When Philip the Evangelist met the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, he was reading from the prophecy of Isaiah. The eunuch was accompanying the queen of the Ethiopians. Because it’s kind of assumed today that everyone around the world has access to the Scriptures* we don’t really think much about how unique this event would have been. Who had access to Jewish Scriptures other than practicing Jews? Yes, there were practicing Jews outside of Judea during this time, but foreign royalty making pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to worship Yahweh at the Temple?
That’s rather unusual.
By Мастер Георгий – , Public Domain
But what if Judaism had been part of the Ethiopian kingdom long before. What if Ethiopia had a connection with Judah that had spanned for centuries? I’m going to talk about the Queen of Sheba in a later post (see letter Q in the near future), but it should be pointed out here that she visited Solomon and his palace. And she was in awe. Legend has it that she brought something back with her (you’ll read more about it later – I promise), but she also converted to Judaism during her stay in Jerusalem.
If this story has even just a little bit of truth to it, it would stand to reason that a strain of Judaism remained in the Ethiopian court over the centuries. And during subsequent trade and diplomatic efforts, copies of the Hebrew Scriptures would have found their way into the royal court.
Even if this is all conjecture and has no basis in historical fact or reality and I’ve completely misunderstood this part of Ethiopia’s connection with First Temple Judaism, there is one claim I know that is still made to this day…
Indiana Jones was wrong.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy races the Nazis to find the lost Ark of the Covenant in the Well of Souls in Egypt. The Ark ultimately winds up under the watchful eye of “top…men.”
The Ethiopian Orthodox church claims otherwise. They say it was never lost. There are different stories about how it happened – some say it was sent there during the fall of Jerusalem for safe-keeping. Others say it was stolen. It all depends on who you want to listen to. But Ethiopian Orthodox belief is that the Ark is safely enshrined in the Chapel of the Tablet in Axum, one of the oldest cities in Africa – and a former capital of Ethiopia.
By Adam Cohn – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
I think it’s safe to say that Ethiopia’s connection with Jerusalem runs very deep. Some even argue that Moses’ wife, Zipporah, was from Ethiopia. She certainly had dark skin. There’s even a small community of Jews living in Ethiopia. They’re known as Beta Israel, “house of Israel.” Although many members of Beta Israel left Ethiopia when the communist Derg was in power, there are several thousand who are still trying to move to Israel.
The connection between Ethiopia and early Judaism is fascinating to me. It reminds me that you never know what kind of impact you can have on someone else when it comes to matters of faith.
* According to Wycliffe Bible Translators, more than 180 million people don’t have access to any Scripture at all in their original language. More than 1.5 billion people don’t have access to the full Bible in their native tongue. So it’s safe to say that this assumption is wrong. There’s still work to be done.