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Africa and the Old Testament: Connection, Culture, and Biblical Understanding

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Preaching the Old Testament has been neglected in many churches across the United States, but for the United States, Christian thought is no longer the expectation. Europe, which was once the beacon of Christendom, is now known to be a sort of secular oasis. Interestingly enough,  Africa, which was the apple of the western missionary eye is now known to be the diadem of classical Christian theology. It is no secret that the way people understand and process scripture is largely framed by the paradigm of their culture. So how does this affect the descendants of those who migrated to new lands?

For the descendants of those affected by colonialism, imperialism, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, scattered across the globe, what does that mean for missions? Moreover, what role do missions play when modern patterns of global immigration, and enterprise, and technology, have dimmed the cultural division of East and West? How does the Old Testament play a role in evangelizing to both eastern and western ideologies that are now in new territories? In this chapter, we will take a look at how the Old Testament could be used in missions and how might different groups receive and what it has to say about the redemption of mankind.

Global Mission In the 21st Century

What was once deemed a typical scenario of the mission field is no longer the example. Many think of an American or British couple going off into the deepest parts of the Amazon rainforest, evangelizing in broken English while drawing pictures of Jesus to a people who are in grass skirts and have no electricity. That is no longer the norm. Missions look quite different today than it did in the 20th century. To begin with, the following is a glimpse of what a typical 21st-century mission-field looks like.

“Not far from the Central Area of the German city of Hanover is a Baptist church that houses a Spanish speaking congregation under the pastoral care of Jose Antonio Gonzalez. Like many you people from Spain in the 1960’s, Jose Antonio left his beautiful town in Galicia and immigrated to Germany in search of a job. There he was befriended by Mrs. Pinto, a Bolivian lady whose family had also gone to Germany in search of economic security. She not only provided Jose Antonio with well-spiced soups but also insisted on sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and praying for him.”[1]

Jose Antonio who was a nominal Catholic who’s heritage was so wrapped up in the Christian story, it was if it were to him, hiding in plain sight. It was so visible in Spain, that he paid no attention to it. In Germany, he became a convinced believer.

Scenarios like Jose Antonio’s is seen all over the globe. As we approach the third decade of the 21stcentury, this is, even more, the case, with other factors pushing for a global approach that has become local. With the advent of social media, mass refugee immigration, and demographic shifts, to be local is to be global, and the global-ness in mass, distributed in the home via the arrival of the smartphone and social media.

Due to these new factors of globalization, it is observed that the center of Christendom too has shifted along with the secular patterns. And that shift is to the global South. Missiologist Andrew Walls points out this shift in his work, Culture, and Coherence in Christian History:

“The recession of Christianity among the European people appears to be continuing. And yet we seem to stand at the threshold of a new age of Christianity, one in which its main base will be in the Southern continents, and where its dominant expressions will be filtered through the culture of those countries. Once again, Christianity has been saved for the world by its diffusion across cultural lines”[2]

As it concerns Christianity’s expressions being filtered through those countries’ cultures, the Old Testament has played a major role in these cultures reception of Christianity and how it then filters it back into the world. While I would love to focus in on each continent and people group of those continents in regards to mission, for this paper’s purpose with respect to length and time, this paper will focus on the continent of Africa, its modern leadership in Christendom, its cultural connection with the Old Testament, and how this biblical connection shapes its cultural, religious, missiological, and global legacy.

Africa and Old Testament Identification

The nations of Africa have uses the biblical eschatology in the reception and delivering of the Christian faith. But what cultural components are present that are an avenue for the God’s redemptive plan to be received by communities and people groups on the continent of Africa?

In, “Teaching and Interpreting the Old Testament in Africa: Written Word, Archaeology and Oral World”, Magdel Le Roux of the University of South Africa writes, “Africa has customs and traditions that need to be respected. In particular, some of these are closely linked to customs and traditions in the OT, which should not be ignored in the teaching of Old Testament Studies. On the contrary, these need to be pointed out all the more clearly, and to be taken into consideration.”[3]

The reason why this needs to be taken into consideration is two-fold. First, it has to do with how the early missionaries unfolded the Christian text into Africa. Le Roux writes,

“Early missionaries first came to Africa with the message, and later with the translation of, the New Testament. Translations into numerous African languages of the bulkier and much older Old Testament followed, which was then perceived as the more important of the two Testaments.”[4] Thus she claims, “The Old Testament’s relevance to their own life experience was found by grass-roots readers in the passages of the Old Testament, increasing the tendency to relate the texts of the OT more systematically to the African religio-cultural and socio-cultural experience, and is part of a process of rooting biblical studies in African soil.”[5]

Oral Tradition

There is an overarching point of connection and then there are sub-points of connections between many African cultures and the Old Testament. The overarching point of connection is the concept of the oral tradition. “Oral traditions that were handed down were fluid and not supposed to be in “fixed” form. Literacy in the earlier Lemba (and other African) communities and those of early Israel also has to be understood in the context of an orality-of-tradition culture.”[6] This oral tradition also has much to do with linguistic patterns of both the Near East and Africa. Aloo O. Mojola of the Department of Old Testament Studies at the University of Pretoria in South Africa writes,

“Geographically the societies and languages of the Ancient Near East are contiguous with those of Africa. The Semitic languages of the Middle East are part of a larger language family, the Afro-Asiatic language family which includes numerous languages found in North Africa, the Sahel region, the horn of Africa including Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somali, most of northern Kenya and parts of Tanzania.”[7]

So much of the cultural gaps that a Westerner would have with the Old Testament, an African would not have.

Meat And Milk

The oral tradition particularly of the Ndembu and Venda, contain many similarities of the ethical laws found not in modern Judaism (after the Babylonian exile) but what is written in specifically in the Torah. In these tribes, some of the traditionalists stress the prohibition of mixing milk with meat, which is also found in Deuteronomy 14:21 and Exodus 23:19. In comparison, Victor Turner point out, “For some African communities, for example, the Ndembu and the Venda, who maintain that the “mother is like a pot” (or “a milk tree”) this expression would indicate the prohibition of sexual relations between a mother and her son, as indicated by the separation of milk and meat.”[8]

The New Moon

Another connecting sub-point with the oral tradition of many cultures in Africa and the Old Testament is the concept of the observance of the New Moon being a day of rest. “The traditional Lemba regard the day of the observance of the new moon as a day of rest or cessation, as modern Jews would consider the Sabbath. According to Le Roux, the following is how the Lemba observe the New Moon:

“Just before the time of the new moon, a bowl is placed under a tree or in the shade of a hut. Then a day before the moon is seen by anyone, sometimes two days before, the moon becomes visible, it reflects in the water in the bowl, usually around noon.The first observer runs to the chief to report; the chief send servants to confirm; when the chief blows the horn; the people leave everything behind, all old men and old women will shave their heads and everybody fasts for the rest of the day. The following day no work is done. It is kept as a day of cessation and everybody brings food to the chief.”[9]

This practice with the bowl is also found amongst the tribes of the wadi in Yemen.

Circumcision

The Lemba practice circumcision with great conviction but differently than their Islamic counterparts. The Lemba’s incision is much smaller and is not necessarily connected with a covenant with God. However a there is a traditional leader who practices amongst the tribe what is mention in the book of Jeremiah. “A traditional leader in Sekhukhuneland that, after a circumcision, the Lemba “cut the hair of the boys just a little bit around their heads.” This practice is similar to a metaphor for circumcision used in Jeremiah 9:26, namely, “who clip the hair of their temples.”[10]

In Nigeria, The Igbo are circumcised. It used to be that both male and female babies were circumcised, but female circumcision has recently come to an end while male circumcision still continues. The circumcision of male babies Ibi Ugwu in Igbo land is done on the 8th day after birth. Experts, similar to midwives and native doctors, usually do this act. In modern day, physicians carry out this operation.  Meanwhile, it’s noted that “some Igbos circumcise their children three days after birth, while some Igbos dwelling outside the eastern region of Nigeria do Ibi Ugwu during adulthood but make sure it is done before marriage.”[11]

Whether this is a coincidence in archaic eastern ritual or a sign of connection between the two cultures, the Old Testament is undoubtedly a connecting point in revealing how Christ is the fulfillment of the very things that they already do within their cultures, which they too see in the Old Testament.

The Prophet-Healer

Due to the resonance with themes in the Old Testament and African culture, there are staples in traditional African society that have overlapped with themes found in the Old Testament. The Kenyan scholar, Jesse Mugambi is quite right in his view that, “When the Bible becomes accessible to African converts to Christianity, it becomes a companion text in their lives, because they can identify themselves and resonate with the biblical rhythm of life, especially in the Old Testament and in the synoptic gospels. Owing to the convergence between African and biblical ontologies, African interpretations of the Bible often become preoccupied with the search for resonance, rather than a quest for dissonance.”[12] For example, of The Africa Instituted Churches (AICs), Allan H. Anderson pointed out that, “In many AICs in southern Africa, the prophet-healer has taken over the function of the traditional healer. In these churches, the use of healing symbols is one of the central and most important features of church life and shows the ‘direct-parallels’ with traditional healing methods. “[13] Many westerners may see this a syncretism, but there has to be some sort of resonance in order for reception of Christianity to take place.

[1] Escobar, Samuel. The New Global Mission: The Gospel From Everywhere to Everyone. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 2003, 11.

[2] Walls, Andrew. “Culture and Coherence in Christian History”: Evangelical Review of Theology 9, no. 3, 1984, 215.

[3] Le Roux, Magdel. “Teaching and Interpreting the Old Testament in Africa: Written Word, Archaeology, and Oral World”, ResearchGate: University of South Africa, 2012, 560, 561.

[4] Le Roux, “Teaching and Interpreting the Old Testament,” OTE 25/3 (2012): 561.

[5] Magdel Le Roux and Schalk W. Van Heerden, “Postgraduate Supervision as

Teamwork: ‘The Africanisation of Biblical Studies’ Project – A Case Study,” Scriptura

101 (2009): 259-273; cf. other products of this joint project between the University

of Stavanger and Unisa (2002-2006): Knut Holter (ed)., Interpreting Classical

Texts in Contemporary Africa (Nairobi: Acton, 2007); Holter, Let my People Stay!

[6] Magdel Le Roux, The Lemba: A Lost Tribe of Israel in Southern Africa? (Pretoria:

Unisa, 2003), 233; Smart, Worldviews, 21-25.

[7]Mojola, A.O., 2014, ‘The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible in Africa: Challenges and prospects for interpretation and translation’, Verbum et Ecclesia 35(3), Art. #1307, 7 pages. http://dx.doi. org/10.4102/ve.v35i3.1307, 3.

[8] Turner, Victor The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (London: Cornell

University Press, 1967), 250.

[9] Le Roux, Magdel. “In Search of the Understanding of the Old Testament,” 175-176.

[10] Le Roux, The Lemba, 166-167.

[11] https://oldnaija.com/2017/02/07/ibi-ugwu-male-circumcision-in-igbo-land/

[12] Mojola, A.O., 2014, ‘The Old Testament or Hebrew Bible in Africa: Challenges and prospects for interpretation and translation’, Verbum et Ecclesia 35(3), Art. #1307, 7 pages. http://dx.doi. org/10.4102/ve.v35i3.1307, 3.

[13] Anderson, A.H. African Reformation – African Initiated Christianity in the 20th Century, Africa World Press: Trenton, NJ, 2001, 199.

The Rev. Dr. Nicole Foster the T.V. Host and founding minister of The Hippie Theologian. She holds a Doctor of Ministry from Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, a Master of Divinity from Redeemer Theological Seminary and a B.A. in History from Southern Methodist University. She’s an ordained Anglican minister and teaches Old Testament for various organizations. She loves to hike, camp, make organic soap, and be a beach bum as often as possible.

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