Are Cushites Ethiopian?

One of the countries mentioned in the Bible is Cush. In our times there is no nation called Cush. But many people wonder if the Cushites are Ethiopians?

The nations mentioned in the Bible can be divided into 3 groups:

  • Nations we can identify and they still exist today.
  • Nations we can identify and they do not exist today.
  • Nations we cannot identify we certainty.

Cush is in that third category.

I want to answer this question in depth by investigating the verses in the Torah that mention Cush.

I’ll start by looking at the word “Cush” and how it is used. Then I’ll look closely at the geographical clues that are hinted at in the relevant verses.

Are Cushites Ethiopian? – The Short Answer

The Hebrew word “Cush” is often translated as Ethiopia. Based on that translation, then the Cushites are Ethiopians.

The part of Africa we call Ethiopia these days is probably further south than the Biblical Cush.

In fact, there are some scholars who translate Cush as Nubia.

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The Hebrew Word “Cush”

The Hebrew word “Cush” in various forms appears about 60 times in the Bible.

In Hebrew it is spelled kaf-vav-shin. In other words, when we write Cush, we are writing the Hebrew word as transliterated into English letters.

Of course, there are various systems for transliterating from Hebrew to English. Therefore, some authors will write Kush rather than Cush.

A person from Cush is called a Cushi or Cushite.

We find the word Cush used several ways in the Bible. It is used as: the name of a person, the name of a country, and the name of a people from that country.

Cush – Grandson of Noach

The first person in the Bible named Cush was a grandson of Noach.

Genesis Chapter 10

6. And the sons of Ham [son of Noach]: Cush, and Egypt, and Put, and Canaan.
7. And the sons of Cush: Seba, and Havilah, and Sabtah, and Raamah, and Sabtecha; and the sons of Raamah; Sheba, and Dedan.
8. And Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty one.

All of these sons and grandsons of Ham, except for Nimrod, became the founders of nations named after them. That is probably part of the reason why he is mentioned in his own verse.

As we’ll see later, knowing these names and their related countries can give us an idea of where the country Cush was located.

Other People Named Cush

There is only one other person named Cush mentioned in the Bible. His name is Cushan-Rishathaim mentioned in Judges chapter 3 as an oppressor of the Jewish people.

There are several other people who are called Cushites:

  • the wife of Moses (Numbers 12)
  • a messenger sent by Joab to King David (2 Samuel 18)
  • Ebed-melech the Cushite who saved Jeremiah (Jeremiah 39 and 39)
  • Zerah the Cushite who waged war against King Asa (2 Chronicles 14)

Geographic Details about the Country Cush

Now let’s dive into the verses that reveal to us geographical details about the country.

The Bible is not a travel guide and is not focused on telling us the location of Cush. However, a careful reading of the verses will give us many clues about its geography.

The Land of Cush is first mentioned in Genesis 2:

Genesis Chapter 2

10. And a river went out from Eden to water the garden; and from there it was divided, and became four rivers.
11. The name of the first is Pishon; that is the one which flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;
12. And the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone.
13. And the name of the second river is Gihon; that is the one which flows around the whole land of Cush.
14. And the name of the third river is the Hiddekel [Tigris]; that is the one which flows toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Perat [Euphrates].

There is general agreement that the Hiddekel and Perat are what we now call the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Cush – A Land of Rivers

The Pishon River is described as circling the land of Havilah, a country named after a son of Cush.

And the Gihon River is described as flowing around the land of Cush.

The Torah commentary Daat Mikra and the Daat Mikra Atlas identify the Pishon as the Blue Nile and the Gihon as the White Nile.

Nile River
The Nile River including the White Nile and the Blue Nile.

Here’s what the Daat Mikra Atlas writes:

Daat Mikra Atlas page 18

The Bible provides no indication of the location of Eden, but it does offer information about the sources of the rivers. According to the interpretation followed here, the Land of Havilah is modern Ethiopia and Somalia, and Cush refers to the regions immediately south of Egypt (Nubia, modern day Sudan). Thus Pishon is the Blue Nile and Gihon the White Nile. After these two merge into a single stream, the Bible refers to it as the Ye’or, or River of Egypt, the Nile.

As you can see from the map, the Blue and White Nile rivers both are curved and could be explained as flowing “around” an area.

In a similar way, both Isaiah 18:1 and Zephaniah 3:10 describe Cush as a land of rivers.

Egypt and Cush

There are several verses in the Book of Isaiah that mention both Egypt and Cush. These verses imply that the countries are close to each other.

Isaiah Chapter 20

3. And the Lord said, Like my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot three years for a sign and wonder upon Egypt and upon Cush;
4. So shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Cushites captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with their buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt.
5. And they shall be afraid and ashamed of Cush their expectation, and of Egypt their glory.

According to this prophecy, Assyria will conquer both Egypt and Cush. There is an implication that they will be conquered at the same time.

In the prophecy of Ezekiel we read:

Ezekiel Chapter 29

9. And the land of Egypt shall be desolate and waste; and they shall know that I am the Lord; because he has said, The river is mine, and I have made it.
10. Behold, therefore I am against you, and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste and desolate, from Migdol to Svene as far as the border of Cush.

In these verses we see that Egypt and Cush share a border. The verses also imply that the direction of travel is from Migdol to Svene to the border with Cush.

Migdol is probably where Jews lived in the time of Jeremiah after the destruction of the First Temple (Jeremiah 44:1). This places Migdol in the Nile delta in the north of Egypt. Svene has been identified as near the present day Aswan.

Based on this, we can conclude that Cush is south of Egypt.

Cush Near the Sea

The prophet Ezekiel also tells us that Cush is easily reached by ship. This implies that Cush is near a large body of water.

Ezekiel Chapter 30

9. In that day shall messengers go forth from Me in ships to make the confident Cushites afraid, and anguish shall come upon them, as in the day of Egypt; for, behold, it comes.

Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia

Nations and People who are not Cush

There are many verses which mention the Land of Cush and one or more other countries.

It could be that the verse is using these names as synonyms. However, without clear evidence to the contrary, it’s more likely that these verses are mentioning different countries.

We already saw this in Genesis 10 that I quoted above. There we have the sons of Ham and Cush who became the founders of different nations.

We have another clear example in Megillat Esther.

Esther Chapter 1

1. And it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, this is Ahasuerus who reigned, from Hodu to Cush, over one hundred and twenty seven provinces;

Clearly Hodu (India) and Cush are different countries. There is a dispute in the Gemara about how far apart these countries are. However, I’m not aware of any suggestion that they are the same country.

With this in mind, here is a list of all of the countries that are mentioned in verses along with Cush. (After the nation’s name I’ve included the verse that mentions Cush. The other country maybe mentioned in that verse or in a nearby verse.)

  • Ammon – Zephaniah 2:12; Daniel 11:43
  • Aram – 2 Chronicles 16:8
  • Aravim – 2 Chronicles 21:16
  • Assyria – Isaiah 11:11
  • Babylon – Psalms 87:4
  • Edom – Daniel 11:43
  • Egypt – Isaiah 11:11; Isaiah 20:3-5; Jeremiah 46:9; Daniel 11:43; 2 Chronicles 12:3
  • Elam – Isaiah 11:11
  • Hamath – Isaiah 11:11
  • Hodu (India) – Esther 1:1; 8:9
  • islands of the sea – Isaiah 11:11
  • Lub – Jeremiah 46:9; Daniel 11:43; 2 Chronicles 12:3 and 16:8
  • Moab – Zephaniah 2:12; Daniel 11:43
  • Pathros – Isaiah 11:11
  • Philistia – Psalms 87:4; 2 Chronicles 21:16
  • Put – Jeremiah 46:9
  • Rahab – Psalms 87:4
  • Shinar – Isaiah 11:11
  • Sodom – Zephaniah 2:12
  • Sukki – 2 Chronicles 12:3
  • Tyre – Psalms 87:4

Conclusion – Cush and Cushites Identified

Map of Modern Africa

Where is Cush? Are the Cushites Ethiopians?

As we saw in the verses quoted above, Cush borders Egypt to its south. And Cush is near a large body of water.

That places it in the area of the present day Sudan but north of the present day Ethiopia.

Here’s how the Daat Mikra Atlas describes the borders of Egypt:

Daat Mikra Atlas, page 66

Geographically, Egypt is bounded by the Mediterranean in the north, the Gulf of Suez and Red Sea in the east, and Libya in the west. The southern border fluctuated in antiquity, but usually ran near the modern Aswan, at the first cataract of the Nile. The biblical name for the regions further south is the “land of Cush” (Nubia).

This places Cush as immediately south of Egypt.

However, both Daat Mikra and Daat Mikra Atlas make a another, more general statement about Cush:

Daat Mikra Atlas, page 39 (emphasis in the original)

Cush is the biblical designation for the lands south of Egypt – “from Syene [Aswan] as far as the border of Cush” (Ezek. 29:10; cf. Gen. 2:13). It includes Ethiopia (according to Josephus and Sa’adia Gaon). Because of the linguistic, cultural, and economic ties between the residents of Ethiopia and those of southern Arabia, the inhabitants of the latter were also known as Cush.

Based on this understanding of the biblical use of the word “Cush”, we can conclude that the Cushites are Ethiopian.

Picture Credits
Images “Modern Africa” and “Egypt and Red Sea” used by permission. “Designed by Freepik”.
River Nile Map:
Hel-hama, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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