Africa In The Bible
Readings and a sort of sermon by Emeritus professor Colin Gibson
My text is the Bible. My subject is Africa—as it appears in the Bible.
None of the writers of the books of the Bible had any conception of the vastness and variety of the continent we now know as Africa. But they did know something of the northern shores of Africa, if only by report, and they had long racial memories of the time spent as an enslaved people in Egypt.
Our first reading comes from Genesis 9: 18-27, a legendary account of the new beginnings of the human race after the Flood.
How could the makers of this legend guess that the authority this story was later given would visit misery and actual slavery on countless thousands of black Africans. Ham, the youngest son in the story, is shown as lacking his older brothers’ sense of propriety— although he seems very human to me with his ‘Wow! Look at Dad!’ response, and his immediate instinct to run and tell his brothers to come and see. He is cursed by his now sobered-up and no doubt deeply-ashamed parent, and is condemned to be his brothers’ slave forever. Legends like these do not foretell the future; they try to explain why things are as they are. Ham and his descendents must have been already thought to be an enslaved and racially inferior people, to the recorders of this Genesis story.
But who is Ham? Ham (whose name means ‘black’ and comes from the Egyptian word kem) is the representative of the African races in this legend: his ‘children’ are said to be the dark-skinned peoples of Egypt, Libya (Put), Ethiopia and the Sudan (Cush), as well as the alien tribes of Canaan.
Thousands of years afterwards, this passage was taken to justify the belief that all Africans were inherently inferior to other races, fit for slavery, to kept completely apart from superior European races. Boer Christians in South Africa took this passage as proof that their apartheid regime was the direct expression of God’s will for black Africans, and Arab Muslim slave raiders had much the same attitude.
Biblical authority reinforced the idea that a dark skin signified an evil and immoral nature. Jeremiah links an African animal with the dark-skinned Ethiopians—who were known from their formidable presence in invading Egyptian armies—to coin a saying that has fed racial animosity for centuries: ‘’Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil” (13:23-4).
Ethiopian-bashing goes on in the historical books of the Bible, too. The historian responsible for 2 Chronicles tells how King Asa, the pious and godly third king of Judah, annihilated an enormous force led by Zerah the Ethiopian—sometime in the eighth-century BC.
2 CHRONICLES 14: 8-15
Unfortunately there is no independent evidence that such a battle ever took place; indeed it is highly unlikely, and though the moral of the story is that kings like Asa, who do what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord, with their own small army of foot soldiers can wipe out a million men supported by three hundred chariots (the armoured tanks of the day), there is a second moral arising out of the second part of the story that, as a bonus, you are then licensed to go on a shameless orgy of looting and destruction. It is the sort of story that a George Bush might approve of.
But how else does Africa appear in the Bible?
Though we can be sure he had never seen a magnificent African elephant, the prophet Amos knew about the luxury trade in ivory that still troubles our world today and has led to the appalling slaughter of millions of animals. This is what he had to say about the well-off in his day:
AMOS 6: 4-7
I wonder what the modern equivalent of an ivory bed would be today? A waterbed? But Amos is using the African world to accuse the self-indulgent and the wealthy in his own world of economic oppression of the poor around him. Sheep-farmer though he may have been, he has no conception of trying to protect the creatures of an environment so far away and strange as Africa.
Individual African men and women hardly appear at all in the Bible, but there are two notable exceptions. As we move towards Easter and the events of the Passion we meet the first and only named African person to step (or stumble) into the Bible story.
MARK 15: 16-21
Simon came from the country we know as modern Libya in North Africa and its capital Tripoli. He might have been an expatriate Jew (there was a large Jewish community there) or an African convert to the Jewish faith. He just happened to be there, watching one of the Roman crucifixion processions he had no doubt seen in his own town; but I wonder if he was grabbed by the troops to drag or carry Jesus’ cross because he looked different—a dark-skinned foreigner from a faraway world. His children became well-known Jesus followers: was this African man, who followed Jesus to the hill of Calvary, one of the very first to recognize the God-likeness of Jesus? It would be fitting if he was; Africa is now a world of millions of new Christians making their own impact on Western Christianity.
But there is one last appearance of an African in the story of the rapidly spreading new faith; an episode which was often used by Victorian missionary societies to inspire missionaries, teachers and explorers to venture into the heart of what was still known as the Dark Continent. I remember hearing it as a Sunday School child. It comes from the Book of Acts and it’s as exotic and remarkable as you would wish any African adventure to be; what’s more it happened to one of Jesus’ second-generation disciples.
ACTS 8: 25-39
Don’t miss the high voltage charge in this story. The Bible may begin with a legend that puts down and separates one third of the human race, but it ends with a demonstration that a person of another race and a completely different sexuality is quite capable of holding the highest rank in government, of managing an entire country’s finances, and of being a thoughtful enquiring student of a deeply spiritual nature. And that it is God’s deliberate will and intention that—whatever the colour of another person’s skin or the extent of their disability may be—he (or she) is to be nurtured and accepted without question into the community of Christ.
God bless you, Philip! In the heady excitement of your own recent encounter with Jesus, you show no hesitation in approaching this person from another race, you ignore the laws banning you from contact with such an imperfect physical body, you ignore the huge difference of rank between you; you don’t even question the theological correctness of your action as one who is no priest. You baptize the African eunuch and send him on his way rejoicing. Would that we who call ourselves Christians could all do the same and leap the barriers that separate us just as spontaneously as Philip jumped up into that traveler’s chariot!
(1) The explanation of the humiliated and enslaved condition of the descendents of Ham is that the Hebrews had already brutally invaded and subjugated the tribes of Canaan with whom Ham is associated in one scribal version of the Genesis story, though not in the other.
(2) Traditionally, Philip is the evangelist responsible for introducing the Christian faith to the continent of Africa. From Philip and his convert can be traced the Coptic Churches of Ethiopia and the Sudan, churches which have spread world-wide—even to the distant city of Dunedin, New Zealand, here on the other side of the globe.
Lions, and hippopotamus and giraffes and antelopes and leopards and cheetahs and gorillas and baboons and crocodiles and camels and the bleaching bones of elephants slaughtered by poachers for their magnificent tusks
Carvings and rock paintings and textiles and jars and thatched houses and talking drums and vivid song and dance—O the dancing, tall leaping Masai, and circles of linked dancers shuffling and stepping round a village fire
Aids and famine and disease and poachers and slavery and prostitution and desperate poverty and famine and flies crawling over the faces of babies
Civil war and hideous massacres and child soldiers and genocidal tribal warfare and weeping women and Christians pitted against Muslims and tyrant rulers and government corruption and repression and shantytowns going down before bulldozers
Pigmies and Zulus and Masai and Bushmen and Moors and Bantu and Boers and Hutu and Tutsi and Rwandans and Congolese and white farmers and black herdsmen and Nubians and Egyptians and Nigerians and the lost world of the Kalahari
Bustling modern cities and remote kraals, of tourist buses and women carrying water in jars on their heads, and deserts and dense jingle and vast plains crowded with animals and the bush-covered slopes of mountains where the last gorillas crunch leafy stalks and great rivers flowing down to ocean shores and enormous sand dunes swallowing more and more fertile land
Hope and hopelessness, of immense creativity and wordless despair, of oil-rich swamps and arid exhausted land, of flashy wealth and total destitution, of a multitude of sects and faiths and spiritual beliefs, of witchdoctors and missionaries, of churches and mosques, of marvelous artistic inspiration and art and cheap and destructive goods from the West, of enormous potential and mind-numbing problems.
What do you think of when you think of Africa?
And out of this extraordinary continent, the true world of Eden where human life began millennia ago with the African Eve and the African Adam, this seedbed of plant life, insects, animal and the human race, comes both death and resurrection—Çalvary and Easter Day.