Over time we have posted numerous articles on this blog in both English and Afrikaans which address the subjects of British-Israelism (“Israel Vision”) and the Hebrew Roots Movement. In South Africa, these belief systems have a rather large following, and in particular among the Afrikaner people. Although there are many different streams within these belief systems, they all have in common some form of false belief that they are either descendants of the Jewish people by inheritance, by birthright or by divine proclamation.
Additionally, as in some other, mostly Western, countries, these remain highly controversial subjects and the indoctrinated followers of these cult-like movements vehemently defend their positions, often with great eloquence and with what they firmly believe to be, Old Testament Scriptural support. Many of the deceived followers of these incorrect and false belief systems have commented at length in opposition to our articles and, in an almost equal number of instances, we have not approved their comments. With predictable regularity, these misled people lose all semblance of the measured, intellectual decency and Christian attitudes they portray at first, once they resort to cursing us when we do not publish their deceitful responses. There are very few names which we have not been called by these religious terrorists.
Although, to some this may seem to be unfair practice on our part, it remains our prerogative as to what is made public on this blog. This blog is not entitled, “For the Love of Falsehood”. We are accountable to all true Christians and to all those whom we do not know, but whom God has drawn to faith and salvation by His grace. The reason for posting the related articles has always been to expose the dangers posed by these false belief systems and to refute them. We do not post articles which oppose the “Israel Vision” and Hebrew Roots Movements in order to create a platform from which followers of these religious falsehoods, can further advertise their deceptive messages.
Neither has it been our intention to use the blog as a forum for any long-winded and, more than likely, fruitless, debate with those who are opposed to simple biblical and historical facts. By not approving many of the comments which support the South African form of British-Israelism, “Israel Vision” and Hebrew Roots Movements, we are at least able to limit, to a small degree, the exposure given to their false and deadly religious beliefs.
However, there is a group of South Africans who can rightfully lay claim to being of Jewish descent, and I’m sure that there will be many readers, and in particular many of our South African readers, who will find the following article very surprising.
Of course, in this instance I am not speaking of our Jewish friends, team mates, business associates and acquaintances in South Africa’s towns and cities, who are quite obviously, Jewish immigrants to South Africa, naturalized South Africans, or the families of Jewish immigrants. Most, if not all of the South African Jewish people we have encountered, arrived on our shores quite some time after the first whites began to populate the Western Cape, less than four hundred years ago. No, here I am referring to an entire tribe of people, who have been in South Africa for over a thousand years!
It seems likely that these South African Jews, can rightfully lay claim to their Jewish ancestry, whereas the followers of the “Israel Vision” and HRM are quite simply deceived by malicious demons. While it must be acknowledged that the two subjects are not entirely related, and the spiritual inheritance of the Jewish people is not necessarily of similar relevance in both instances, the article below certainly provides some wonderful food for thought, and some amazing facts.
The Black Jews of Africa
THE MORAL OF THIS STORY: DO NOT DARE DISMISS THE authenticity of oral histories and stories of origin of the people of Africa, even when these refer to events that took place more than a thousand years ago.
Ever since people can remember, there were groups of black people in southern Africa who told all who would listen that they had come from Israel more than a thousand years ago. Those who live in the northern parts of South Africa cal themselves the Lemba, those in Zimbabwe are known as the Vanwenye or Varemba, and those iin Mozambique, the Basena. Four hundred years ago there were reports in Europe of black Africans descended from the Moors who were great builders and medicine men and lived near the Mberengwa mountain in Zimbabwe. President Paul Kruger apparently believed them, because he called them the black Jews.
But in the past century or so, few people have believed the Lemba story, despite the fact that these people were very different from other African groups on the subcontinent and upheld many typically Jewish customs and rituals. Not even other Jews, in South Africa, Israel and elsewhere, took them seriously.
Even now, the intriguing story of this ancient Semitic tribe who have been living, like the descendants of Coenraad de Buys, among the Venda in northern South Africa, is not generally known among South Africans.
Scientists were cynical when confronted with the Lemba’s fantastical story of where they originated and how they came to southern Africa. But when geneticists, anthropologists and historians meticulously studied their story, they found it to be substantially true, although its truth had been preserved for more than a millennium only by parents telling it to their children.
Twenty years ago, the director of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Dr Tudor Parfitt, visited South Africa to give a talk about his book on the exodus of the Falashas, the black Jews of Ethiopia, to Israel. Among the sea of white faces, sitting in the back, he noticed a few black people wearing the Jewish skullcap, the yarmulke.
Curious, he asked them after the lecture where they were from. He found their answer “rather intriguing but difficult to believe”: they were Jews, they said, whose ancestors had come from the Middle East to Africa more than a thousand years ago.
The men, seeing that Parfitt didn’t believe them, invited him to spend a weekend with them in Limpopo Province to introduce him to the Lemba elders and to show him their culture. Parfitt accepted, and was astonished. “I could see that it was almost certain that they must have some kind of Semitic connection,” he said later, “because all their pre-modern religious and social practices seemed to me imbued with a quality that was essentially Middle Eastern”. Their culture and customs were different from the black groups of southern Africa. They were against marrying outside the Lemba group: “They had a good Semitic disdain for all other people that they referred to as vhasendzhi, the gentiles,” Parfitt says.
Their ritual slaughtering of animals also seemed un-African and very much Middle Eastern. Each boy was given a knife for use in this ritual, which he would keep all his life and be buried with after his death.
Parfitt became so fascinated that the Lemba story became the focus of a research project that involved many months living among them. He followed their story and gathered clues across Africa, but when he reached the Indian Ocean, the clues stopped dead.
This is the story the Lemba elders were told by their elders, and they by theirs. About 2 500 years ago, a group of Jews under the leadership of a man named Buba left Judea and settled in Yemen, probably for reasons of trade. They built a city and called it Sena. Sena still plays an important part in Lemba culture as a place of origin, but it also has a spiritual meaning – “We’ll meet one day in Sena,” one Lemba elder would say to another.
About a thousand years ago, something happened that forced them to leave. According to oral history, they “crossed Pusela” and went to Africa. The Lemba don’t have a clear idea what Pusela was, but that’s how the story has been told. Buba is now the name of one of the Lemba clans.
When they arrived on the African east coast, they built a new settlement and called it Sena. Then they moved inland, where, according to the story, they helped construct the stone city of Great Zimbabwe. During that time they broke the law of God – some say by eating mice, ad the Lemba were not allowed to eat rodents – and they were scattered among several nations in Africa. In South Africa they settled in the areas of Louis Trichardt, Polokwane, Tzaneen and Thohoyandou in LimpopoProvince.
As far back as 1908, a Lemba told the writer HA Junod (author of The Balemba of the Zoutpansberg): “We have come from a very remote place, on the other side of the Phusela. We were on a big boat (some say on the back of a tree). A terrible storm nearly destroyed us all. The boat was broken in two pieces. One half of us reached the shores of this country, the others were taken away with the second half of the boat and we do not know where they are now. We climbed the mountains and arrived among the Banayi. There we settled, and after a time we moved southwards to the Transvaal; but we are not Banayi.”
Some believe that the group that left Yemen was made up of men only. Unisa theologian Dr Magdel le Roux, who wrote her PhD on the Lemba, was told by the Lemba’s relatives on the east coast that a war had broken out in their home country. This meant that they could not go home to marry, so they took brides from local Bantu-speaking groups.
The Lemba of southern Africa circumcise all young boys. They do not eat pork, warthog or hippo, or fish without scales such as barbel. They play musical instruments not found elsewhere in Africa. Those who follow the old traditions obey eating prescriptions pretty close to the rules of kosher: animals are slaughtered by designated individuals and bled properly, and milk and meat are never mixed. If a Lemba man wants to marry a non-Lemba, she has to “convert” by undergoing complex and exhausting ceremonies.
A Lemba woman told Dr Parfitt: “We came from the Israelites, we came from Sena, we crossed the sea. We were so beautiful with beautiful long, Jewish noses and so proud of our facial structure.” The Lemba sing a song at festivals and funerals with the words “We came from Sena, we crossed Pusela, we rebuilt Sena. In Sena they died like flies. We came from Hudji to Chilimani. From Chilimani to Wedza. The tribes went to Zimbabwe. They built the walls and lived on the hill. Mwali (God) sent the star. From Zimbabwe to Mberengwe. From Mberengwe to Dumghe. We carried the drum. We came to Venda, Solomon led us.”
Le Roux says the sacred drum referred to plays a similar role among the Lemba to the Ark of the Covenant among the ancient tribes of Israel. “Once we had a drum because we were a holy people and once we had a book because we were a wise people,” they say. Some believe that the original sacred drum is till hidden in the caves on Dumghe Mountain in Zimbabwe. The priest at Mberengwa said he wasn’t allowed to tell her about it, because “we are only allowed to reveal to people who have been circumcised.” An informant told Parfitt about the “book”, saying that it had been in their possession long ago, “but the Arabs were jealous and destroyed the book. Ours was the book of the Mwenye. Theirs was the book of Allah.” Other Lemba say that their grandfathers told them that the Lemba had a Bible made of skin very long ago, but lost it.
Professor Matshaya Mathiva, spiritual leader of the Lemba and president of the Lemba Cultural Society until his death in 2002, asked Parfitt during his stay in South Africa to go and find this place called Sena in Yemen. Yemeni imams quickly directed Parfitt to a town with that name in a remote valley in the south of the country.
What he found complied with the Lemba’s story. To get to the sea from Sena, one has to cross the Masilah River, which sounds very much like the Lemba’s “Pusela”. The port town of Sayhut on the southern coast of Arabia would have been the ideal place to launch ships to Africa – Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia are on the opposite side of the narrow strait of water. The ships of the time were very capable of reaching Kenya, Tanzania or even Mozambique, and therefore could have reached Mombasa, Zanzibar or even Sofala within a few days.
Parfitt uncovered other tantalizing snippets of information that appear to confirm the Lemba’s oral version of their origins. In the Hadramawt valley where Sena is situated, many of the tribes have exactly the same names as used by the Lemba, like the Sadiki and the Hamisi. And why did they leave Sena for Africa? Parfitt found out that about a thousand years ago, a huge stone-built dam supporting agriculture around the substantial city of Sena broke. The people of Sena told Parfitt that many residents were forced to leave because the area could not sustain that many people without the dam’s water.
Dr Parfitt has recently published a book about his work titled Journey to the Vanished City.
The Lemba were overjoyed with this confirmation of their oral traditions and saw it as final proof that they were indeed Jews from the Middle East. But while they regarded this new information as proof, some cynical scientists maintained that it could all be due to amazing coincidence. Here enter the geneticists.
The genetics story does not begin with the Lemba. It begins when a Jewish priest (as opposed to a rabbi), Dr Karl Skorecki, wondered if genetic comparisons would confirm the general Jewish belief that the priests, the Conahim, are the descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses. He contacted an expert on the genetics of human populations working with the Y or male chromosome, Dr Michael Hammer of Arizona.
Unlike other chromosomes, the genetic material of the Y chromosome does not change with every generation. These Y Chromosomes are passed down unchanged, apart from possible mutations that occasionally occur, from father to son. This means that such research is an accurate tool to reconstruct the history of a population, as each lineage’s mutation patterns are different.
Skorecki’s expectation was proven valid. The geneticists identified the “Cohen genetic signature”, a DNA pattern prevalent among the Jewish populations and virtually absent from non-Jewish groups. They found that 45 per cent of Ashkenazi priests and 56 per cent of Sephardic priests have this Cohen signature, compared to between 3 and 5 per cent of general Jewish populations.
An Oxford population geneticist, David Goldstein, developed this discovery by calculating how long ago those with the Cohen signature shared a common ancestor. He concluded that this was somewhere between 2 600 and 3 100 years ago – close enough to the Jewish belief that their exodus from Egypt took place 3 000 years ago, after which Moses assigned the priesthood to the male descendants of his brother Aaron.
Goldstein then tested the DNA samples collected from the Lemba by Tudor Parfitt and his associate, Neil Bradman of the Centre for Genetic Anthropology at London’s University College. The results stunned geneticists. Nine per cent of Lemba men living in South Africa were found to carry the Cohen genetic signature, further proof of their Jewish ancestry. But among those males belonging to the Lemba clan named after the leader who led their ancestors fro Judea, Buba, it was as high or higher than the known Jewish priestly castes: 53 per cent. The Buba are recognized as the oldest and most senior of the twelve Lemba clans.
Parfitt and Bradman also collected DNA samples from the people of the Hadramawt in Yemen and compared these to the Lemba DNA. They found close similarities between the Lemba Y chromosome and the Hadramawt Y chromosome. A South African scientist, Professor Trevor Jenkins of the University fo the Witwatersrand, also did comparative DNA testing on the Lemba, finding that they were significantly different from the Venda people among whom they lived. “There can be no doubt that more than a thousand years ago males from the Middle East came into the area. What they contributed to the local populace via marriage and procreation was a characteristic Y-chromosome which has remained unaltered in the men all these years. We have, in a sense, confirmed their oral tradition,” he says.
The Lemba and Dr Parfitt were excited by all these results of confirmation. If twenty-five years is seen as a generation average and one accepts the premise that the Lemba left Yemen a thousand years ago, it means that the Lemba came to Africa more or less forty generations ago. The story of these Jews leaving Judea and building the city of Sena is essentially correct and accurate.
Parfitt told the New York Timesat the time: “I was strongly criticized by a number of colleagues for listening to this nonsense because they assumed the sense of a different origin had been imposed on the Lemba by missionaries. As an anthropologist, I had a sense one should listen to what people say about themselves and shouldn’t be too arrogant. It turned out that what they are sayng about themselves is substantially correct.”
The Lemba so appreciated Parfitt’s work that they made him an honorary Lemba. This was a special honour, because Lemba tradition forbids outside males from becoming Lembas. This exclusion explains why the Cohen genetic signature has been preserved among them for more than ten centuries.
Many modern Lemba are now Christians, and this has led to some Jews being reluctant to accept the Lemba. One of the senior Lemba cultural leaders, Rabson Wuriga, explains that the first colonial governments his people came into contact with in South Africa and Zimbabwe were Christians.
“Lembas could not live in isolation in the wake of modernization and urbanization… With passage of time and new generations coming, also isolated from the fatherland, many of us became Christians because that was the only route available to skills and academic development.”
But, says Wurige, “our answers to those who questioned our identity were never intended to prove our religion, but our identity and origins. We believe that the person is a Lemba because his father is a Lemba. The whole idea was simply to reclaim our historical, religious and cultural heritage that some people wanted tom rob us of.” He reminds skeptical Jews that the Lemba do not practice Rabbinic Judaism, because “we came out of Israel before Rabbinical Judaism”.
Over the centuries that the Lemba have been in Africa, they have lived among the Bantu-speaking peoples and gradually lost their own language, adopting the language of the group among whom they lived in South Africa, Venda. Through the inevitable intermarrying over the generations, their skins have become darker and they have been influenced by African traditions and customs.
Many of their practices remain essentially Judaic, but with a strong African feel. The purification ritual followed when a non-Lemba woman wants to marry a Lemba is an example. The woman has to crawl over anthills so that the ants can bite off her “pig-skin”, fire is used on her body to burn off her non-Lemba impurities, and she is forced to eat raw meat so that she can vomit out her gentile soul. She then puts her head through a hole in a hut, and when her hair has been shaved, she crawls through the hole, thereby becoming a Lemba.
Dr le Roux points out that circumcision is central to Lemba culture and beliefs. Zvinowanda Zvinowanda, the high priest at Mberengwa, told her that their circumcision rites are very similar to those of the Old Testament. Le Roux says most ethnographic accounts of Lemba life agree that it was the Lemba who brought circumcision to South Africa centuries ago, and passed it to the Venda, the Sotho and the Tsonga. The Lemba insist that their ancestors performed all the circumcisions at Great Zimbabwe, which grew into the most powerful metropolis in the region between 1250 and 1450.
Since 1999 many Jews from Israel, the United States and elsewhere have visited the Lemba in South Africa, and some of the Lemba leaders have visited Israel by invitation. **There are now programmes in place to build synagogues and inform the Lemba of contemporary Judaism.
The next time you hear a story about the origins or events of African people from ancient times, think twice before you dismiss it as an old wives’ tale. These wives may have a thing or two to teach us.
** While I cannot at this point ascertain the scope of these reported programmes, nor can I qualify the facts of the matter concerning the synagogues, this should nevertheless be a point of concern for the South African Christian. The Gospel needs to reach these people, so that they can be saved from all false religions and belief systems, and that will not happen by means of contemporary Judaism, which will simply lead these people further from the truth. Synagogues, temples, churches, priesthoods, traditions, laws, dietary laws, sacrifices, circumcision and ancient books cannot save these people. Get the Gospel to them.
I appeal to any Christians or Christian institution, who might have more detail regarding any evangelism which may or may not be taking place among the Lemba people, to avail to us of those details in order that we might be able to assist in some manner or by some means.
The story of the Black Jews of South Africa is from the excellent book “Of Warriors, Lovers and Prophets: Unusual Stories from South Africa’s Past” by author and journalist extraordinaire, Max du Preez.
- Grant Swart
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