Names and Words for Africa.
Africa appears throughout the Bible from Genesis 2.11–13, where the sources of the Nile River are located in the garden of Eden, to the apostle Philip's baptism of the African official in Acts 8.26–39. To recover these numerous references in the original Hebrew and Greek of the Bible, sometimes lost or obscured in English translation, one must first identify the key biblical names for Africa and its people.
“Cush” in Hebrew and “Ethiopia” in Greek designate the land and people of the upper Nile River from modern southern Egypt into Sudan (Map 7:F6). The more indigenous term for this region is Nubia. “Ham” is another Hebrew term for the darker‐hued people of antiquity. In Genesis 10, Ham is son of Noah who populates Africa, Canaan, and Arabia after the Flood. In poetry, the name Ham is a synonym for Egypt (e.g., Ps. 78.51).
“Niger,” the Latin word for “black,” is used in Acts 13.1 to identify an African named Simeon. Simeon's companion Lucius was also African as is indicated by his place of origin, Cyrene, in Libya (Map 14:D4; see Acts 2.10). Jesus' cross is carried by Simon, also from Cyrene (Matt. 27.32).
In addition to Hebrew, Greek, and Latin terms for Africa, the Bible also uses Egyptian and Nubian names for the land and its people. The references to Africa encompass the length of the Nile Valley from the deep southern origins of the Nile down to the delta where it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. From the Lower Nile in the north to the Upper Nile in the south, the African skin color varied from brown to copper‐brown to black. For the Egyptians used to these color variations, the term for their southern neighbors was Neḥesi, “southerner,” which eventually also came to mean “the black” or “the Nubian.” This Egyptian root (nḥsj, with the preformative pʾ as a definite article) appears in Exodus 6.25 as the personal name of Aaron's grandson Phinehas (= Pa‐neḥas). In Acts 8.27, the first non‐Jewish convert to Christianity is an African official of the Nubian queen, whose title, Candace, meaning “queen mother,” is mistaken for her personal name.
Africa and Egypt.
Egypt is in Africa, and both the Bible and the early Greek and Roman explorers and historians viewed this great civilization of the Nile as African. Before the modern idea of color prejudice, the distinctions noted in antiquity between the brown Egyptians and their darker‐hued neighbors to the south did not contain the racial and cultural connotations that exist today. The Bible therefore classified Egypt, along with Canaan and Arabia, as African in the Genesis account of the restored family of peoples after the Flood (Gen. 10).
This linkage between Egypt and its southern neighbor Nubia/Cush is reinforced by the presence of these darker southerners in Canaan during the ancestral period and afterward as major elements in the Egyptian army garrisoned there. The early‐fourteenth‐century BCE Amarna Letters, correspondence from Canaanite kings to Pharaoh Akhnaton, testify to the early African presence there. One letter, from Abdu‐Heba, king of pre‐Israelite Jerusalem, complains of the rebellious Nubian troops stationed there. One can speculate that an African presence remained in the area, and that maintaining their tradition of military prowess, later generations of Nubians/Cushites either became part of David's forces which captured Jerusalem, or remained part of Jerusalem's militia which David incorporated as his own, as he did with the older Jebusite priesthood.
Still later in Israelite history, during the reign of Hezekiah of Judah (727–698 BCE), Nubia ruled Egypt as its Twenty‐fifth Dynasty (751–656 BCE), and forged a close alliance with Judah in a common effort to ward off capture by the Assyrians. Even as the prophet Isaiah protested that the king should trust in God rather than in the Egyptians for the defense of Jerusalem, his oracle on the Cushite emissaries (Isa. 18.1–2) fixed in biblical tradition the Egypt/African common identity. This same equation is expressed in Nahum's lament over the fall of the Egyptian capital Thebes (Nah. 3.8–9), even as he exults over the destruction of Assyria's capital Nineveh.
Africa at the Royal Court and in the Wisdom Tradition.
The Africans who are named in the Hebrew Bible are closely aligned with the royal court and wisdom traditions of ancient Israel. One of David's Cushite soldiers brought news of the death of his son Absalom (2 Sam. 18.21–32), and Solomon, already married to an Egyptian princess (1 Kings 3.1), entertained the Queen of Sheba who had come to visit him on a trade mission (1 Kings 10.1–13). Jeremiah was saved from death under King Zedekiah by an African court official Ebed‐Melek (“servant of the king”; Jer. 38–39), while in an earlier incident under King Jehoiakim a messenger of African heritage named Jehudi communicated with the prophet (Jer. 36.14). The prophet Zephaniah is called “son of Cushi” (Zeph. 1.1) in his genealogy, which extends back to Hezekiah.
Solomon as patron of wisdom opened the door to Egyptian proverbs and poetry as evidenced in segments of the book of Proverbs modeled upon the Egyptian “Instructions of Amen‐em‐ope” (Prov. 22.17–24.34), and in Psalm 104, which echoes an Egyptian hymn to Aton. Hezekiah, who aligned himself with the Cushite Dynasty, is also listed as a royal patron of Israel's proverbial wisdom (Prov. 25.1). The maiden in Song of Solomon 1.5 proclaims, “I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.” The dual imagery is clear: dark hue is paralleled by the black goat‐skin tents, and beauty is matched by the sumptuous royal curtains. (The Hebrew connector wĕ is taken in its normal sense as a conjunctive “and” rather than the less usual disjunctive “but”).
Africa in Israelite Worship and Messianic Thought.
Among those known to God under the imagery of Zion as mother of nations is Cush (Ps. 87.4), who also brings tribute to the Temple (Ps. 68.31). This concern for Cush and the other nations may extend from the formative experience of the Exodus and wilderness sojourn, where Hebrews were accompanied by a “mixed multitude” (Exod. 12.38), including Phinehas (Exod. 6.25) and Moses' Cushite wife (Num. 12.1).
In prophetic literature, after God's wrath is vindicated on the nations of the earth, God will change their speech so all can worship God, and “from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants, the daughter of my dispersed ones, shall bring my offering” (Zeph. 3.10). This refers to the African diaspora, to Israelite exiles in Africa returning with gifts of thanksgiving to God. Africa then with its people seen as converts shall come to worship God in Zion, along with dispersed Israelite exiles. It is in this context of God's universal reign that the prophet Amos proclaims, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord” (Amos 9.7). God is judge and ultimately redeemer of all nations.
The New Testament proclamation of Jesus as Messiah continues in the early mission of the apostle Philip who baptizes the African official in Acts 8.26–39. It is significant that in this incident the term “messiah” is interpreted in light of Isaiah 53.7–8 as God's suffering servant. That the African was reading Isaiah suggests that the emissary was a recent convert or a proselyte.
In the light of the Psalms and the prophets, then, Africans can be viewed both as diaspora and as proselytes among Israel's dispersed people, and also as forerunners of the conversion of all the nations of the earth.
Robert A. Bennett