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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: The Reader’s “Social Location,” by Craig S. Keener

But for the purposes of modern Africans who ask the question, it makes sense to include everything from northern to southern Africa. One Eurocentric scholar objects to African writers who want to include ancient Egypt as part of their heritage, but then curiously claims ancient Greece as part of his heritage–even though he is from a northern European area that the Greeks barely knew and regarded as utterly barbaric!

We can look first at ancient Nubia, an empire which existed from perhaps as early as 3000 BC and which nearly all scholars today agree was an African empire whose people were quite dark in complexion. This kingdom is typically called “Cush” in the Hebrew Old Testament, sometimes translated “Ethiopia”; the term refers not solely to modern Ethiopia but to all of Africa south of Egypt. In some periods of Egypt’s history the Nubians conquered Egypt and Nubian Pharaohs reigned on its throne; one of these was Tirhakah, ally of the righteous king Hezekiah in the Bible (2 Kings 19:9). Moses also married a Cushite, or Nubian wife; when his sister complained, God struck his sister with leprosy temporarily to teach her a lesson (Num 12:1-10). King David had a courier who was Nubian (2 Sam 18:21). One of Jeremiah’s closest allies (and Jeremiah had very few) was not a native Judean but was an African immigrant who worked in the royal court (Jer 38-39). It is also possible that Zephaniah the prophet (Zeph 1:1, if “Cushi” here means “a Cushite,” a possible reading of the Hebrew) and some other figures in the Old Testament were African immigrants adopted into Israel. With Egypt, Nubia was expected to come to recognize the one true God someday (Ps 68:31; cf. Is 19:24-25).

Egypt plays one of the most prominent roles in the Bible, appearing there far more often than Rome. Some nineteenth century European ethnographers, cognizant of Egypt’s great accomplishments but biased by racism, doubted that the Egyptians were of dark complexion. But a survey of ancient Egyptian artwork shows that, at least in that period, Egyptians were typically of reddish-brown complexion and some were quite dark (especially those in the south, toward Nubia). But unbiased by modern prejudices, different complexions mixed freely in Egypt, producing what is often called an “Afroasiatic” population from the intermarriage of Asiatics and Africans.

Such mixing actually affected ancient Israel. Joseph’s wife Asenath, mother of the tribes Ephraim and Manasseh, was Egyptian (Gen 41:45, 50; 46:20). The “mixed multitude” that left Egypt with Israel (Ex 12:38) included those of Egyptian blood, but given the multitude’s behavior in the wilderness, they may not be our favorite models! On the other hand, most of the Israelites probably had some Egyptian blood. Many of Abraham’s servants were gifts from Pharaoh (Gen 12:16), passed on to Isaac (25:5) and Jacob (27:36); though only 70 direct descendants of Jacob went to Egypt (46:27), the number of servants may have been even larger. When Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites (Ex 1:11), it is not likely that he freed their servants; rather, the servants became part of Israel.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2006

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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