses’s choice of a spouse. In Num 12, we learn that Moses married an Ethiopian woman. Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses’s choice and experienced God’s displeasure as a result. The text is conspicuously silent about what happened to Zipporah, the Midianite, whom Moses sent back to her father (Exod 2:21; 4:25; 18:2). One wonders whether he faced criticism as well about Zipporah, and sent her back as a result. At least, this suggests the presence of underlying tensions in the community.

This multicultural trend will be a defining characteristic of God’s people. Rahab of Jericho will be brought into the community (Josh 6:22-27). Ruth, the Moabite, will experience the goodness of Boaz as a kinsman-redeemer. She became an ancestor (great-grandmother) of Israel’s king par excellence, David (Ruth 4:18–22). It is no coincidence that when David was running for his life, he entrusted his parents to the care of the Moabite king (1 Sam 22:3–4). In fact, Jesus, the Messiah, heralded as Israel’s truly greatest king, is multicultural through and through. The Gospel of Matthew shines a spotlight on the foreign women in Jesus’s ancestry. Rahab and Ruth are joined by Tamar, the Canaanite, and by Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, whom Matthew refers to as the former wife of Uriah the Hittite, in the genealogy of Jesus, the son of David.

These accounts demonstrate that the idea of Gentiles’ inclusion in the story of God’s people is not a novelty of the New Testament. It is also not an abstract idea, but something that mattered on a personal level. At the dedication of the Temple, when Solomon petitioned God to “listen to the foreigner who isn’t from your people Israel, but who comes from a distant country because of your great reputation, your great power, and your outstretched arm …” (2 Chron 6:32–33, CEB), he is aware of his extended family. Jesus’s indignation in the temple court area can be viewed in this light as well (Mark 11:15–17). Israel was chosen to be a guiding light to the nations. A pattern of disobedience, followed by exile and occupation, led to a self-serving reading of the law that misinterpreted God’s purpose for choosing and setting them apart. Such interpretation of the Law created a posture of self-sufficiency that gave rise to segregation and ostracism.

The poor, the foreigner, the immigrant always had a role to play in Israel. They lived amid Israel. The oppressed had a role to play in the story of God’s people. They were God’s people. Only a diverse community can effectively reach out to a diverse world. The genius of Jesus’s ministry was his willingness to break down the perceived norms of purity and challenge the status quo. He boldly entered the realms deemed unclean, showed genuine love and compassion, and challenged sinners to a life of holiness. The genius of the apostles’ mission to Samaria was their willingness to lay hands on and touch those categorized as untouchables. The genius of Peter’s ministry was his willingness to be obedient and enter the home of Cornelius. The genius of the church of Antioch was its multicultural membership and leadership that funded and organized a missionary endeavor that touched all of Asia Minor and Europe. It is no coincidence that the heartbeat of that endeavor was a dual-citizen, multicultural, polyglot named Saul in Jewish circles, and Paul in Greco-Roman settings.

Thinking biblically about diversity means that we need to embrace our differences as gifts bestowed by a creative God and Father who calls us to live in community. We need to learn to live together in harmony in spite of these differences. We need to approach diversity in a way that demonstrates our commitment to embody our mission as the people of God, holy, chosen, yet broken. We need to embrace our place on the margins with the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed. In Rev 7, John describes a vision of the multicultural church before the throne. This passage can be translated, “These are those who are coming out of the great tribulation” (7:14). This suggests there is movement between heaven and earth. It also suggests that the multitude is coming from earth toward God’s throne waving palm branches and celebrating God’s power to deliver from the social ills that plague humanity. “The one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore” (7:15–16, CEB).

Thinking biblically about diversity means that we need to live and minister in such a way that John’s vision of the multicultural church gathered around the throne meets Jesus’s prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is heaven. John’s vision is not simply a conceptual eschatological depiction of the church. It is a real picture of how the church is and should be today. Thinking biblically about diversity should cause us to live as active members of this multicultural church here and now.

Posted Apr 14, 2021