I recently had the honor of being part of a Shavuot service, the holiday where we celebrate God giving us the Torah. My teaching was on the diversity of people who received the Torah and that the people of God, whom God loves with an everlasting love, were always a diverse people.
Despite the increasing number of Jews of color and the changing demographic of Jews, most synagogues are ethnically homogenous. Synagogues wrestle with what it means to implement diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) thinking beyond placing a “Black Lives Matter,” “Love Is Love” and “No Human Is Illegal” sign in front of their building.
Diversity is more than an abstract cause. Instead, I would suggest that diversity is God’s “plan A.”
According to Exodus 12:38, when God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai, a “mixed multitude” was there. What did this mixed multitude consist of in terms of people? Converts, slaves, prisoners of war, fugitives, Egyptians who had married Hebrews and their families? Cairo and Alexandria are along a major trade route, and this trade route saw a multiplicity from many other nations. Some settled in Egypt. The “mixed multitudes” included Egyptians who saw the God of the Hebrews lay waste to the gods of Egypt—and Egypt—through the plagues. Because of the plagues, there were those who thought Egypt was cursed, or that God was showing favor to the Israelites. Undoubtedly, they were there along with those who only sought to follow the winner.
The mixed multitudes included other semites, those who trace their heritage back to Noah’s son Shem—Arabs, Assyrians, Akkadians, Canaanites and certain groups in Ethiopia. These people all ended up at Mount Sinai.
The History of Biblical Inclusivity and Diversity
Joseph got sold into slavery, but through God’s favor, he rose to the top—he became second-in-command of Egypt. Eventually, Joseph married Asenath, an aristocratic Egyptian woman and “the daughter of Potiphera, priest from the city of On”—an interracial, if not interfaith, marriage. Asenath would go on to have two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim of the 12 tribes. Joseph, being from a nomadic, shepherding culture, married up. This tells us that diversity might have included social class.
Jacob’s other sons went to Egypt for food during the Hyksos (foreigner) period. During that time, the pharaohs were all non-Egyptian Asians. There were many Asiatics and others going to Egypt. Many settled there, as did Jacob, his sons and their families. The fact that Moses married a Cushite (Ethiopian and/or Sudanese, but definitely Black) woman is just one of many pieces of evidence that shows how the Israelite people were being joined by and welcomed non-Israelites into their community.
So, Moses was bi-cultural, if not tri-cultural—a Hebrew raised as an Egyptian and married to an Ethiopian woman. When Miriam complained that Moses had married a Black woman, God basically said, since you like being white so much, I’m going to turn you white (with leprosy).
Their diverse backgrounds of Hebrew, Egyptian and Ethiopian made them perfect for leading a diverse group of people. God chose an interracial couple, a visible sign of diversity, to lead the people of God.
Throughout the Torah, there is evidence of assimilation. Moses had an Egyptian, not Israelite, name—as did Miriam and Aaron. Many proper names from the tribe of Levi are Egyptian in origin, such as Phinehas (Aaron’s grandson). This name, in particular, appears to be from an Egyptian root for a dark or bronze-colored person.
And so, God builds the nation of Israel upon this diversity.
Honoring God Through Diversity
Everyone at Mount Sinai would have expressed some faith in God to cross the Red Sea—that’s what they have in common. God takes this diverse mass of over 600,000, with different cultural practices, values and beliefs, and builds a beautiful, diverse nation. To do that, God gives the Torah, the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments—because the people of God need some common rules to live by.
Jewish scholars talk about the seven Laws of Noah. There are those that are mishpatim—rulings or judgments that are largely self-evident, rational, obvious to all civilizations and necessary for tranquility in family and societal life. Further, there are the huqqim, divine “statutes” or so-called “boundary makers” intended to separate Jews in dietary laws, dress and other norms from the surrounding nations.
God deals with privilege right away so that the Hebrew followers of God and converts didn’t receive special or better treatment than the aliens, foreigners, strangers, resident aliens and righteous gentiles.
“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Neighbors are often very similar in terms of ethnicity and social class. We usually think of our neighbors as nice people, but a better translation is to treat the “other” as yourself—don’t make people into “others.” Treat the “other person” even if they are an immigrant, refugee, poor, a widow or stranger, whatever the “other” is for you, treat that person as yourself.
The Nation of Israel consisted of God-fearing Jews, gentile converts to Judaism and God-fearing gentiles—not converts, but willing to follow the rules of the Ten Commandments. And God continues to express the desire for diversity throughout the Hebrew Bible.
“My House will be called a house of prayer for ALL nations.”
“Let ALL the peoples of the earth Praise you.”
In the New Testament, we see Jesus as a model of diversity. Yes, Jesus had a royal lineage going back to David, but he had a few sketchy branches in his family tree. Tamar, Bathsheba, Rahab the prostitute and a Canaanite, and Ruth, a Moabite. Jesus himself was born to an unmarried teenage mother who was a refugee.
God gives us another example with the Feast of Pentecost, which occurs 50 days after Passover or Easter, around the same time as Shavuot. Jews from all over the world were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. Acts 2:5, 8 says: “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
Looking for an explanation, Peter says, Acts 2:17: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on ALL people.”
The message was clear: The spirit of God is for everyone!
It’s not Jews or gentiles, it’s both Jews and gentiles.
It’s not Blacks or whites but Blacks and whites, rich and poor, gay and straight. God’s kingdom is a rainbow, a mosaic, a quilt where every piece fits and belongs. These are the people of God that God has loved—with unfailing, everlasting love. These are the people of God to which God has been faithful.
When the future is unveiled and the apostle John sees the future, what does he see?
“I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language.”
Diversity was, is, and will always be God’s plan A.
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