As I’m sure you know, the Table of Nations in the book of Genesis uses individual people to stand for nations. According to the Bible, all of the countries and tribes of the world are descended from Noah, as he and his family were the sole survivors of the worldwide flood.
Noah’s son Ham, who was cursed for some strange and inexplicable incident involving seeing his father naked, had four of his own sons: Cush, Mizraim, Phut, and Canaan.
Canaan is obviously the land in which the Kingdom of Israel was later established, while Cush corresponded to Ethiopia and Mizraim to Egypt. Phut is a little harder to place, but is usually associated with Libya. So far so good, right? But then we’re told that one of Cush’s sons is the infamous hunter Nimrod, credited with founding several cities in Mesopotamia.
So when did Ethiopians have control over part of the Arabian Peninsula? Chances are they really didn’t, but Gary Greenberg’s 101 Myths of the Bible offers an interesting possible explanation from Egyptian folklore. Herodotus related the story of Sesostris, which he had apparently heard from Egyptian priests. In the legend, Sesostris was an ancient pharaoh who conquered a considerable part of the known world, which would have included Canaan and Mesopotamia.
Sesostris was also said to rule Ethiopia, which would explain why Nimrod was identified as a son of Cush.
There’s also a link to Greek mythology here. Belus, son of Poseidon and Libya and King of Egypt, had a few different sons, who went on to rule Egypt, Libya, and Ethiopia. One of these sons was Cepheus, identified as King of Ethiopia, yet living in Joppa in Phoenicia. As I mentioned when discussing Perseus, Joppa (better known as Jaffa) still exists in modern-day Israel, as part of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
Andromeda’s father is named Cepheus, and is identified as Ethiopian. The creators of the myths probably figured that this Cepheus was a descendant of the son of Belus with the same name. So we once again have Ethiopia dominating part of the Arabian Peninsula. A Wikipedia entry on the mythical Ethiopia, however, claims that the Greeks tended to refer to anyone with darker skin than theirs as “Ethiopian,” so there need not necessarily be a connection. It’s interesting to think there might be, though.
In Jeremiah 13:23, we come across the rhetorical question, “Can the Cushite change his skin, or the leopard his spots?”.
So we’re almost certainly dealing with a people who have a considerably different skin tone from the inhabitants of Israel and Judah. So did the writers of the Bible think of Nimrod as black? It’s not entirely clear. I know the curse of Ham has sometimes been used to defend racism, but would that have had any relevance in the time of the Kingdom of Israel? I didn’t know until fairly recently that the race of the ancient Egyptians is a matter of much controversy. I’ve seen it suggested (albeit not by actual scholars, as far as I know) that Alexander the Great had the Great Sphinx’s nose removed because it was too negroid in form. But even if Alexander was racist, why would we assume it was the same kind of racism practiced by Strom Thurmond and David Duke? Getting back to the Bible, I don’t know of any indication that Canaan was ever predominantly black, and the Canaanites were said to be the descendants of the brother of Mizraim and Cush. In fact, it was Canaan who was cursed by Noah, so associating the curse with darker skin doesn’t really make sense. It seems to me that the Table of Nations isn’t based on any modern idea of race, but rather on geographical and political distinctions of the time. There’s some overlap, of course, but peoples whom we would now consider Caucasian and Negroid are identified in Genesis as being closely related. The Bible definitely contains prejudice, but it tends to be primarily against other nations and religions, not skin tones.