Sudan’s ongoing civil war isn’t the only reason Christians should be familiar with the region. INTERVIEW BY ROB MOLL| MAY 1, 2004
Sudan’s ongoing civil war is more than 20 years old. While there have been continuous efforts to stop the war between the Muslim north and Christian and animist south, the Arab government has launched new attacks against blacks in the country’s western Darfur region.
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This region of Africa, just south of Egypt, has significant ties to the Bible. From Moses’ wife to the Ethiopian eunuch, people from the Sudan interacted with Biblical characters. In Africa and the Bible, Edwin Yamauchi traces the sometimes tenuous links between the African continent and biblical stories. Yamauchi is professor of history at Miami University, Ohio, and consulting editor for Christianity Today
You say Moses’ Egyptian wife may not be from Egypt but from the land south, Cush, which is modern Sudan. How did they get confused?
The word Cush is an Egyptian word, which was borrowed into Hebrew to designate the area south of Egypt. Specifically it was an area that was from the second cataract [rocky formations along the Nile]. The Egyptians have another word for what was Lower Nubia, or northern Nubia. But in general it came to mean the area which is the Sudan, the area south of Egypt, especially remarkable for the black complexion of its inhabitants. That ethnic makeup is reflected in the modern name of the country, Sudan, which comes from the Arabic phrase for “the country of the blacks.”
There are two wives mentioned in the Bible for Moses. Some scholars wish to combine the two on the basis of a text that seems to use a parallelism between the area of Midian and Cushan. Cushan, however is not the same as Cush—this is in Habakkuk 3:7. I think it’s better to keep the two wives separate. And there’s every reason to believe that the Cushite wife was a wife from the area south of Egypt. My chapter on Moses’ Cushite wife goes to some length to show the attraction between Egypt and the area of Cush to indicate that there were slaves and other servants resident in Egypt. Whichever date you prefer for the Exodus, either the early or the late date, the 15th or the 13th century B.C., there were lots of Cushites in Egypt.
The ancients didn’t have color prejudices. They had a culture prejudice and many of the references to the Cushites are pejorative, like miserable Cushites, and cowardly Cushites. But once they had assimilated into Egyptian culture, that is they spoke the Egyptian language and adopted Egyptian customs, they could rise high in rank, even into the royal family.
What was the relationship between King Solomon and Africa?
The contacts with Solomon and Africa as far as the biblical texts are concerned are somewhat tenuous. The only possible site in Africa that Solomon may have traded with is Ophir. But the location of Ophir, which is a definite source of gold, can be placed either in East Africa or Western Arabia. Most of the connections with Solomon were made in the post-biblical period, particularly with the legendary development of the Queen of Sheba story and with the idea of Solomon’s mines in Zimbabwe.
The legend of the Queen of Sheba goes far beyond the biblical visit to Solomon, and it even extends to Rastafarianism.
Sheba is the same as Saba, which is the area in southwestern Arabia, Yemen today. That’s the source of myrrh and frankincense, and the queen brought the incense on camels on a perilous journey north.
The later tradition developed with the country of Ethiopia. Originally the name Ethiopia in Greek meant “sunburned face,” that is anyone who is dark-skinned, particularly those south of Egypt but also even in India. The name of the modern country did not acquire the name Ethiopia until the 20th century. It had been called Abyssinia. But this misleads people, including the Ethiopians themselves to connect references to Ethiopia in the Septuagint and in the New Testament to their country.