Christians in Cush
Updated: Mar 13, 2021
It's the tail end of Black History Month in the United States, and Isaiah 18 is a perfect chapter for showing some important facets of history that are too-often ignored in our world history classes.
I believe I briefly had some snippets of African history along the way, but to be honest, as an American kid growing up in the 1980s, my predominant view of Africa was probably the starving children of Ethiopia.
Never having learned that Ethiopia has experienced ferocious droughts with devastating frequency since 1965, I assumed that this country had always been in a state of disaster. Sadly, there is a certain level of "poverty porn" that has been used to drum up donations for these disaster situations. While the money might be very useful in the short term, the unintended consequences are the images that stay in our minds that may influence our views and behavior. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, "The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."
My quick research for a weekly blog will not be able to get me up-to-speed on the rich history of Ethiopia, but Isaiah 18 encourages me to try.
Isaiah 18 focuses on the kingdom of Cush, in northeast Africa. Ethiopia. However, the boundaries then were well beyond modern Ethiopia today, including parts of what is now Sudan and Somalia. Some modern Black churches have the word, "Abyssinia" in their name; this is a reference to the Ethiopian empire.
It was a major world power, and was a continuous empire from ancient times until 1974's communist overthrow of Haile Selassie. This 25th dynasty in the empire claims linear descent from King Solomon (remember the Queen of Sheba who seemed to be very "into" Solomon in her visit?), and Christian and Jewish symbols were incorporated into the country's coat of arms, throne, and motto, which was, "Ethiopia stretches her hands unto God."
It's unfortunate that the western world often learns very little about this rich history, and I grieve my own woeful ignorance. It's also unfortunate that white Christians often give very little focus to the various Biblical passages referencing Africa, if that location is not Egypt. Sadly, commentaries on Isaiah 18 largely spend time debating how much of this passage is about Cush and how much is about Assyria and Israel.
That issue notwithstanding, the beginning and end of the chapter clearly and directly addresses Ethiopia:
Woe to the land of whirring wings along the rivers of Cush, which sends envoys by sea in papyrus boats over the water. Go, swift messengers to a people tall and smooth-skinned, to a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers. (verses 1-2)
A few things are interesting to note here:
A focus on the land itself as well as the culture and its connections to Egyptian culture.
Probable reference to Cushites who arrived in Judah to entreat King Hezekiah to join them in resisting the Assyrians under Sennacherib. Ethiopia was a major world player.
Reference to physical beauty. Rather than the color-based racism that permeates modern times, the ancient world in the Middle East, Northern African, and Southern Europe had people of various shades interacting with one another. Thus, the primary designation here is not the shade of the skin, but the quality of being "smooth-skinned," which some translations render as, "tall and comely." Greek historian Herodotus said that Ethiopians were the "tallest and fairest of men." Slaves were not exclusively African and were typically procured through war and conquest.
As a side note, color-based racism seems particularly ridiculous among those of us with ethnic heritage from the Middle East or Southern Europe, where skin colors may actually be darker than those in Northern Africa!
The passage closes with this redemptive message for Cush, which promises that people in this country will come to worship the true God:
At that time gifts will be brought to the Lord Almighty from a people tall and smooth-skinned, from a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers--the gifts will be brought to Mount Zion, the place of the Name of the Lord Almighty.
Some wonder whether this passage was ultimately fulfilled in the events recorded in Acts 8:
"Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth...The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?"
It's a beautiful passage showing a high-level official studying the Hebrew Bible and then converting to Christianity. These events may be part of the fulfillment of Isaiah 18; however, Ethiopian Christianity goes so much more beyond a single person.
Christianity has been the largest religion in Ethiopia since ancient times, and therefore is one of the first countries to have adopted Christianity. Ethiopia therefore has a longer Christian heritage than most other locations in the world. It is also the only African region to continue its Christian tradition after Islam expansion.
While there are estimated to be 32-36 million Ethiopian Christians, Ethiopian has largely been isolated from the rest of Christianity, partly due to being surrounded by Islamic nations. The head of the Ethiopian church is appointed by the Coptic church in Egypt, and so these two nations continue their cultural interconnections. Ethiopian Christianity is notably observant of Jewish traditions reflected in the Old Testament, such as male circumcision and purity and dietary practices. Finally, Ethiopia has the 2nd largest number of Orthodox Christian believers in the entire world.
What's my take-away from all of this? First, I know that many in the United States and elsewhere view Christianity as a white religion. It's simply not factually true. The origins of this religion are the Middle East. The spread of it was a radius in each direction coming out of the Middle East. Continuous Christian traditions can be found still today from those early evangelistic efforts. It's wonderful that Christianity eventually spread to western Europe and the Americas, sometimes through means that were not at all optimal but which God used to spread knowledge of His Word. However, just because the American church tends to be segregated along color lines does not mean that this is what Christianity looked like historically or even what it looks like in the rest of the world.
Lifeway Research has a helpful article on this (https://lifewayresearch.com/2020/06/10/10-encouraging-trends-of-global-christianity-in-2020/). Some key points:
Approximately 640 million Christians live in Africa and 604 million live in Asia, compared to the 544 million Christians living in Europe.
77% of Evangelical Christians live in the southern Hemisphere.
At the current rate of Christian growth in Africa, there will be 1.3 billion African Christians by 2050.
I need to reframe the images I have of what Christians look like, and I also need to change my view of myself solely as someone called to minister to others. There is much that I can learn from Christians worldwide, particularly those whose Christianity looks quite different from American Christianity. Will you join me in this exploration?
Update: As events continue to unfold in the current Tigray War in Ethiopia (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/05/world/africa/ethiopia-tigray-conflict-explained.html),
it's an opportunity to keep this region in prayer.