Black History in the Bible: Racism Then and Now

Cushite Warrior

“You there, Cushite, over here.”

The tall, lanky soldier, his smooth black skin glistening with the sweat of his exertions in the recent battle stepped forward to face his Commander-in-Chief.

“Sir?”

“Go tell the King what happened today.”

Joab had just killed Absalom, King David’s son after David gave strict orders to the army that no one should harm him. The commander of Israel’s armies was a ruthless and effective warrior who knew that as long as Absalom lived he would always be a threat to David’s throne. When the opportunity came, he did not hesitate to plunge his spear into the body of the King’s son as he hung by his long hair from a tree. Now he wanted someone to give the king the news but everyone there knew that this command was a likely death sentence for the messenger.  

Despite knowing the risk he was taking, Ahimaaz, a young Israelite, volunteered to carry the news to the king. Joab declined his offer and looked around for someone he regarded as unimportant. Someone he could sacrifice without remorse or regret. Ahimaaz was from a well-known Israelite family who Joab affectionately referred to as “my son.” “You won’t get the reward you think you’ll get today; Stay here and save your life” he warned Ahimaaz.

The Cushite upon receiving the order bowed his head and took off running in the direction of the city where David awaited news. He knew what his fate would likely be, but he had no choice. As a black man and a foreigner, they usually assigned to him the menial tasks, the most dangerous jobs, the worst accommodations, and the harshest punishments. Yet they expected him to perform at his best and carry out orders without hesitation. His skin color condemned him to this fate. Besides, he was part of a minority in Israelite society, largely poor, and treated as inferior. Ironically, though they saw him as an alien, the practice of circumcision as the sign of their chosen status was an ancient rite among his ancestors.

He paused for a moment to slake his thirst and recalled that among his people there were whispered stories of one like them who was the wife of Israel’s deliverer from Egyptian slavery. Indeed, the brother and sister of Moses challenged his fitness for leadership because of his choice of a black wife. But Yahweh showed his approval of Moses by striking Miriam with leprosy. Thus, while she looked upon Zipporah, Moses’ wife, as unfit to be in their company, she was removed from the camp for seven days because of uncleanness. With these thoughts he resumed his journey.

Moses and Zipporah

As he drew nearer to the king’s headquarters, his heartbeat increased, and he wondered if this was to be his last day on earth. He no doubt thought about his family and his home, The home of his ancestors, a strong and mighty Nubian nation known for their prowess in war especially their skill with the bow. Indeed, the Egyptians called it Ta Sety, “the land of the bow.” His elders spoke of the goldmines of Kush and the caravans of traders doing business in the great city of Kerma, then moving on to sell incense, ebony, ivory and other products from Kush in the Egyptian markets. Kashta, (meaning, “the Kushite”) may well have concluded, “if I survive this day, perhaps it is time to return home.”

Meanwhile, Ahimaaz succeeded in persuading Joab to let him run with the message to the king. He was known for his speed as a runner and taking a shortcut by way of the plain he overtook the Cushite and ran ahead of him. Ahimaaz however, was not motivated by any superior motive. He was confident that where others failed and lost their lives, he could succeed. He felt it was his best chance to get to the King’s notice and perhaps secure a promotion or an opportunity to advance himself.

As he came in sight of the city the watchmen scanning the horizon recognized him because of his running style and announced to the king that a messenger was approaching. The king anxiously awaited his arrival. The watchman then so another runner, the Cushite, and again announced his coming. Ahimaaz, panting, was brought into the King’s presence. David’s first question revealed his number one concern, “is Absalom safe?” Ahimaaz cleverly informed David of the fact that his army was victorious but that he did not know Absalom’s fate. With this lie he would leave the Cushite to bring the bad news about the death of David’s son. Just then the Cushite arrived and was ushered into the King’s presence. In answer to David repeated question he told the truth but described it in a way that he hoped would save his life. Most importantly, he did not claim any credit for the killing of the King’s son but declared, “may all the King’s enemies be as that young man.” The king, overwhelmed with grief retreated to his private quarters and wept aloud at the loss of his son.

Later that day when the Cushite returned to the camp and nightfall set in, he sat with his black brothers around the campfire and give thanks to Yahweh that his life was spared this day.

This story found in 2 Sam 18, reveals racisms long and baneful history. As I reflected on it, the similarity of its practice then and now struck me. It seems humankind has learned nothing about the futility and meaninglessness of this odious practice. The low value placed on black lives is evident now as then. Still, we must not give up the struggle for justice, dignity, respect, and equal rights.

Conroy Reynolds PhD is author of God in the Night: How to get through what you can’t get over

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