Ebed-Melech, the African saviour of the prophet Jeremiah

Author: Dr. Alison Salvesen 

Chapters 38-39 of the book of Jeremiah tells how a faction in the royal palace in Jerusalem imprison the prophet Jeremiah in a deep muddy pit used for storing water. Jeremiah fears he will die there of hunger during the prolonged siege of the city by the Babylonians. Jeremiah is saved from this fate by the heroic intervention of the royal servant Ebed-Melech, who goes to the king to plead for his release. Ebed-Melech arranges for Jeremiah to be extracted from the pit and given bread until the city is captured. As the city falls to the Babylonians, God sends Jeremiah a message for Ebed-Melech, telling him that his life will be spared as a reward for his trust in God.

It is interesting that Ebed-Melech is described as a ‘Cushite’. The land of Cush corresponds roughly to the area of Nubia and Ethiopia, and so the Hebrew text clearly signals that Ebed-Melech is of African heritage.

            Reading this text in two Masters courses in 2021-22 (Classical Hebrew, and Bible Interpretation), we looked at the treatments of this passage in antiquity and how Ebed-Melech’s ethnicity was regarded by interpreters of this passage in antiquity.


 See also Kevin Burrell, Cushites in the Hebrew Bible. Negotiating Ethnic Identity in the Past and Present. Biblical Interpretation Series 181 (Brill, 2020).