In my MA history seminars about Tribe and Nation in Africa – which despite its omni-title is going very well – we’ve been discussing the value of anthropological studies of local origin myths to missionaries in the 1800s, and how tying origin myths and prophesies to various interpretations of the Bible helped establish the moral and social relevance of Christianity, among other things.
Imagine my surprise at this fabulous article, published with perfect timing before my seminar last week, putting the South Sudan referendum in Biblical context, with an origin myth of Cush tied to a nice prophesy in the form of Zephaniah 2, which foretells the civil war.
Isaiah 18, which talks about the people of Cush, who are apparently tall, smooth-skinned and live in a land divided by rivers, has been interpreted as a reference for Southern Sudanese for years. This biblical idea of a spiritual people descended from Ham has been tangled with the archaeological Kingdom of Kush in northern Sudan, although the application of the term “Kush Kingdom” has been used in a pretty slapdash way across a lot of Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. The name further extends to Cushitic languages, such as Somali and Oromo.
The plethora of real historical cultures and languages using the same religio-historical name feeds these fabulous literalist attempts to give geographical definition to areas of the Bible. A good example of this amagamation of historical and religious origin myth recently is the suggestion of Cush/Kush, among other ideas, as a name for the new independent South Sudan.
I’m definitely not mocking the religious conviction that lies behind this (although I do like how the article notes that one commentator has not come to a “100 percent conclusion” on the prophesy, whereas another is absolutely certain.) I’m also not going to go on about the fact that this is a diaspora article from a journalist from Nashville, no less, and the commentators are members of Presbyterian and other non-denominational churches, as well as a learned theological comment from a professor at Duke Divinity School. I just think the idea of Cush/Kush is a really fabulous example of a long tradition of tying historical and biblical origin myths together, allowing people the opportunity of situating themselves and their circumstances in a vast narrative arc, from absolute creation to previous independent soverignty as Kush, through to oppression and struggle towards independence and ultimate freedom.