Blacks in Biblical Antiquity

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The view of Africa that has evolved in recent centuries has little or no historical integrity inasmuch as it reflects Eurocentric interpretations of the Bible. However, new light is shining on biblical antiquity, and layers of unfavorable biases are being peeled away. In their place is a more congenial basis for inclusiveness and reconciliation in conjunction with an emergence of critical studies on the Black presence in the Bible and the recovering of ancient African heritage in the Scriptures. Consequently, persons of African descent now have the opportunity to rediscover consistent and favorable mentioning of their forebears within the pages of the Bible.

The presence of Blacks in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible is rather substantial; fortunately ours is an age that increasingly allows such an important fact to be acknowledged more widely than perhaps ever before. This topic has long been studied by Dr. Gene Rice, Professor of Old Testament, and he has supplied a representative listing of key Old Testament passages that mention, indeed often celebrate, the Black biblical presence:

  • Nimrod, son of Cush, "the first on earth to become a mighty warrior." Nimrod is also credited with founding and ruling the principal cities of Mesopotamia (Genesis 10:8-12).
  • Hagar, the Egyptian maid of Sarah (Genesis 16; 21:8-21). If Abraham had had his way, Hagar would have become the forebear of the covenant people (Genesis 17:18).
  • Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, priest of On (Heliopolis), wife of Joseph and mother of Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 41:45, 51, 52; 46:20), whom Jacob claimed and adopted. (Genesis 48).
  • Moses' Cushite wife (Numbers 12:1). She was prpbably Zipporah of the Kenite clan of the Midianites (Exodus 2:21-23). If Moses' Cushite wife is indeed Zipporah, then her father, Jethro, (also called Reuel), would also have been an African. Since Jethro was the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:16; 3:1; 18:1) and the mountain of God where Moses was called was located in Midian (Exodus 3:1; 18:5), and Jethro presided at a meal where Aaron and the elders of Israel were guests (Exodus 18:12), the Kenites may have been the original worshipers of God by the name of the LORD, that is Yahweh (YHWH). Jethro also instructed Moses in the governance of the newly liberated Israelites (Exodus 8:13-27).
  • Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron and a high priest (Exodus 6:25). The name, Phinehas, is Egyptian and means literally, "The Nubian," or "The Dark-skinned One."
  • The "mixed multitude that accompanied the Israelites when they left Egypt undoubtedly included various Africans and Asian peoples (Exodus 12:38).
  • The unnamed Cushite soldier in David's army. He bore the news of Absalom's death to David, and, in contrast to Ahimaaz, had the courage to tell David the truth about Absalom (2 Samuel 18:21, 31, 32).
  • Solomon's Egyptian wife. She was an Egyptian princess and by his marriage to her, Solomon sealed an alliance with Egypt. (1 Kings 3:1; 11:1).
  • The Queen of Sheba. She ruled a kingdom that included territory in both Arabia and Africa. When she visited Solomon, she was accorded the dignity and status of a head of state (1 Kings 10:1-13).
  • Zerah, the Ethiopian. He commanded a military garrison at Gerar in SW Palestine and fought against King Asa of Judah and almost defeated him (2 Chronicles 14:9-15). After Egyptian influence ceased in Palestine, the Cushite soldiers stationed at Gerar settled down and became farmers. Some two centuries after the time of Zerah, the Simeonites took over Gerar "where they found rich, good pasture, and the land was very broad, quiet, and peaceful; for the former inhabitants there belonged to Ham" (2 Chronicles 4:40).
  • Cush, a Benjaminite (heading to Psalm 7). He is identified as Saul in the Talmud.
  • The Ethiopian ambassadors who came to Jerusalem to establish diplomatic relations with Judah (Isaiah 18:1,2). They represented the Ethiopian Pharaoh, Shabaka (716-702) of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt.
  • The Ethiopian, Taharqa, spelled Tirhakah in the Bible. When Hezekiah revolted against Assyria in 705 B.C., he did so with the support of Shaboka and Shebitku (702-690), rulers of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt. Tirhakah led an army in support of Judah during Hezekiah's revolt against Assyria (2 Kings 19:9; Isaiah 37:9). Tirhakah later ruled Egypt from 690-664.
  • The Prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah's father was Cushi, his grandfather Gedaliah, his great-grandfather Amariah, and his great-great-grandfather (King) Hezekiah (Zephaniah 1:1). Zephaniah was active about 630 B.C. and sparked a religious revival in Judah.
  • Jehudi ben Nathaniah ben Shlemiah ben Cushi. The context in Jeremiah 36 indicates that Jehudi was a trusted member of the cabinet of King Jehoiakim of Judah (Jeremiah 36:14, 21, 23).
  • Ebed-melech ("Royal Servant"), the Ethiopian. He was an officer of King Zedekiah who, at great risk to himself, saved Jeremiah's life (Jeremiah 38:7-13)., and was blessed by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 39:15-18).

The African presence in the Bible is not limited to the Old Testament. Indeed many Jews of the first century lived in regions where Africans intermingled freely with other racial and ethnic types. We too easily forget today that miscegenation or interracial marriage was an explicit part of Alexander the Great's policy; he wanted all subjects to have Greek blood flowing through their veins! Of course there was no notion of the modern idea of "race" during that time, but suffice it to say that the ancients had no problem with Black people nor did the Greeks and Romans consider them to be inferior.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we find the quotation from Hosea 11:1 which reads, "out of Egypt I called my son." The passage is part of the notorious "Flight into Egypt" that describes the way in which Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to hide the one that King Herod feared would displace him. Assuming that we can lend some historical credence to this report, it is difficult imagining, if the holy family were indeed persons who looked like typical "Europeans," that they could effectively "hide" in Africa. One must remember and take most seriously the fact that Egypt has always been and remains part of Africa. Her indigenous people are noticeably different from the European types, notwithstanding the Hellenistic cultural incursions, beginning in earnest just over 300 B.C. In fact, it has only been in recent centuries that the Egyptians and other North Americans have been officially racially classified as "Caucasian." Nevertheless, for thousands of years, Africans have migrated out of biblical Ethiopia and Egypt and have passed through Palestine en route to the Fertile Crescent or Mesopotamia. Thus, the term Afro-Asiatic emerged, and it is a fitting description of persons from Abraham to Jesus and his disciples.

For the most part by modern standards of ethnicity, first-century Jews could be considered Afro-Asiatics. This is to say that Jesus, his family, his disciples and, doubtless, most of the fellow Jews he encountered in his public ministry, were persons of color. They would certainly not be Europeans. The point is made because it has become virtually axiomatic for people today to envision that somehow the ancient people of the New Testament were all Europeans. Without much reflection or critical analysis, people tend to project modern Jews back into antiquity as if two thousand years of assimilation never occurred. Having established this important interpretative principle, we can identify a few New Testament passages where there is an explicit African presence.

  • Matthew 1:1-14 - The genealogy of Jesus, in which four Afro-Asiatic women are included: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
  • Matthew 2:13-18 - Out of Egypt (Africa) have I called my son (see Hosea 11:1).
  • Matthew 12:42 - The Queen of the South, meaning "the Queen of Sheba" (parallel reference in Luke 11:31; compare 1 Kings 10:1-10 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-9).
  • Matthew 27:32 - Simon of Cyrene compelled to carry the cross (parallel accounts in Mark 15:21 and Luke 23:26).
  • Mark 1:3 - Note the mentioning of "the wilderness" or desert as a reminder of the geographical context for the gospel and most of the biblical narratives.
  • Luke 13:29 - Luke instructs us through his more inclusive editing of Jesus' sayings found in Matthew 8:11. Here, Luke adds "north and south," thereby underscoring the Lukan universalism of both the gospel and the plan of salvation.
  • Luke 19:41-44 - Jesus weeps over the city and initiates change.
  • Acts 2:9-10 - The Jewish pilgrims gathered at Pentecost included persons of African descent, notably the Elamites of Mesopotamia and those from Egypt, Libya, and Cyrene.
  • Acts 8:26-40 - The Ethiopian Finance Minister on a mission for the Queen of the Ethiopians, the Kandake or Candace; he is baptized as perhaps the first non-Jew (an early tradition that rivals the baptism of Cornelius).
  • Acts 13:1 - Two of the four prophets and teachers at Antioch (where persons of the Way were first called Christians--11:26) were Africans, namely Lucius of Cyrene and Simeon who was called Niger, a Latinism for "the Black Man."
  • Acts 18:24,25 - Apollos, the Jew of Alexandria in North Africa, becomes converted (1 Corinthians 3).
  • John 4:7-39 - The Samaritan as ancient outcast and here a metaphor for victims of racial, and ethnic, and gender bias today.
  • John 8:32 - "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
  • Galatians 5:1 - "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."
  • 1 Corinthians 3:11 - Apollos, the African Preacher (he was from Alexandria on the Nile Delta.)
  • 1 Corinthians 7:21c - Further evidence of Paul's dislike of slavery: "If you are able to gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity" (2 Corinthians 11:20 and the Epistle to Philemon).
  • James 2:1-8 - Outward appearances can lead to fraudulent judgments about people. (Although James principally has in mind class distinctions, the principle supports a wider application).
  • 1 Peter 2:4-10 - Those who believe and do the will of God through humble service and self-sacrifice are the "Chosen People" and the true "royal priesthood" and the recipients of God's mercy. There is no racial or ethnic basis for divine election.

As the Holy Scriptures testify, all people of faith are "one in Christ Jesus" and "heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:28,29). And as the apostle Paul stated, "From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us" (2 Corinthians 5:16-19). Thus, the Word of God shows itself to be a truly universal, inclusive, and multicultural message of salvation for the human race.

This is an excerpt from a longer article by Dr. Cain Hope Felder, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington D.C., which appeared in the African American Jubilee Bible, published by the American Bible Society (1999). Scripture citations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

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