Ethiopians (Cushites)

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Inhabitants of ancient Cush (Chus, Heb. kûš), the region between the first and the sixth cataract of the Nile, roughly equivalent to Nubia, i.e., the southern part of modern Egypt and the northern part of modern Sudan. The Septuagint called the Cushites Αθίοπες, which was the Greek term for all swarthy-skinned people south of Egypt; hence the terms Æthiopes in the Latin Vulgate and "Ethiopians" in the Douay Version of the Bible. But modern ethiopia, which is another name for Abyssinia, is far to the south of ancient Cush.

In several periods during the 3d and 2d millennia b.c., especially when the Egyptians had powerful Pharaohs, as in the 12th and again in the 18th and 19th Dynasties, Cush was made subject to Egypt, so that Egyptian culture exercised considerable influence on Cush. However, from about the 11th century onward Cush was an independent kingdom, with its capital at Meroë on the east bank of the Nile between the 5th and the 6th cataracts. In 716 b.c. its King Piankhi (751710) invaded Egypt and established there the 25th or Ethiopian Dynasty. His successors, who ruled both at Meroë and at thebes, Shabako (710696), Shebteko (696685), and Taharqo (685663), called themselves"Kings of Cush and Egypt." Although the conquest of Thebes in 671 b.c. put an end to Cushite rule in Egypt, Meroë remained the capital of an independent but ever-weakening kingdom until the 4th century of the Christian Era.

While the kindred terms Cush/Cushites and Ethiopia/Ethiopians occur at least 30 times in the OT, a single reference occurs in the NT (Acts 8.26-40). The terms have a geographic and ethnographic reference. According to the Table of the Nations, Cush was a descendant of Ham (Gn 10.8) and the ancestor of several peoples in southern Arabia (Gn 10.9). According to Gn 2.13, "all the land of Cush" was encircled by the Gihon, one of the four legendary rivers of paradise. Because of the union of Cush and Egypt in the 8th and 7th centuries b.c., the Prophets often mention Cush in connection with Egypt (Is 20.35; 43.3; 45.14; Ez 30.4, 9) or with Phut and Libya (Jer 46.9; Ez 30.5; Na 3.9).

The literary characterization of Ethiopians/Ethiopia in the Bible is variegated. Amos 9:78 portrays Ethiopians as a people living at a distance from Israel. While some commentators have assumed that this passage disparages the Ethiopians as an uncivilized nation of slaves, in fact, at the time of Amos' ministry (c. 750 b.c.), an Ethiopian dynasty ruled autonomously, and prosperously, in the Upper Nile Valley. Jer 13.23 makes a reference to the swarthy complexion of the Cushites: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard its spots?"perhaps a well-known proverb, framed as a rhetorical question. The prophet highlights the immutability of skin color as a hyperbole, to underscore the magnitude of Judah's intransigence.

Ethiopia is renowned in the OT as a land of valiant warriors and military strength (2 Chr 12.212; 14.813;16.78; Is 20.16; Jer 46.2, 89; Ez 38.45; Na 3.810) and is rich in wealth (Is 45.1415; Dn 11.43; Job 28.1719). Notwithstanding their reputation, elsewhere, for being a people far-distant from Israel's borders, the OT attests to the historical presence of Ethiopians within Israel/Palestine. They may have arrived there, originally, as war-captives, since Ethiopians frequently served as mercenaries in foreign armies, or possibly as diplomatic envoys (Is 8.17). In Israel, they served in the military (1 Sm 18.2123; 3132) and even married the indigenous Jews (Jer 36.14; Zep 1.1; Ps 7).

An Ethiopian, Ebed-melech, an official at the royal court in Judah, rescues the prophet Jeremiah from his punishment at the hands of King Zedekiah. The kindness of this outsider to the persecuted prophet dovetails another biblical theme concerning Ethiopians. The Prophets forecast their inclusion among the chosen people, when the Gentile nations gather at Mt. Zion to worship the God of Israel (Is 11.1011; Jer 39.1518; Zep 2.1012;3.910; Ps 68.2932; 87.17).

Acts 8.2639 recounts the conversion to Christianity of the treasurer of "Candace, Queen of Ethiopia." That Candace is not a personal name, but rather the title of all the queens of the Meroitic kingdom, indicates that the Ethiopian official stands as an emblem or ambassador for his entire nation, a Gentile people, to whom God has gratuitously extended, according to Luke-Acts, the promise of salvation.

Bibliography: m. stachow, "Do You Understand What You Are Reading" (Acts 8:30):A Historical-Critical Reexamination of the Pericope of Philip and the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40) (Dissertation, The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C. 1998). b. g. trigger, Ancient Egypt: A Social History (Cambridge 1983). j. a. fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible v. 31 (New York 1998).

[j. b. wheaton/eds.]