From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia My worshipers, the daughter of My dispersed ones, shall bring My offering”
It is best to have no expectations when visiting Ethiopia and it is vital to arrive there with a very open mind. Ethiopia is a mono-cultural, third-world nation. There are few conveniences and almost no toilets! Disease and poverty loom large everywhere. The standard of living is very low. Very few people speak English. Suffice it to say, Ethiopia is not a popular tourist destination and foreigners stick out like sore thumbs.
Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is neither new nor pretty. She rests at 8,000 feet above sea level, the third highest city in the world. Addis is dirty and seemingly disorganized, although the busses do run and people do eventually arrive at their destinations! Many beggars, suffering from leprosy or polio, line the streets. Schools are run down, with outdated and worn textbooks.
There is, however, another side to the city. The people somehow embody a dignity and happiness that is enviable. There is a warm, patriotic spirit that characterizes this oldest independent nation in Africa. One senses that the Ethiopian has a clear sense of his own place in the world.
Ethiopia has a proud and long history. In the Bible, it is known as, “the land of Cush,” named after Noah’s grandson. Semitic people-groups have populated Ethiopia for quite some time. Semites from Saba (modern-day Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula) were the descendants of Joktan (Genesis 10:26). They made their way across the narrow Red Sea and settled in the northern highlands of Ethiopia. Today, the majority of northern Ethiopians descends from these Joktan-clan Semites and are known as the Amhara. Their Hebrew-sounding language, Amharic, has become the dominant language in all of Ethiopia.
The Queen of Sheba is often depicted in Ethiopian art and folklore. According to Ethiopian history, she was a Sabean queen. She visited Solomon to hear his wisdom and, upon her return to Ethiopia, she gave birth to a son, Menelik (meaning from the king). At twenty years of age, Menelik traveled from Ethiopia to his father’s courts in Israel. There, he was recognized by Solomon and was directed to return to his own land to establish a Solomonic Dynasty. There are many Ethiopians today whose last name is Solomon.
History records that Solomon sent a clan of priests with Menelik and an entourage of 12,000 men, the sons of the rulers of the 12 tribes of Israel. Some speculate as to whether the Ark of the Covenant came to Ethiopia at this time. Some suggest that the priestly clan that accompanied Menelik took the Ark with them, fearing the civil catastrophe that was soon to befall Israel. Others say that the Ark came later, during the wicked reign of Manasseh. Ethiopia is the only country in the world that claims to have the Ark of the Covenant.
So begins the history of the Jewish people in Ethiopia. A Solomonic Jewish dynasty ruled the nation from the capital city of Axum in the north of Ethiopia all the way through to the Modern Period. The initial arrival of Jews in Ethiopia, with Menelik, was followed by a new wave during the time of Jeremiah. It is believed that some Jews who fled Israel fearing the Babylonians went to Egypt. From Egypt, it is believed that some migrated south looking for refuge with their fellow Jews whom they knew to be residents of Ethiopia.
A third wave of Jewish people came after the time of Jesus. It is thought that with the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, certain Jewish people fled to Saba. As the Roman Empire marched on, these Jews made the same Red Sea crossing as their predecessors.
Jewishness of the Orthodox Church
A Christian monk in the fourth century, a disciple of Athanaseus, brought the gospel to Ethiopia. The Solomonic king of that period, Azana, was a convert to Christianity. He was so convinced, that his court of Jewish priests converted too. So began the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
To this day, there is an amazing Jewish presence felt in the Orthodox Church as is reflected in the practices of circumcision and adherence to menstrual laws. In addition, Passover lambs are sacrificed at some of their monasteries. The Orthodox Church uses the model of the Solomonic Temple for its own structures and claims to have the Ark of the Covenant in its sanctuary in Axum. An Eli/Samuel-type of prophet system, one monk passing the sacred task on to another boy-monk when he dies, protects the Ark.
What Emerges from the History?
There are two important points that emerge from this history. The first is an understanding of the Beta Israel in Ethiopia with their long-standing Jewish traditions and historical underpinnings. The second is that many Jewish people assimilated into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, including the Jewish Monarchy itself. There was an original group-assimilation and then, it seems, there has been an extended historical attrition of the Jewish community into the fabric of Christian Ethiopian society. So, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is itself, in some ways, a Jewish mission field.
The Falasha Jews
The history of the Beta Israel, or Falasha Jews, begins with the grassroots Jewish reaction to the conversion of the Solomonic Dynasty. Many of the Jewish people resisted the new religion and would not follow their political and spiritual leaders in conversion. Persecution broke out among these renegade Jews and so the name, “Falasha” was born. The term means, “those who flee” and the Falasha had to start fleeing rapidly.
Denounced by the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox (ex-Jewish) Monarchy, the Beta Israel were no longer allowed to own land and were pushed to the rim of society. They became social outcasts and were reduced to peasants. There were numerous wars between the Falasha and the Monarchy. The greatest defender of the Jewish people was a woman named Judit, who succeeded in overpowering the Monarchy for a season. But after her days, the Monarchy was restored and the Jewish people were crushed further. The Ethiopian resistance was pushed into the rural areas of the Ethiopian highlands in the North, around the city of Gonder, as far north as the Simien Mountains. These were the traditional homelands of the Beta Israel until the Modern Period.
Of late, the Jewish people have largely left their ancient homelands and have either been airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon or have moved to compounds in Addis Ababa or Gonder to await Israeli extraction. However, a significant smattering of Jewish people still remains in the original homeland areas.
For Those Who Would Reach Out to Ethiopia with the Gospel
There may well be an opportunity to bring the gospel to our Jewish people in Ethiopia. It’s true that many, for historical reasons, have been indoctrinated into the Orthodox Church and religion. They have a nominal faith and those who would endeavor to reach these people need to learn well the doctrines of the Church, and work and pray to bring about revival. The Ethiopians need to see Yeshua, not a religion.
Foreigners recognize their limitations and inadequacies in reaching out to this vastly different culture, therefore it is most advantageous for the work in Ethiopia to be spearheaded by Ethiopian believers. The Evangelical Theological College in Addis Ababa was begun by the Sudan Interior Mission and exists for the sole purpose of raising up Ethiopians to reach their own people.
The Israeli Embassy holds a certain intimidation for those Ethiopian Jews who would boldly share their faith. They would most likely threaten to confiscate the Israeli preliminary identity documents which the Ethiopians so proudly hold. The Orthodox Jews have a far-reaching infrastructure in the Jewish community. Therefore, less overt types of evangelism may be advisable.
However, this is not to discourage those who would seek to do evangelism in Ethiopia. In fact, as time marches on, the need to do so will increase as the number of Jewish people in this country dwindles and the community becomes more and more fragmented. Politically speaking, now might be the best time ever to do evangelism. Twenty years ago, Communist rule prevented evangelicals from doing anything in Ethiopia. Presently, there is in place the most liberal Ethiopian government yet in existence, and the most tolerant of religious freedom. And spiritually speaking, we know that “now is the time of salvation.”