New conversations about difference

December 6th, 2022

Moments of crisis, like today’s particular and potent social conflicts and divisions, throw us back on our founding documents and on the ultimate sources of our thought and values for reorientation to the world. The Bible, and the book of Genesis in particular, is the bedrock of these sources. For all those where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have taken root and for Western civilization itself, Genesis contains the founding stories that define culture, that shape its thought, and that found its values. These stories established in their own ways the world in which we live. They provide the paradigms for our imaginations. They continue to influence in conscious and unconscious ways how we think and act. It is essential that we become aware of the way that they have shaped us. We must also understand their power to move us toward constructive or destructive responses to cultural difference.

The book of Genesis is a uniquely powerful treatise on cultural identity and cultural difference. In its genealogies and genealogical narratives, its authors write to articulate their own identity in the world and to locate themselves within the vast array of identities of others, reflecting continually on their relationship with others in their world of difference. Constructing identity and negotiating difference are as old as the earliest human relationships. The values in these stories are as important as they ever were, and they wield great power.

To open up a new and authentic conversation with the book of Genesis about difference, we have to acknowledge the long and powerful tradition of Genesis’s interpreters, many of whom have read its stories through lenses that view difference as a danger and that exclude and devalue others. This move by interpreters toward more negative readings of biblical stories is a phenomenon that scholars have noticed in various forms. James Kugel talks about “the polarization that takes place in ancient exegesis,” by which Israel’s ancestors are viewed as entirely good, while others are altogether demonized.[1] Ron Hendel describes the treatment of Balaam over time, whose early image as a virtuous foreign seer is transformed into an agent of sin.[2] We can see this tendency in various guises in the way interpreters since the author of Jubilees have turned identity-building into arrogance and cultural difference into punishment in the story of Babel. In the way interpreters turned all members of Noah’s descendants except for Abraham’s lineage into sinners outside the realm of God’s care. These are interpretive readings of binary imaginations that turn the world simplistically into “us” and “them,” that exaggerate differences and divide peoples, that lump and stereotype “them” into a falsely homogeneous group, that turn others into a single Other, who, as Jonathan Z. Smith points out, is considered unintelligible and impossible to engage.[3]

These interpretive lenses are, regrettably, the lenses we’ve been given to read Genesis. As James Kugel reminds us, it’s this interpreted Bible, rather than the actual Bible on the page, that we carry with us in our minds and that continues to influence us.[4] So we’ve assimilated an interpretation of Genesis that’s viewed difference as a threat more than an opportunity, that’s viewed others through an exclusionary lens, and that’s imagined them as less righteous or less blessed or less than fully human. It is these lenses that have masked the true views of identity and difference held by the writers of Genesis. It is these lenses that we have worked to cast aside in the reading of Genesis above. It is only by this effort to set aside these traditional and dysfunctional lenses that we’ve been able to recover the authentic views of Genesis about identity and difference.

Having set aside these lenses, we are able to read stories in Genesis that we thought we already knew in a new way. We are able to hear the genuine voices of Genesis’s authors and to encounter the actual imaginations by which they engaged difference. Entirely new conversations with Genesis are now possible. And these conversations have major consequences for thinking about difference. They had major consequences in their authors’ own worlds, and they have major consequences for thinking about difference and living with it today.

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These new conversations with Genesis help us rediscover its core perspectives on difference that we can summarize now. They are the foundational perspectives on difference held by Genesis’s authors that the old lenses have hidden from us. 

The first of these core values is that difference is normal. Difference is the reality we all share and the reality we all start from. It’s the reality that we all have in common. Put in the theological terms of Genesis’s authors, difference is God’s intention for the world. It’s the world God wanted and the world God wanted people to live in. That is the point when the Storyteller attributes to God the creation of the world’s diverse cultures in the story of Babel. That is the point when Genesis’s authors explain the real and legitimate spaces in their world occupied by their Ishmaelite and Edomite neighbors, and the real and legitimate spaces occupied in their own ethnic group by its various tribes descended from Jacob’s sons. That is the point when Luke describes the birth of the church as a multilingual event. Claiming that difference is God’s decision for the world and claiming that all its peoples have God-given spaces in that world is the theological foundation of difference in the book of Genesis and in the account of Pentecost that draws from it.

The second core value is that difference is always viewed within a network of relatedness. Difference is not a random distribution of disconnected peoples and isolated ethnicities. This idea of relatedness is grounded in Genesis’s authors’ own social experience of kinship and in their use of kinship language to explain their own identity and their relationship to others. In a world imagined from the perspective of kinship, others are never autonomous. Their difference never detaches them, isolates them, and cuts them loose from a connection with others. Others are always imagined as part of a kinship network. They are all relatives. This imagination provides the basis for claiming connections and building bridges. It embraces others and provides a starting point for understanding the common humanity everyone shares. We’ve seen this core value foundationally in Genesis’s authors’ claim that Israel belongs to the great family tree descended from its founding ancestor Noah. We’ve seen it in Genesis’s authors’ careful explanations of their family connections to their closest neighbors the Ishmaelites and Edomites. We’ve seen it even in their construction of Israel’s own ethnic identity when Genesis’s authors affirm the family relationship of the discrete tribes that David gathered to form the kingdom of Israel, all presented as descendants of each of Jacob’s twelve sons.

The third core value about identity and difference is an imagination big enough to combine realism, generosity, and optimism about living with difference. Genesis’s authors do not deny the conflict that differences can ignite. They recognize the potential for distrust, distancing, and violence when difference is encountered. And they even entertain the idea that such conflict can end it all. It can erase others. They are realists. But they are not pessimists. They construct narratives not to deny conflict, to decry conflict, or to surrender to it. They construct narratives to explore conflict and to plot ways through it. Their descriptions of conflict are never simplistic. They recognize the complex nature of conflict and the complicated investment in it of those involved. They reject a binary imagination of “us” and “them.”

Above all, Genesis’s authors plot a way forward through conflict toward a new future. To do so, they possess two great powers. On the one hand, they value deeply the importance of belonging and they take pride in their own identity. On the other, they have developed the breadth of mind to imagine the experience of others. Their stories are constructed so that all characters are real characters with human breadth and depth, both those characters who are members of their lineage and those who are members of other lineages. They can even imagine the compassionate generosity of others. They place all characters under the care of God. Ultimately, their stories plot a way through conflict by which differences can flourish. Israel’s ancestors and others share in God’s care within the diverse world God brought into being. Pentecost plots a future for the church in which all lands and languages have a place.

Difference is not benign. It is full of power to tear down and to build up. To destroy and to create. To end life and to bear new life. New conversations about difference are as crucial today as they have ever been. This is true in each of the worlds, big and small, that we inhabit. It is true in the world of Michael Atkins, whose words I’ve quoted at the beginning of this chapter because they so strikingly capture the ancient values of Genesis. When he was bused from his predominantly black neighborhood to a predominantly white middle school as a desegregation initiative, he experienced clear differences in how teachers treated students based on race. When later in life he applied to be a teacher’s aide, he was offered a custodial position instead. After gaining his degree and certification, he became a teacher, an assistant principal, and now principal of Stedman Elementary School in Denver, Colorado, in the same school district where he was once a custodian. As principal, he is working to end the racial disparities he experienced as a student, bridge racial and cultural divides, and inspire students to embrace each other’s differences. “I have an opportunity to do diversity right,” he told CNN. And he describes his vision with values that reflect the same values we’ve seen in the ancient stories in Genesis, a respect for ethnic identity and an embrace of differ- ence. “Don’t ignore color or gender—that’s ignoring my identity. Let’s celebrate those things and let’s celebrate those differences.”[5]

We all live in such real communities and social contexts, where living with difference is an urgent challenge and where discovering how to celebrate differences will determine the quality of our future. The stakes are as high as they have ever been.


Excerpted from The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God's Diverse World by Theodore Hiebert. Copyright © 2019 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


[1] James L. Kugel, The Bible As It Was (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 27.

[2] Ronald Hendel, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3–7.

[3] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Differential Equations: On Constructing the ‘Other’” (Thirteenth Annual University Lecture in Religion, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, March 5, 1992).

[4] Kugel, The Bible as It Was, 1–49.

[5] Andrew and Ries, “He Started as a Custodian.”

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