The Hebrew word 'Kushi' has been commonly mis-translated in the media and academic sources to 'Nigger'

            December 2013    
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Drawing by Ibrahim M. Omer is an attempt at reconstructing the face of Kushite king Taharqa


'Kushi' is not demeaning

Ibrahim M. Omer

The Hebrew word 'Kushi' (plural 'Kushim') has been commonly translated in the media and academic sources to 'Nigger'1. The social context of this translation, in Israel, is perhaps best expressed by the statement made by an African Israeli to the Haaretz: "...people [in Israel] would try to put me down and call me kushi in Hebrew, which is like someone calling you a black nigger".2 Accordingly, the word 'Kushi' is now most commonly interpreted in context of the racial stereotypes that equate blacks with slavery in North America. As a result, it is now widely considered to be a racial slur; that is an insult towards people of African descent.

Yet, in reality 'Kushi' is nothing but the Hebrew demonym for the ancient land of Kush. In other words, 'Kushi' is the Hebrew word for 'Kushite'. Also known as 'Ethiopia', or alternatively as 'Nubia', Kush is the historical name for the region that is today Northern Sudan. The Kushite civilization is one of the earliest, and was once one of the most powerful, in the world. The people of Kush referred to themselves as 'Kash',3 which manifests in the names of historical Kushite kings like Kashta and Kash-merj-Imen.

The Kushite civilization developed around the second or third millennium BC. The classical kingdom of Kush was forged in the ninth century BC and continued uninterrupted until the fourth century CE. The armies of Kushwith their light infantry troops, swift bowmen, fierce horsemen, and large armored war elephantsare noted in history for their strength and competence.4 In the eighth century BC, the Kushites forged an empire that stretched all the way from central Sudan to the Levant, encompassing Egypt. In 24 BC, the Kushite armies defeated the Romans in a series of battles in southern Egypt where they "pulled down the statues of Caesar".5

The people of Kush built more than 230 pyramids, all in Sudan, close to double the number of Egypt's pyramids, i.e. about 81 pyramids.6 Though smaller in sizes than the gigantic Giza pyramids, the pyramids of Kush are significantly distinctive in their architectures.7 The kingdom of Kush became wealthy from trade and excelled in iron making and gold production to the extent that the Egyptians called their land 'Nub', meaning 'gold', as in 'the land of gold'.

Furthermore, Kush and its people are integral to the Biblical narrative; that is along with the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Egyptians. Major Biblical personalities are described as being of Kushite ancestry; these include Kush (or Cush), the grandson of Noah and ancestor of the Kushites;8 Nimrod, the son of Kush and the great Mesopotamian legend9; and Queen Sheba.10 One notable Biblical personality identified as Kushite is Moses' wife, Zipporah.11 In Ezekiel Zipporah tells Moses about her homeland:

In addition, a number of Kushite kings, whose statues were uncovered by archeologists in Sudan, are named in the Bible: Shabako (Sabta),13 Shebikto (Sabtah),14 and Taharqa.15

As widely confirmed by historians in recent years,16 it was the Kushites who intervened during the Assyrian conquest of the Levant and ultimately saved the people of Judea from the Assyrian onslaught of king Sennacherib. Following the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in the eighth century BCresulting in the exile and/or annihilation of the ten tribes of IsraelSennacherib marched to destroy Judea and besieged Jerusalem. It was the Kushite armies under Taharqa that compelled Sennacherib to withdraw. During the siege of Jerusalem, the Bible tells how Sennacherib "received a report that Tirhakah [Taharqa], the Cushite [Kushite] king, was marching out to fight against him".17 Following a mass slaughter of the Assyrian besiegers "Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew".18 As Aubin indicates, if it was not for the intervention of the Kushite armies, which resulted in the withdrawal of Sennacherib, the people of Judea people would have met the same tragic fate as that of the ten tribes of Israel.19

The word 'Kush', or any affix of it, is no longer found in the contemporary language of Sudan. Since the sixteenth century and the domination of the Arab culture and language in Northern Sudan, the Kushite identity was becoming extinct. Accordingly, the word 'Kush' in Sudan today can only be found in history text books. On the other hand, the demonymic form of the word, 'Kushi', is an actual part of the Hebrew language today.

Through its history as a Hebrew word, 'Kushi' has morphed in meaning; though never correlating with its current translation of 'Nigger'. In one instance, in the Midrash Tanhuma, 'Kushi' is used as a slang for 'beautiful'; in the popular quote about Zipporah, the Midrash states: "Because of her beauty she was called a Kushite".20 This latter explanation probably originates from the ancient tradition that perceives the people of Kush as beautiful, as expressed by Greek historians Herodotus: "Now these Ethiopians [Kushites]...are said to be the tallest and the most beautiful...".21

Although the recent derogatory translation of 'Kushi' makes the word automatically demeaning, it should be understood that this definition is only the result of recent translation and interpretation attempts. And just as the word 'Ethiopian'or any other demonymcan be used in a derogatory context, so can the word 'Kushi'.

Since Kush is an inseparable element of the Bible worldand since Moses' wife Zipporah herself is identified as Kushiterestoring the definition of the word 'Kushi' should perhaps be considered as integral to conserving the sanctity of the Hebrew language.

After all, the survival of such an ancient word in the modern Hebrewafter it has already vanished from its country of origin, i.e. Sudantestifies to the historical and cultural authenticity of the Hebrew language today.

Only through proper media coverage and education, there is hope that this ancient word will be restored to its authentic and dignified context, which has virtually no equivalence to the word 'Nigger'.

1 For example of media sources see: Radu Mihaileanu, Director, Live and Become, 2008 (in English subtitles); for example of academic sources see Andreh Levi and Alex Weingrod, Homelands and Diasporas: Holy Lands and Other Places (Stanford University Press, 2005), 237

2 Daphna Berman, "Hebrew Israelite youths gear up for draft," Haaretz, 4 Jun. 2004, (Sep. 8, 2013)

3 Ibrahim Omer, "Alternative Names for Nubia,", (Sep. 8, 2013)

4 Henry Aubin, The Rescue of Jerusalem: The Alliance of Hebrews and Africans in 701 B.C. (Soho Press, 2002), Part I and II

5 Strabo, The Geography, Book xvii:54 6 Omer, "The Pyramids of Sudan," (Sep. 8, 2013)

7 Ibid

8 Genesis 10: 6

9 Genesis 10: 8-9

10 1 Chronicles 1:9; Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, Book VIII, chap. 6:2

11 Numbers 12:1

12 Exagoge 60-65

13 Genesis 10:7

14 Ibid

15 2 Kings 19:9

16 For example see Aubin

17 2 Kings 19:9

18 2 Kings 19:63

19 Aubin

20 David Goldenberg, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press, 2009), 58

21 Herodotus, The Histories (Barns & Noble Classics) Book III: 20

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Ibrahim Omer is a former graduate student at San Jose State University and formerly a researcher at CSU Monterey Bay. Hi academic experience is in the field of Middle Eastern history (see his website:


from the December 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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