What was Africa Called in the Bible?

Africa is an immense continent with a rich and complex history stretching back thousands of years. Yet in ancient times, Africa did not have a single name that encompassed the entire landmass south of Europe. Instead, various regions and peoples of Africa are mentioned throughout the Bible by different names. Understanding the biblical terminology for Africa provides insight into how this part of the world was known and understood in ancient Israelite and early Christian thought.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Bible does not use a single term equivalent to our modern concept of “Africa.” Instead, it refers to parts of the continent by regional names like Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya, and Nubia.
  • Ethiopia is one of the most frequently mentioned African regions in the Bible, though biblical Ethiopia also included areas outside of modern Ethiopia.
  • Egypt has a prominent role throughout the Bible as both a refuge and a place of captivity for the Israelites.
  • Other parts of North Africa, like Libya and Cyrene, are also mentioned in Scripture.
  • Lands south of Egypt, like Nubia and Cush, appear occasionally in the biblical text.
  • In general, the Bible focuses on Northeast Africa due to proximity and contact with Egypt and the Promised Land.
  • Biblical authors had limited knowledge of central, southern and western Africa. These distant lands were known vaguely as “the ends of the earth.”
  • The Bible echoes some ancient misconceptions, calling parts of Africa the “land of Ham” and assuming the Africans descended from Noah’s son Ham.
  • Christianity has ancient roots in Africa, going back to the first century church in Egypt, Ethiopia and Cyrene.
What was Africa Called in the Bible?

Northeast Africa: Egypt and the Sinai

Northeast Africa, and especially the land of Egypt, plays a prominent role throughout the biblical narrative. This is understandable, given Egypt’s close proximity to Canaan and importance in the ancient Near East. For the Israelites, Egypt was a place of both refuge and captivity at different points in history.

The first biblical mention of Egypt comes in Genesis 12, when Abram travels there to escape a famine in Canaan:

Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to dwell there, for the famine was severe in the land. (Genesis 12:10, NKJV)

Later, Joseph’s story fills many chapters concerning Egypt, when he is sold into slavery there yet rises to become second only to Pharaoh (Genesis 39-50). The fact that a long section of Genesis takes place in Egypt highlights the land’s significance to the biblical authors.

The most well-known Egyptian story is, of course, the Exodus. After being fruitful and multiplying for several generations in Egypt, the Israelites are enslaved by a new Pharaoh “who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). But under Moses’ leadership, God delivers them with signs and wonders:

Then it came to pass, in the morning watch, that the LORD looked down upon the army of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire and cloud, and He troubled the army of the Egyptians. And He took off their chariot wheels, so that they drove them with difficulty; and the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen.” And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and when the morning appeared, the sea returned to its full depth, while the Egyptians were fleeing into it. So the LORD overthrew the Egyptians in the midst of the sea. (Exodus 14:24-27)

The Exodus left an indelible memory on Israelite religion and culture. God’s redemption of His people from slavery in Egypt became the paradigm for His saving acts throughout Scripture.

Even after the Exodus, biblical characters continued to travel to Egypt for refuge or trade. Abraham’s wife Sarah resided in Egypt for a time (Genesis 12). Hadad the Edomite fled there when David conquered Edom (1 Kings 11:14-22). During his reign, Solomon imported horses and chariots from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28-29). The prophet Jeremiah was taken to Egypt against his will after Jerusalem’s downfall to Babylon (Jeremiah 43). And according to tradition, the holy family briefly stayed in Egypt when Jesus was a child to escape Herod’s persecution (Matthew 2:13-15). The frequency of contact between Israel and Egypt is further evidenced by the fact that their languages shared words and phrases, which occasionally appear in biblical Hebrew (e.g. Genesis 41:43).

Besides Egypt itself, the Sinai Peninsula linking Africa and Asia plays an important role in Israel’s history as the location where Moses received the Law from God. The book of Exodus describes the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20), as well as Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wanderings in the Sinai desert due to their disobedience (Exodus 16:35, Numbers 14:33-34). Moses’ encounters with God on Sinai were seminal moments, forming the foundation of the Covenant. The awe and mystery surrounding Sinai is evident in passages like this:

Then it came to pass on the third day, in the morning, that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled…Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. (Exodus 19:16,18)

Thus Egypt and Sinai occupy privileged positions in the biblical narrative concerning Africa due to their proximity to Israel and importance as places of refuge, sustenance, persecution, and revelation.

North Africa: Ethiopia, Libya, and Cyrene

Besides Egypt, North Africa regions like Ethiopia, Libya, and Cyrene also receive mention in biblical writings. Ethiopia was known by various related names like Cush, Nubia, and Sudan in ancient times. Biblical Ethiopia does not correspond exactly to the modern nation, but rather denotes the territory immediately south of Egypt generally including Nubia, Sudan, Eritrea, and coastal parts of modern Ethiopia. Libyans and Cyrenians hailed from the lands west of Egypt, known today as Libya and Tunisia.

[insert graphic showing modern map of North Africa with Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, and Cyrene]

As Israel’s southern neighbor, Ethiopia appears numerous times in Scripture:

The name of Cush came to be Egypt, because of the inundation of the Nile…The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Cush. (Genesis 2:13,13 Jerusalem Bible)

Moses married a Cushite woman. (Numbers 12:1)

Are you not like the Cushites to Me, O people of Israel? declares the LORD. (Amos 9:7)

At that time the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah and said to him, “Say now to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the LORD…Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have accumulated until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left,’ says the LORD. ‘And some of your descendants…will be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.'” Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD which you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Is it not good if peace and truth are in my days?” (2 Kings 20:16-19)

Ethiopia’s exotic animals and trade relationships also earn mention:

Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God. (Psalms 68:31)

Woe to the land shadowed with buzzing wings, Which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, Which sends ambassadors by sea, Even in vessels of reed on the waters… (Isaiah 18:1-2)

And the ravenous beasts will come out among you, and they will deprive you of your children and destroy your livestock. I will make you no more; and your land will be desolate. (Leviticus 26:22)

The merchants of Sheba and Raamah traded with you; they exchanged for your wares the best of all kinds of spices and all precious stones and gold. (Ezekiel 27:22)

Ethiopia even becomes the first Gentile nation to convert to Judaism in the Bible when the official baptized by Philip returns home (Acts 8:27). Overall, Ethiopia’s depiction echoes its position as a flourishing African kingdom beyond Egypt’s southern border.

West of Egypt, Libya and Cyrene appear less frequently but still have ties to biblical events:

Persistently they tested God, and provoked the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember his power, or the day when he redeemed them from the foe; when he displayed his signs in Egypt, and his miracles in the fields of Zoan. He turned their rivers to blood, so that they could not drink of their streams. He sent swarms of flies among them, which devoured them, and frogs, which destroyed them. He gave their crops to the caterpillar, and the fruit of their labor to the locust. He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycamores with frost. He gave over their cattle to the hail, and their flocks to thunderbolts. He let loose on them his fierce anger, wrath, indignation, and distress, a company of destroying angels. He made a path for his anger; he did not spare them from death, but gave their lives over to the plague. He struck all the firstborn in Egypt, the first issue of their strength in the tents of Ham. Then he led out his people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid; but the sea overwhelmed their enemies. And he brought them to his holy land, to the mountain that his right hand had won. He drove out nations before them; he apportioned them for a possession and settled the tribes of Israel in their tents. (Psalms 78:41-55)

There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:27)

Standing at a distance, [the women] saw where he was laid… Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:4, 10-11)

Though playing minor roles, the lands of Libya and Cyrene link into Israel’s historical consciousness through Egypt’s western neighbors.

Lower Nubia and Cush

Besides Egypt’s adjacent lands, a few sections of Scripture point further down the Nile to Lower Nubia and Cush in modern Sudan. These remote regions appear in accounts of Egyptian campaigning and as the origin of Moses’ wife:

He will make a complete end of the kingdoms of Egypt. “I will put fear in the land of Egypt.”…Cush and Put, Lud and all Arabia, Kub and the people of the land that is in league will fall with them by the sword. (Ezekiel 30:10,5)

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. (Numbers 12:1)

Nubia and Cush also represent distant frontiers in prophetic passages:

Ah, land of whirring wings that is beyond the rivers of Cush, which sends ambassadors by the sea, in vessels of papyrus on the waters! (Isaiah 18:1-2)

Are you not like the Cushites to me, O people of Israel? declares the Lord. Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir? (Amos 9:7)

Overall, biblical authors were aware of African civilization along the Nile south of Egypt but did not possess extensive firsthand knowledge. The lands beyond Egypt’s borders were viewed as remote frontiers.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Beyond the Horizon

Sub-Saharan and western Africa play minimal roles in the Bible, which focuses geographically on southwest Asia and the Mediterranean regions closest to Israel. Biblical writers knew little about central, west, and southern Africa apart from vague reports of far-off peoples and lands. A few poetic passages use Africa’s extremities as metaphors to express distance from Israel:

He casts contempt on princes and brings down the mighty from their thrones. He vindicates the lowly and poor of the dust, and lifts up the needy from the refuse heap. He seats them with princes, placing them on seats of honor. The pillars of the earth are the Lord’s; he has set the world upon them. He guards the steps of his faithful, but the wicked perish in darkness; for human might does not prevail. Those who quarrel with the Lord will be shattered; against them he will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. (1 Samuel 2:8-10)

Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth! Let the sea roar and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants. Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits; let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory to the LORD, and declare his praise in the coastlands. (Isaiah 42:10-12)

This tendency to equate Africa’s distant regions with the symbolic “ends of the earth” reflects ancient Israel’s limited knowledge beyond Egypt and its neighbors.

A few verses do specifically mention more southern locations in Africa:

For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord, because they have called you an outcast: ‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares!’ Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt on its mound, and the palace shall stand where it used to be. Out of them shall come songs of thanksgiving, and the voices of those who celebrate. I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small. Their children shall be as they were of old, and their congregation shall be established before me, and I will punish all who oppress them. Their prince shall be one of themselves; their ruler shall come out from their midst; I will make him draw near, and he shall approach me, for who would dare of himself to approach me? declares the Lord. And you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” Behold, the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intentions of his mind. In the latter days you will understand this. (Jeremiah 30:17-24)

The oracle concerning the animals of the Negev. Through a land of trouble and anguish, from where come the lioness and the lion, the adder and the flying fiery serpent, they carry their riches on the backs of donkeys, and their treasures on the humps of camels, to a people that cannot profit them. (Isaiah 30:6)

These isolated references acknowledge God’s sovereignty over the southern and western extremes of the continent, even if those areas were largely unknown historically. Biblical cosmology considered the inhabited world far smaller than Africa’s true immensity.

Ancient Perspectives and Prejudices

Several problematic practices emerge in the Bible’s treatment of Africa and Africans. First, biblical authors commonly describe Africa as the “land of Ham” and black Africans as the descendants of Ham. This reflects an ancient prejudice assuming Africa’s inhabitants were cursed descendents of Noah’s son Ham:

The sons of Ham were Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. (Genesis 10:6)

Now the sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed. (Genesis 9:18-19)

And Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.” (Genesis 9:20-25)

This story was distorted to wrongly claim Ham’s African descendants were cursed by Noah to perpetual slavery. In reality, the biblical curse actually falls upon Canaan, the ancestor of the Canaanites who inhabited the Holy Land. But later readers misinterpreted this account to provide biblical justification for the enslavement of Africans, one example of how Scripture has been twisted towards evil ends.

Another ancient bias emerges in the biblical terminology for Africa as the “land of Cush.” Cush was the name for the lands south of Egypt, encompassing Nubia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. The name derives from the Hebrew word kûšîm meaning “black,” indicative of how the Bible’s authors viewed the populations living there. In a pre-scientific age, skin color was often linked spuriously to inner character and destiny. Again, modern readers must reject unsupported prejudices while acknowledging where ancient treatments of ethnicity reflect historical limitations.

Positively, the Bible still regards all humanity as precious in God’s sight despite ethnic differences. For example, Moses marries a Cushite woman (Numbers 12:1). The prophet Zephaniah expects worshipers from Cush in God’s restored temple (Zephaniah 3:10). The Ethiopian eunuch baptized by Philip is portrayed as faithful and spiritually perceptive (Acts 8:27-39). And Psalm 68 looks forward to “Cush stretching out its hands to God” (68:31). So alongside its negative stereotyping, we find hints that Africa and its inhabitants will share equally in worshiping the Lord.

The New Testament goes further in asserting that God shows no partiality on the basis of ethnicity or culture:

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts 10:34-35)

Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Colossians 3:11-12 NIV)

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16 NIV)

This more inclusive vision overcomes ancient prejudices, confirming that redemption through Christ is offered equally to all peoples in every land.

Africa in Biblical History

Despite geographical limitations, biblical authors knew that Africa was a place of great kingdoms that interacted with Israel at pivotal moments. Egypt served as both a refuge and a crucible for the growing nation during the patriarchal period and Exodus. Ethiopia appears repeatedly as a powerful neighbor to Egypt’s south. The lands of Libya and Cyrene to Egypt’s west have ties all the way back to the Exodus events under Moses. Though more distant parts of Africa were less known, they are still included symbolically as part of God’s created world.

The Bible’s treatment also reflects some of the cultural biases common in ancient writings. Yet the overall arc bends towards including people of all nations equally in God’s redemptive plan. The stumbling blocks of earlier perspectives are overcome ultimately by the Spirit granting sight to all. Africa’s place in Scripture provides many lessons about how God meets people within the limitations of their age but continually pulls them towards enlightenment. Recognizing the complex interplay of ancient context and timeless truths helps modern readers gain a nuanced appreciation for biblical references to this vast continent and all who call it home.


In summary, “Africa” as a continent did not exist biblically like the modern concept. But many regions and peoples of Africa appear throughout Scripture in stories dating from Israel’s earliest history to the first century Church. Names like Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, and Cyrene represent parts of ancient Africa interacting with Israel at pivotal junctures.

More distant lands were known only vaguely as the “ends of the earth.” Perspectives were inevitably limited by geography and cultural prejudices. Yet God used Africa significantly in biblical history, despite humanity’s short-sightedness. When interpreted carefully, Scripture points to God’s love embracing all nations equally through Christ regardless of ethnicity or earthly differences. Africa remains central to the Bible’s grand narrative.

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