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Cush was a kingdom to the south of Egypt.

Jacob Jordaens, Moses and his Ethiopian Wife (detail), ca. 1645, oil on canvas, 116.3 x 114 cm. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In biblical texts, the Hebrew word Cush appears to refer to any land south of northern Egypt, which could include present-day Ethiopia or Sudan. Indeed, some modern translations even use the term Ethiopia to translate the underlying Hebrew term (e.g., the NRSV). The implication is that this land was a kingdom to the south of Israel, but it was not Egypt and its inhabitants were not Egyptian. In most instances, biblical texts use Cush (the land) and Cushites (the people) neutrally to describe the physically black people living in the south; however, the term takes on a negative connotation in prophetic literature and postbiblical interpretation.

What do we know about the ancient land of Cush?

During biblical times, the land of Cush gained independence from Egypt and functioned as its own kingdom, even conquering Egypt in the eighth century BCE. Assyria, however, conquered Cush in the seventh century BCE and took away its Egyptian territory. Cush nevertheless remained an independent kingdom until the fourth century CE.

How do biblical texts understand Cush?

In the biblical canon, the word Cush first appears in Gen 10, with a person named Cush listed as the first son of Noah’s son Ham. The term is then used to describe any number of individuals and people from the land of Cush. Moses’s new wife in Num 12, for instance, is a Cushite, as is the man who reports Absalom’s death to David in 2 Sam 18.

The land and its people also sometimes function in an adversarial role against Israel. In Isa 20:4, the prophet describes God’s coming judgment against the nations by stating that Cushite exiles will walk barefoot and literally butt-naked to Assyria. According to Zeph 2:12, God’s judgment will be realized when God kills the Cushites directly. Isaiah 43:3 describes God as utilizing Cush as a ransom for God’s beloved Israel, with Isa 45:14 claiming that the Cushites’ wealth will become the property of Israel, soon to end their own exile in Babylon. Negative or positive, the presence of Cush and Cushites in the Hebrew Bible indicates that the kingdom and its people were an integral part of the larger world of the ancient Near East.

How has Cush been understood in postbiblical interpretation?

Cush and Cushites also have played a role in US biblical interpretation. Cush’s listing as one of Ham’s sons in Gen 10 became a primary biblical rationale for the justification of African slavery in the antebellum US South. By arguing that the curse of Canaan in Gen 9, which condemned Canaan to slavery, actually applied to Ham, Christian proslavery apologists could then argue that the Bible sanctioned the enslavement of African peoples.

In contrast, African American Christians drew upon Ps 68 to create a sense of belonging. Psalm 68:30–31 states that God will scatter “the nations who delight in war. Envoys will come from Egypt; Cush will submit herself to God.” For readers like Richard Allen (the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church) and David Walker (an American abolitionist), Cushite submission was not a sign of God’s judgment but a sign that African peoples belonged in God’s family. Later, pan-African movements led by Marcus Garvey and religious movements, such as Rastafarianism and Ethiopianism, embraced Cush as a way to unify people of African descent. Additionally, modern African American biblical scholarship took on an investigation of the word Cush to uncover a black presence in the Bible.

Cush’s appearances in the Bible indicate the significance of black people and territory in the political and geographical intrigues of the ancient Near East, a significance that continues to be studied today.

  • Davis-Stacy

    Stacy Davis is Professor of Religious Studies and Theology at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, IN. She is the author of Haggai and Malachi in the Wisdom Commentary Series (Liturgical Press, 2015), an associate editor of The Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Fortress, 2009), and the forthcoming Westminster John Knox Bible.