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Africa’s presence in the Bible

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by Oscar Allen 18.FEB.11


Africa as a continent is not present in the Bible. Europe, Asia and America are not present either. However, powers and peoples of Africa are forceful factors in the books of the Hebrew Bible (OT) especially. Egypt dominates the place names in the Bible, and with Cush, the Nile Ethiopia, Nubia, Ramses, Memphis, Succoth, Libya, Alexandria and others, Africa’s territory has some 1500 references in the Bible.{{more}} But the numbers and statistics are only a part of the significance of Africa in the Bible. The political map (of families/genealogies) in Genesis chapter 10 – presented as the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth, is another approach to portray the significant peoples at the time, from a priestly point of view.

In one of his essays, Bible scholar R.S Surgitharajah offers us a modern political map that can also guide us into what the geopolitics of the Bible reveals. He writes:

Most of the Bible’s writings are (thus) set in an imperial context and are made to serve the militaristic, expansionist impulses of Israel and to respond to those of Egypt, Assyria, Persia and Rome.

Thus, Egypt is the first empire which the salvation history of the Bible has to embrace.


When the endangered clan/family of Jacob needed food supplies urgently, Egypt is their rescuer. Genesis 42. 1+2 puts it this way:

When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons. “Why do you keep looking at one another? I have heard”, he said, “that there is grain in Egypt; go down and buy grain for us there, so we may eat and not die”.

Now, Egypt and Egyptian had already been mentioned 50 times in Genesis before this rescue mission comes up, but this account is about Joseph, not about Egypt, and so Egypt remains in the background while the drama develops around the family.

But consider this. In the background of this drama is the food security capacity of Egypt. Egypt produces and stores surplus grain because it has irrigation technology across the Nile River, and the river begins deep in East Africa in Cush and the Sudan, so that its flow does not depend on Egypt’s rainfall. The Egyptian grain store is maintained because there is an efficient bureaucracy and civil service in Egypt. The store of grain also depends on the operation of a tribute system which collects a quantity of produce from those who cultivate, to be stored in the government warehouses. Genesis 47 . 19 recounts a remarkable plea by the cultivators, to Joseph, for them to become serfs, working government land for a share of the crop.


The point to note is the Egyptian civilization with the help of an immigrant – made – citizen rescued a family from extinction and made it become part of an imposing subculture because this African empire made room for others. And yet, the place of Africa in the Bible is usually in the background, you have to dig to find it. I have a study Bible with 29 maps in it, yet not one map depicts what the African landscape contributes to the Bible story – except the escape route which the Exodus took, with Moses! It is time for more Africans to bring African spirituality and insight to the salvation story in the Bible.

One of the constant themes in the Hebrew Bible is the notion that the Hebrew people have a fatal attraction to Egypt, as it they have not cut their navel string with the civilization where they were saved and born over. One prophet, Hosea, reports Yahweh as saying: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”. In fact, just as we have many Vincentians living in Brooklyn and Morvant and High Wycombe, during Bible times some cities in Egypt became an Israel Diaspora overseas/overland. It is no wonder that in Matthew’s gospel, when the child Jesus was threatened, the story goes that Joseph was told: ‘Run to Egypt and stay there’ in the Diaspora (Matt 2. 13). There is a strong caution, though, that the attraction to imperialist comfort is deadly, it can become almost a substitute for faith in God!

When the Assyrian empire laid its hands on and captured Israel, a whole rush of people fled over into Egypt. They took the prophet Jeremiah hostage, with them, as insurance (Jeremiah 42 – 44) There, in Egypt, Jeremiah promised them sword, fire and pestilence (44. 13-14) in return for their flight to and residence in Egypt instead of trusting the Lord for deliverance.

I have focused on the significance of Egypt in the Bible to some extent in this article. It is an appreciation of the geopolitics of faith. The next article will look at some lesser known persons from Africa who have a place in the Bible.