Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia
Religion and culture are a pair that walk hand in hand in many parts of the world. Hence, you would find that in some countries, you cannot tell the dominant religion apart from the culture of the people. Especially, in the Middle East. It is easy to conclude that their culture is their religion and vice versa. This is why some Africans are of the view that the introduction of Christianity on the continent meant more than the rise of a new religion in Africa; it was the death of the African culture as well. And this is true to a very large extent. Was it not possible for our forefathers to receive the gospel and still hold on to their cultural values? Did they have to change their names and their way of life too just to become Christians? I have personally been asked questions bordering on this topic so many times, that is why the very day I heard Dr. Otabil had written a book entitled ‘Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia’ I knew I had to read it. After three or more years of trying to lay my hands on it, I finally read it this year and I hope you learn a lot from my review.
The opening chapters of the book deal with the sense of inferiority to white people some black people have. Black people globally are discriminated against purely because of the color of their skin. Not because they are not good enough, not economically sound, not mentally capable … but because of the hue of their skin. Hearing the same thing over and over again and seeing it portrayed in the media almost makes it entrenched in your sub-conscious mind as the truth. It was until recently that I realized how much racist ideologies were even propagated through some movies I watched while growing up and even some cartoons. Growing up, in the sort of cartoons I used to watch, you would often find that whenever a white character was lost in a thick forest, cannibals whose faces were painted black would abduct the said character. You would find them boiling water (or soup) on fire in a big black pot, cutting carrots and other vegies into it and rolling their victim on a stake over the hot steaming water. While all this went on, the other tribesmen would be dancing around the fire in wait for their meal to cook. It was until recently that I realized that those cannibals being portrayed in the cartoons were a misrepresentation of black people as primitive, dangerous, almost animal-like etc. This is why I was particularly excited to see Otabil state that ‘the spirit of racism thrives on misinformation and stereotyping. Instead of portraying people in the likeness of God, it seeks to devalue the worth of people…’. The whole world needs to understand that different doesn’t mean inferior, neither does different always mean better. The unfortunate truth is that the very people bent on portraying black people as less than what God made us to be are the ones controlling the media globally. Hence, it presents a serious challenge for us in our bid to redeem our image.
The bible indeed says that ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’. However, it is evident that Christians who are expected to know the truth by heart are also victims of lies told about the black race. This is a theme that is extensively treated throughout this book (and I will touch on it later on). One other fact I found intriguing about this book is that Dr. Otabil took time to address the issue of injustice vis-a-vis biblical justice. The topic of Biblical Justice is my newly found love hence it makes me excited to discover it being addressed in the book. Otabil said ‘whenever God comes to town he visits the oppressed to set them free’. He stated this in relation to what God did for the Israelites after they had been in captivity for over 400 years. He goes on to mention that it is an observable fact that kingdoms and nations are being shaken for whatever purpose God deems fit. Prophetically, Otabil declared that God is going to visit the black race to bring the people out of the state they are in (just like he did for the Israelites).
I often get questioned on Christianity’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the crusades and other heinous deeds of some Christians in past centuries who were convinced they were following the commands of God. I often feel ashamed when these topics come up. Dr. Otabil made it worse by stating that ‘it is just a shame to know that the pillars of apartheid were built on the teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church’. If you know a little about apartheid and the extent to which it destroyed lives in South Africa, then you would be as ashamed as I am that Christianity had a role to play in it. Otabil proposes a solution, he calls it the ‘anti-oppression serum’. He explains that it takes the preparation of an anti-snake-poison serum from a snake to fight snake poison. The same way Moses had to raise a bronze serpent in the wilderness, that whosoever would look upon it would be healed from the snake bite. So the author believes that if Christianity has been (ab)used in the past to oppress people and nations, we need to regard that as an abuse of the tenets of Christianity and come to the understanding that at the core of Christianity is the greatest freedom fighter of all time. Only he can deliver and truly set a man free.
The father of many nations
The greater part of the book deals with Abraham and his lineage. Otabil traces some African nations back to Abraham and this is very significant in understanding whether or not Africans are cursed. There are a lot of people who believe that – even including preachers. This assertion is drawn from the story of Noah and his 3 sons. It is a popular story. Noah got drank and he stripped himself naked, his son Ham chanced on him in that state and proceeded to tell his two brothers about it. Shem and Japheth, the brothers of Ham, decided to cover their father’s nakedness without looking at him, so they held a cloth at both ends and walked backwards to cover him up. It is often said that when Noah became sober afterwards he cursed Ham. Ham is believed to be the forefather of some African nations therefore many people think it means the black race is cursed.
First of all we need to understand that in Gen 9:1 God blessed Noah and his sons and told them to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth. Which means all three sons including Noah were all blessed. After the incidence involving Ham and his father’s nakedness, Noah was angered and he decided to punish Ham. According to scripture, Noah didn’t curse Ham, he rather cursed Canaan, Ham’s son. Why? Because there was no way Noah’s curse could undo the blessings God had pronounced over Ham. Throughout the bible, we know who the Canaanites were. They weren’t from Africa (although some Africans ended up in Canaan with the Israelites). The blessings the Lord spoke over Ham and his two brothers still stands.
Back to Abraham. God promised him he would make him the father of many nations. He had two sons with Sarah and Hagai. Otabil said:
Between Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham fathered two nations which does not really impress me as many. If Abraham was the father of many nations, then there were other nations he fathered.
Abraham remarried after Sarah died. He married Keturah and had 6 children with her (Gen 25:2). It isn’t stated explicitly in scripture what race Keturah belonged to. But when we study her lineage, the truth can be uncovered. It turns out that she had a son called Jokshan and he had two sons Sheba and Dedan. In Gen 10:7, these two young men were referred to as the sons of Cush. Which means they were blacks, automatically meaning that their grandmother, Keturah, was black. This is significant information. The nations that God promised Abraham would father included some African nations. Which means, they were also blessed after the order of Abraham.
After Moses ran away from Egypt he was taken in by Jethro in the land of Midian, meaning Jethro was a Midianite. Midian was one of the sons Abraham had with Keturah, therefore, Jethro too was of Cushite descent or black. It is interesting how the bible describes him as a priest – presumably a priest of Jehovah. How can a Midianite become a priest unto Jehovah? The answer is in Gen 18:19 when God said ‘For I know him (Abraham), that he will command his children and his household after him and they will keep the way of the Lord…’. Abraham instilled the fear of the Lord in his descendants and this was probably why Jethro was a priest. And if you are familiar with the story of Moses in the wilderness, you would realize that it was Jethro who taught Moses the ways of God and gave him wise counsel (Exodus 18). Jethro was a black man. We are sure of this because Moses married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah and we are told explicitly that she was Ethiopian (Numbers 12:1). Black people were very much involved in the journey to the promise land and black people ended up in the promise land as well (Judges 1:16). It is important for us to understand the prominent feats achieved by some black people in the bible. Even in the New Testament as well, the deeds of some black people were mentioned and we see the general highlighting of the black race. Here are a few examples:
- It was Simon of Cyrene(which is in modern day Lybia), who was charged to help Jesus carry his cross on the way to Calvary (Matthew 27:32)
- Before the gospel could reach other Gentile nations, God used Philip to preach to the Ethiopian Eunuch.
- In the church in Antioch, there were some prophets and teachers. They were the ones who laid hands on Paul and Barnabas and sent them out on their first mission trip. Amongst these prophets and teachers were two Africans: Simeon that was called Niger and Lucius of Cyrene.
Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia is an inspiring work of art that would enlighten black Christians and the entire body of Christ in general. It is very enlightening in the manner in which it reminds us of the prominent role some black people played centuries ago that had a global impact. This is how Dr. Otabil put it:
Whenever the world has been in a crisis, the black man has always appeared on the scene. After the flood, when the world needed a leader, He called Nimrod the son of Cush. When Moses was taken out of Pharaoh’s camp, it took a black man Jethro to teach him the ways of God. When the people of Israel were going to the Promised Land, it took a black man Hobab to direct them to the Promised Land.
The stories above are but a fraction of the great and mighty things our forefathers did in times past. If they did it, we can too. I would like to urge everyone who reads this piece to try and get the book to read; it is for sale on Amazon and also at Altar Bookshop, Christ Temple, ICGC – Abossey Okai. It will do you a lot of good. In the end, we have to accept the fact that God made man in his image, male and female made him them. We are all valuable and precious to God. History is proof of this. Hence we need to treat each other with respect and honor in reverence to God.