Cush (Zephaniah 3)

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Illustration: Map over ancient Cush

Biblical Cush lay south of Egypt. Most references to the term “Cush” probably refer to Lower and Upper Nubia, the region directly south of Egypt, with its northern limit at the First Cataract of the Nile and its southern boundary at the Sixth Cataract. Sometimes the term may have been used more broadly for parts of Africa south of Egypt, but Cush is not to be equated with modern Ethiopia.

Ancient sources confirm that Cush was a land of great wealth; in fact, the Egyptian name Nubia may come from the word nub, or “gold”. Egyptian trade lists record the precious minerals and other luxury items that travelled north from Cush along the Nile commerce routes. Among these commodities were gold, silver, cosmetics, balsam, frankincense and myrrh. Exotic animal products, such as ostrich eggs, rhinoceros horns and panther skins, were also available from or through Cush. Job 28:19 speaks of Cush as the source of the precious stone topaz.

Throughout Egyptian history Nubia and Egypt struggled against each other. For the most part Egypt was dominant – especially when Egyptian power was at its height under the New Kingdom pharaohs. Sometimes, however, Nubians extended their reach into Egypt – as during the Second Intermediate period. While the Hyksos ruled Lower (northern) Egypt, the Nubians penetrated from the south. The Nubians themselves, however, were thoroughly Egyptianized.

Cushites appear several times in the Old Testament. Numbers 12:1 recounts that Moses had a Cushite wife; 2 Samuel 18:21-31 mentions that David’s army had a Cushite messenger; and 2 Chronicles 14:9 refers to a “Zerah the Cushite”, who fought against Asa of Judah.

From Biblical perspective, however, the most significant Cushite or Nubian power was represented by the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt (ca. 780-656 B.C.). Under the Nubian pharaohs Piye (Piankhi), Shabaka, Shebitku and Tarhaqa (Biblical Tirhaka, 2 Kings 19:9), the unified Egypt and Nubia became powerful and prosperous.

Shabaka, for example, carried our an extensive rebuilding campaign in Egypt, seeking to revive ancient pharaonic traditions such as building in the temple precinct at Karnak, near Thebes. Also, the Nubian military pushed northward out of Egypt and confronted the Assyrians. Shebitku checked the expansions of Sennacherib at Eltekeh (in the coastal plain of Israel) in 701 B.C.

Although the Nubian-Egyptian forces were a power to be reckoned with, Isaiah warned Judah against placing any hope in them for protection from Assyria (Isaiah 20:3-6). Indeed, Nubian fortunes soon fell before the Assyrians. Tarhaqa, although an energetic and capable ruler, was defeated and driven back by Esarhaddon of Assyria, who actually captured Memphis in 671 B.C. After that point Nubian power in Egypt collapsed.


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