Around 586 BC, Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar and along with the precious Holy Temple was razed to the ground in greedy flames. As thick smoke hung ominously above the smouldering ruins of their beloved city, Jewish captives were hauled away by Babylonian forces to face a life of exile.
Decades later, empowered by Cyrus’ decree, Jews returned to the ‘City of Peace’ to begin rebuilding the Temple. Ezra the priest, having led a group of Judean exiles from Babylon, later discovered that many of the men had violated the Torah by intermarrying with foreign wives. These men were issued with an ultimatum – divorce their pagan women, or face excommunication.
It was amidst this background that a small group of Jews left Judea, and followed a star which they felt God had provided as guidance. The star led them down to what is known today as Yemen, where they settled in a place called Senna. The little community remained strongly united, following their customs and traditions, and appointing a Cohen priest named Buba as their leader. They also built a replica of the Ark. However, struggling against huge persecution from surrounding Muslims, they finally left Senna and headed for the Yemen coast – and the Monsoon winds which would carry them south along the Indian Ocean to Africa. The star had reappeared, and as three boats pulled away from the shore, two carried the people, and one carried the ark, the high priest Buba, his six attendants and thirteen young men representing each clan. The boats left at different times; the first in the evening, the second the next morning, and the third the following evening, each following the star. Sadly they became separated, ending up in different places along the African coast. Some settled in Ethiopia, some in Kenya and Mozambique, where they married into the local tribes but kept their Semitic customs. Later, having grown in numbers, some migrated to Zimbabwe and South Africa.
This is one version the traditional story about the Lemba – a tribe of Jewish Africans. The rich tapestry of oral history has been faithfully woven through each generation for centuries and whilst there may be slight variations, the core threads always remain the same. Sound questionable? Well let’s turn to science …
The Lemba are an African tribe with a difference. They closely follow traditional Semitic customs and always have. There are twelve clans, the most senior being the Buba – or priestly clan. Anyhow, due to much debate and a good deal of fascination as to the authenticity of their Jewish ancestry, a global team of geneticists and experts got to work. The conclusion of years of research and DNA tests revealed that Lemba men carry a particular haplotype of the Y-chromosome known as the Cohen modal haplotype (CMH). Whilst this marker is infrequently found in the general male Jewish population, it is very dominant among the Cohanim – hereditary Levite priests from the line of Aaron. Now here’s the thing; extensive genetic studies showed that over 50% of males in the Buba clan had the CMH marker. Interesting? Very.
At the first hint of dawn, a group of thirty Lemba people boarded a bus in the Mberengwa district of Zimbabwe and travelled throughout the day, arriving at Clouds End (Foundations for Farming), late evening, tired and spent, but very happy to be there. They were about to begin a two week course under the ‘I Was Hungry’ campaign. Was it by chance that their arrival coincided with Rosh Hashana? Of all the groups who have attended these courses, it seemed amazing that God should send the Lemba at Jewish New Year…
Amongst the trainees was thirty eight year old Pastor Stephen Zhou, who heads up a Messianic congregation. He has two hectares of land, and supports a family of six. This kind-faced man describes being saved from a miserable life by his precious Yeshua.
Another young pastor in the group was Arnold. He lives with his parents, nine siblings and four nephews – who all depend on his father! The family has three hectares of land and Arnold was very keen to learn how to use it to maximum capacity. At one point in his life, Arnold gave up on God and fell in with some bad friends, ending up in jail. It was there that he gave his life to Jesus and once out of prison, began spreading the Gospel. He led a powerful study in devotions one morning at Clouds End.
The group included policemen, mothers, teachers, grandfathers, farmers, tailors, widows, drivers, young, old, men, women – a rich blend of people and life stories, all handpicked by God to be there.
Many of the life-stories were heart rendering. Almon grew up with a hard childhood as his mother struggled to raise him and his siblings, but he studied hard and managed to gain his teaching certificate. Nelson had been farming for years, but reaping constantly poor yields from eroded soil; Vimbai is a widow who has raised six children. Cherekedzo used to look after her relatives’ children so that no one would know she was barren – finally she conceived after thirty years of marriage, only to have her husband die whilst she was six months pregnant. Kangawirai – a grandmother with a beautiful beaming face – left a very abusive marriage and now takes care of her grandchildren on her four hectares of land. Sweet, gentle Sarudzai farms her two hectare plot to feed her family and also sews busily in between. Wisely, she has invested her dressmaking profits in several cattle which she can sell in hard times if she needs to.
And then there was Ishmael. A keenly active Messianic Jew, and an accountant by trade, he proved to be an extremely interesting person who has actually written a book on Lemba history. Ishmael has also studied and trained in many agricultural courses and was very eager to learn God’s farming methods.
Many of the trainees had been struggling with poverty and living on donor aid, while longing to become self sufficient. The course filled them with hope to be able to accomplish that. They have now returned home excitedly carrying new skills, and inspired with new vision … but most of all having deepened in relationship with their beloved Yahweh.
What a joy they have been to us, who had the privilege of serving! And what an honour for our team to spend Yom Kippur with them – the Day of Atonement when Isaiah 58 is read in every synagogue throughout the world as the day is set aside for fasting. Is it another mere ‘coincidence’ that Isaiah 58 is the foundational passage on which Foundations for Farming has been built? As well as connecting with the heart of I Was Hungry?
We’ll leave you to ponder …
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