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God cares about ethnicity.

There are probably two general responses to that statement. One type of reader is probably thinking, “Yeah, duh! I’ve read Acts 2 about the diversity of the church on the day of Pentecost, and Revelation 7 about the great multitude from every nation. It’s obvious that God cares about and celebrates ethnicity!”

The second type of reader is probably thinking, “Wait, I thought God made no distinctions. I thought God was color and culturally-blind. Why are we talking about ethnicity?”

What I want both readers to see is that God cares about ethnicity, but not only in one or two passages of Scripture. You find the importance of ethnicity all through your Bible, even in some of its more “obscure” sections.What I want both readers to see is that God cares about ethnicity, but not only in one or two passages of Scripture. You find the importance of ethnicity all through your Bible, even in some of its more “obscure” sections. Have you ever heard of Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian? Ebed-melech was a eunuch in the house of the wicked King Zedekiah during the time of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry. When he appears in chapter 38 of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet is in a tough spot, literally. Jeremiah has been thrown into a muddy cistern for his audacity to speak God’s Word.

When Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian, heard that Jeremiah was thrown into the cistern, he pleads with the king to bring Jeremiah out so that he won’t die of hunger. The king listens, and Ebed-melech rescues Jeremiah.

After Jerusalem falls into the hand of Babylon for its wickedness, the Lord tells Jeremiah to deliver this personal word to Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian who saved Jeremiah:

“Go, and say to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will fulfill my words against this city for harm and not for good…But I will deliver you on that day, declares the Lord, and you shall not be given into the hand of the men of whom you are afraid. For I will surely save you, and you shall not fall by the sword, but you shall have your life as a prize of war, because you have put your trust in me, declares the Lord’” (Jeremiah 39:16-18).

Ebed-melech’s actions show that he has placed his faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel, and Yahweh will save him.

I need you to see that out of the six times Jeremiah mentions the name ‘Ebed-melech,’ in chapters 38 and 39, he includes Ebed-melech’s nation of origin: Ethiopia.

What does this tell us?

It tells us that God, the ultimate author of Scripture, cares about ethnicity. It tells us that God, when he saw Ebed-melech, did not see an “abstract” man, detached from his culture and context. In fact, because he mentions his ethnicity four times, we know that his ethnicity is important.

It’s important because God is in the business of seeking people to worship him from every tribe and nation, and when God brings a person into his Church, that person enters the Church with his or her cultural heritage and identity.

When you read your Bible, use your “sanctified imagination,” as one of my professors put it. Read it carefully. When you see a name like “Ebed-melech the Ethiopian,” recall that Ethiopia is in Africa, that it would have differed culturally from Israel, and that Ethiopians would look different than Israelites.

We all have a tendency to “read ourselves” into the Bible, to imagine that biblical characters looked and acted like us. We rush past description like “Ethiopian,” forgetting that everything our God wrote in his Bible is important, including culture and ethnicity. Those of us in the majority, white culture need to work hard to resist this tendency, to “whitewash” Scripture.

In particular, this passage exalts a man who, if we were to see him today, might be marginalized and made voiceless in the majority American culture. He had a different skin tone, and he was a “foreigner,” an immigrant.
If God decided to highlight the culture and ethnicity of his people (regardless of whether they were “native Israelites”), then we must highlight, respect, and celebrate them as well.

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