The Five Black Bible Heroes America Needs Today

CULTURE | Caleb Mathis | 14 mins

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You know those pictures from Sunday School of blonde-hair, blue-eyed Jesus? They’re just wrong. I’m a white American, descended from Europeans, and there’s no one in the Bible that looks like me. Instead, the Bible is chock full of stories about, and from the perspective of, people of color. While most of the heroes of Scripture are ethnically Jewish, there are a number of black and brown men and women who have an astounding impact. In this moment in time, with our country in deep pain around racism, I’m learning by following their example.

In the wake of unnerving police brutality, the world is rightfully taking a good long look in the mirror when it comes to race. One of my most important mirrors is the Bible. I dare to believe this ancient book, and I base my life and decisions upon its wisdom.

A few days ago, social media feeds went black. Blackout Tuesday was an opportunity for minority thinkers, creatives, and activists to be featured on social media, with an endgame of increasing their followership and magnifying their voice. There are many biblical voices that get plenty of amplification (looking at you Abraham, Moses, and David), so it’s important to turn the spotlight on a few of the unsung black heroes of the Bible. You can’t tag them, or follow them on Instagram, but their influence and example is real.

EBED-MELECH
Jeremiah, a prophet of God to his people, was charged with delivering some very unpopular news: the king of Babylon was coming, and he would conquer Jerusalem.

For hundreds of years, God’s people had been super flaky with him. They’d worship Him and be devoted one minute and then be running off to worship and serve the false gods of their neighbors the next. God was fed up, and a conquering enemy king would be their punishment.

As is often the case with those who deliver bad news, Jeremiah wasn’t very popular, especially with the king. Finally, having more than they can take, a few advisors of the king convince him that Jeremiah needs to be put to death. The king says, in effect, do whatever you want.

These royal advisors take Jeremiah and drop him down a well. There’s no water in the deep hole, but there is plenty of mud. And to make sure starvation kills him instead of the fall, they lower him into this hole by rope. Jeremiah is left there, deep in the mud, with no food, water, or room to move.

Enter Ebed-Melech. The Bible says he was a Cushite servant of the King of Judah. Where is Cush? Many scholars associate it with the kingdom of ancient Ethiopia. Meaning? Ebed-Melech was a person of color. (In an earlier prophecy, Jeremiah rhetorically asks if a Cushite can change his skin color, inferring Cushites had dark skin. You can read it in Jeremiah 13:23).

Ebed-Melech, seeing this injustice, doesn’t just sit on it. He goes to the king. Yep, the same one who gave the OK to throw Jeremiah in a hole, and petitions for the prophet’s life. Ebed-Melech isn’t a friend of the king. He’s no crony or yes-man. He’s a court official in service of the monarch, willing to risk his reputation (and probably his life) in asking the king to reverse his decision. A pretty passive guy, the king says, “do whatever you want,” and Ebed-Melech finds thirty men to help him rescue Jeremiah.

Led by Ebed-Melech, the prophet is pulled from the mud and certain death. God is pleased with Ebed-Melech’s efforts, announcing through Jeremiah that, though Jerusalem will fall, “I will rescue you on that day, and you will not be handed over to the men you fear.”

The bottom line I’m learning from Ebed-Melech? I’m responsible for justice. When it comes to racism, white believers too often place the mantle of justice on the government, on elected officials, on the court system or someone of higher authority. Ebed-Melech risked life and limb to right a wrong. It’s time for us to do the same for our brothers and sisters of color.

Read Ebed-Melech’s story yourself in Jeremiah, chapters 38 and 39.

SIMON OF CYRENE
On the day of His execution, Jesus was brutally beaten. To add insult to injury, He was forced to carry his heavy cross through the streets of Jerusalem to the place of his execution. Three accounts of this day make a note of a man named Simon, who gave Jesus respite.

Luke 23:26 says, “[The soldiers] seized a man, Simon of Cyrene… and placed on him the cross to carry behind Jesus.”

Since Cyrene is located in Northern Africa, it seems at least very plausible that Simon was a man of color.

Simon disappears from the story as quickly as he appears, but the example is extremely powerful. On the most important day in history, he literally carries the cross of Christ.

In America, it’s easy for those of us who don’t experience systematic racism to forget how prevalent it really is. It’s easy for us to ignore what makes us uncomfortable, or to choose our news sources based on what we want to hear, and not what we need to hear. Simon sets a powerful example I’m trying to follow. Even Christ accepted help carrying his cross. Our brothers and sisters of color have been carrying a heavy burden for hundreds of years. Now is the time for us to help shoulder it. Don’t wait for a passing Roman soldier to prompt you into action.

In Galatians, Paul, an early church leader, says exactly the same thing. “Carry each other’s burdens,” he writes, “and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

You can read about Simon in Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, or Luke 23:26.

THE ETHIOPIAN EUNUCH
The New Testament portion of the Bible starts with four accounts of the life of Jesus. The next book, Acts, details what happens right after. It’s full of movement and excitement, as the church begins to form.

Near the beginning of Acts, we find the story of an unnamed man, known simply as the Ethiopian eunuch. The Bible says he was a court official of Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. He was returning to his homeland, after a visit to Jerusalem, when he came across Philip, a disciple who had actually spent time with Jesus.

Directed by God to talk to him, Philip approaches the chariot of the eunuch and finds the man reading from an ancient prophecy, taken from the book of Isaiah. Philip asks the man if he understands what he’s reading. His reply? “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

Philip climbs into the chariot and unpacks the ancient scripture, showing how it points to Jesus as the Messiah. The eunuch, overcome, cries out. “Look, there’s water! What would keep me from being baptized?”

This is a watershed moment. The chariot stops, Philip and the eunuch get into the water, and the first non-Jewish believer in all of Scripture is baptized into the faith.

For all who dare to wrestle with his story, the Ethiopian eunuch sets a compelling example of asking, believing, and acting. As a white American, honestly, it would be easier for me not to have conversations with my friends of color about what they’re feeling right now. It would be less painful if I didn’t hear their stories of oppression and injustice; it would be more convenient if we could go back to the part of quarantine when everyone was obsessed with Tiger King. But that’s not the example set by the eunuch.

Before Philip appeared on the road, the eunuch was exploring a topic that was foreign to him—ancient Jewish prophecy. When he had a question, he asked someone who could answer it. And when he got an answer, he believed it and took action.

If you’re a white believer in Christ, it is so important for you to personally know someone who has experienced systematic racism in our country. And when you hear stories, whether in person or on social media, what would it look like if we just believed them? If we didn’t rationalize away our responsibility? If we didn’t look for a reason why the young man was shot? If we didn’t say things like “All lives matter” or “If he didn’t dress that way” or “Why was he out so late at night” or “He was probably resisting arrest” or…. or… or.

What if we just believed our brothers and sisters when they say they are hurting? And what if, like the Ethiopian eunuch, we took action immediately? It would change the narrative in our country.

You can read the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.

ZIPPORAH
Let’s hear it for Moses’ wife. Yeah, that Moses. The Prince of Egypt. The deliverer of Israel. The man who actually saw the face of God. He was married to a woman named Zipporah, from the ancient land of Cush.

After being raised in the lap of luxury, as the adopted son of Pharaoh, Moses flees Egypt when he can no longer stomach the enslavement of his people (and because he killed a dude, but that’s another story for another time). While wandering around in the land of Midian, he meets a man named Reuel and ends up marrying his daughter, Zipporah.

Later, after the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, Moses is leading God’s people through the desert to the land God promised them when he faces a family crisis. His brother, Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, are helping him lead the people. They are seen by the Israelites as leaders… but not as important as Moses. This hierarchy of power doesn’t sit well with them, and they begin to criticize Moses.

Numbers 12 says, “Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because of the Cushite woman he married. They said, ‘Does the LORD speak only through Moses? Does he not speak through us?’ And the LORD heard it.”

The breakdown in the family, and in leadership of the new nation, seems to at least have a racist bent to it. Aaron and Miriam, jealous of the influence of Moses, come against him for marrying a woman of color. And God doesn’t let it go unpunished (but that’s another-another story, for another-another time.)

But Zipporah’s lasting legacy isn’t the harsh words of Moses’ siblings, but the action she took to protect her family.

In Exodus chapter 4, as Moses is preparing to return to Egypt and rescue God’s people, he’s traveling with his family through the desert. In a passage that’s hard to completely understand, it seems Moses neglected to circumcise his young son (an ancient sign of a covenant with God). This was a big deal, especially for the man who would be the mouth of God to His people. So big a deal, in fact, that God sought to kill Moses over it. But not on Zipporah’s watch.

Exodus 4:25 says, “So Zipporah took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at Moses’ feet.”

Again, most scholars are confused about what all that means. But we do know this. Zipporah took ownership for her family when her husband would not—and rescued Moses, who would become the deliverer of Israel, from death at the hands of God before any miracle in Egypt ever took place.

Zipporah teaches us that justice begins at home. If you are a parent, especially a white one, Zipporah compels you to have pro-active conversations around race and justice with your children. If you hear racism at a family function, Zipporah compels you to not just slide it under the table. If you know of oppression in your family line, Zipporah compels you to seek forgiveness—first from God, and then from those who have been wrong.

A new nation, one that actually allows all people to be free, starts in the four walls of your home. Even with young children, Zipporah’s example is pushing me to parent my kids in a different and more compelling way.

You can read about Zipporah’s bold action in Exodus 4:21-26, and Moses’ family quarrel in Numbers 12.

SOLOMON’S BRIDE
Growing up in the church, the son of a pastor, I was allowed to read any part of the Bible I wanted—except for the Song of Solomon. It’s an erotic love poem, so it makes sense.

Solomon, the son of David and king of Israel, wrote the song for a woman he was about to marry. In short: it’s about how beautiful she is and how much he wants to explore her body. Anybody blushing yet?

The song alternates between lines spoken by Solomon and lines spoken by the unnamed object of his affection.

The first lines spoken by the soon-to-be-bride include, “I am dark and lovely like Kedar’s tents, like Solomon’s curtains.” She goes on to explain that she has worked in the fields, and the sun has further darkened her skin.

While she appears a bit embarrassed at her skin tone, Solomon finds it beautiful. A few verses later, he bubbles over. “You are beautiful, my true love! Look at you! You are so beautiful.”

We don’t know the ethnicity or racial background of Solomon’s wife. But we do know this: she had dark skin, she was beautiful, and she was worthy of one of history’s greatest love poems.

Aside from an ode to love and the gift of sex, the Song of Solomon is also viewed as an image of the great love God has for his people, depicted most concretely in the person of Jesus.

The bottom line? God says black is beautiful. For too long, people of color in our country have only heard that phrase from people who looked like them. If you’re a white Christian in America, it’s time for people of color to know that they are loved, appreciated, honored, revered, and wanted. Our words matter. Check in on your friends of color. Send them some encouragement and pray for our country. No one should feel dishonored because of their skin tone.

In the wake of the past few weeks, it took me far too long to send the first texts and make the first calls to my friends of color. I was afraid I’d say the wrong words. I was afraid I’d somehow make it worse. But spurred on by the example I find in the Bible, I’ve been proactively doing that and seeing deeper and more meaningful connections with my friends as a result.

As a white American, it’s sometimes hard to know how to engage on the topic of racism. If you find yourself in that boat, lean into the example of these Bible heroes. Their justice, compassion, and willingness to make moves speaks through the generations. It changed history then, and it can change history now.


Written by

Caleb Mathis

Dad of three, husband of one, pastor at Crossroads, and at the moment would rather be reading Tolkien, watching British TV, or in a pub with a pint of Guinness.

Published on Jun 10, 2020
Process, journal or discuss the themes of this article - here's a few questions to get the ball rolling...
  1. What strikes you most about this article? (It could be a new realization you had, an emotion you felt while reading, a passing thought that might have been from God, etc.) Why does it stand out?

  2. Imagine if everyone who followed Jesus looked like these characters. How would our homes, workplaces, churches, and culture look different? Write or share as many ideas as you can.

  3. Which biblical hero in this list inspires you most, and what might be a way you can follow their example? Pick one tangible action you can take this week. Email this article to a friend and tell them your plan, so they can encourage you to make it happen.

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