“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” -Psalm 68:31
The Bible is a multicultural book. This statement may sound controversial but archeology, history, and the text prove it to be true. In 2013 this controversy played out in the media when viewers of The Bible miniseries were upset that Samson was played by a black man. A second controversy occurred when a Fox News broadcaster confidently declared that Santa Claus and Jesus were white, yet when people researched original depictions of Saint Nicolas, they found pictures of a dark brown man. It appears that our faith has been distorted. As we celebrate Black History Month and prepare for Lent, how can uncovering the black presence in the Bible aid us in mourning against the sin of racism? One of the effects of racism is the whitewashing of history and sadly this has taken place even in our biblical studies.
The Roman Catacombs show biblical scenes painted by first- and second-century persecuted Christians, and their paintings clearly show people of color. What would Roman Christians gain from painting these characters black? What did these early Christians know and accept that seems unbelievable today?
I began to research the black presence in the Bible because, as a faith-based community organizer and person of color, I see that the younger generation is hungry for a faith that is grounded in truth, not tradition. While studying at Union Theological Seminary my Oxford-educated, Church History professor spoke of the early Black Church fathers and the Coptic Church (one of the oldest churches in the world). This information encouraged me to look deeper into the Bible and church history. Some may say we don't need to study the black presence in the Bible and that color doesn’t matter, but if this is so, why is Jesus painted with blond hair and blue eyes? Why were early pictures of black saints, biblical characters and black Madonnas destroyed? Some will say these items were destroyed to protect people from idolatry, but I would argue that this could not have been the case since they were replaced with icons and photos of white saints and Bible characters.
The main reason for studying the black presence in the Bible is because if we can't accept that our Bible is a multicultural book, how can we accept multicultural churches? It is difficult to see the black presence in the Bible because you won’t read the terms black or African but you will read the terms Ethiopians, Cushites, Egyptians, Hebrews, or other tribal terms. Ethiopia is mentioned 45 times in the Bible; add this to the number of times Egypt is mentioned, and Africa is mentioned more than any other landmass in the Bible. It should also be noted that the "Middle East," including the Holy Land was connected to Africa until 1859 when the Suez Canal was completed and had been referred to North East Africa for the majority of modern history.
From Genesis to Revelation there is a great deal of proof that blacks are present throughout the Bible:
- In the Hebrew, Adam (or Ahdahm) is defined as swarthy, dusky, reddish-brown soil, dark-skinned like a shadow. Aphar: The soil from which Adham was made, meaning: dust, clay, always very black or very dark brown in color. (The Biblical History of Black Mankind by C. McGhee Livers)
- The Garden of Eden was described in Genesis as having been near a four-river system in the region of the lands of Cush, Havilah, and Asshur, which today would be near the borders of Eastern Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. The birthplace of humanity was confirmed when the oldest human remains were found in Ethiopia in 1974. Science and the Bible are often at odds, but one thing both confirm is that the birthplace of humanity was in East Africa. (Eden: The Biblical Garden Discovered in East Africa by Gert Muller)
- Many of the Hebrew patriarchs married or had children with women from African tribes. Abraham had children with Hagar and Keturah both from African (Hamitic) tribes. Moses married Zippora, who was Ethiopian. Jacob had children with two handmaidens from African tribes, and these children became the patriarchs of two tribes of Israel.
Studying the black presence in the Bible can open the door to discussions about racial justice and dispel the myth that the Bible is the "white man's book." It is this myth that has kept many people of color from the gospel. By whitewashing the Bible, we prevent future generations from experiencing the beauty of the biblical text. Black people should know that they have always played a central role in God’s plan for humanity and were not an afterthought of the creator.
What Churches Can Do to Uncover the Black Presence in the Bible During Black History Month and Lent:
- If you use Biblical images, make sure they are historically accurate.
- Utilize the African Heritage Study Bible, edited by Dr. Cain Hope Felder of Howard Divinity School, which includes essays and maps to aid your Bible study. Each passage of Scripture related to Africa is highlighted.
- Read How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (InterVarsity Press) by Thomas C. Oden, who dedicated his life to uncovering of the buried treasure of African Christianity.
- Read Africa's Roots in God by Rev. Dr. Sed Yankson, Pastor of East New York SDA Church & Akan Royalty.
- Read The Black Presence in the Bible: Discovering the Black and African Identity of Biblical Persons and Nations by Dr. Walter A. McCray, President of The National Black Evangelical Association.
- Visit Prophetic Whirlwind: an organization dedicated to uncovering the Black presence in the Bible via workshops, lectures, Bible study and devotional materials.
I would challenge you this Lent, as we reflect on the sacrifice Yahshua made for us to ask yourself if it was proven that he was black, would this change your devotion to him?
Editor's Note: If excerpting any of this article, please provide link and credit to Onleilove Alston.
Onleilove Alston , M.Div., MSW is a community organizer, speaker and writer living in Harlem. She is a member of the Sojourners Emerging Voices Project and Board of Directors as well as the founder of Prophetic Whirlwind: Uncovering the Black Biblical Destiny.