Years ago, when I visited Paris, my guide took me to see the African sections of the city. North Africans lived in one area, and West Africans lived in another. When I told others about these neighborhoods, including people who lived in Paris, most were unfamiliar with them. On that trip, I learned that if you are willing to go off the well-worn tourist path, you can experience a place in a very different way.
As an African American Christian, I recognize that Blacks and Jews share a common history that goes far beyond the 20th century and the formation of civil rights groups such as the NAACP. The relationship goes back to creation, as does the relationship between Christians and Jews. Given this history, I wanted to learn more about Africans in the Holy Land, especially Israel.
Since Africans have long been in Israel in the form of Ethiopian Jews, as well as Ethiopian and Coptic Christians, I specifically wanted to visit Ethiopian and Coptic churches during my trip. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher includes sections for the Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox churches, and also for two African churches: the Ethiopian and Coptic churches.
I also visited African neighborhoods. In Jerusalem, most Africans live in the African Quarter, more commonly referred to as the Muslim Quarter, which comprises two historical buildings, Ribat al-Mansouri and Ribat al-Basiri. There, I met Afro-Palestinians, who are Palestinians of Black African heritage. Some 350-450 Afro-Palestinians reside in this African enclave near the Bab al-Majlis. Some members of the community dwell in other parts of Jerusalem, such as Beit Hanina and A-Tur.
In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I saw African American church groups, as well as student and Christian groups from African nations such as Zimbabwe. I wondered why someone didn’t develop a tour designed specifically for Black Christians.
Learning That Blacks Were Cursed
Although we are taught that the Garden of Eden was in Africa, and we are told the oldest human remains may also be traced to Africa, we are led to believe that Adam and Eve were white and that Adam looked as he is depicted in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.”
White supremacy built upon this heresy. White Christians taught that Cain was cursed. Part of the curse was that he was marked, and the mark was that he was made Black. Even though Cain and Abel were brothers, some Bible illustrations show Cain as brown-skinned even before he killed his white brother. The message is clear.
Protestant preachers wrote exegetical analyses of the curse, with the assumption that it was dark skin. When the Northern and Southern Baptist organizations split, the Southern Baptist group used the curse of Cain as a justification for slavery. Some 19th- and 20th-century Baptist ministers taught that there were separate heavens for Black people and white people. The curse of Cain was used to support a ban on ordaining Black people in most Protestant clergies until the 1960s in both the United States and Europe.
It was understood that Ham’s descendants were Africans. This interpretation was used to justify slavery. Southern Christians argued that slavery was in God’s Ten Commandments;
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Exodus 20:17.
Southern Christians also argued that Abraham, Job and others owned slaves and were declared “righteous” by God.
Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22: Call on slaves to be obedient to their masters. The Biblical interpretation that servants must be subject to their master was the ultimate rationalization for slavery. In the letter to Philemon, Paul told Onesimus a, free, runaway slave to return to his master.
These Biblical passages were particularly popular in North America during the Atlantic slave trade. White Christians built an extensive argument that God not only condoned slavery but ordained it. This teaching was used to support slavery in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. The reasoning was that if God had made Blacks and whites unequal, who could argue with God’s wisdom?
When the theory of evolution emerged, white Christians hastened to explain that whites were created by God, but Blacks evolved from apes as the theory proposed. They believed that whites and Blacks couldn’t have a common origin because they looked so unlike one another—differing not only in their skin color, but in their hair, noses, lips and other features. White Christians further reasoned that having evolved from apes, Blacks were less than human and could be treated like animals.
Given this history, Blacks came to describe Christianity as “the white man’s religion,” and Black Christians developed apologetics concerning Blacks in the Bible. “The Bible Is Black History” is one such work.
Africans in the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament)
In “Hidden Africans of the Bible and Early Church,” the author notes that the terms “Cush” and “Cushite,” which are used 57 times in the Hebrew Bible, are designations for an African nation and people. The article states:
“Biblical scholars are aware that ‘Cush’ sometimes refers to all of Africa, sometimes to all of Africa except Egypt, and sometimes to ancient Nubia, stretching from modern Aswan in the north to Khartoum in the south. Today most of this area lies in the Sudan.”
Here are some examples of Biblical references to these ancient Africans:
- Psalm 68:31 declares that “Cush shall reach out its arms to God.”
- Psalm 87:3-6 predicted that one day people would recognize the spirituality of the Cushites and declare that they had been born anew in Zion.
- Isaiah 11:11 foretold that God would bring forth the surviving remnants of his people from Cush.
- Isaiah 18:1-8 recounts a redeemed people from Cush bearing gifts to Zion.
- Zephaniah 3:10 proclaimed that from beyond the rivers of Cush, God’s people would bring offerings.
- Amos 9:7 expresses God’s concern for the Cushites.
Africans mentioned in the Bible include Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian concubine, as well as Zipporah, Zephaniah Jehudi, Ebed-Melek and the Queen of Sheba. Moses and Solomon married African wives. A Cushite was a trusted courtier sent to bring David the news of Absalom’s death. When Cushite pharaohs ruled over Egypt, they established military alliances with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Ebed-Melek, a Cushite, was a confidential advisor to King Zedekiah who risked his life to rescue the prophet Jeremiah from a cistern and then obtained him an audience with the king. In Jeremiah 39:15-18, God tells the prophet that Ebed-Melek will be protected because of his faith.
According to the “Hidden Africans” article, there was an Ethiopian colony at Gerar, which served as a buffer between Egypt and Judah until Hezekiah’s time (715-685 BCE), making Ethiopians permanent residents of Palestine for a period.
Africans in The New Testament
In Acts 8:26-39, we learn of the conversion of Candace’s Ethiopian treasurer. Candace was Queen Mother of the powerful African nation of Nubia, which was situated primarily in the area that is now Sudan. The citizens of Cyrene, a city further north, also had close ties with Jerusalem. Simon of Cyrene, a devout Jew who came to Jerusalem for a Passover visit, is said to have been forced to carry Jesus’ cross, which may have led to him and his sons becoming believers, as mentioned in Mark 15:21 and Romans 16:13.
Africans in the Early Church
The early Christian church prominently featured several Africans, including Clement of Alexandria (150-215), Tertullian (160-225), Athanasius (296-373), Cyril, Cyprian, Lactantius, Augustine and Zeno of Verona. Many of these were bishops, meaning they played leadership roles in the church.
Africans have continued to live in or have immigrated to Israel over the centuries. More recently, Operation Moses, Operation Joshua and Operation Solomon were designed to bring African Jews to Israel. African immigration, both legal and illegal, has become a political issue and very contentious with the deportation of illegal immigrants.
On my trip, I went to African communities in Tel Aviv and Rehovot. Both visits were amazing experiences. In Tel Aviv, I walked into the community and saw African shop owners and barbershops. In Rehovot, I saw a soccer stadium filled with African people, and I could tell that at least some were Jewish.
I believe there would be an interest in a tour that covered many of the points of interest mentioned above that involved Africans such as the Ethiopian Jews, and Ethiopian and Coptic churches—especially in Jerusalem, the visit of the Queen of Sheeba to Solomon’s Temple or Simon of Cyrene’s place on the Via Dolorosa or the African history related to the Muslim Quarter. I believe Africans, American Blacks and others would be interested in such places of interest.
During the three years I spent in seminary, I never learned any of the history I’ve recounted here, which tells me that the way the Bible and church history is taught should be completely changed. Given the recent rise in antisemitism and racism, even between Blacks and Jews, we need to recognize our long-shared history. Distorted and manipulated teachings based on a white supremacist interpretation of the Bible have harmed other groups too, including Jews, Native Americans and women. We must address the long history of antisemitism based on misinterpretation of the Bible if we are to be the “people of God” that God has called us to be.
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