Our ancestors would not have recognised the categories of race that we navigate today. Tribal categories certainly existed and physical features were related to them, but they had their own contexts and complications. It is sometimes challenging to read ancient texts without being unduly influenced by our own societal expectations and experiences.
That being said, I have long been interested in the tribal profile of the prophet Zephaniah. Zephaniah, one of the lesser-known prophets of the Twelve Minor Prophets, was quite possibly a man we would recognise today as being mixed race.
According to Zephaniah 1:1, “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah, son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, during the reign of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah.”
Let’s unpack this unusual family tree. It is most unusual to get this much information about the history of a prophet; usually, the biographical information would be limited to the name of the prophet and his father, along with the name of the king to provide us with a time period.
The ancient Nubians (the people of Cush)
Sometimes, we don’t even get that much information. But here, Zephaniah’s name is followed by a list of four names: Cushi, Gedaliah, Amariah, and Hezekiah.
There are two great mysteries to Zephaniah’s introduction. First, the name of his father seems to be Cushi. This would be a very strange name indeed.
Cush was a geographical area in the biblical world; the Kingdom of Cush lay south of Egypt, in what is modern-day Sudan. (Cushi is, incidentally, used in modern Hebrew to refer to black people with pejorative connotations. It’s worth noting, however, that there are no value implications in the biblical term.)
The most linguistically intuitive way to read “Cushi” here is as a name, not as a description.
However, when we make the assumption that Cushi is the name of Zephaniah’s father, we must wonder why an Israelite man would be given this name.
It is, of course, equivalent to a parent of the Kingdom of Cush naming her child “Israelite”. It is especially interesting that the Cushite people are mentioned by Zephaniah twice later in the text (Zephaniah 2:12 and 3:10).
I find it difficult to believe that Cushi would be given such a name without a Cushite connection and that Zephaniah would be inclined to mention Cush multiple times if it were pure coincidence.
The most natural way to read this text, I think, is to assume that the man Cushi had Cushite heritage, perhaps through his mother’s line. This would give Zephaniah three Israelite grandparents and one Cushite grandparent.
While we should avoid imposing ideas of blackness and whiteness on to a society that held different understandings of tribe and ethnicity, we live in an active relationship with our texts. They do not, and should not, exist in some kind of cultural vacuum.
I am a mixed-race person and I see part of myself reflected in Zephaniah’s apparent mixed heritage.
What might it have meant for Zephaniah to navigate life as a prophet with heritage from another kingdom? Did it make a difference to his life and perspective? Did he see himself as connected in some way to Cush, even as he was such a profoundly Israelite man that he was one of few gifted with prophecy?
That leads us to the second mystery of Zephaniah’s superscription: its sheer length. One traditional explanation, purported by Ibn Ezra, is that we require so much of Zephaniah’s family tree in order to lead us back to the name Hezekiah.
This Hezekiah, Ibn Ezra suggests, is actually a character we know from elsewhere: King Hezekiah, famously the last righteous king before the monarch reigning during Zephaniah’s lifetime. To read the superscription that way tells us that Zephaniah is the descendant of a righteous king and, therefore, as much of an insider to his society as it’s possible to be.
So what happens when we take those two readings together? They are, after all, not incompatible.
Zephaniah may be an example of a man of African heritage in the Tanach and also the descendent of the last good king of Judah. Perhaps taking both of those interpretations seriously can allow something in Zephaniah’s prophecy to unfold anew.
Zephaniah’s book of prophecy faces in two directions. He speaks to Israelite society (the insiders) and to the surrounding nations (the outsiders). He turns his face in both directions in order to offer piercing condemnation. And to both, Zephaniah concludes by envisioning the possibility of redemption:
”From beyond the rivers of Cush, My suppliants
Shall bring offerings to Me in Fair Puzai” ( Zephaniah 3:10)
“In that day,
This shall be said to Jerusalem:
Have no fear, O Zion;
Let not your hands droop!” (Zephaniah 3:16).
For this prophet, having heritage from the royal house of Judah and from the kingdom of Cush may well be used as an advantage. Zephaniah’s place in the world is unique: he is able to look in both directions. What may seem unusual about him becomes his great strength as a prophet.
Natasha Mann is a rabbi at New London (Masorti) Synagogue