Ancient Jewish Views of Gentiles

The King James Bible describes Noah's son Japheth as father of the gentiles.
... Images

Like Judaism itself, Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews, or gentiles, has evolved over time. The modern meaning of the word “gentile,” anyone who is not a Jew, was a relatively late development. Throughout the biblical era, the gentiles were simply “the nations,” but Jews did not judge them by their nationality or ethnicity, but by their behavior.

1 The Changing Definition of “Gentile”

The first appearance of the term “gentile” in the Bible, at least in the King James version, occurs in Genesis 10:5, which says gentiles descend from Noah’s son Japheth. Other translations do not mention “gentiles,” instead using the term “nations,” the actual meaning of the Hebrew word for “gentile.” Nations could be non-Israelite or Israelite. Not until the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, after biblical events concluded, did Jews start thinking of anyone not Jewish as “gentile.” Even then, Jewish views of gentiles were shaped primarily by gentile attitude towards them.

2 Do Jews Think They’re Better Than Gentiles?

While it’s true that Jews consider themselves the “chosen people,” Jews do not believe they are superior to non-Jews. Instead, the Israelites were “chosen” by God to enter into a covenant that, in exchange for God’s favor, shouldered them with massive responsibilities. God gave the Jews 613 commandments, or mitzvot. Non-Jews got a mere seven commandments, the Seven Laws of Noah, all simple: Practice justice, don’t kill, don’t worship idols. God makes Jews painfully aware that if they slip up, they’ll get on His bad side quickly. In Deuteronomy 28, God warns the Israelites that they can expect “cursing, vexation, and rebuke ... pestilence ... consumption ... extreme burning” and other similarly horrific punishments.

3 Jewish Antipathy to Gentiles in the Ancient World

While their “chosenness” did not make them better -- it just meant they had to work harder -- Jews were harsh in their judgment of behavior that failed to respect God’s laws. Idol worship came in for special condemnation. God repeatedly implores the Israelites to stay clear of idol-worshiping people or even kill them. Later in the post-Second-Temple period, Jews fell under oppression by non-Jews. Jews developed hostility as a result, excoriating gentiles as immoral and undeserving of equal treatment. Double standards emerged. For instance, according to the the Jewish sage Maimonides, Jews were not allowed to charge interest if they lent money to other Jews, but it was permissible to charge gentiles. The most extreme statement of anti-gentile anger came from Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai in the second century who declared, “the best of the gentiles should be killed.” Unlike many rabbinical proclamations, that one never gained the force of Jewish law.

4 Jews and Gentiles Equal Under the Ancient System

There was no sense that non-Jews were inferior due to race or any other reason. However, social differences between Jews and “the nations” were difficult to overcome. Many Canaanites survived, despite God’s instructions to the Israelites to “utterly destroy” them, "nor show mercy unto them.” (Deuteronomy 7:2) But the Israelites were prohibited from intermarrying with them due to their previous idolatry. Jews granted equal protection of the laws to the “strangers,” though at the same time, gentiles were expected to give up idol worship and follow basics of Jewish tradition such as refraining from work on the sabbath. The Bible, in Leviticus 19:34, reminded the Jews that they were once strangers themselves in Egypt, so they were required to treat strangers the way they would treat their own families.

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.