Ethiopia & The Old Testament

The text below, kindly written by Dr Bernard Leeman especially for this website, is a summation of some fascinating recent findings that place the oft-dismissed Ethiopian traditions relating to King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, the Ark of the Covenant and other Old Testament icons in a new and altogether more credible light:

Ethiopia and Eritrea have traditions linked to Moses, King Solomon, the Ark of the Covenant, and in particular the Queen of Sheba. Their Orthodox Church has a significant substratum of ancient Israelite religious practices and vocabulary [Ullendorf 1953, 1956, 1960, 1968]. And until recently the country supported a substantial community known as the Beta Israel (pejoratively Falasha), whose religion and traditions linked them to the First Temple built by King Solomon in the 10th century BCE and destroyed in 586 BCE.

Until 1974, the constitution of imperial Ethiopia was based on the Kebra Nagast, a document compiled circa AD 1314. The Kebra Nagast claims that Ethiopia and its ruler were divinely ordained as the inheritors and guardians of Solomon’s kingdom as well as the true Christian (Monophysite) Church established in 323 AD by the Council of Nicaea. It also includes the Sheba-Menelik Cycle, which recounts how the Ark of the Covenant was stolen from the First Temple by the high priest of Judah’s son, who fled with it to Ethiopia accompanied by Menelik, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

The Christian era content of the Kebra Nagast, which is known as the Caleb Cycle and concerns the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon and the Aksumite invasion of Jewish Himyar in Yemen circa AD 520, is accepted as historical fact. By contrast, the Old Testament links and traditions of the Beta Israel, although initially received with some enthusiasm, have been discredited mainly because it seemed illogical for the Ethiopians to have had such close ties with ancient Palestine.

The Beta Israel are the most studied people in Africa. Most research was undertaken in the past sixty years,but recent major works (by Kaplan, Kessler, Munro-Hay, Parfitt, Quirin, Rapoport and Shelemay) did not take into account the growing disquiet in Old Testament archaeology over lack of evidence concerning events before the Babylonian conquest of 586 BCE. Old Testament archaeology is in crises, with scholars divided into two broad camps, known as Biblical “maximalists” and “minimalists”. The “maximalists” believe that Joshua, David and Solomon lived in Ancient Palestine, claiming that convincing evidence already exists to prove this [A.Mazar 1990], or that such evidence will eventually be unearthed [Dever 2003]. The “minimalists” range from those who think the pre-586 BCE account contains some truth but is highly exaggerated [Finkelstein andSilberman 2001], to those who dismiss the entire narrative as a fantasy concocted in Babylon [Thompson 1999].All major writers on the Beta Israel are maximalists [although Ullendorf hints at reservations], and some argue that their “Jewishness” was manufactured in the 15th century AD to emphasise their Agaw identity and to assert its independence from the imperial Christian feudal system and encroach of Islam.

The third school of Old Testament thought is known as Arabian Judah. This supports the notion that the Ark of the Covenant was stolen from Solomon’s Temple in the 10th century BCE and transported to Ethiopia by Menelik, who there established an Israelite state that appears to have survived at least until the death of Queen Gudit/Yodit around AD 970. This Cushitic Hebraic-Agaw state, known in antiquity as D‘MT, was probably the same as Gudit’s realm of Damot and was absorbed into the Christian Aksumite/Ethiopian state, which commandeered its political and religious legacy. The main Arabian evidence to support this claim comes from the astonishing match of unvocalised Old Testament place names between Medina and Yemen [Salibi 1985] with the seemingly inexplicable high incidence of high Hebrew vocabulary and grammar in Ancient West Arabian the same area [Rabin 1951, Leeman 2005]. The Ethiopian evidence is mostly connected with the Beta Israel and the Sheba-Menelik Cycle of the Kebra Nagast, translated into Ge’ez from an Arabic text of about AD 520

The Sheba-Menelik Cycle contains the Law of Moses in a version that omits almost all of the Laws of Deuteronomy [Leeman 2005: 200-204], which scholars agree was complied after 641 BCE [Finkelstein and Silberman 2001:46-47]. In addition, its Old Testament quotations are not standard and appear to be from an unknown ancient oral or written source [Hubbard 1956]. The Ethiopian word for the Ark of the Covenant dates from Solomon’s era [Rabin: 109] and ca. 750 BCE Sabaean inscriptions on two incense burners at AdiKaweh, Wukro, (one retrieved above Queen Gudit’s alleged grave) testify to the rule there of four kings of D‘mt and Sabaea (Sheba), three of whom ruled jointly with queens over a mixed population of Semitic (“red”) Sabaeans and Cushitic (“black”) Hebrews [Schneider 1973, Leeman 2005, 2009], lending support to the Sheba-Menelik narrative. Also the Beta Israel traditionally prayed east towards Jerusalem and the word falasha is Sabaean in orgin [Biella 2004: 350], as is msd-n, the Beta Israel word for their house of prayer [Leslau 1991: 363], all which indicate an Arabian origin. Leslau [1951: xxi] provides evidence that the Hebrew may have been Cushitic by stating that the Beta Israel retained ancient Hebrew liturgy in their Cushitic Agaw language, although they were unable to understand its meaning. The Hebrew word for Samaritans (denizens of the northern kingdom of Israel) and blacks is the same – kushi.

The Sheba-Menelik Cycle may have been written before Solomon’s death circa 920 BCE because it does not mention any event after his reign. Secondly, while the Old Testament remains silent on why the high priesthood disappeared from Judah during Solomon’s time during the high priesthood of Azariah [B. Mazar 1992: 38], the Sheba-Menelik Cycle states that Azariah, whom it identifies as the son of the high priest, stole the Ark and fled to Ethiopia. Thirdly although the Old Testament, Jewish and Arab traditions have no satisfactory explanation for the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant, theSheba-Menelik Cycle has a highly detailed description. On first encounter, this description seems like complete lunacy, because its geographical references appear absurd [Leeman 2009: 25 Map 2]. However, the same references match up well against Salibi’s hypothetical map of Arabian Judah; for example, the account of Menelik crossing to Ethiopia opposite Mount Sinai makes more sense if Mount Sinai is in fact the volcanic peak of Jebel al-NabiShu’ayb (Mountain of the Prophet Jethro – Moses’ father in law) in northern Yemen [Leeman 2009: 26 Map 3].

In conclusion most of what has been written about Ethiopia’s Biblical links and its Hebraic-Israelite population deserves re-examination now that archaeology has raised serious doubts that the events before 586 BCE occurred in the area of modern Israel/Palestine. Evidence from Ethiopia suggests that the Old Testament historical account is most probably true, but that it belongs to West Arabia and to a lesser extent Ethiopia and Eritrea.


*Biella, Joan [2004] Dictionary of Old South Arabian–Sabaean Dialect Eisenbrauns,

Winola Lake, Indiana

*Dever, William G. [2003] Who were the early Israelites and where did they come from? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans

*Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Silberman (2001) The Bible Unearthed New York: Free Press

*Hubbard, David (1956) The Literary Sources of the Kebra Nagast Ph.D. dissertation., St.

Andrews University, Scotland

*Leeman, Bernard [2005] Queen of Sheba and Biblical Scholarship Westbrook Australia:

Queensland Academic Press/

*Leeman, Bernard (2009) “The Sabaean Inscriptions at AdiKaweh – evidence supporting the narrative of the Sheba-Menelik Cycle of the Kebra Nagast” ”African Studies Association of Australasia and Pacific Conference, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, Australia, Friday 2 October 2009‘/

*Leslau, Wolf [1951] Falasha Anthology New Haven Connecticut: Yale University Press

*Leslau, Wolf [1991] Comparative Dictionary of Ge’ez Wiesbaden:OttoHarrassowitz

*Mazar, Amihai [1990] Archaeology of the Land of The Bible 10,000 – 586 BCENew York: Anchor Bible Reference Library

*Mazar, Benjamin [1992] Biblical Israel State and People Jerusalem: Magnes Press and

the Israel Exploration Society

*Munro-Hay, Stuart [2005 ] The Quest For The Ark Of The Covenant The True History Of

The Tablets of Moses London: I. B. Tauris

*Rabin, Chaim [1951] Ancient West Arabian London: Taylor’s Foreign Press

*Salibi, Kamal [1985] The Bible Came from Arabia London: Jonathan Cape

*Schneider, Roger (1973) “Deux inscriptions subarabiques du Tigre.” Leiden,

Netherlands: Bibliotheca Orientalis, 30, 1973, 385-387

*Thompson Thomas L. [1999] The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past London:


*Ullendorf, Edward [1953] James Bruce of Kinnaird Edinburgh: Edinburgh University


*Ullendorf, Edward [1956] “Hebraic Jewish Elements in Abyssinian (Monophysite)

Christianity” in Journal of Semitic Studies, 1, no.3, (1956), 216-256.

*Ullendorf, Edward [1960] The Ethiopians London Oxford University Press

*Ullendorf, Edward [1968] Ethiopia and the Bible London: Oxford University Press


3 thoughts on “Ethiopia & The Old Testament

  1. Anjanette Munroe says:

    The geographical names of Ethiopia and Arabia were not the same as they were during those times. The Sabaeans ruled over the southern part of Arabia then and according to the stories, Sheba was of mixed heritage.

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