I spent the last week of February teaching Old Testament at the newly-formed Trinity Fellowship Pastors College in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia is by far the oldest nation I’ve visited, one of the few Old Testament nations still on the map. Its existence is a theological fact, testimony to the reliability of God’s promises.
According to the “primeval history” of Genesis, descendants of Cush settled the area that is now Ethiopia and Sudan soon after the flood. The Da’amat Empire was established in the tenth century b.c. by Menilek I, reputedly the son of Solomon and Makeda, queen of Sheba. According to the Kebre Negast (“The Glory of the Kings”), which was compiled in the fourteenth century a.d., Queen Makeda made a pilgrimage to Israel to learn statecraft from Solomon, who seduced her. Makeda conceived and went home to give birth to her son. As a boy, Menilek visited his father in Jerusalem, where Solomon anointed him as king of Ethiopia. As retribution for the humiliation of his mother, Menilek stole the Ark of the Covenant and levitated it across the Red Sea to Ethiopia, where it purportedly remains to this day. It’s a persistent national myth. Until Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, Ethiopian leaders claimed to be sons of Solomon, lions descended from the Lion of Judah.
There’s nothing of this legend in Scripture. To ancient Israelites, Ethiopia wasn’t an ally but an uncanny and terrifying threat. Cush’s son Nimrod founded Nineveh and Babylon (Gen. 10:8–12), cities that later conquered Israel. Aaron and Miriam objected when Moses took a Cushite wife (Num. 12:1). During the reign of King Asa, Zerah the Cushite came over the southern horizon to invade Judah with hundreds of chariots and a million-man army (2 Chron. 14).
Against this background, the heroism of Ebed-Melech is all the more notable (Jer. 38). Ebed-Melech was a Cushite eunuch who served in the court of King Zedekiah during the last days of Judah. The prophet Jeremiah counsels Zedekiah to surrender to Babylon. Enraged by this message, Jerusalem’s officials force Zedekiah to approve their plan to put the traitorous prophet to death. Like Joseph, Jeremiah is tossed into a muddy cistern without water, left to die of thirst.
Ebed-Melech bursts onto the scene as an unexpected deliverer. As the wonderfully-named Deusdedit Musinguzi points out in a monograph on the passage, Ebed-Melech is a model of compassion, justice, and courage. Though a foreigner, he charges Jerusalem’s leaders with “evil” in open court, and persuades the king to let him pull Jeremiah up from the pit. Ebed-Melech’s name, “Servant of the King,” indicates he’s Zedekiah’s servant, but he proves himself loyal to the King. As a Gentile deliverer, he foreshadows Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus. He literally rescues Jeremiah from death, raising him from beneath the earth, a figure of the Spirit who brings a greater Prophet from the grave. In every way, Ebed-Melech is the antithesis of the corrupt Jewish courtiers, a Gentile without Torah who keeps the Torah written on his heart (Rom. 2:14–15).
Ebed-Melech is firstfruits of a great harvest from the land of Cush. According to Orthodox tradition, Christianity came to the country in the late third century through two shipwrecked Syrian boys, the brothers Aedisius and Frumentius, who were brought to the court of the Axum emperor. Through their faithful service, the boys rose to high positions, and their witness convinced the emperor to become a Christian. In 305, the emperor’s successor sent Frumentius to Alexandria to ask the patriarch—none other than Athanasius—to send a bishop to Axum to promote evangelism and church construction. Athanasius ordained Frumentius, who returned to baptize Emperor Ezana, who made Christianity the official religion of his empire. Ethiopia is among the oldest of Christian nations.
In Acts, Luke tells us that Christianity arrived in Ethiopia already in the early first century. The first known Gentile to be baptized was another Ethiopian eunuch, a latter-day Ebed-Melech, who meets Philip in a Spirit-arranged encounter on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8). Though “cut off” like the Suffering Servant in the text he reads, the Ethiopian eunuch becomes fruitful, with a place in the house of his God (Isa. 56:1–8; Deut. 23:1–5).
Already in the old covenant, when the very name “Cush” could send chills down Israelite spines, the Lord promised he would one day adopt Ethiopia as a “home-born” son and a child of Zion (Ps. 87:4). One day, he promised, Cush would bring tribute to Jerusalem (Isa. 45:14). These promises form the story arc of Ethiopia’s long history. Every time you see Ethiopia is still on the map, you’re seeing real-world proof of the faithfulness of God.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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Photo by gill_penney via Creative Commons. Image cropped.