By Sigrid Fowler, MDiv.
All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser.
Black lives don’t just matter . . . often, they inspire. The four I’m thinking about take us beyond inspiration—two women, two men. Their names? We know only one, but all four were probably unknown to most in their own lifetimes and would be utterly unknown to us apart from the biblical record. They weren’t invisible to God.
Ladies first. One unnamed woman was the wife of Moses. What was it like to be the invisible wife of a celebrity, the ancient world’s equivalent of the pastor’s wife? Her husband’s flock was a contentious crowd of more than three million. If that wasn’t a hard- enough hand to play, she also had in-law problems, in-law problems because she was black, an Ethiopian. Moses loved this woman. She shared his life, perhaps bore his children. We know almost nothing about her—just that she was beloved by one of the most famous men humanity has ever produced and that she endured what may be the most hurtful form of racism—rejection by one’s immediate family. Interesting too that though racism was the core issue, when Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses, they didn’t admit to racism. Even then, it seems to have been viewed as an egregious fault, safer skirted or denied (Numbers 12: 1-15).
The second woman, identified only as “the Shulamite,” shines in her toughness, her strong sense of identity and a self-respect that had nothing to do with the opinion of others. Though we don’t know who she was or for certain even whom she loved, we’re not likely to forget her in-your-face sense of self-worth: “I am black,” she says “and beautiful” (Song of Songs 1: 5). I see little justification for the usual reading, “black but beautiful.” The single letter vav, translated “but,” as a rule simply means “and.” Like Moses’ wife, she also endured the abuse of her family, rough treatment by her own brothers (Song of Songs 1: 6). The assumption that the word black (literally) in fact means “sunburned,” as 1: 6 may suggest, is unnecessary. No one speaks of sunburned skin as black. There’s also this: The belief that dark skin isn’t at risk for sunburn is false. This woman, who says, “I am black and beautiful,” was loved by Solomon, famous for both wealth and wisdom. The poem conveys a man’s love for a woman and her love him, whether King Solomon or a shepherd rival (interpretations vary). The details are visually arresting, sensually evocative, and verbally mystifying, whether seen as a single “song” or a collection. Who is this beautiful, much-loved woman? The Song may be suggestive of Christ and the church Paul knows as “the bride of Christ.”
Two black men. The story of the first is in Jeremiah 38. The prophet predicts the doom of Jerusalem and enrages the establishment. God’s temple is in this city, they say. God will keep it safe! The king’s opinion is clear: he takes a pen knife to Jeremiah’s scroll and arrogantly drops the shreds in a fire in the presence of his whole court. Jeremiah is put in a pit to die, and he would have if not for an Ethiopian named Ebed Melech. This name, which may be a title, means “servant of the king.” Considering that he saved Jeremiah’s life in the face of mob hatred, we may speculate: “Servant of the king” or “ . . . of the King”? Certainly he was doing the will of God. He was a man of courage, who acted on the prophet’s behalf despite the power of an establishment mob even King Zedekiah feared. Jesus says, “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward” (Matt 10: 41).
Then there’s the royal treasurer of Ethiopia’s queen (Candace, a title—”Queen”). Philip meets him on a desert road. This man, returning home from worship in Jerusalem, is sitting in his chariot reading Isaiah 53. Philip approaches and asks, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The man says, “How can I unless someone guides me?”(Acts 8: 26-39). It seems clear that Philip isn’t the only one obeying God on this occasion. The black nobleman, puzzling over a prophecy that has been called “the gospel according to Isaiah,” puts a floodlight on the passage that led him and others like him to believe and be baptized. Isaiah 53 is still today, in some circles, one of the most controversial of messianic prophecies. The royal treasurer’s story lands us squarely on the central truth of all Scripture, twelve verses memorized with profit by anyone. Like the three above, this person is more than memorable.