Blacks of the Bible
Any attempt to establish a universally accepted statement as to the presence of blacks in the Old Testament would be futile for several reasons. Firstly, current definitions of a black or Negro person may differ greatly dependent on the context of their usage, and therefore any study aimed to show the presence of blacks in the bible would be limited to the definition used by either the author or the reader of such a study. Also, the concept of race defined on a basis of skin color alone has been the relatively young creation of the Euro-centric western world, post 17th century. Due to this fact, it is sometimes difficult to determine clearly the race of various peoples or persons in the Bible; the people of biblical times do not share the same concept of race that we carry today. In fact the Hebrew peoples themselves seem not to be of a pure racial breed of any color, but rather the genealogy of the Hebrew people, as will be shown later, seems to be scattered with interracial marriages and people of most all races including the Negro race.
Therefore, it is not my attempt with this essay to present an exhaustive or authoritative account of all the black peoples and persons in the Old Testament. Rather it was my hope to begin to explore the significance people of the Negro race hold in these ancient texts, to find out the role that these people held in the rise and fall of the Hebrew nation, and the part that was played by Negroes in the working out of God?s will for his people.
The account that I will provide is based most largely on similar studies presented by African-American biblical scholars Cain Hope Felder and Charles B. Copher. However, I have not taken the words of these men without a grain of salt, and I was sure to read their study with their book in one hand and the Bible in the other. What I found was that people of dark skin played an important role in just about every generation dating almost back to God?s creation of man. I had expected to find a few scattered references to African peoples or a few random accounts of individuals who had traveled from the African continent, but my study revealed that people of dark skin, who very well may be considered black by today?s racial standards, were found scattered about the nations of the ancient world.
Origins of the Negro Race
One of the first or most obvious questions that may be asked when beginning to look for the presence of blacks in the Old Testament is with regard to the origin of dark skinned races. A logical place to begin this search may be in the table of nations presented in Genesis 10:1-14 and again listed in 1 Chronicles 1:8-16. This list begins with Noah and accounts for the dispersing of his sons to begin repopulating the Earth after the great flood account in Genesis. In this table of nations we find that two of the named sons of Ham are known dark skinned races. These being the descendants of Cush and the descendants of Canaan. The most commonly accepted reason for the sudden appearance dark skin within the genealogy is related to the curse Noah set upon Ham in Genesis 9:25-27. Although not explicitly stated in the text, it is generally accepted that Ham?s skin was turned dark as a result of this curse, and his descendants were then destined to carry the same mark.
There are, however, other hypotheses for the origin of the black races. The first of these theories, expressed in ancient Babylonian myth, suggests that Ham defiled himself in a sexual act with the dog while on the ark. For this act of defilement, curses were placed on both the dog and Ham. Ham?s curse was that he and his descendants would be black-skinned.
The next theory suggests that the Negro race actually began back with Adam and Eve?s first son Cain, who was turned black by the ashes of his inappropriate offering to God. The theory that Cain was in fact the father of the Negro race was a somewhat prevalent thought among Europeans back as far as the 12th century, and possibly further as Cain?s descendants are depicted as black skinned in the tale of Beowulf. However, this theory has only been made doctrine in the Mormon church. This theory is closely tied to the story of Ham, by suggesting that Ham took a descendant of Cain as his wife, thereby producing dark skinned offspring in Cush and Canaan.
Still others theorize that the table of nations shown in Genesis and 1 Corinthians is a list of nations that is only inclusive of the nations within the scope of knowledge of the author, and in fact all of the races listed there are Caucasoid races. Among those excluded from this list would be the Indians, Chinese, Mongolians, Malaysians, and the Negroes. The theory suggests that there were other races of independent lineage that were unknown to the author at the time of the writings. It seems that this would be strongly discredited by the established ideal that the great flood was intended to wipe all people from the Earth, save Noah?s family. It would thereby be assumed that all races of the Earth are descendant of Noah.
Whatever the explanation for the origin of dark skinned races, Negro people clearly have been descendant of Noah?s son Ham, and it is told in Genesis that Ham?s offspring were those who settled and built such great ancient cities as Babylon, Nineveh, Sodom, and Gomorrah.
In the Patriarchal Period
According to Genesis 11:31 Abraham, then Abram, was born and raised in the city of Ur of the Chaldeans, whose inhabitants included many dark skinned people descendent most likely from Babylonian settlers. Included among these people were the Sumarian people who referred to themselves as the “black headed ones,” indicative of skin color not only black hair. Abram took his wife Sarai while still living in Ur. Granted there is no explicit indication that either Abraham or his wife was born into a family with Negro heritage, but the great black presence in the region of his family?s origin certainly means that one must at least entertain that possibility. So it would be reasonable to believe that the great patriarch himself, the father of the Hebrew people, may have had some black blood in him.
Regardless of the presence of Negro blood in Abraham?s lineage it is certainly clear that he had much contact with dark skinned people in the time that he and Sarah spent in Egypt and Canaan. Both of these areas were settled by the descendants of Ham, and were inhabited most largely by dark skinned people. Abraham and Sarah took an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar when they headed to Canaan, out of Egypt. It was later through the Egyptian, Hagar, that Abraham bore his first son Ishmael. Because Ishmael was born outside God?s covenant with Abraham, he and his mother were eventually sent away, but they settled in the region just east of Egypt and it is generally believed that he took an Egyptian wife and fathered the Arab race.
In Egypt and the Exodus
Egypt was a land of people of all colors, but it has become more and more apparent in recent scholarship that the great nation of Egypt has been more a derivative of the African nations descendent of Cush than of any middle eastern peoples. In addition to this, although most Egyptians were not as dark skinned as their Ethiopian neighbors to the south, the vast majority of Egyptians had enough black blood in them that they would certainly have been considered Negroes by most any definition used today. This fact is only reinforced by the observation that the Psalms repeatedly poetically refer to Egypt as “the land of Ham” (Ps. 78:51, 105:23, 106:22).
It must be remembered also that the Hebrew people lived in slavery in Egypt for over four hundred years. Generation after generation of Hebrew was born, lived, died and was buried in the land of the Egyptian. During this extensive time period there is indication of at least a handful of Hebrew women being taken by Egyptian men for a wife, and one of Pharaoh?s daughters, Bithiah, married a Hebrew man, and their children are included among the clans of Judah after the exile, in 1 Chronicles 4:17-18. Through all the generations that came and passed while in the land of Egypt it is certain that some of these people came out of the land with a mixed heritage.
A perfect example of this mixed heritage is in the blood line of Moses. Many of the members of Moses? family bear distinctively Egyptian names, most notably: Aaron, Hophni, Merari, Miriam, Putiel, Phinehas, and even the name of Moses himself. While most of these names may possibly have been picked by chance and not to suggest Egyptian, or Negro blood, the name Phinehas stands out as a possible indicator of the black blood that ran in Moses family. Eleazar, Moses nephew through his brother Aaron, named his first born Phinehas (Ex. 6:25) which literally means “the Nubian” or “the Negro.” In addition to the possibility of black blood running in Moses? ancestry it without a doubt ran through his descendants, through his Midian wife Zipporah. At one point after the escape from Egypt, Aaron and Miriam actually spoke unfavorably of Moses and his “Cu*censored*e” wife, Zipporah (Num. 12:1).
In Israel and Judah
Through the time of the Judges we continue to see the emergence of Egyptian heritage in the blood lines of Moses and Aaron. The account of Eli and his two sons, from Aaron?s line, in 1 Samuel chapters 1 and 2, shows another example of Hebrew leaders with distinctively Egyptian names. In fact, Eli?s sons are named Hophni and, interestingly enough, Phinehas, again suggesting a definitive black appearance.
During the period of the unified Israel, there are several references to African or Cu*censored*e women that occur during Solomon?s reign. First is the account of Solomon?s favorite wife, and Egyptian woman. Offered to Solomon as assurance of an alliance with Egypt (1 Kgs. 3:1), this unnamed wife was actually Pharaoh?s daughter. Many suggest that this is the same maiden that is written of in Solomon?s Song of Songs. Although the true identity of this wife unknown, other theories associate her with Moses? Cu*censored*e wife, or suggest that it may have been Abishag the Shunammite virgin that was brought to King David to comfort him in his old age and who was then inherited by Solomon upon David?s death. No matter what the actual name of the maiden written of in Song of Songs, this woman was most certainly dark skinned (SS 1:5-6).
The next account that we find regarding a black individual during the time of the unified Israel is that account of the Queen of Sheba, given in both 1 Kings 10:1-13 and 1 Chronicles 9:1-12. This queen over a region most likely found in southwest Arabia or Africa was most definitely of African descent and had heard of Solomon?s great wisdom spoken of in her kingdom. She came to Israel with quite a notable caravan, truly showing her wealth and power. She spent some time with King Solomon asking him all of the questions that had been on her mind. There was nothing that he could not explain to her, and she left quite impressed with the king. The appearance of this queen is certainly significant as it relates to the black presence in the bible, as this is the first black woman shown in a notable seat of power, and she is portrayed in a most positive and respectable manner.
Through the time of the prophets during the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel, the only reference to people of a Negro blood outside of the mixed Hebrew race is limited to invading armies and prophecies regarding the fall of the great African kingdoms of Egypt and Ethiopia. These invasions and prophecies continued after the fall of Israel, during the remaining existence of Judah, but there are a few notable mentions. In the book of Amos the people of Israel are compared to the Cu*censored*es of the Ethiopian empire. Traditional Euro-centric scholarship has interpreted verse 9:7 to suggest that the Lord is looking rather unfavorably upon Israel, comparing them to a distant and despised people. However, it does not take much digging to realize that the Ethiopian kingdom was at its prime at the time when Amos was prophesying. In the context of the passage, where God is reflecting on all the times that he has blessed Israel and picked her out of the mire, it seems more appropriate that the reference to the Cu*censored*es is made to imply that God has not left the people and in fact he seems to promise that he bless them in the same manner that he has blessed the Ethiopian empire of that particular dynasty.
The book of Zephaniah provides a unique look at the black presence in the Old Testament, through the suggestion that the author himself may be dark skinned. The genealogy that is given in Zephaniah 1:1 traces his blood line back four generations to Hezekiah, most probably the Judean king. The most interesting part of the genealogy is not, however, the possible relation of the prophet to Hezekiah, but rather his father?s name, Cushi. As is the case with any biblical question where there is no explicit reference to the man?s race, there are multiple theories that attempt to explain the name, or the reference, or the inclusion of the genealogy in a manner as to erase the presence of black blood in one of the authors of the bible. However, it seems that we have already shown that the Hebrew race was a mixed race, and with the full knowledge of the biblical tradition of names holding significant meaning, it seems no stretch of the imagination to suggest that Cushi was in fact a native Judean, but more than that, he was a most likely a Judean who also happened to be a black man. Knowing that Zephaniah was born to Cushi, it seems only logical that he too would be a native black Judean man, who the Lord spoke through as one of the minor prophets.
After the fall of Judah, there seem to be no more prominent figures spoken of who had a definite black heritage, but through the exile the prophecies abound concerning Egypt and Ethiopia?s fall and later reemergence. However, it may be worthy to note that this period of exile took place in Babylonia, whose native people were directly descendent of Cush.
What Does it Mean?
“It appears in literature from many periods of Old Testament history: in historical accounts and prophetic oracles; in Psalms and in the literature of love, the Song of Songs. From slaves to rulers, from court officials to authors who wrote parts of the Old Testament itself, from lawgivers to prophets, black peoples and their lands and individual black persons appear numerous times. In the veins of the Hebrew-Isrealite-Judahite-Jewish people flowed black blood.” This quote Charles B. Copher used to close his study on the presence of the black/Negro in the Old Testament, and it seems the most appropriate way to close this essay as well. The black man and the black woman played a vital role in the story of God?s people. The Negro was a part of the story not only as a friend at times or foe at others, slave one generation and master the next, but the black races also often played the part of brother and sister, father and mother, son and daughter. The story of the Hebrew is not the story of a strictly Caucasian race that lived despising his distant Negro neighbors. Rather the story of the Hebrew is the story of a mixed race of people, not concerned with a color defined race, but unified under a common God through good times and bad, whether slave or free.
The Holy Bible: New International Version. Broadman & Holman Publishers: Nashville, TN. 1986
New Bible Dictionary: Third Edition. Inter-Varsity Press:Leicester, England. 1996