There are quite a number of African characters in the Bible. One of the earliest is the Queen of Sheba, a wealthy Ethiopian monarch who once visited Jerusalem to tap from the vast wisdom of King Solomon as recorded in 1 Kings 10.
The Queen of Sheba must have been a very affluent individual for the Bible says she brought camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold and precious stones.
By Ethiopian tradition, there was a union between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, resulting in the birth of Menelik. According to that tradition, Menelik once travelled to Jerusalem to see his father, who, as it turned out, was very delighted with him and tried to persuade him to stay in Jerusalem.
The son, however, chose to go back to Ethiopia whereupon Solomon arranged that a delegation comprising the sons of Israel’s elders accompany him on the long trip. The Ark of the Covenant travelled with them, and to this day many Ethiopians believe that the Ark is still in Ethiopia, residing in the Chapel of the Tablet next to the church of Maryam Tsion in Aksum.
Emperor Haile Selassie, who was the 225th and last emperor of Ethiopia, traced his descent to Menelik, and through him, to Solomon. He, therefore, claimed Jewish ancestry, as do numerous other Ethiopians. Many of such claims have nothing to do with the Queen of Sheba.
In my article of 2014, I featured an African tribe called Lemba, which claims Jewish ancestry, and practices many Jewish traditions such as circumcision. The Zimbabwe-based Lemba claim to have kept a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, which they call the Ngoma Lungundu (the drum that thunders). The artefact which, according to some carbon dating performed on it, is about 700 years old, recently went on exhibition in a Harare museum.
It appears Africans have historically had numerous contacts with the Holy Land. One of the recorded such contacts is from the time of the crucifixion. The gospels record that as Jesus was being led away to be crucified, the Roman soldiers made a man called Simon of Cyrene carry the cross upon which Jesus was to be crucified.
Cyrene was a coastal town in present day Lybia in North Africa, which had been used as a trade centre by the Greeks since the seventh century. It had a sizeable Jewish community, numbering about 100 000 during Jesus’ time. There was not any country called Lybia then, neither were there any Arabs in northern Africa at that time.
It is possible that Simon was of Jewish or Greek descent. However, this columnist believes that he was a dark coloured African. There were dark coloured people in that region of Africa then. I published an article titled ‘Africa’s glorious past’ some years ago. In that article, I discussed, among other issues, a black dynasty that ruled Egypt for close to 100 years—from 760 to 660 BC. It is a dynasty that is popularly referred to as the ‘Black Pharaohs’. The presence of dark-skinned people in North Africa was not an uncommon occurrence then.
Luke says, in the 23rd chapter of his gospel, that the soldiers “siezed” Simon of Cyrene as they led Jesus, and put the cross on him. Simon’s carrying of the cross was neither voluntary nor an act of sympathy. He was forced to carry it. Forcing Simon to carry the cross smacks of racism on the part of the Roman soldiers.
The Jews probably had no problems with dark-skinned people, which Simon of Cyrene very likely was, as they had interacted with them for millenea, but the soldiers from Europe had not had much experience with blacks.
When they saw Simon coming from the country, they must have noticed that he looked different from the rest of the people and forced him to carry the cross—an act of racism!
Searching within Scripture, one discovers that Africans were associated with the liberation of God’s people on at least two occasions. The Jewish liberator, Moses, married a black woman. Numbers 12:1 says: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman”. Now Cush (a name that was used interchangeably with Ethiopia) was the land to the South of Egypt where dark-skinned people lived. In Jeremiah 13: 23, we read: “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots?” This clearly shows that the Cushites had a different colour. The liberator of all mankind, Jesus, was also associated with an African, Simon of Cyrene.