Who Were the Cushites in the Bible?

Moses is said to have married a Cushite woman.
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The Bible makes many references to a people known as the "Cushites," implying they are the descendents of Noah's grandson Cush, who inhabited the "Land of Cush" in Old Testament times. Scholars today are still debating the historical identity of the Cushites. Many of the Bible's references appear to point to peoples of northeastern Africa, a region historically called Ethiopia, but other mentions seem to be of people from altogether different places.

1 Northern Arabians

Certain passages in the Hebrew Bible refer to Cushites living in northern Arabia, a region of the Middle East separated from Africa by the Red Sea. These Cushites are sometimes associated with the land of Midian, which was also in that region. Some research indicates that the nearby Assyrian Empire referred to a people in northern Arabia as the Kusi, and it is possible this name entered the Hebrew literature as "Cush" despite referring to a different group from the Cushites of other Biblical passages.

2 People of Babylon

Some passages in Genesis imply that the "Land of Cush" was in Mesopotamia, farther east from Arabia. Nimrod, a descendant of Noah's grandson Cush, was from the Mesopotamian region of Babylon, and some descriptions of the Land of Cush indeed seem to point to Mesopotamia. It is possible that this resulted from confusion with the Kassites, or "Kashshi," who ruled Babylon for several centuries.

3 Northeast Africans

Aside from the references to Arabia and Babylon, in most parts of the Bible the Cushites seem to be people of northeastern Africa. In fact, ancient Greek and Roman versions of the Bible usually translated "Cush" as "Ethiopian." The historical term "Ethiopia" was a general reference to the area south of Egypt, which was indeed home to an important ancient kingdom that the Egyptians called Kush.

4 Africans in General

To people in the ancient Middle East, Ethiopia was seen as a symbol of the darker-skinned people who inhabited the rest of the African continent. By this line of reasoning, some Jewish rabbinical literature uses "Cushite" to mean black African people in general. Some white Christians in the early U.S. took this further, asserting that black Africans were destined by God to be slaves. This was based on a racist interpretation of God's curse on the descendents of Ham, the son of Noah and father of the original Cush. Slavery advocates surmised that, like Cush and the Cushites, Ham's other descendents were also ancestors of modern black Africans.

Evan Centanni specializes in world cultures and human geography. He grew up in Oregon, but has since lived in two other countries and traveled to many more. Centanni is editor of Political Geography Now at www.polgeonow.com. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and linguistics from the University of Oregon.