The word of the Lord which came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah. (Zephaniah 1:1, NKJV)
We’ve started our Black History of the Bible series, with a tribute to Black History Month. First, we covered Simeon called Niger, a prophet and teacher in Acts 13. Lucius of Cyrene, another prophet and teacher present at the church at Antioch in Acts 13, is another black person of Scripture. Cyrene is located in eastern Libya, northern Africa, so we know that Lucius would’ve also been an African. From what we know, then, there were two Africans present as founders of the church at Antioch in Acts 13.
Today’s Black History of the Bible journey brings us to one of the minor prophets — a prophet so minor that the chances are slim that you’ve actually ever read this prophet in Scripture. His name? Zephaniah.
Zephaniah’s Birth and Genealogy
According to Zephaniah 1:1, we get to see Zephaniah’s ethnic background: “Zephaniah the son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.” Zephaniah’s father was named “Cushi,” and “Cushi” as an adjective that means “black” in both Hebrew and Greek. “Cushi” is an affectionate term for a black person and refers to one of African descent. According to Wikipedia, “Initially the word was used by Hebrew-speaking Jews to refer to individuals of Ethiopian origin, derived from the biblical land of Cush.”
Cush, if you remember, is one of the sons of Ham, who is the son of Noah. Cush, therefore, is Noah’s grandson. The territory named after “Cush” is called “the land of Cush” and is found in Genesis 2:13, where the word “Cush” is listed as “aethiopias” (Ethiopia) in the Septuagint (LXX), or Greek Old Testament, which is the same word for “Cush” used in other verses such as Isaiah 11:11 (aethiopias), Isaiah 45:14 (aethiopon), and Habakkuk 3:7 (aethiopon). Thus, for Zephaniah’s father to be named “Cushi” was to signify that he is African (Ethiopian).
Cushi, while referred to in the Septuagint to Ethiopians, is used by Israelis to refer to all Africans and even people with dark skin who may not identify as African. To this day, despite the attempts of Ethiopian Jews to separate themselves from the term cushi, Ethiopians and Africans as a whole continue to use the term and self-identify as cushi, as dark-skinned Africans. Thus, for Zephaniah’s father to be named “Cushi” tells us a lot about the ethnicity of Zephaniah as well as his heritage. All studies point to Zephaniah being a black prophet appointed to warn God’s people about His wrath on them for their sin.
Zephaniah is said to have been a prophet in the days of King Josiah between 610 and 641 BC. Apart from Zephaniah’s African descent, there is something else significant about Zephaniah: he identifies himself as the great-great-grandson of King Hezekiah. King Hezekiah, as you may remember, is the king who, upon being warned by the prophet Isaiah of his death, turned to the wall and prayed to God to extend his years. God granted Hezekiah’s request (Isaiah 38).
Zephaniah’s father was Cushi; his grandfather was Gedaliah, great-grandfather was Amariah, and Hezekiah the king was his great-great grandfather (see Zephaniah 1:1 above). Finally, Zephaniah, as the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah, is also part of the lineage of Jesus Christ and stands in his genealogy because Hezekiah is one of the kings in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:
9 Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah. 10 Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah. 11 Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon.
12 And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. 13 Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. 14 Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud. 15 Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Matthan, and Matthan begot Jacob. 16 And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ. (Matthew 1:9-16)
Zephaniah was thus of royal descent. It’s also likely that he lived in Jerusalem, since he describes Jerusalem in some detail in the prophetic book that bears his name. He mentions the Fish Gate and the Second Quarter:
10 “And there shall be on that day,” says the Lord,
“The sound of a mournful cry from the Fish Gate,
A wailing from the Second Quarter,
And a loud crashing from the hills.
11 Wail, you inhabitants of Maktesh!
For all the merchant people are cut down;
All those who handle money are cut off. (Zephaniah 1:10-11)
The Fish Gate can also be found in earlier books such as 2 Chronicles 33:14 and Nehemiah 3:3 (the book in which the Fish Gate was built). Huldah the prophetess also lived in the Second Quarter, which was located in Jerusalem (2 Kings 22:14; 2 Chronicles 34:22).
I’ve always assumed that Zephaniah and all the prophets were Jewish, and perhaps Zephaniah does have some Jewish roots by way of his great-great-grandfather Hezekiah; at the same time, however, there’s good evidence to suggest that Zephaniah was also an Ethiopian, which mean that it’s likely Zephaniah was at the very least dark-skinned, if not African.
Zephaniah is yet another African in Scripture that is worth mentioning for this special Black History of the Bible Month. And yet, I’m aware that so many Christians have yet to read Zephaniah (and even fewer mention Zephaniah in Bible Study or in theological discussions). This has to change in the future, and prayerfully, with attention being given to Zephaniah’s ethnicity and royal descent, perhaps Christians will reconsider writing off this prophet as though he is of “minor” significance.
The study of this minor prophet is important because, though many Christians label Zephaniah a “minor” prophet, he isn’t minor in the eyes of God because he was used by the Lord to warn His people. If for no other reason, Zephaniah is fascinating because of his ethnicity, heritage, and background. We here at The Essential Church are proud to recognize Zephaniah as part of our Educate the Hate Month as part of our Black History of the Bible Series.