The month of February has been deemed “Black History Month” here in the US to recognize the contributions of African-Americans in the American landscape. We’re familiar with names such as George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Representative John Lewis (who marched alongside of Martin Luther King), Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Banneker, Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, and even Rev. Al Sharpton, and NAACP leaders such as the Rev. Dr. William Barber (who leads “Moral Mondays” today), but there’s still so much Black History that is often left abandoned. I learn recently that Rosa Parks wasn’t the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on the bus: that honor goes to a young girl who did it nine months before Rosa Parks, a young girl by the name of Claudette Colvin. How few of us have ever heard of her name or her story, but know and applaud Rosa Parks all the time?
When it comes to Scripture, many of us have the same idea that, if the Bible is written to Jewish people, then the Bible will contain lots of references to Jews with some to Gentiles. And yet, who are these Gentiles? What is their pigmentation and skin complexion? It’s important because some have made Jesus out to be Caucasian in days gone by, along with his disciples and parents — though we know Jesus was Jewish. Even the famous movie The Ten Commandments let the role of Moses be played by a Caucasian actor, Charlton Heston. Though I love his voice, Moses’ pigmentation was more brown-skinned, I’ve read, and his role should’ve been played by someone with a deeper skin tone than Heston.
This goes to show that American life can be too concerned at times with “whiteness,” to such an extent that brown-skinned people of the Bible can be represented in movies by Caucasians instead of brown-skinned individuals. This needs to change.
When it comes to Scripture, what many may not know is that the Bible has its own Black History, that there are some persons mentioned in Scripture that were Black (as we’d say it today), or hailed from African roots. Not all persons in Scripture are Jewish, meaning that many of those mentioned in Scripture were brown-skinned in real life. Have you seen the animated movie Moses, Prince of Egypt? The movie shows Moses as having dark skin pigmentation, a skin tone darker than that of Charlton Heston’s character in The Ten Commandments. Of course, Moses lived in Egypt for some time, but what this also shows is that Egyptian skin was darker than many believe it to be today. In fact, Paul was mistaken for a rebel Egyptian in his day, some 1,000+ years after the death of Moses:
37 Then as Paul was about to be led into the barracks, he said to the commander, “May I speak to you?”
He replied, “Can you speak Greek? 38 Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”
39 But Paul said, “I am a Jew from Tarsus, in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city; and I implore you, permit me to speak to the people.” (Acts 21:37-39, NKJV)
The commander mistakes Paul for an “Egyptian” (Acts 21:38), which was no accident: Paul’s skin tone must’ve been dark enough that, though he was a Jew, he could pass for an Egyptian. This is something worth remembering in discussions regarding skin tone in Scripture.
With the groundwork laid, it’s time for us to dive into the Black History of the Bible. Prepare to have your view of Scripture challenged.
“The Ethiopian Woman” (Numbers 12:1-16)
Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. 2 So they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. 3 (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.)
4 Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tabernacle of meeting!” So the three came out. 5 Then the Lord came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam. And they both went forward. 6 Then He said,
“Hear now My words:
If there is a prophet among you,
I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision;
I speak to him in a dream.
7 Not so with My servant Moses;
He is faithful in all My house.
8 I speak with him face to face,
Even plainly, and not in dark sayings;
And he sees the form of the Lord.
Why then were you not afraid
To speak against My servant Moses?”
9 So the anger of the Lord was aroused against them, and He departed. 10 And when the cloud departed from above the tabernacle, suddenly Miriam became leprous, as white as snow. Then Aaron turned toward Miriam, and there she was, a leper. 11 So Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord! Please do not lay this sin on us, in which we have done foolishly and in which we have sinned. 12 Please do not let her be as one dead, whose flesh is half consumed when he comes out of his mother’s womb!”
13 So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “Please heal her, O God, I pray!”
14 Then the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, would she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut out of the camp seven days, and afterward she may be received again.” 15 So Miriam was shut out of the camp seven days, and the people did not journey till Miriam was brought in again. 16 And afterward the people moved from Hazeroth and camped in the Wilderness of Paran. (Numbers 12:1-16)
Here in Numbers 12:1, we meet “the Ethiopian woman,” a woman that Moses marries. If you remember your Bible history, Moses already married Zipporah back in Exodus 2:21, and Zipporah would’ve been of some significant age by the time Moses was called to lead the Jews out of Egypt (Moses was 83 at the time God calls him, and at least 30 years had passed between their marriage and the divine call). Zipporah would’ve been up in age at that time. What this also shows us is that, since Moses is marrying “an Ethiopian woman,” he wasn’t marrying Zipporah here because she was a Midianite, from the land of Midian, and was related to Moses as a cousin (the Midianites were cousins to the Israelites). Why would Miriam and Aaron have complained about Moses marrying a woman who he’d been married to for 40 years when he was called to deliver the Jews from Egypt? It would’ve made no sense for Moses’ brother and sister to interject themselves into a 40-year-old marriage and take offense at Zipporah.
But what this also tells us is that Moses must’ve remarried because Zipporah, old in age, likely died. Moses was forbidden to marry more than one living wife at once, so it’s unlikely he would’ve added a second wife to Zipporah. The fact that the woman is simply called “the Ethiopian woman,” with no name given, tells us this woman isn’t Zipporah: why would Zipporah be named in Exodus 2 but then stripped of her name here in Numbers 12? A Midianite would not have been an Ethiopian, so that theory doesn’t apply here.
What likely happens is that Zipporah dies (though the text doesn’t tell us) and Moses, a widower, remarries. He marries a woman from Ethiopia; that’s all we’re told about her, but unfortunately, that’s all that matters to Miriam and Aaron. The text is subtle here, telling us that the woman was from Ethiopia (a place), but the text uses this to describe her pigmentation. Being that she was “an Ethiopian woman,” she was Black, of African descent, and it is her skin tone and racial ethnicity that offended Miriam and Aaron. The text doesn’t say here, and we can only speculate, but perhaps the Ethiopian woman was part of the following out of Egypt alongside the Jews, and Moses chose a God-fearing woman from among the company.
Miriam and Aaron noticed her skin tone (she would’ve been African in a company of Israelites and would’ve stood out), and were upset with Moses for marrying her. Apparently, their discussion turned to why Moses would marry her, with Moses telling them that the Lord had spoken to him and confirmed that she was the one for him; Miriam and Aaron, the text says, claim their authority as prophets to be on equal footing with Moses (“Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?,” Numbers 12:2).
In the end, God punishes Miriam with leprosy for seven days because of her complaints against Moses and her wrong presumption that Moses was just an ordinary prophet (he wasn’t, God confirmed). Racism is an issue, even in the Old Testament, and the text gives us enough information to confirm that some racial tensions brewed even in the beginning history of the Bible. Had this woman not been significantly different in skin tone, and had there been little discussion about her, she possibly would’ve never made it into the pages of Scripture.
The Cushite Messenger (2 Samuel 18:19-33)
19 Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said, “Let me run now and take the news to the king, how the Lord has avenged him of his enemies.”
20 And Joab said to him, “You shall not take the news this day, for you shall take the news another day. But today you shall take no news, because the king’s son is dead.” 21 Then Joab said to the Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” So the Cushite bowed himself to Joab and ran.
22 And Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said again to Joab, “But whatever happens, please let me also run after the Cushite.”
So Joab said, “Why will you run, my son, since you have no news ready?”
23 “But whatever happens,” he said, “let me run.”
So he said to him, “Run.” Then Ahimaaz ran by way of the plain, and outran the Cushite.
24 Now David was sitting between the two gates. And the watchman went up to the roof over the gate, to the wall, lifted his eyes and looked, and there was a man, running alone. 25 Then the watchman cried out and told the king. And the king said, “If he is alone, there is news in his mouth.” And he came rapidly and drew near.
26 Then the watchman saw another man running, and the watchman called to the gatekeeper and said, “There is another man, running alone!”
And the king said, “He also brings news.”
27 So the watchman said, “I think the running of the first is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok.”
And the king said, “He is a good man, and comes with good news.”
28 So Ahimaaz called out and said to the king, “All is well!” Then he bowed down with his face to the earth before the king, and said, “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king!”
29 The king said, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”
Ahimaaz answered, “When Joab sent the king’s servant and me your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I did not know what it was about.”
30 And the king said, “Turn aside and stand here.” So he turned aside and stood still.
31 Just then the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, “There is good news, my lord the king! For the Lord has avenged you this day of all those who rose against you.”
32 And the king said to the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”
So the Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise against you to do harm, be like that young man!”
33 Then the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept. And as he went, he said thus: “O my son Absalom—my son, my son Absalom—if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:19-33)
This messenger carries news to David of the death of his son Absalom, but he isn’t given a name; he’s simply known as “the Cushite” in a few places [2 Samuel 18:21, two times; vv. 23, 31 (twice), 32 (twice)].
One could ask from here, well, how is it that “the Cushite” is an African or Black man? Well, the word “Cushite” itself is a description of where the messenger was from, his native land, perhaps. That native land was the land of Cush (Greek Χουσι, or “cousi”). This word is used to describe the grandson of Noah, Cush, the son of Ham, in the Old Testament:
6 The sons of Ham were Cush, Mizraim, Put, and Canaan. 7 The sons of Cush were Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabtechah; and the sons of Raamah were Sheba and Dedan. (Genesis 10:6-7)
Cush gave birth to Mizraim (Egypt) and Canaan, and “Sheba and Dedan” are listed here in Genesis 10 as sons of Cush. In other words, “Sheba” will be known for Africans as well. There are a few persons in Scripture from Sheba, and we’ll cover them as we go through this Black History of the Bible.
Cush, though, was given his name by Noah, but the land he owned became known as “the land of Cush” in Genesis 2:13. The “land of Cush” in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) is called “Ethiopia.” The Greek verses read as such:
καὶ ὄνομα τῷ ποταμῷ τῷ δευτέρῳ Γηων· οὗτος ὁ κυκλῶν πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν Αἰθιοπίας.
The significant phrase in the Greek above is the last three words: τὴν γῆν Αἰθιοπίας, or “ten gen Aithiopias.” The word “Aithiopias” is awfully similar to “Ethiopia” (in fact, it is the same word in Greek), so the land of Cush is known as Ethiopia, from which Africans descend. Anyone, such as the messenger of doom to David about Absalom, that hails from the land of Cush and is known as a “Cushite” is African, Black. This messenger is, though this is all we know about him outside of his gloomy and depressing news about the death of David’s son.
Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-13)
Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. 2 She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels that bore spices, very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she spoke with him about all that was in her heart. 3 So Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing so difficult for the king that he could not explain it to her. 4 And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, 5 the food on his table, the seating of his servants, the service of his waiters and their apparel, his cupbearers, and his entryway by which he went up to the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her. 6 Then she said to the king: “It was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom. 7 However I did not believe the words until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity exceed the fame of which I heard. 8 Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! 9 Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord has loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”
10 Then she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great quantity, and precious stones. There never again came such abundance of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. 11 Also, the ships of Hiram, which brought gold from Ophir, brought great quantities of almug wood and precious stones from Ophir. 12 And the king made steps of the almug wood for the house of the Lord and for the king’s house, also harps and stringed instruments for singers. There never again came such almug wood, nor has the like been seen to this day.
13 Now King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired, whatever she asked, besides what Solomon had given her according to the royal generosity. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants. (1 Kings 10:1-13)
Remember our Genesis 10 discussion regarding Ham, the son of Noah, and Cush, the son of Ham and grandson of Noah? Well, Cush returns to the spotlight because, according to Genesis 10:7, Raamah, one of Cush’s sons, gives birth to Sheba and Dedan. Sheba is the place from which the Queen of Sheba hails here in 1 Kings 10, as she goes to King Solomon to witness all that she’d been told about him. When she testifies of his wealth, knowledge, and advancement, she praises the Lord his God for exalting Solomon and giving him the throne upon which to rule. In 1 Kings 10:6, she tells Solomon “It was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom.” Think of it: she, an African Queen, had heard about the fame of Solomon, an Israelite King, in her own land, some thousands of miles away. Solomon was so famous that even the Africans of the day knew who he was.
Much of the text of 1 Kings 10:1-13 tells us about the wealth of the Queen of Sheba. In verse 13, we’re told that she returned with “her servants” to Sheba after her meeting with King Solomon, which tells us that she was wealthy (only wealthy dignitaries and businessmen could afford servants). Next, she gave spices to King Solomon that demonstrated her wealth: “10 Then she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great quantity, and precious stones. There never again came such abundance of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” 120 talents of gold weighed 4.5 tons, which was no small money in their day or ours. Back in 2012, the mines belonging to the Queen of Sheba were excavated in northern Ethiopia, part of the Queen’s territory (Sheba spans modern-day Ethiopia and Yemen). 1 Kings 10:10 says that “never again came such abundance of spices as the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” This tells us that her wealth was unlike that of a lot of royal dignitaries in her day. In other words, she and Solomon were more financial equals than any other rulers of the day. Her wealth was comparable to his, and vice versa.
Black Americans have perpetuated the idea that Africa was a wealthy nation when it was colonized and blacks were sold into slavery, but have had little evidence to support the claim. The movie starring Eddie Murphy, Coming to America (1988), shows a rich prince (Eddie Murphy) who comes to America to escape an arranged marriage. This movie portrays Africans as wealthy people, but there was little research that definitively proved it one way or the other. Scripture suggests from the Queen of Sheba alone that she, and thus Africa, was a wealthy place. Though the African territories were later colonized by the British and French, they were no poor countries. Rich countries don’t colonize other countries because they’re poor. In most cases, the country being invaded has something of financial value to the colonizer (and hence, justifies the colonization effort in the mind of the more powerful invader).
It has been said that the Queen of Sheba was a convert to Judaism because she blessed the Lord God in Solomon’s presence:
5 Then she said to the king: “It was a true report which I heard in my own land about your words and your wisdom. 6 However I did not believe their words until I came and saw with my own eyes; and indeed the half of the greatness of your wisdom was not told me. You exceed the fame of which I heard. 7 Happy are your men and happy are these your servants, who stand continually before you and hear your wisdom! 8 Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, setting you on His throne to be king for the Lord your God! Because your God has loved Israel, to establish them forever, therefore He made you king over them, to do justice and righteousness.” (2 Chronicles 9:5-8)
The Queen of Sheba blesses the Lord (“blessed be the Lord your God”), then talks about God’s love for Israel and the purpose of Solomon’s rule over God’s people (“To do justice and righteousness”). These are things that the Queen of Sheba wouldn’t have known if she wasn’t a God-fearer herself. The Lord says the following when talking to the Pharisees:
38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.”
39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. 42 The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:38-42)
The Pharisees wanted a sign from Jesus, perhaps that would convince them He was God and His testimony was true, but Jesus didn’t oblige; rather, He gave them the examples they already had within Scripture: first, the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale and His own death and resurrection, as well as the “Queen of the South,” the Queen of Sheba, in her visit to King Solomon. The Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah, and the Queen of Sheba spoke in such a way that she too, was a believer. Jesus used these two examples, including that of the African Queen, to condemn the Pharisees. If the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba didn’t need any further signs to have believed God in their day, why did the Pharisees need any further signs in their own? Sadly, even after Jesus rose from the dead in three days, many of them still didn’t believe who He was (though there were some, such as Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, and some others).
Jehudi, reader of the scroll (Jeremiah 36:11-26)
1 When Michaiah the son of Gemariah, the son of Shaphan, heard all the words of the Lord from the book, 12 he then went down to the king’s house, into the scribe’s chamber; and there all the princes were sitting—Elishama the scribe, Delaiah the son of Shemaiah, Elnathan the son of Achbor, Gemariah the son of Shaphan, Zedekiah the son of Hananiah, and all the princes. 13 Then Michaiah declared to them all the words that he had heard when Baruch read the book in the hearing of the people. 14 Therefore all the princes sent Jehudi the son of Nethaniah, the son of Shelemiah, the son of Cushi, to Baruch, saying, “Take in your hand the scroll from which you have read in the hearing of the people, and come.” So Baruch the son of Neriah took the scroll in his hand and came to them. 15 And they said to him, “Sit down now, and read it in our hearing.” So Baruch read it in their hearing.
16 Now it happened, when they had heard all the words, that they looked in fear from one to another, and said to Baruch, “We will surely tell the king of all these words.” 17 And they asked Baruch, saying, “Tell us now, how did you write all these words—at his instruction?”
18 So Baruch answered them, “He proclaimed with his mouth all these words to me, and I wrote them with ink in the book.”
19 Then the princes said to Baruch, “Go and hide, you and Jeremiah; and let no one know where you are.”
20 And they went to the king, into the court; but they stored the scroll in the chamber of Elishama the scribe, and told all the words in the hearing of the king. 21 So the king sent Jehudi to bring the scroll, and he took it from Elishama the scribe’s chamber. And Jehudi read it in the hearing of the king and in the hearing of all the princes who stood beside the king. 22 Now the king was sitting in the winter house in the ninth month, with a fire burning on the hearth before him. 23 And it happened, when Jehudi had read three or four columns, that the king cut it with the scribe’s knife and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the scroll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth. 24 Yet they were not afraid, nor did they tear their garments, the king nor any of his servants who heard all these words. 25 Nevertheless Elnathan, Delaiah, and Gemariah implored the king not to burn the scroll; but he would not listen to them. 26 And the king commanded Jerahmeel the king’s son, Seraiah the son of Azriel, and Shelemiah the son of Abdeel, to seize Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet, but the Lord hid them. (Jeremiah 36:11-26)
Jehudi was one of the men sent by the princes to Baruch, so he must have been a messenger for them in the king’s court. He does read some of the scroll, so he was more of a servant and less of a dignitary (otherwise, he would have been giving commands instead of receiving them). Jehudi was a relative of “Cushi” as we’re told in Jeremiah 36:14, and the word “Cushi” means “black” in both Hebrew and Greek. Some say that this word doesn’t refer to a given race, but as we’ve seen with Sheba, the son of Cush, “Cush” referred to Ethiopia, from which Africans descend. The name would not have been passed down lightly, which tells us that Jehudi had some African descent somewhere — stretching from at least 3 generations before him.
Ebed-Melech helps Jeremiah from the stocks (Jeremiah 38:1-13)
Now Shephatiah the son of Mattan, Gedaliah the son of Pashhur, Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur the son of Malchiah heard the words that Jeremiah had spoken to all the people, saying, 2 “Thus says the Lord: ‘He who remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but he who goes over to the Chaldeans shall live; his life shall be as a prize to him, and he shall live.’ 3 Thus says the Lord: ‘This city shall surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army, which shall take it.’”
4 Therefore the princes said to the king, “Please, let this man be put to death, for thus he weakens the hands of the men of war who remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man does not seek the welfare of this people, but their harm.”
5 Then Zedekiah the king said, “Look, he is in your hand. For the king can do nothing against you.” 6 So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the dungeon of Malchiah the king’s son, which was in the court of the prison, and they let Jeremiah down with ropes. And in the dungeon there was no water, but mire. So Jeremiah sank in the mire.
7 Now Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs, who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the dungeon. When the king was sitting at the Gate of Benjamin, 8 Ebed-Melech went out of the king’s house and spoke to the king, saying: 9 “My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have cast into the dungeon, and he is likely to die from hunger in the place where he is. For there is no more bread in the city.” 10 Then the king commanded Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian, saying, “Take from here thirty men with you, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon before he dies.” 11 So Ebed-Melech took the men with him and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took from there old clothes and old rags, and let them down by ropes into the dungeon to Jeremiah. 12 Then Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Please put these old clothes and rags under your armpits, under the ropes.” And Jeremiah did so. 13 So they pulled Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the dungeon. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison. (Jeremiah 38:1-13)
Ebed-Melech is referred to as “the Ethiopian” three times in this passage (vv. 7, 10, 12), a reminder that Ebed-Melech is truly an African, a Black man. He is described as “one of the eunuchs” who was in the king’s house, a testimony to him being a hired servant of the king who also had nice living quarters (we imagine). Ebed-Melech was one who was grieved over Jeremiah being thrown into the dungeon because his prophecies were gloomy (though true). He speaks to the king when the king is at the Gate of Benjamin and tells the king that Jeremiah could die in the dungeon because “there is no more bread in the city.” The king commands Ebed-Melech to go with thirty other servants and rescue Jeremiah from the stocks — and he does. His kindness and compassion to rescue the prophet from death are one of the things for which he is remembered in Scripture.
Ebed-Melech’s compassion for the prophet is not all that he is known for; he also is a God-fearer, which drives his compassion and actions to the king and the prophet. In the following chapter of Jeremiah, the Lord tells the prophet to visit Ebed-Melech and give him a specific message:
11 Now Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon gave charge concerning Jeremiah to Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard, saying, 12 “Take him and look after him, and do him no harm; but do to him just as he says to you.” 13 So Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard sent Nebushasban, Rabsaris, Nergal-Sharezer, Rabmag, and all the king of Babylon’s chief officers; 14 then they sent someone to take Jeremiah from the court of the prison, and committed him to Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, the son of Shaphan, that he should take him home. So he dwelt among the people.
15 Meanwhile the word of the Lord had come to Jeremiah while he was shut up in the court of the prison, saying, 16 “Go and speak to Ebed-Melech the Ethiopian, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Behold, I will bring My words upon this city for adversity and not for good, and they shall be performed in that day before you. 17 But I will deliver you in that day,” says the Lord, “and you shall not be given into the hand of the men of whom you are afraid. 18 For I will surely deliver you, and you shall not fall by the sword; but your life shall be as a prize to you, because you have put your trust in Me,” says the Lord.’” (Jeremiah 39:11-18)
King Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, comes to besiege Jerusalem and place the Jews in captivity, but the king spares Jeremiah and protects him from harm. While “the king” spares Jeremiah, “The King,” the Lord God Himself, spares Ebed-Melech. He sends the prophet to Ebed-Melech, telling him that, despite His plans to bring destruction upon Jerusalem, “But I will deliver you in that day, and you shall not be given into the hand of the men of whom you are afraid; For I will surely deliver you, and you shall not fall by the sword; but your life shall be as a prize to you, because you have put your trust in Me” (Jeremiah 39:16-18).
The Lord tells Jeremiah to relay some wonderful news to Ebed-Melech, who, up until now, wasn’t labeled a God-fearer. Through the word of the Lord from Jeremiah’s lips, we see that Ebed-Melech is a God-fearer and trusts in the God of Israel. As a result, God intends to spare Ebed-Melech’s life such that 1) he won’t fall into the hands of the Babylonians and 2) he will not be killed. Isn’t this wonderful news? An Ethiopian, an African, a Black man, is spared because he trusts in the one true, living God! This shows us that the Lord is willing to save even Africans, African-Americans, and Black people no matter the country, that anyone who fears the Lord and walks in His ways is acknowledged by Him.
Zerah the Ethiopian, Commander of the Ethiopian Army (2 Chronicles 14:2-15)
2 Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God, 3 for he removed the altars of the foreign gods and the high places, and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the wooden images. 4 He commanded Judah to seek the Lord God of their fathers, and to observe the law and the commandment. 5 He also removed the high places and the incense altars from all the cities of Judah, and the kingdom was quiet under him. 6 And he built fortified cities in Judah, for the land had rest; he had no war in those years, because the Lord had given him rest. 7 Therefore he said to Judah, “Let us build these cities and make walls around them, and towers, gates, and bars, while the land is yet before us, because we have sought the Lord our God; we have sought Him, and He has given us rest on every side.” So they built and prospered. 8 And Asa had an army of three hundred thousand from Judah who carried shields and spears, and from Benjamin two hundred and eighty thousand men who carried shields and drew bows; all these were mighty men of valor.
9 Then Zerah the Ethiopian came out against them with an army of a million men and three hundred chariots, and he came to Mareshah. 10 So Asa went out against him, and they set the troops in battle array in the Valley of Zephathah at Mareshah. 11 And Asa cried out to the Lord his God, and said, “Lord, it is nothing for You to help, whether with many or with those who have no power; help us, O Lord our God, for we rest on You, and in Your name we go against this multitude. O Lord, You are our God; do not let man prevail against You!”
12 So the Lord struck the Ethiopians before Asa and Judah, and the Ethiopians fled. 13 And Asa and the people who were with him pursued them to Gerar. So the Ethiopians were overthrown, and they could not recover, for they were broken before the Lord and His army. And they carried away very much spoil. 14 Then they defeated all the cities around Gerar, for the fear of the Lord came upon them; and they plundered all the cities, for there was exceedingly much spoil in them. 15 They also attacked the livestock enclosures, and carried off sheep and camels in abundance, and returned to Jerusalem. (2 Chronicles 14:2-15)
We’ve covered a number of decent Ethiopians and Africans, but 2 Chronicles 14 brings us to a villain, a man the text calls “Zerah the Ethiopian,” the Greek phrase “Ζαρε ὁ Αἰθίοψ” (“Zare ho Aithiops). “Ho Aithiops” is a phrase that refers to the geographic location from which Zerah came, where he belonged. “Aithiops” is short for “Ethiopian,” so Zerah was an African, a Black man. He was the Commander of the Ethiopian Army, an army that, for one reason or other, came against King Asa and the Judean Army. Notice that Asa had 580,000 in his army, but Zerah had 1 million men in his army: “an army of a million men and three hundred chariots,” we’re told (2 Chronicles 14:9).
Asa didn’t have the same number of men (a little over half the million men of Zerah), but he had the Lord God on his side. Asa prayed to the Lord God of Israel and the Lord helped Asa and the Judean Army defeated the Ethiopian Army and sent them packing and fleeing in terror. Asa and the Judean Army overcame the Ethiopians and plundered them by carrying away “much spoil” (v.13), including “sheep and camels” (v.15).
Zerah isn’t exactly a hero, but he shows us that Ethiopians had encounters with the Jews. Sometimes, the Africans weren’t victorious before the Jews because they didn’t believe in the God of Israel. Zerah wasn’t like Ebed-Melech, who trusted in the Lord and was spared from captivity and death (Jeremiah 39).
Nimrod, the mighty hunter (Genesis 10:8-11)
8 Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one on the earth. 9 He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, 12 and Resen between Nineveh and Calah (that is the principal city). (Genesis 10:8-11)
10 Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one on the earth. (1 Chronicles 1:10)
When the Assyrian comes into our land,
And when he treads in our palaces,
Then we will raise against him
Seven shepherds and eight princely men.
6 They shall waste with the sword the land of Assyria,
And the land of Nimrod at its entrances;
Thus He shall deliver us from the Assyrian,
When he comes into our land
And when he treads within our borders. (Micah 5:5-6)
Nimrod, the son of Cush and the grandson of Ham, becomes a hunter. In fact, he’s the first hunter (if not the only hunter) of which we read anything in Scripture, so Nimrod is important to our study of the Black History of the Bible and important to our study on the Black People of the Bible. Nimrod was such a “mighty hunter” that a proverb was created to honor him: “Therefore it is said ‘Like Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord’” (Genesis 10:9). Nimrod was not only a hunter but also a builder: he is known for having built eight cities: Babel, Erech, Accad, Calneh, Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen.
Nineveh (whose inhabitants are known as the Assyrians) is the infamous city known for their rebellion against the Lord, which is why the Lord sent Jonah the prophet to Nineveh.
Zephaniah the prophet
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)
Zephaniah introduces himself in the first verse of his prophetic book as “the son of Cushi.” The word “Cushi” is similar to “Cush,” the son of Ham back in Genesis. Some have said that the word “Cushi” doesn’t have any racial ideas attached to it (that it isn’t race-specific), but how can that be when the word in both Hebrew (the original language of the Old Testament) and Greek (in the Septuagint, the Greek OT) means “Black”? Few would’ve ever allowed themselves to be called “Black” unless they were “black.” The name “Cushi” or Grk xousi refers to Cush, for whom the land of Cush, Ethiopia according to Genesis 2, so we doubt that the name “Cushi” doesn’t have any African connection — though there is a “Cush” who wrote Psalm 7 that is a Jew (a “Benjamite,” to be exact). The writer of Psalm 7 could also have some African and Jewish roots (mixed), though we simply don’t have enough information in the Old Testament to be sure.
Now that we’ve covered famous Africans (Blacks) in the Old Testament, we move on to cover the African presence in the New Testament.
Africans (Blacks) in the New Testament
The Ethiopian Eunuch Gets Saved and Baptized (Acts 8:26-39)
Our study of Africans or Blacks in the New Testament begins with the Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8:
26 Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is desert. 27 So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go near and overtake this chariot.”
30 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 The place in the Scripture which he read was this:
“He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
33 In His humiliation His justice was taken away,
And who will declare His generation?
For His life is taken from the earth.”
34 So the eunuch answered Philip and said, “I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. 36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”
37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”
And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:26-39)
Acts 8 calls the man “a man of Ethiopia,” referring to his African roots. He is from the land of Ethiopia, which means that we’re talking about a black man here, an African. The text continues with the words “a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship.”
He was a eunuch, which could mean that he had been castrated; it could also mean that he’d never had children and have no implications related to genitalia. After all, Jesus does use the word “eunuch” in Matthew 19 to refer to those who do not marry:
3 The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
4 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”
8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
10 His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
11 But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: 12 For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it,let him accept it.” (Matthew 19:3-12)
It’s easy to read verse 12 and think that there are those who have physically castrated themselves, but again, the context wouldn’t refer to men but also to women — thus rendering physical castration in Matthew 19 as irrelevant. The idea of making oneself a eunuch or being born a eunuch has nothing to do with physical castration but everything to do with choosing to be celibate. In Matthew 19:10, the disciples tell Jesus that if a man commits adultery to leave his wife and be joined to another for reasons other than infidelity and sexual immorality, then “it is better not to marry,” so the discussion of eunuch here pertains to celibacy and remaining single, not physical castration.
We don’t know if he was physically castrated, but what we do know is that he served under Queen Candace as a man of significant power. The Ethiopian eunuch (no name provided) was a man of “great authority” who was “in charge of all her treasury” (referring to Queen Candace), so he was no servant of small significance. “Great authority” is a giveaway to just how powerful this man was. He was the keeper of her treasury, meaning that he was probably akin to what we’d know in the US as a Secretary of the Treasury, or a personal treasurer of the Queen. Since the eunuch was “Ethiopian,” we can presume that Candace, the Queen, was Ethiopian as well (remember the Queen of Sheba?), so we get to see two Africans here in Acts 8. We know very little about Queen Candace, except to say that she was rich (the Queen of Sheba was, too), and the Ethiopian eunuch, as treasury keeper, must have had some significant wealth as well. He was a freeman, not a slave (because, if he had been, someone would’ve been with him to make sure he was staying in line), and he had come from Jerusalem where he’d been to worship. The evidence suggests that he was a God-fearer because 1) he’d worshipped in Jerusalem, a sign that wouldn’t have been the case if he didn’t know anything about the God of the Jews and 2) he was reading from the Book of Isaiah, a testimony to the fact that he was searching to understand the Old Testament. Worshipping in Jerusalem and reading the Hebrew Scriptures are examples of something we’d expect a God-fearer to do.
But what is also striking about this is that the fact that this Ethiopian was a God-fearer tells us that somehow, someway, he had learned about the God of Israel, the God of the Jews. He lived in Ethiopia; how would he have known about the God of Israel and that he needed to come to Jerusalem to worship? Perhaps it is the case that the message about the God of Israel had reached even to Africa in those days, or perhaps he had heard about the God of Israel while in Jerusalem on business for the Queen, etc. It appears as though it was his custom to travel to Jerusalem to worship, a great feat of faith for a man who lived so many miles away. The news about the God of Israel existed in Africa in Acts 8 because the Queen of Sheba traveled to Jerusalem to meet Solomon back in 1 Kings 10 and she herself was a believer in the God of Israel. So, the faith of Israel was a message that already existed in Africa; the eunuch, a man of importance in Queen Candace’s administration, was doing what he’d been taught to do. The message about the one true, living God had been in Africa for some years (if not centuries) when the New Testament opens. And this man worked for Queen Candace but he was allowed to make trips to Jerusalem while working for her. She could’ve been an unbeliever who was kind, as King Artaxerxes was (though not a God-fearer), but Candace could’ve also been a God-fearer. We don’t know, but it seems interesting that this Ethiopian eunuch would’ve been the only one to be a God-fearer. It also seems odd to think that the eunuch wouldn’t have discussed the matter with Queen Candace at some point, that the God discussion wouldn’t have surfaced with her over his Jerusalem journey.
I think this is important to point out because so many evangelists today who travel to third-world countries presume that the gospel or any message about the monotheistic God of Israel has never gone into those areas. We tend to call them “unreached people groups” and we presume that, because they’re not “American,” that no seeds of the gospel have been planted there. And yet, if we can look at the Ethiopian eunuch for a moment, we can see that God had made Himself known in such a way that those afar off in other countries are aware of the God of the Jews — even if they don’t know that Jesus is God’s final revelation of Himself.
God is at work in other countries, even before missionaries get there, and God is at work in hearts and minds even when we can’t see it.
The eunuch was sitting in his chariot, having returned from Jerusalem where he had worshipped, and he was reading “Isaiah the prophet,” the text says. We don’t know if Isaiah was read and proclaimed in the worship service at Jerusalem, though that’s unlikely because of the question the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip about Isaiah. He is inquiring, reading the Hebrew Scriptures, seeking to know the truth. He’s aware of the God of Israel, and he lives by the Hebrew Scriptures, but there’s something missing. He can’t understand Isaiah, though he’s qualified enough to read the passage. After all, he is a man of some wealth as a servant to Queen Candace, so he would’ve had some measure of reading comprehension.
Philip comes into the story because the Spirit first tells Philip to go to the same road where the Ethiopian eunuch would be: “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. This is desert” (Acts 8:26). In verse 29, the Spirit tells Philip to overtake the chariot and to inquire about this Ethiopian eunuch and what he’s reading. So Philip does, and asks the eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch answers honestly: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (v.31) Philip didn’t ask the eunuch “can you read the passage?,” but rather, “do you understand?” The eunuch invites Philip to sit beside him, and the eunuch continues reading. Acts 8:32-33 contain what we know to be Isaiah 53:7-8:
“He was led as a sheep to the slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
33 In His humiliation His justice was taken away,
And who will declare His generation?
For His life is taken from the earth.” (Acts 8:32-33; Isaiah 53:7-8)
These verses are part of a larger chapter in Isaiah 53 that pertains to Jesus, and the eunuch inquires of whom the prophet Isaiah is talking about. “Is the prophet speaking of himself or some other man?” the eunuch asks, showing that he has a desire to understand but doesn’t know the answer. What the Spirit was showing Philip is that this Ethiopian brother wanted to know the truth, was seeking the truth, was longing and yearning for understanding the Hebrew Scriptures. This is why the Spirit sent Philip into the desert: because, here in a dry place, there was a thirsty soul, longing to understand the gospel and be saved. The Spirit often leads you and me to places where it seems nothing fruitful can result because He longs to show us that, even in the desert, He can bring streams of water, even in a dry place He can prime a thirsty soul to receive the water that springs up to eternal life. Wherever the Spirit leads us, let us remember that God has already prepared hearts and minds to receive the Word of God and the gospel. If God doesn’t go before us, we can do nothing. We need Him for every direction, every step.
In verse 35, Philip, recognizing the reason behind why the Spirit sent him into the desert, does the work of an evangelist:
35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. (Acts 8:35)
Philip “preached Jesus to him,” a reminder that the gospel we preach is not about ourselves or about Scripture for Scripture’s sake, but about Jesus. Jesus is the one who sums up the gospel message; He is the One to whom all the Scripture points, the final revelation of God among men, the One that Scripture is all about. He told the disciples in the Gospels that everything written in the Psalms, Prophets, and the Pentateuch concerning Him had to come to pass — and it did. Here, Philip, both a deacon and an evangelist, preaches the Word of the Lord to the Ethiopian eunuch. Acts 8:35 says that “beginning at this Scripture,” so let’s remember that Philip didn’t just stay in Isaiah 53 but rather, started there and continued throughout Scripture to show the eunuch that this Jesus he proclaimed to him fulfilled not only Isaiah 53 but also other passages of Scripture: Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 9 where it says that “the government will be upon His shoulders” and “He shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” There is Isaiah 52, which fits right into the Messianic Prophecies of the Book of Isaiah. There is Psalm 22, a Psalm that begins with the words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Psalm 22:1), lines that Jesus Himself cries out while on the Cross to show His cognizance of the Father’s abandonment of Him due to the sin of the world Jesus carried on His shoulders (Matthew 27:46). There is Genesis 3, where, even in the midst of Adam and Eve’s sin, the Lord says that He will raise up a “Seed of the woman” that will “bruise” the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15), the first gospel (in the Latin, protoevangelium), the first gospel message that Paul confirms when he writes to the Romans in Romans 16:20 that “The God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly.” Deuteronomy 18:15 discusses a “prophet like Me,” a Moses-like prophet, and we know that Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophecy because, like Moses, Jesus was 1) drawn out of His generation, spared the genocide that came to His fellow Jews; Moses was drawn out of the water and spared from the genocide that Pharaoh brought upon the Hebrew males; 2) Moses fled to Egypt because Pharaoh sought to kill him; Jesus was forced to flee to Egypt because Herod sought to kill Him, though for different reasons; 3) Moses wrote the Law down after receiving the two tablets of the Ten Commandments on Sinai; and yet, Jesus was the Moses-like Teacher who gave a better teaching on the Law than anyone before Him, including Moses. Moses taught the people in his day, Jesus taught them in His.
The night of the Passover, when the Jews ate in haste, killed a lamb, and placed its blood on their lintel and doorposts to avoid the death angel killing their firstborn males, it was a representation of Jesus Christ, who, as Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, is “our Passover Lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7), the one who was crucified and sacrificed for us. The Temple furniture represents Christ, who He is, and what He’s done. As Paul said in Hebrews,
Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. 2 For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; 3 and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, 4 which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; 5 and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
23 Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; 25 not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another— 26 He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. (Hebrews 9:1-5, 23-26)
There are other such verses in Scripture that tell us about Christ, who He is, and what He’s done, and, while we don’t know all the passages that Philip had him read, or how long the encounter lasted between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we know that Philip showed him Jesus in the Scriptures. In case we didn’t know, Isaiah 53 is a Messianic chapter in the Old Testament Scriptures.
The few remaining verses tell us that the Ethiopian eunuch gets baptized after hearing the gospel and believing it:
36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”
37 Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.”
And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:36-39)
In verse 36, we read that “they went down the road,” which tells us that it could be the case that they talked at some point, until Philip joined the eunuch as they were going down the road. Perhaps he being a God-fearer and having heard the gospel, wanted to be baptized; he knew that baptism was the next step after he’d heard the gospel, which tells us that he was no new convert devoid of the knowledge of God or Jesus. In verse 36, the eunuch says, “See, here is water,” as if to say, “I know what the water is for; it’s for those who believe to be baptized.” Unless Philip had already told him, we have no reason to doubt that he knew about baptism. He longs to be baptized as a believer (what we call “believer’s baptism”), and he asks Philip about what prevented him from going through with it. Philip said to the eunuch, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” (v.37). Philip wanted the eunuch to be baptized “if” he believed in Jesus. This tells us that in the early church, believer’s baptism was the only acceptable baptism for those who wanted to enter into the congregation of believers. Believe it or not, there are churches today that accept the idea of “implicit believers” who are allowed to come into the church, serve in Christian ministry without the slightest confession that Jesus is Lord. They can work in the church pantry, travel with the church ministry team to preach the gospel, and even pray for the souls of others to be saved — all while being unsaved themselves. Some call these persons “implicit believers,” but this makes no sense at all: either someone is a believer or not. This new category is designed to do nothing more than blur the lines regarding what God has spoken, treating Christian ministry as though it is nothing more than a worldwide humanitarian effort. But life in Christ is not about being humanitarian or philanthropic; it’s about confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord, believing in the heart that Jesus is Lord, that He died for our sins and rose from the dead for our justification, and seeking to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ until death. Anyone that wants to come in the church and do the work of the ministry without first declaring Jesus to be their Lord and making Him the head of their lives (to follow Him faithfully) is not a disciple and has no business entering into the work of the ministry. You can’t “play Christian” without first being a Christian; even then, your actions are not “playing Christian,” but “living Christian.”
At the end of verse 37, the Ethiopian eunuch said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” This statement is shorter than the confessions given in most churches today, but there’s a lot in it worth observing. First, the Ethiopian eunuch said “I believe.” It was personal to him, it described his conviction. Every person that comes to Jesus must believe on their own; it’s not something that anyone else can do for the individual. Since one’s walk with Christ is personal, the confession and belief must be personal, restricted to each and every person.
Next, we see the nature of what the Ethiopian eunuch believed: “that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” He believed that Jesus existed, and that He is “the Son of God.” The phrase “Son of God” tells us that the eunuch believed that Jesus Christ is divine, that He is God, that, as God’s Son, He too, was as divine as His Father. After all, to acknowledge Jesus as “Son,” one must also believe that Jesus had a Father. So, implicitly, the Ethiopian eunuch also believed in God the Father and God the Son. Though we don’t see anything in the way of admission of the Third Person of the Triune Godhead, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit is the one that directed Philip to the eunuch. Additionally, teaching about God the Father and God the Son, the Holy Spirit would come up in discussions because the Holy Spirit is the one that conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb:
35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1:35-37)
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18-20)
At the moment the Ethiopian eunuch believed, the Holy Spirit came into his life, indwelled him, and he was saved. And now, in Acts 8, the eunuch confesses that Jesus is God’s Son, divine, Deity, Lord. One need only confess with the mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in his or her heart God has raised Jesus from the dead in order to be saved:
5 For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, “The man who does those things shall live by them.”6 But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down from above) 7 or, “‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:5-13)
The Ethiopian eunuch confesses that Jesus is Lord, which is what allows him to be baptized. Now, some would say that the eunuch didn’t fulfill the last portion of verse 9 (he didn’t believed God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, that He rose), but he says that “Jesus is the Son of God,” showing his belief that Jesus lives and that He is divine, deity. In order for the Ethiopian eunuch to believe that Jesus lived in his day, he had to know that Jesus was crucified. And indeed he does, because he was reading Isaiah 53, which speaks of Jesus being the sacrifice for us all:
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
He was “wounded” for our transgressions, “bruised” for our iniquities, and “by His stripes” we are saved. This tells us that Jesus was beaten and bruised in body for our salvation. Isaiah 53 was the exact passage the Ethiopian eunuch was reading when the Spirit leads Philip to him. Isaiah 53:7 was one of the verses he was reading when he asked Philip about the person the verse was speaking of:
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
“He was afflicted,” was “led as a lamb to the slaughter.” As a lamb is led to be slaughtered, Jesus was led to “the slaughter,” a symbol of death that reminds us that Jesus died. Isaiah 53:8 says that “He was cut off from the land of the living,” and Isaiah 53:9 says “they made His grave with the wicked — but with the rich at His death,” a reminder that He had a grave (that He died and was buried). So, the statement of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:37 is more of a “snapshot” statement than it is the entire confession of the Ethiopian eunuch. If the eunuch had just read about Jesus’ death, and then confesses that Jesus “is” alive, then surely, he believed in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. That one statement is small, but it encapsulates a lot.
In verse 38, the eunuch commands the chariot to stand still, presumably because someone was driving the chariot. Remember, Philip and the eunuch had been discussing Scripture and Jesus as the fulfillment of all of it, the Messianic prophecies, etc., so the eunuch couldn’t focus on what Philip was saying if he was driving. We presume that someone else was driving him. Since the eunuch was the head of Queen Candace’s treasury, he likely had servants under him (again, he was a man of “great authority,” as we’re told in Acts 8:27), so having one of the servants as a driver wasn’t out of the question. Perhaps Queen Candace gave him a driver of hers. Either way, he commanded the driver to stop the chariot and travel no further, while he and Philip stepped out of the chariot to go to the water. Philip baptizes him, and they both go into the water. When they came up from under the water, the moment when the eunuch was declared baptized and a willing follower of Jesus, is when the Spirit took Philip away. What we see is not that Philip says anything else to the man, but that Philip is taken by the Spirit to Azotus (Acts 8:40). Meanwhile, the Ethiopian man, full of the Spirit and happy about his new salvation, “went on his way rejoicing.”
The Ethiopian eunuch who gets saved by way of Philip, the deacon/evangelist, was a God-fearer who wanted to know more about the Hebrew Scriptures. His heart and mind had been prepared and he was ready to know about God’s final revelation, Jesus, in the gospel.
We are also reminded that this man was Ethiopian, African, Black, and that the Spirit led the preacher to this Black man who needed to be saved and know about Jesus. What Acts 8 teaches us today is that any man or woman, whether Black, White, or some other race, can be saved if they hear the gospel message about Jesus, believe He is God, and call on His name. Contrary to what some have believed about Blacks, African-Americans, Africans, etc., is that most are poor and simply can’t afford anything. This man was a servant of Queen Candace and he had a chariot and a driver. These things point to him being a man of immense wealth (he had to spend money to travel all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem). The trip from Ethiopia to Jerusalem would take 2,564km or 1,593 miles, one way. The total trip would’ve been nearly 3,200 miles, so this Ethiopian eunuch had to have significant resources for the journey, just as the Magi or Wise Men would’ve had to come from Asia all the way to Bethlehem (as astrologers, they would’ve had some significant wealth; look at the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that they brought to Jesus).
Blacks are not all poor, and whites are not all rich, and other ethnic groups are not all poor, either, but whether we’re rich, poor, or in-between, a slave, a freeman, or fugitive, we all need the grace of God and the mercy of our Lord Jesus in the gospel.
Simon of Cyrene, Jesus’ Cross-bearer (Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26; Mark 15:21)
32 Now as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross. (Matthew 27:32)
26 Now as they led Him away, they laid hold of a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, who was coming from the country, and on him they laid the cross that he might bear it after Jesus. (Luke 23:26)
21 Then they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian, the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and passing by, to bear His cross. (Mark 15:21)
Simon here is identified as “a Cyrenian,” “a man of Cyrene,” adjectives that tell us he was from Cyrene, a territory near present-day Shahhat, Libya. In other words, Simon lived near Libya, a region of North Africa. In other words, Simon of Cyrene was African, and thus, Black. Mark tells us that not only did Simon carry Jesus’ cross (he was “compelled,” we’re told from the Gospel writers), but that he was “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21).
The question for us is: “Why would Mark have ever mentioned this?” Perhaps Mark is writing to those who would’ve known Alexander and Rufus personally so as to give them some reference of Simon, the one they didn’t know. Alexander and Rufus, being sons of Simon, would also be Africans, and thus, Black. So, Simon, Alexander, and Rufus are three additional Black people of the Bible. Scripture does join the Ethiopians and the Libyans (Jeremiah 46:9), and today’s Arab makeup in Libya would’ve had little effect on Libya then.
Simon of Cyrene is forever remembered as the one who carried Jesus’ cross, and this is no small feat. To do anything for Jesus while He was on earth and honor (even bake a meal for Him), but to carry the cross of the Messiah, the Savior, is a great honor. Like Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus feet with her alabaster oil and wipes His feet with her hair, Simon’s cross-bearing is to be remembered, wherever and whenever the gospel of our Lord is preached.
Libyans Present in the Upper Room (Acts 2:5-12)
The Upper Room experience in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit is poured out on the church and believers speak in tongues is another event including Africans and Blacks that we can’t leave out:
5 And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7 Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” 12 So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?” (Acts 2:5-12)
In Acts 2, we see that the Jews who gathered there were Jews that had come from every country under Heaven. Though they were speaking Hebrew, their native tongue, the event in question took them by surprise because they heard the Gentiles speaking in the native language of the countries in which they were born. Those speaking were Gentiles, but the Jews could understand their native tongues because the Gentiles were speaking in native dialects. They were perplexed as to how this could be.
Among those speaking in familiar Jewish dialects were Libyans and Cyrenians (or Libya adjoining Cyrene), which includes Africans or Blacks. Africans and Blacks were part of the birth of the church.
The Upper Room Experience in Acts 2 should remind you of the Tower of Babel experience back in Genesis:
Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. 3 Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. 4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)
The people of the earth had one speech, one language, and they could all understand each other. And instead of using that language to be fruitful and multiply, and populate the earth, they came together to build a city and a tower to reach heaven, to avoid being scattered abroad over the face of the entire earth. This is why the Lord, a plurality of persons (“Come, let US go down and there confuse their language, Genesis 11:7), confuses the language of the peoples of the earth. The first time the people of the earth shared a common language, they unified to oppose their Creator and His commands. Now, in Acts 2, the people are “confused” because Gentiles can communicate with the Jews, can speak their Jewish dialects, which proves to be confusing to the Jews because it had never happened before. The purpose of this “confused clarity” (which may seem like an oxymoron to some but accurately describes the situation) was to unite the people of the earth by way of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Triune Godhead and the One to whom the church would look to for the power and authority needed to live out God’s commands on earth. The nations and peoples that had once been divided would now unite in Christ, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, for His glory and not their own (as was the case in Genesis 11).
Simeon called Niger and Lucius of Cyrene, prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1)
Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. (Acts 13:1)
We see two here that are considered to be Africans: 1) “Simeon who was called Niger.” The word “Niger” here in the Greek is pronounced “knee-ger,” meaning “black.” This Simeon is called “Black,” in the same way that Simon’s surname was “Peter.” Peter is a second name for the leader of the apostles; similarly, “Niger” is a second name for Simeon. Now, the question we must ask ourselves is the following: why would someone want to be called “Black” if he or she were another race? We know then, that Simeon called Niger was very likely a Black person of some African descent. “Niger” reminds us of “Nigeria,” an African territory that is predominately Black.
The second prophet and teacher present in the church at Antioch in Acts 13 is “Lucius of Cyrene.” Cyrene, being a northern Africa location, means that this Lucius, similar to other Cyrenians mentioned in Scripture, was, in all likelihood, an African, a Black man. Some say that these Cyrenians could be olive-skinned or Arab in their descent, but the chances of that are slim because a number of Africans in those days were darker-skinned due to their territory’s location to the sun.
Our study now brings us to the conclusion, the end of this undertaking regarding the Black History of the Bible and Black People of the Bible.
If we’ve learned anything from this study, we’ve learned that first, Black people, contrary to many racial stereotypes out there, were not all poor and of no status; in many cases, Ethiopians or Africans served in the military as commanders, or served dignitaries as servants with others under them and some considerable wealth. Others were servants in the early church, and in one particular case, one was the second wife of Moses who faced racism from Moses’ sister Miriam and brother Aaron.
Regardless of their plight, however, the Lord never shunned Ethiopians, Africans, or Blacks from coming to Him and being saved. Even in the Old Testament in the case of Ebed-Melech, the servant to Judean king Zedekiah, the Lord still saved him and spared his life because he trusted in the Lord. And in the New Testament, we see Ebed-Melech’s counterpart in the Ethiopian eunuch who, though a God-fearer, was one who still hadn’t heard the gospel. Phillip preaches the gospel to this Ethiopian eunuch who served under the Ethiopian Queen, Candace, and he gets saved and baptized and leaves the desert rejoicing in his newfound salvation. God doesn’t turn Blacks away from salvation, and welcomes all who come to Him.
This is a message worth contemplating in light of the racism and racial stereotypes that still exist in our society today. Charlottesville, Ferguson, and a number of other tragedies remind us that, despite the marches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and despite the Civil Rights Movement where Rosa Parks sat on the bus and refused to give up her seat to a white man, or despite the sit-in of teenagers who decided they wouldn’t go to the back of the restaurant, despite the bloodshed, beatings, and assaults that Black people have taken in themselves in order to fight for justice, racism still exists. I’ve been a victim of racism, even at a public university such as The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I had to deal with two racist roommates who simply didn’t like me because of the color of my skin — nothing more. And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I faced racism as a student at a seminary that claimed to uphold, teach, and preach the Word of God, and from none other than the Dean of Students himself! Again, racism still exists, even in so-called conservative evangelical circles. The Bible has always told us that racism is wrong, but we’ve not always read the truth or listened to it.
If Paul were here, he’d respond to racism the same way he responded to the topic of circumcision and its necessity for salvation in his letter to the Galatians. I can’t say it any better than him:
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)
Paul says that, in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” Jews and Greeks were ethnic opposites: Jews dwelt in Jerusalem, Israel as a whole, or had ties to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob genetically; Gentiles did not, and were considered to live in other nations outside of Israel. Even in the Old Testament, the Lord allowed the alien to live and reside among His people (provided that they adhered to God’s Law), but even in the New Testament, the Jews struggled to accept the Gentiles because their way of life differed from the Jews. We see their struggle to accept the ethnically-opposed in Paul’s confrontation to Peter:
11 Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; 12 for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.
14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?15 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16 knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:11-16)
Paul had to confront Peter (both apostles) because of Peter’s “flip-flopping” and wavering when it came to eating with Jews and Gentiles. With Jews out of sight, Peter would eat with the Gentiles; when the Jews appeared, he abandoned the Gentiles and ate with the Jews. In other words, he was simply being hypocritical; Paul even names Barnabas as part of the hypocrisy of Peter and the Jews (Galatians 2:13).
When it came to the Jerusalem Council, the issue of circumcision came back to the surface, and Peter had to actually oppose some publicly because some believed the Gentiles needed to be circumcised to be saved (Acts 15:1-21). They couldn’t accept that Gentiles didn’t need to follow their ethnic customs to be saved because, in Christ, all are equal. This is what Paul wrote the Galatians.
And today, if Paul were here, he’d say, “There is no Jew nor Greek, there is no White nor Black, for you all are one in Christ Jesus.” Paul would tell us that skin pigmentation or the color of one’s skin is irrelevant to where one is in Christ. We all have sinned and continually fall short of the glory of God, and we all need the grace of God. Being White or being Black doesn’t get one special privileges in the faith before God. The Lord accepts all who come to Him, and He doesn’t place priority on one race being “superior” to other races. Only in society is racism a living thing. Only in society do we distinguish according to race, requiring people to declare if they’re “Black,” “White,” “Arab,” or “other,” for example.
I was once told that Christianity is “a white man’s religion,” but the person who said that hasn’t read the Scriptures. In them, we find that Ethiopians, Africans, and Blacks are loved by the Lord and accepted by Him. And, if God could accept Ethiopians as God-fearers in the Old Testament, and Jesus, a Middle Eastern, Palestinian Jew, could love Africans and Ethiopians in the New Testament, and if an African was worthy enough to carry the cross of our Savior, then who are we to hate blacks and deem whites superior to them?
It may be hard to stomach for some, but racism is not of God, and if anyone claims to be a Christian and doesn’t love his African, Ethiopian, and Black brothers and sisters, then the love of God is not in him or her. For Blacks, just like Whites, bear the image of God and are made in His image after His likeness. And the same Holy Spirit that dwells in White believers dwells in Black believers as well. There is no respecter of persons, even racially, when it comes to God.