“Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine” ( Lam. 5:10 )
This is a description of the condition experienced by the children of Yahudah ( Judah ) during the times of the Babylonian captivity. It is indeed one the most controversial verses of scripture that deal with the physical appearance of the children of Yisrael. The controversy stems from the fact that the word “black” ( kamar – #3648 Str. Heb. ) here is not the normal word used in the scriptures to describe the color “black” ( shachor – #7838 Str. Heb. ).
The Hebrew word kamar is translated by the KJV as “black”, whereas in the modern translations such as the NKJV, NIV, and NASB, it is translated as “hot“. Which is correct? Rather than play a game of ideological warfare wherein “black” people try their best to make it out to mean “black”, and “white” people try their best to make it out to mean “hot”, let us allow the scriptures to interpret the scriptures.
To merely translate the word kamar as “hot” does not express the fullness of the meaning of the word. For one, the children of Yisrael were elsewhere in scripture described to be “hot as an oven” ( Hos. 7:7 ). Here, the word for “hot” is chamam ( #2552 Str. Heb.; compare to Ex. 16:21 ) and is translated as “hot” in the modern versions ( NIV, NASB, NKJV ) as well as the KJV.
For two, the word kamar is elsewhere translated as “yearn” ( Gen. 43:30 ), “yearned” ( I Ki. 3:26 ), and “kindled” ( Hos. 11:8 ). When looking at the breakdown of the word in Strong’s Concordance, we see that it carries the idea of intertwining, contracting, and shriveling ( as with heat ). With that in mind, I submit to you, the reader, the following translation which I believe reflects the meaning of the word kamar most accurately:
“Our skin is burnt as a furnace, of the face of tempest of hunger. ( Our skin is burned like from a furnace, from being buffeted from the tempests of hunger. )” ( Lam. 5:10; Wycliffe Bible )
I do not believe that my belief is an ideological spin, but rather I sincerely believe that the translation of the word kamar as “burnt/burned” most accurately reflects the idea of “hot”, “black”, “intertwining”, “contracting”, and “shriveling”. That being so, the question remains, Can the idea of being “burnt/burned as a furnace” be describing the color of the skin of the children of Yahudah?
I believe that the best way to allow the scriptures to interpret the scriptures is to ask another important question. Are there other places in the scriptures where famine and/or physical distress brought the condition of the blackening of peoples’ skin? Believe it or not, there are:
“Her Nazrites were purer than snow, they were whiter than milk, they were more ruddy in body than rubies, their polishing was of sapphire: Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.” ( Lam. 4:7, 8 )
In this portion of scripture, we see that the Nazrites, being originally “ruddy in body” ( dark red ), became “blacker than a coal” in their faces. The reference to them being “whiter than milk” is metaphorical and is not descriptive of their skin color because they were said to be ruddy “in body”. There is a consensus in all the bible versions mentioned above that “blacker” means “blacker” and not something else. What is interesting is that we see not only the effect of the blackening of the skin, but also the accompanying withering of the skin as well, which also carries the idea of “burnt/burned”, “intertwining”, and “shriveling“.
“My skin is black upon me, and my bones are burned with heat.” ( Job 30:30 )
Again, there is no conflict in the bible versions mentioned above about the interpretation of the word “black” here. Some versions even go further to speak of Job’s skin falling from him and shedding. Also, we see again a connection with the blackening of the skin with being “burnt/burned” and “hot”.
To sum it up, we have seen that the Hebrew word kamar which is translated as “black” in the KJV, “hot” in the modern versions, and “burnt/burned” in the Wycliffe bible, can actually carry the meaning of all three words. The two other scriptural witnesses that I mentioned above connect the idea of the blackening of the skin with the idea of being hot and shriveling. This is why I believe that the translators of the KJV translated this word to mean “black”, in the sense of being blackened by the burning heat and hunger of the famine.
When looking at the scriptures as a whole, we see that “black” is not an erroneous translation of the word kamar in the case of Lamentations 5:10, although it may be somewhat incomplete. Because “black” people become “blacker” in famine conditions, and “white” people become “whiter”, these verses that speak of the “blackening” of the skin in distressed conditions are legitimate verses to prove that the children of Yisrael were what people today would call a “black” people.
So why does all this matter? Simple. It mattered enough for people to change the physical appearance of the children of Yisrael via euro-centric artwork and history, Hollywood, and the media in general , so it matters enough to us to restore this truth according to the scriptures. Selah.