African American Criticism

"Africans not only have a presence in the Israelite poetic and narrative materials — indeed, those materials show that Israel held African nations and individuals in very high regard."

Randall C. Bailey, "Beyond Identification: The Use of Africans in Old Testament Poetry and Narratives," in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation. Cain Hope Felder, Editor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991): 183


The academic discipline of biblical studies has historically been pretty Eurocentric. Thankfully diversity in the field has increased as of late, even though this increase has been slight. We recognize that the discipline would be better off with more perspectives.


Right you are Jeff! And with that said, we want to bring to your attention a relatively new perspective in the discipline of biblical studies. This powerful critical method is most often called African American criticism, though the name is like totally not perfect. That is, you don't have to be an African American to utilize this critical method. We thought about calling it African American/ French/ Belgian/ Indonesian/ Chinese/ (and all those other countries) Criticism, but it sounded sort of, what's the word? ...wordy, I guess. In any case, we invited our friend Simon of Cyrene, that dude who carried Jesus' cross, to help us better explain the critical method.

Hey BibleDudes! Thanks for inviting me. This critical method focuses on how authors of the Bible portrayed Africa and Africans. And let me be the first to tell you, it's mostly quite positive. While the biblical authors didn't know about ALL of Africa, they do write about Cush, Ethiopia, Cyrene, Sheba, and of course Egypt. For the biblical authors, these nations were the southern boundaries of the world that they knew. And, these African nations were famous for many things, one of them being wealth. Isn't that right, Hagar?

[Simon of Cyrene][Map]


Right you are, Simon. African nations are generally portrayed as rich in the Bible. Thus, Isaiah talks about the material goods belonging to African nations such as Ethiopia and Sheba, as well as "the wealth of Egypt" (45:14). That's probably why the authors of the Abraham story said that I, an Egyptian, was the maidservant of Sarah. The authors wanted to show just how rich and powerful the guy was, so they said Ol' Abraham possessed a slave from the wealthiest nation they could think of. It would be sort of like today saying that some dude who works for Bill Gates is from Beverly Hills! Ancient Egypt was famous for other things as well in the Bible. Whenever people in the region ran out of food, they always turned to the Nile Valley for help. That's exactly what Jacob's kids did when they got hungry in Genesis (42:2; 43:2).


In fact, Egypt was called the breadbasket of the ancient world, since even during times of famine in other parts of the ancient world, Egypt usually had food due to the regular inundations of the Nile. African nations were also famous for their wisdom. Thus it was me, an African queen, who showed up and verified that Solomon was such an intelligent man (1 Kings 10). The story would have had less of an impact if the leader of an intellectually inferior nation showed up and declared "Duh, he smart."


My darlings, I would like to raise two additional points if I might. First, Egypt was famous for having a powerful military (e.g. Hosea 7:11). Second, the first gentile to convert to Christianity in the New Testament was from Ethiopia (Acts 8). So, in a nutshell, African American criticism examines the Bible to determine what biblical authors had in mind when they referred to Africa and Africans. And as we've seen, the biblical authors were impressed.


Yeah Yeah, so Africa by and large is portrayed positively in the Bible. But, from the title "African American Criticism" I thought we were going to learn about race, and talk about all those Black Africans in the Bible, like Jesus and Moses.


Well, it's quite a bit more complicated than your presentation. First, race as a concept did not exist in the ancient world of the Bible. The ideas about race evolved later, and would have been totally foreign to people in antiquity. To help explain this, I invited my friend Ramesses the Great, a famous pharaoh from Egypt, to ask him a question: Ramesses, are you a member of the black or white race?


What do you mean, am I black or white?!? I am Ramesses the Great, king of upper and lower Egypt, conqueror of the many lands, Beloved of Horus, wearer of the double crown...


So you see, Jesus and Moses and all the other characters in the Bible were neither black nor white. People in antiquity, fortunately for them, weren't burdened by our own racial cultural baggage. They identified themselves by nationality and ethnicity, not by the color of their skin. That being said, Jesus and Moses would in no way have qualified as white using the racist criteria employed during segregation in the United States or apartheid in South Africa.


That's an awesome point Jeff. It reminds me of all the bogus ways that the Bible has been interpreted to try to justify terrible racial prejudices. For example, God gives Cain a protective mark in Genesis 4:15, and most scholars like think that was a tribal tattoo. And just a few chapters later in Genesis 9:25 Noah wakes up angry and tells his boy Ham "Cursed be Canaan," who would one day be Ham's son. That story is clearly an etiology about why the Israelites hated the Canaanites so much. Some pretty stupid people would later use both of these stories to claim that people with dark skin were cursed. They even like used these stories to justify slavery. How BOGUS is that?


Pretty bogus indeed, and I should know, cuz I'm like the smartest dude that ever lived. Just ask Sheba. There is a famous example that shows how a cultural bias about race influenced translations of the Bible. In Song of Songs 1:5, I describe my lover as "dark and beautiful." Translators of an earlier generation interpreted the conjunction as "but" — thus "dark, but beautiful."

So translators, please quit disrespecting my girlfriend!


It would seem, my darlings, that another important part of African American criticism is not only to see how Africa is presented in the Bible, but also how the Bible has been misrepresented by others in its representation of Africa and the people who live there.


So, maybe you've heard that Jesus had red hair, or that his hair was woolly, or perhaps you want to see our best guess as to what Jesus looked like... If so, click here. Otherwise, that's it for the criticisms! In the next section, we'll get to the Bible. Yahoo!