African Americans have a long and complex relationship with the Bible due to its use both as a tool of oppression and as a force for liberation. Although the majority of Christian teaching and preaching focuses on the New Testament, the Old Testament, especially the lofty King James Version, continues to have particular resonance for many African-American Christians.
This is my list of the top five Old Testament texts beloved by African-American Christians. It includes VIP texts that are emphasized repeatedly in preaching, teaching, and everyday conversation. It is based on my experiences as a fourth-generation member of the African American Episcopal Church and as Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at the School of Divinity at Howard University, an HBCU. It is a completely unscientific list.
5. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5 KJV) This text is one of four “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah that depict an anonymous figure often referred to as the suffering servant. Many Christians, including African Americans, interpret this text through the lens of the New Testament (see 1 Peter 2:24) and regard this text as a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They understand the servant as a wounded savior whose suffering is redemptive.
4. “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31 KJV) Here, the Lord offers consolation to the people of Israel who have experienced the trauma of the Babylonian Exile. The Lord proclaims power, majesty, and sovereignty over creation and comforts those who are weak and in despair. For some African-American Christians, this text offers a message of hope and comfort.
3. “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15 KJV) In this text, Joshua, Moses’ successor, gathers the tribes of Israel to renew their covenant with the Lord. Joshua recounts their experiences as a people and challenges them to decide whether they will serve the Lord or foreign gods. Some African-American Christians use this text to support their decisions to make unpopular or counter-cultural choices regardless of trends within the wider society.
2. “Let my people go.” (Exodus 5:1 KJV) In this initial clash with Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh that the Lord has instructed Pharaoh to let the Israelites go in order to worship in the wilderness. Moses and Aaron repeat this command at other points (7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3) until Pharaoh gives his permission following the ten plagues. The Exodus story is a significant text for African-American Christians who parallel the stories of the Israelites in Egypt with the experiences of enslaved African men and women. Harriet Tubman, who led hundreds of enslaved persons to freedom, is called Moses. Read as a liberation text, the Exodus story presents the Lord as being on the side of the oppressed.
1. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1 KJV) Traditionally ascribed to David, Psalm 23 depicts the Lord as a shepherd who offers comfort and protection. Many African-American Christians find solace with the image of the Lord who cares, loves, and protects in an intimate way.
Of course, African-American Christians are not a monolithic group. My top five selections are heavily influenced by my formative experiences at my small, Southern, home church, Greater Bethlehem A.M.E. Church in Milton, Florida. Differences in denomination, region, church size, and worship style may affect which texts are in regular rotation within particular congregations. As well, the most beloved texts will change over time. For example, Isaiah 54:17 “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper” has probably moved up in this year’s rankings. This text was partially quoted by the charismatic Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis in a post-game interview following the Ravens’ double overtime defeat of the Denver Broncos in January 2013.
Lewis did not quote the full verse or cite the biblical book, chapter, and verse of Isaiah 54:17, but for those who are familiar with the text, it was instantly recognizable. They understood Lewis as using a type of biblical shorthand in order to affirm his team’s victory. Within the history African-American Christianity, the Bible is not regarded strictly as written text but as a living part of a vibrant oral/aural tradition. Fragments of particular verses are preached and proclaimed and become part of a lexicon of vernacular speech for community members. What matters for many African-American Christians is not just the words on the page but the life-affirming words written on the tablet of their hearts.
Want to add to this story? Let us know your most beloved Old Testament texts in the comments.
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