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Pile #7 Africa and the Bible by Edwin Yamaguchi

16 Jan

Africa And The Bible / Edwin M Yamauchi.  Foreword by Kenneth A Kitchen. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.  2004.  297 p. Includes bibliographic references and index.  [“Paperback published in 2006”]

The original review is here “Africa and the Bible”

One of the greatest disadvantages that contemporary readers and interpreters of the Jewish and Christian Bible (especially those of us in the Western Hemisphere) have is that we live at vast removes from the nations and times of the biblical text, which leads to a corresponding impoverishing of our understanding of the text and its meaning.  This is especially true of the relation of Palestine and Israel to surrounding nations, in particular the continent we know of as Africa.  But most readers lack the time, inclination, or patience to wade through dozens, if not hundreds or thousands of articles on history, archaeology, and anthropology, not to mention thematic commentaries, basic or specialized encyclopedias  (such as the Anchor Bible Dictionary)  or even, and especially, internet sites such as to acquire the necessary cultural background, and are usually content to read the text as is.

This does not mean that sources do not exist to help the interested lay-reader, preacher, or academic non-specialist. Many fine works exist, but again it is up to the reader to find and read it, which is where I come in, to present one such work to help the interested reader: Edwin Yamauchi’s Africa and the Bible, published by Baker Academic.  Dr.Yamauchi is professor of history emeritus at Miami University, Ohio.   His main fields of research interest are Ancient History, Old Testament, New Testament, Early Church History (including social and cultural history of early Christianity), Gnosticism, and Biblical Archaeology, which is well displayed in this volume, and the present volume is an outgrowth of research interests throughout his career. In addition to Africa and the Bible, he has written  Persia and the Bible, a companion volume, as well as other books on the archaeology of biblical times including  Archaeology of New Testament Cities in Asia-Minor, and other publications exploring the relationship of the Bible to the lands and people of Antiquity. Pertinent here, he has written extensively on the continent of Africa (among other works, he has edited Africa and Africans in Antiquity (2001).

Investigating and Interpreting Africa

Dr Yamauchi’s book offers to the general non-specialist, non-scholarly reader a volume of essays  that seeks to do three things: 1) explore the archaeological and history behind texts having Africa as a subject (as people or nations),  2) look at exegeses of these passages and 3) trace the ramifications of these exegeses through the centuries.  The first two aims he accomplishes quickly.  The third aim at times veers off and attempts to take over at times, without completely succeeding.

Africa and the Bible offers a taste of scholarship in the fields of archaeology, history and interpretations, and even anthropology, and consists of 8 chapters, an appended book review, a foreword, and a preface which treat of various references to Africans and nations of Africa in the Bible -most notably Egypt and the lands of Kush- along with photographs, maps and other illustrations to enhance the text.

This is however, not a unified narrative, but rather a collection of separate articles (some previously published in other venues) that explore themes of the place of Africa in the Bible.  Additionally, the concluding chapter and appendix concentrate on a contemporary cultural interpretive paradigm named ‘Afrocentrism’ that seeks to shake off an  Aryan (White or European) dominated understanding of history; and, at the least to restore the dignity of black peoples in the march of history, and at the extreme to replace it with an understanding centered on the achievements of Africa and black peoples especially in regard to biblical civilizations and personage.

History, Myth, and Legend in biblical Africa

Within the book, a number of articles debunk old beliefs about African locations for certain biblical personage.  Chapter one explores the strange reception of the “curse of Ham”; Chapter two investigates the identity of Moses’s “Cushite” wife, while chapter three is a discussion of Solomon and Africa, most notably his relations with the Queen of Sheba, and Sheba’s possible correlation with the kingdom of Sabba. Chapter 4 returns to Cushite matters looking at among other things, the Cushite pharaohs  of Egypt.

Chapters 5 and 6 form a pair of articles working with the kingdom of  Meroe in Arabia, and the “Ethopian” eunuch in the book of Acts that St. Philip from whence the Ethopian Church derives its claim to apostolic origins.

Chapter seven is an overview of the history and archaeology of Cyrene, framed around the question whether Simeon of Cyrene was black skinned.

His critical interactions are mainly with the extreme forms of Afrocentrism: a field of studies in which often ‘enthusiasm outruns knowledge’ as Kenneth Kitchen says in the Preface.  This happens in chapter eight, and the appended book review of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena.

The strengths of the book are the care and scholarship displayed in the individual articles, and in the introduction they give the interested reader to the history and environs of Africa of the ancient world in many cases Dr. Yamauchi provides helpful clarification of persons and countries, that provide support for biblical history.  Dr. Yamauchi marshals a great deal of evidence from multiple disciplines, archaeology and history, and one of the highlights of the book is his extensive, 44 page bibliography.

In terms of readability: Dr. Yamuchi is a scholar working with the fields of ancient and classical history, archaeology, anthropology, and biblical interpretation, of necessity he uses footnotes to add additional information not found in the body of the text but useful to the interested reader. At the same time, he takes care not to talk over the head of his potential readers, keeping his technical language to a minimum except for the unavoidable use of Egyptian, Lydian, Cyrenic, Cushite, and other national names and place-names. Anyone with at least a High School education (and perhaps some  brighter Middle School/Junior High School students) should be able to read, and enjoy this book.

Africa or Afro-centrism?

I find the two greatest weaknesses to be the aforementioned lack of a coherent unifying narrative and its lack of an overview article about Africa and the Bible,  and an apparently singular dialogue and focus on ‘Afro-centrism’ as the major alternative interpretative lens that Dr. Yamauchi engages with, which throws off the balance and, to me, appears misplaced in a work that aims to primarily deal with Africa as it was known in biblical times. This is not to say that Afro-centrism is not a worthy subject of study, or that it has no legitimate insights to bring to biblical interpretation. My concern is rather, one and a half chapters and a book review in a volume whose scope is Africa of antiquity and the Bible is not enough space to devote to such an all-embracing subject, nor do I think it was necessarily appropriate to spend as much time as he did it, it’s popularity among African and African-American scholars notwithstanding. The rest of the chapters deal with specific passages, their historical and archaeological contexts and their interpretations. Afro-centrism is an entire interpretative scheme for viewing history, as fulsome as Africa itself, as the foreword itself acknowledges.  Other reviews (most notably those found on also fault Dr. Yamauchi for spending too much time engaging Afro-Centrism, though interestingly, are divided as to whether he goes far enough in his criticisms or goes too far.

In the final analysis then, “Africa and the Bible” as an introductory survey to the lands of Africa, is a bit unsystematic, and falls short of being a critical introduction to the lands of Africa and their relation to Scripture (but then again, writing a critical introduction was not Dr. Yamauchi’s intention), though it serves well as a companion and background reading. As a reference work on individual texts and references, it can be an invaluable aid for enriching our knowledge of Africa in biblical times, especially with it’s bibliography, but it should not be considered a stand alone reference work.

A caveat for those wondering why this book note: This book came my way via a trip to  “Passages the exhibit’  -a traveling exhibit of the history of in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the Authorized Version a/k/a King James Version English translation of the Scriptures. (sponsored by the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame) -and my multiple perusals of the book section of the giftshop. This was one of the books offered for sale, along with Persia and the Bible, (which is on one of my numerous wish lists for future purchases), and I bought it thinking it would be a useful addition to my biblical studies reference library. If I had to do it over again, I would still have made the purchase, which I suppose says something about my eclectic reading nature.


And now we’re done with ancient (and modern Africa), and so I turn our eyes far away into the stars for our next Pile With the Lightnings, by David Drake, the first in his RCN series of spaced-age swashbucklers in uniform. Until then, my friends, keep reading!

edit on  January 18, 2013 for content (and minor grammar) prompted by comment on Facebook.