6.77 Jeremiah -- Black and White
The Book of Jeremiah contains one of the Bible’s statements that has offended some, and has been seized upon by others as a prooftext for their racism. In Jer 13:23, the Lord says to Judah:
"Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil."
Clearly, the verse does not say that an Ethiopian should want to change his dark skin, any more than a leopard should desire to be rid of the spots that give it both beauty and the practical advantages of camouflage. The difficulty arises because black skin appears to be set parallel to "doing evil."
It will not do simply to ignore systems of figurative language that equate whiteness with everything positive and blackness with everything negative. (Malcolm X, for one, comments on the harm wrought by such language.) The question is whether the Bible in general, or the Book of Jeremiah in particular, employs such a system. We believe that a careful examination shows that it does not. In the present case, Jeremiah seeks to capture attention with a pair of arresting images: not just any furred animal, but a spotted cat; not just any human appearance, but a dark-skinned person who, in Israel, would stand out in a crowd. Jeremiah is not suggesting that the Ethiopian is immoral or inferior, any more that that he is stating that the leopard is evil. But neither can change their distinguishing characteristics.
But the best corrective to making too much of Jer 13:23 is the treatment of Ebed-Melech (Jer 38:7-13). He was an Ethiopian official in the palace of Judah, perhaps a eunuch. When powerful men persuaded King Zedekiah to hand over Jeremiah and lowered him into a cistern to die, Ebed-Melech bravely intervened, appealing to the king:
"My lord the king, these men have acted wickedly in all they have done to Jeremiah the prophet. They have thrown him into a cistern, where he will starve to death when there is no longer any bread in the city" (Jer 38:9).
As a result, the vacillating king ordered Ebed-Melech to take some men and haul Jeremiah out of the water compartment. Here was one man who did not stand by in Judah and let evil take its course, but he actively promoted God's work. He was the Old Testament counterpart of Simon of Cyrene, the African who carried Jesus' cross (Mk 15:21). Later, Ebed-Melech received one of the few personal blessings that Jeremiah gave. To Ebed-Melech, God promised:
"I am about to fulfill my words against this city through disaster, not prosperity. At that time they will be fulfilled before your eyes. But I will rescue you on that day, declares the Lord; you will not be handed over to those you fear. I will save you; you will not fall by the sword but will escape with your life, because you trust in me" (Jer 39:16-18).
Here we see clearly God's acceptance of a man who was not a native-born Israelite, at the very time He was rejecting His own people. The criterion for acceptance or rejection was the same: obedience, not skin color; faith, not blood.