Religion | What African culture can teach us about the Bible
by Africa Study Bible
Posted 2/23/19, 06:41 am
Today is the fourth and final Saturday of Black History Month, which the United States and Canada celebrate in February, and the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Netherlands celebrate in October. Eleven years ago, I attended a conference in Ethiopia on Africa’s Christian history. Tom Oden, a wonderful theologian and human being who died in 2016, led it, and his 2014 memoir, A Change of Heart, is worth reading, as is his How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind from 2007.
The 2017 publication of the Africa Study Bible, a New Living Translation with exegesis supervised by John Jusu from Africa International University in Kenya, interested me greatly, and that interest has grown as I’ve taken it to church in recent months and run across some of its study notes. Below, with permission, is one of those notes. —Marvin Olasky
An Article from Malachi: Similarities between the Cultures of the Bible and Africa
Culture is everything that makes up a person’s way of life—beliefs, values, behaviours, ideas, and way of thinking and living. We usually do not consider how our culture is different from other people’s because we do not think about it any more than a fish considers how the water in which it lives is different from the air and a forest in which a monkey lives. Sometimes the differences are important, and sometimes they are amusing.
In most countries shaking your head from left to right means “no.” But in India, it means “yes.”
In Germany or Switzerland, it is considered rude to be half an hour late for dinner. In many Mediterranean European countries and in Africa, being late is considered normal.
In Europe and North America, telling a woman that she has put on weight is an insult, whereas in many places in Africa, you would be telling her that she looks healthy or must have had a nice holiday.
The stories in the Bible were set in a particular time and a particular place that had a particular cultural background. Knowing the similarities and differences between the culture in which the Bible was written and the one in which the Bible is read will help us better understand and apply the Bible.
In spite of the cultural diversity within Africa, many areas are similar.
An Awareness of the Supernatural
It may seem obvious to say that the Bible assumes an awareness of the supernatural. In fact, it would probably not even be necessary three hundred years ago because most people believed in the supernatural. But since the 1700s, when the Age of Enlightenment in Europe said that human reason was the primary source of authority, the West has increasingly denied the importance of the supernatural. However, the Bible says the world was created by God (Genesis 1:1) and is sustained by God (Psalm 104). And although we may have earthly enemies, our real battle is against supernatural opponents (Ephesians 6:12). God has spoken to people. He told Noah to build a boat (Genesis 6:13-21). He made a promise to Abram (Genesis 12:1-3). He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 19–20). He met Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9).
Most of us recognise that we are part of a world that is both physical and spiritual (or natural and supernatural). These two worlds are connected. Actions in the physical world have consequences in both the physical and spiritual world. We also have insight into the Bible. Demonic oppression, miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, and prophetic utterances are common in the church in Africa because of the supernatural orientation of the church members.
Integration of the Religious and Secular Worlds
In the Bible, there is little or no separation between the religious and secular worlds. Instead, the two are integrated. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people lived according to the laws of God that regulated their daily life. These laws included what they should eat and how they should eat it, what clothing to wear, how to interact with others, how to slaughter an animal, and many more regulations. The observance of the Sabbath and festivals were not just religious observations but part of the national way of life.
This kind of integration is found in many African cultures. For spiritual and religious reasons, some Africans will not eat certain foods or even walk on a particular side of the road. They also may perform special rituals because they believe it will improve life in the physical realm. The many festivals that we enjoy also have religious elements. Examples of these are naming ceremonies, harvest festivals, and rites of passage.
The notion of “clean” and “unclean” is another similar concept found in both African cultures and the Old Testament. As practised in the Old Testament, a woman during her period was considered to be unclean. Today, women in many African cultures exclude themselves from public activities during their periods. In many traditional churches, a woman cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper during her period because she is considered temporarily unclean.
Covenants and Oaths
God establishes his relationship with humans through covenants or agreements. Sometimes one party to the covenant has to do something to make the covenant effective. This is called a conditional covenant. For instance, God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments as part of the Mosaic Covenant. Then Moses told the people to “stay on the path that the Lord your God has commanded you to follow.” If they meet this condition, “then you will live long and prosperous lives in the land you are about to enter and occupy” (Deuteronomy 5:33). At other times there were no conditions. For instance, God made a covenant with Noah, his descendants, and every living creature on earth: “Never again will floodwaters kill all living creatures; never again will a flood destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:9-11).
In the Old Testament, taking an oath was a common occurrence. In the New Testament, James says to never take an oath, but his emphasis is on our personal integrity: “Just say a simple yes or no” (James 5:12).
In many African cultures, covenants are made and confirmed through a ritual sacrifice. In some cases, such sacrificial ritual involves slaughtering an animal for a feast in which both parties involved in the covenant partake. Taking an oath is also found in most African cultures. An oath is taken with the awareness of God or a deity as the witness before whom a person takes an oath. In Numbers 5:11-31, a woman who is accused of committing adultery by her husband is to swear an oath spoken by a priest before the Lord. She is then to drink “bitter water,” which is to be a harmful curse upon her if she has lied about her innocence. This same kind of practice is common in many African cultures. In the Ngbaka tribe in the Republic of the Congo, for example, a person who is accused of wrongdoing and denies it, will drink a bitter potion that is to be a harmful curse upon himself if he is guilty. Families and tribes will take oaths of allegiances and are bound by these terms. In modern times, nations make treaties. We should understand that these practices do not imply that it is right or good for Christians to practise things like this today.
In both the cultures of the Bible and in most of Africa, people live in or are familiar with rural communities. This is a significant factor in people’s way of thinking. In rural communities, farming is the main way of life, and everything revolves around planting and harvesting. The Old Testament contained laws about farming and placed a high value on land and livestock. The concept of God as a shepherd in Old Testament passages such as Psalm 23 is one which Africans can relate to. In the New Testament, Jesus’ teachings are filled with illustrations from rural life. Africans living in rural communities who read these illustrations in the Bible may have great insight into their context and intent.
Emphasis on Community
“How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony” (Psalm 133:1). The Old Testament emphasizes the importance of community. Members of the early church chose to sell all their possessions and live as a community in which they took care of one another.
Most African cultures and ethnic groups also emphasize the importance of community. A Zulu proverb says, Umuntu ngumuntu ngamuntu, which means “I am what I am because of who we all are.” This expresses the concept of Ubuntu, a principle of caring for each other’s well-being. A person cannot be complete without other people. Caring for others and living well within a community is very important in African culture, as it was in the Bible. The Bible places high value on community and calls God’s people to live in community.
Closely related to the sense of community is that of tribal identity. Although the people of Israel were a united community of God’s people, they sometimes had tribal disagreements. For instance, when the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh that lived east of the Jordan River built an altar, the other tribes misunderstood their motives and “prepared to go to war against them” (Joshua 22:10-34). Belonging to a tribe plays a significant role in many African cultures. One’s tribal identity often determines how a person marries or how one conducts his business affairs.
The family structure in the Old Testament is similar to the family structures in most African contexts. In biblical Israel, it was common to see two or more generations of a family living together and farming the same land. Abraham lived with his nephew, Lot. Jacob’s twelve sons were together with him, and they all moved to Egypt. Naomi and Ruth also lived together. The fact of relatives living together is very common in both Africa and the culture of the Bible. Often we see a household of three or more generations. Further, when family members die, they may want to be buried in their ancestral home, like Joseph insisting on being buried in the Promised Land. Some African cultures also cherish the idea of burial in the ancestral home.
Marriage is another practice that draws a lot of similarities between family in Israel and some African cultures. Traditionally, there were few if any intertribal marriages, and even today some parents insist that their children should marry a person from their own ethnic group. This was common practice in the Bible. Similarly, widow inheritance as a way to provide for family and children is practised by some tribes like Luos of Kenya and the Mendes of Sierra Leone.
Not all points of similarity between the cultural worlds of the Bible and Africa are positive ones. Just because we find a practice in the Bible does not mean that God approves of it. Some practices mentioned are in the Bible because of the culture and setting. Polygamy is one such practice. Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar, who was her slave, shows how polygamy can destroy families (Genesis 21:9-10). Marriage involves ultimate allegiance and a kind of love that cannot be shared. It requires devotion and selfless service that can be fully realised only between one man and one woman. Polygamy results in a divided allegiance.
High Value of Wisdom
Three entire books of the Old Testament are devoted to wisdom: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. In these books, God is understood to be the source of wisdom. Those who are wise are seen as righteous, and those who are foolish are seen as wicked. These three books are called “wisdom literature.” Proverbs, riddles, parables with a spiritual meaning, and discussions of the problems of life are not limited to these three Bible books.
The New Testament culture also highly valued wisdom, and believers are called to live wisely. Jesus’ parable about the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25 is an example of how wisdom is important for believers. Paul tells followers of Jesus, “So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise” (Ephesians 5:15). When it comes to understanding and fulfilling Paul’s command, believers in Africa have great insight because of how we value wisdom.
Because of the strong emphasis on community, wisdom holds a high value in most African cultures. Wisdom is often valued more highly than either wealth or power. Wisdom has to do with living well, and living in such a way that one is held in high esteem and well-spoken of by others. In Africa, one’s reputation as being wise is highly valued by both the wealthy and the poor. Many African proverbs and sayings have been passed down from one generation to another through oral tradition.
Blessing, Curse, and Retributive Justice
The occurrence of blessings and curses is common throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament the concept of blessing is a significant theme, especially with the patriarchs. Curses are also seen in the Old Testament. Noah, for example, cursed Canaan, the son of Ham (Genesis 9:25). In the Bible, such blessings and curses spoken against individuals came to pass.
The concepts of blessing and curse are also very common in African cultures. Elders or those in a place of spiritual authority will utter blessings and curses against individuals. A belief in “generational curse or sin” has gained popularity among some believers in Africa. However, many theologians and Christian teachers in Africa have denounced this concept as not being similar to biblical blessing and cursing but rather being influenced by traditional thinking. As Christians, we do not have to be bound by or held responsible for the sins of our parents (Ezekiel 18:20).
A closely related concept to cursing is that of retributive justice, which can be found in the Old Testament. The imprecatory psalms (prayers against one’s enemies) are uttered by the writer with retributive justice in mind. They are uttered against one who has done wrong, especially to God’s people, and include a request for God to deliver the justice of retribution in the form of punishment. Retribution has to do with a person’s receiving punishment in return for wrong committed, especially towards others. Such punishment is received either in this life or the life after—and in some cases, both. Though Israelites practised retributive justice in the Old Testament, Jesus disallowed this practice in both his teachings (Luke 6:28-29) and example (Luke 23:34). Even though this was contrary to their culture, Jesus’ followers accepted his perspective in their teachings (Romans 12:19-21) and in following his example (Acts 7:60).
Sin and Punishment
The concepts of sin, dishonour, punishment, and retribution are common in most African cultures. Most believers in Africa understand sinning or doing wrong because of their cultural awareness of a spiritual world in which certain things are good and others wrong. Many African cultures also recognise that wrong actions bring dishonour to the person or family and bring some form of punishment, both in the physical and spiritual worlds.
Sacrifice and Fear
An awareness of the consequences of wrongdoing or sin in both the Bible and many African cultures leads individuals to offer sacrifices. These sacrifices are offered as an atonement for wrongful deeds. In the Old Testament, the practice of offering sacrifices was established by God. But in many African cultures and indigenous religions, sacrifices are offered because of fear of spiritual beings or forces. Such fear can be unhealthy and can lead to superstitious practices, such as observing taboos out of fear of punishment. The fear of God mentioned in the Bible is very different. For example, Proverbs 9:10 says, “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom.” Fear in this sense has to do with a reverence for and a fear of God that leads us to live in obedience and devotion to him. A person’s fear of the Lord will drive out the fear that person has of other spiritual beings.
The similarities between the cultural worlds of the Bible and various African cultures helps to give us insights into the meaning of the Bible. However, this does not mean that a particular concept found in the Bible means the same thing as it does in the African culture. It is important to study the Bible’s culture to find the true meaning. However, the many similarities between the cultural worlds of the Bible and Africa will help us to understand the meaning of many biblical passages.
From the Africa Study Bible, copyright © 2012, 2015, 2016 by Oasis International Limited and published by Tyndale House Publishers Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.