Quick Bible quiz: Name one African person in the Bible.
Did you mention Hagar, Simon of Cyrene or Apollos of Alexandria? What about the Ethiopian eunuch, or Queen Candace?
If none of these characters came to mind, perhaps it’s due to a lack of understanding of the cultural and ethnic forces at work in the Bible. Understanding these forces can bring new light to familiar passages.
For example, even though the word “Africa” is not mentioned in the Bible, the word “Cush” is, which scholars think refers to Ethiopia or to Africa as a whole. Countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia and Libya are also mentioned. While they might not correspond exactly to the countries on a 21st century map, they do refer to places in Africa.
In fact, the Israelites believed that Egypt would ultimately share Israel’s hope of salvation, say Glenn Usry and Craig S. Keener in their book Black Man’s Religion. Isaiah 19:21 says, “The Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians; and the Egyptians will know the Lord on that day, and will worship with sacrifice and burnt offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them.
Specific places and people in Africa play an important role in the Bible. Queen Candace ruled over Ethiopia, and it was her treasurer (more commonly called the Ethiopian eunuch) that Philip converted in Acts 8. Moses’ wife Zipporah was also an Ethiopian, and he spent 40 years with her family in their homeland. Catherine C. Kroeger points out that Moses possibly received training from African women and men while he lived there in her article “Black is Blessed.”
Egypt is also prominent in the Bible, which testifies to the connection between African people, the Israelites and the Gospel. While Egypt differs from other African nations due to Semitic cultural influences, say Usry and Keener, the Egyptian people were racially diverse but not divorced from their African heritage.
Abraham and Sarah’s slave Hagar was an Egyptian, whose story is told in Genesis 16. When Sarah’s mistreatment leads Hagar to run away, an angel of the Lord comforts her. According to Kroeger, this is “the first time in the Bible where we have seen someone cry out to God in trouble, and seen the response.” Although the Israelites are God’s chosen people, through Hagar’s story, we see how God works through the Jewish people to touch people of other nations.
Models of Reconciliation
While the Bible includes important figures of African descent, it also provides models of reconciliation, especially through Jesus’ ministry on earth. His interaction with a Samaritan woman in John 4 provides an example of racial and gender reconciliation.
The tension of this passage is easy to miss without some cultural understanding of Samaritan people and their relationship to the Israelites. In her Priscilla Papers article “A More Excellent Way,” Brenda Salter McNeil says the Samaritan race formed through intermarriages between Israelites and people of conquering nations. In fact, in modern terms they were bi-racial people. Jewish people had been going out of their way to travel around Samaria for years, but the passage says, “Jesus had to go through Samaria.” McNeil suggests Jesus acted on a “divine mandate,” which is necessary for reconciliation.
Jesus’ thirst is a real need that the Samaritan woman is equipped to address which affirms her, McNeil says. As a Jewish man, Jesus had the power in this situation, and yet he requested water in a way that the woman could refuse. His example demonstrates how people in power can behave towards others with less power. But we can learn from the Samaritan woman too, says McNeil. The woman goes back to her people to tell them about Jesus, becoming a bridge-builder between cultures.
Jesus laid a foundation for a diverse church, so that when the power of the Holy Spirit was unleashed on early believers, representatives of many cultures were gathered, as told in Acts Chapter 2: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” In this listing of nations we see African people from Egypt and Cyrene, as well as people from nations in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Peter preached to this racially and culturally diverse crowd, and 3,000 people gave their lives to Christ. These believers created a community where “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” according to Acts 2:42. Unfortunately the church today is typically a segregated body, divided between races and denominations. This limits the ability of the church to do God’s work, because it cannot draw from the strengths and gifts of a united body.
Misunderstanding the Message
Even though the Bible clearly includes people of color and provides examples of reconciliation, Christians in history have misunderstood the Bible’s message. In America, Christians have supported the institution of slavery by saying it’s rooted in Scripture, using verses like Ephesians 6:5, which says, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”
The controversy over master/slave relationships as well as the roles of men and women is understandable, says Willard M. Swartley in his book Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, since the Bible appears to give mixed messages. Swartley says this ambivalence is not due to God’s nature, but to the fact “that divine revelation comes into and through history and culture.”
Understanding passages in their historical and cultural contexts, as well as within the context of the Bible, is necessary for biblical interpretation. It’s also important to differentiate between when the Bible is describing something the way it was, says Swartley, instead of stating the way it should be.
With the example of slavery, shortly after the verse that seems to endorse slavery, Ephesians 6:9 says masters should stop threatening slaves, “for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is not partiality.” Keener also points out in The IVP Bible Background Commentary that unlike slaves in the United States, slaves in the ancient world “were able to work for and achieve freedom, and some freed slaves became independently wealthy.”
A similar misunderstanding relates to what Scripture says about men and women. Consider Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” The preceding verse says to both men and women, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
In this cultural situation, Keener points out that Paul’s audience was afraid Christianity would break down family traditions. Paul borrows from Greco-Roman moral writing, speaking of the head of the household, but undermines the basic premise when he explains that both men and women are subject to Christ first, says Keener. The reciprocal act of submission is required of husbands and wives, just as it is for masters and slaves.
Other arguments once used to support slavery have also been applied to support hierarchical marriages and a limited role of women in the church. For example, proponents of slavery used to say that African Americans were inferior to whites, and traditionally, advocates of women’s subordination have argued that women are inferior to men.
As Christians, our overarching concern should center on the gospel. Swartley says that the institution of slavery or the subordination of women cannot be sustained under the application of Christian morality, noting, “The biblical imperative of love forbids oppressing anyone.”
Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 22:37-40: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Skin color or gender seems inconsequential to the business of loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself!
Now you can try our quiz again, and pass with flying colors! For your next assignment, brainstorm on how to build bridges between different cultures, applying biblical passages.