Six Great Mysteries of the Bible

The Old Testament answers some of the greatest questions of all timewhere did we come from? Why do we desire the good yet do evil? Why do our souls yearn for eternity while our bodies yield to death and decay?

Yet, the Hebrew Scriptures leave so many other tantalizing questions unanswered. These mysteries have nagged at the Christian imagination for centuries, inspired epic quests, and stumped some of the greatest minds of the Church.

Here are six of the greatest mysteries of the Old Testament. (Note to readers: the focus is on historical questions, not scientific issues, such as the six days of creation or the Genesis Flood.)

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What happened to Eden? The forbidden fruit had been eaten and mankind was banished from the Garden of Eden. So what happened to Eden? No one is quite sure where it was originally located, although there seems to be a general consensus that the garden was somewhere in the Middle East, perhaps in modern-day Iraq. Presumably, the great flood of Genesis would have wiped out it out, but, for centuries, the Christian world had an unquestioning belief in the continued existence of Eden on earth, hidden from man. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that the terrestrial paradise was “shut off by mountains, or seas, or some torrid region” which he said could not be crossed. So firm was the belief in the enduring physical presence of Eden that it was depicted on medieval maps. The belief persisted into the age of exploration: in 1498, Christopher Columbus recoiled with horror from sailing further up the Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela, believing that he was about to enter the Garden of Eden and would incur certain death as a result. Today, with our maps now complete, it seems that Eden has truly vanished without a trace.

The giants of Genesis. The world as it existed before the Genesis Flood is one shrouded in mystery: men lived to be hundreds of years old, presumably the Garden of Eden could still be seen though it remained off limits, and a race of giants strode the earth—or so we read in Genesis 6:4 in the Douay-Rheims translation: “Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown.” In the New American Bible we read Nephilim, instead of giants, which only deepens the mystery. Theories abound as to who they were. One hypothesis, now widely viewed as erroneous, is that they were ‘fallen’ angels. Other interpreters take this statement on face value: there were indeed once giants. Many commentators associate these giants with those who are most degenerate among the human race. One Catholic writer describes them as “mere monsters of cruelty and lust.” Yet other commentators connect the word Nephilim to the Hebrew word naphal, meaning he fell—a reference to those who had fallen from faith in God. (In case you were wondering, the “sons of God” mentioned in the above verse are the God-fearing descendants of Seth, Adam’s other son, as contrasted with the race of Cain.)

Where did Melchizedek come from? Seemingly out of nowhere, Melchizedek bursts onto the scene in Genesis 14, venturing out from a city called Salem—a possible precursor to Jerusalem—to bless Abraham and offer a sacrifice of “bread and wine.” Centuries before the formal founding of the Israelite priesthood, Melchizedek is identified as a priest, one who somehow, apart from Abraham, had come to know the true God. Melchizedek was also the ruler of Salem, hence his name, which means king of righteousness. Who was this mysterious man? Later Scripture only raises more questions than answers. In Hebrews 7:3 we read that Melchizedek was “without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life, but likened unto the Son of God, continueth a priest for ever” (Douay-Rheims). According to the Haydock Bible Commentary this verse is not saying that Melchizedek had no parents, only that they are unknown to us: life remains hidden with the Christ Whom he foreshadowed.

The Witch of Endor. 1 Samuel 28 tells the gripping tale of Saul’s turn to dark magic: the judge and prophet Samuel has died and Philistine armies are menacing Israelite forces. Saul calls upon God through dreams, priests, and prophets. All is silence. In a panic, Saul disguises himself and steals away at night to meet the witch of Endor, asking her to conjure up the spirit of Samuel. The witch spies “gods ascending out of the earth” and glimpses Samuel covered in a mantle. “Why hast thou disturbed my rest, that I should be brought up?” Samuel scolds Saul. He then tells of impending terrors for Saul: the rending of his kingdom and his descent to the realm of the dead.  Lord Byron once described this episode as “the finest and most finished witch scene that was ever written or conceived” concluding that it “beats all the ghost scenes” he had ever read. The story also inspired a poem by another famed British poet, Rudyard Kipling.

But, for Christians, the witch of Endor presents obvious historical and theological problem: Can souls be recalled from limbo or purgatory? Is this a biblical ghost story? What really happened? Since necromancy was forbidden in ancient Israel, some interpreters, like the Reformer Martin Luther, say the spirit was really a demon. Catholic historian Warren Carroll, on the other hand, says the ghostly apparition was a product of Saul’s “deeply disordered imagination.” The voice he heard, according to Carroll, was that of his own conscience (The Founding of Christendom, vol. 1). Of course, this explanation doesn’t account for why the Witch of Endor saw Samuel as well. The Haydock Bible Commentary offers this solution: the soul of Samuel really did appear—not through the magic of the witch, but through the will of the God.

The ten lost tribes of Israel. It’s one of the greatest mysteries of world history: in 732 BC, Assyria destroyed the kingdom of Israel and relocated ten of the twelve tribes to territory in former Mesopotamia. Aside from a mention in the Book of Tobit, these tribes seemed to have disappeared from history. Their fate is the stuff of legend. In the 17th century, a Portuguese explorer, Antonio de Montezinos, claimed the tribes were among the native South Americans. Some of the Igbo ethnicity in Nigeria say they are descended from the tribes. Similar claims are made about the falasha Jews in Ethiopia while Mormons believe that the ten tribes will be reconstituted on U.S. territory. Carroll simply says these ten tribes became part of the broader Jewish diaspora across the Mediterranean world. But he also links them to the development of the Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion that taught that there was a creation, is a heaven and a hell, and will be a savior and a resurrection (according to historian Nigel Cliff in The Last Crusade). The connection is all the more striking when we consider that centuries later three Zoroastrian priests braved the Arabian deserts and outsmarted Herod to pay homage to the infant Christ.

The Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant is one of the most enigmatic entities of all time. It contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, some manna, and Aaron’s staff that had budded. Encased in gold-plated acacia wood, it was topped by two golden cherubim, angels associated with God’s presence. In ancient Israel, this ark was a force to be reckoned with: it cleared the River Jordan, sent the walls of Jericho tumbling down, and killed the false Canaanite god. Even touching it risked instant death. But in 587 BC, after the Babylonian sacking of Jerusalem, the ark went missing. Scripture says little about its fate, other than that it would not be rebuilt, according to Jeremiah 3:16. (2 Maccabees also says that Jeremiah hid the ark in a cave, but this anecdote is quoted from another source. For more on the interpretation of this passage, see the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Haydock Bible Commentary.) Dozens of theories have been spun as to what happened to it, ranging from claims that it was hidden under Golgotha by the Jews, pilfered by an Egyptian pharaoh, somehow ended up in possession of the African Lemba tribe, or was simply destroyed by the Babylonians.

One of the most intriguing claims is made by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which says that Menelik, the supposed son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, spirited the ark away to Ethiopia where it has been ever since and remains sequestered to this day in a small shed-shaped shrine in the northern city of Aksum, where only one Orthodox monk is allowed to set eyes upon it. In Ethiopian Orthodoxy, the ark is no oddity or historical artifact—it’s at the center of their faith. In fact, no church in Ethiopia is a valid house of worship unless it has a replica of the ark within it. The Ethiopian claim is indeed extraordinary, but so is the survival of Ethiopian Orthodoxy in the heart of Africa during the millennium between the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD and the arrival of Jesuit missionaries in the 1500s. Many Ethiopians credit the ark with sustaining their faith over the centuries.

 

Image credit: shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Howard

    Given that this is posted at CATHOLICexchange.com, you should be aware of 2 Maccabees 2:4-7: “It was also contained in the same writing, how the prophet, being warned by God, commanded that the tabernacle and the ark should accompany him, till he came forth to the mountain where Moses went up, and saw the inheritance of God. And when Jeremias came thither he found a hollow cave: and he carried in thither the tabernacle, and the ark, and the altar of incense, and so stopped the door. Then some of them that followed him, came up to mark the place: but they could not find it. And when Jeremias perceived it, he blamed them, saying: The place shall be unknown, till God gather together the congregation of the people, and receive them to mercy.”

    As for the Ethiopians, my guess is they have an ancient replica, built for the temple at Elephantine. Over time it would be easy to forget that this was not the original.

  • Stephen Beale

    Thank you Howard for pointing out this omission. We’ll see what we can do to update the piece.

  • Ben

    An old Jewish tradition identifies Melchizedek with Shem, and this is accepted fairly widely in Catholic exegesis. See, for instance, http://www.thesacredpage.com/2007/10/who-was-melchizedek.html

  • Jim

    Melchizedek’s dad is Noah. That is what I have come to understand.

  • JFX Pals

    Is it possible that Eden is near Jerusalem? Isn’t there an ancient tradition that Jesus was crucified over the bones of Adam, Golgotha, the place of the skull? Just wondering.

  • Hart Ponder

    Jude 1: 6 has been used to sugest that pre-flood Angels may have produced these Giants….

    “The Book of Enoch is an ancient book that is attributed to Enoch, who is listed in the lineage from Seth to Noah. The Book of Enoch, Jewish traditions, and Josephus hold strongly to the idea that the sons of God were fallen angels and the Nephilim were offspring of such unions.5 Even the Jewish translators of the Septuagint, who were known to make errors, translated the Genesis 6 phrase as “angels of God,” revealing their beliefs.”

    Jude 14–15 does infact quote from the book of Enoch (1:9)…

  • Heidi

    Angels do not have physical bodies and consequently lack the necessary anatomy to procreate with human women. They are not gods, a common error. Their actions are confined to their nature which is spiritual. Thus this theory is not tenable. Additionally, enoch did not make it into the canon and is not Divinely inspired. Jude quotes from enoch a verse which is true, but that does not adequately qualify the entire book.

  • Gonzalo Palacios

    One question: is it proper to apply the word “mystery” to
    historical errors in a Catholic blog? Doesn’t this practice confuse some readers
    by equivocating this word? Gonzalo T. Palacios, Ph.D.,author The Virgin Mary’s
    Revolution.

  • Norman

    Great article, I think my favorite is actually Melchizedek although the Ark of the Covenant is a close second. Would not surprise me in the least if he just appeared and then just disappeared (like Jesus after his crucifixion). It was just amazing to me that this one, small note in Gen 14 was present before Christ.

  • Thomas

    I was about to say the same! Nice work Ben.

  • Howard

    “Their actions are confined to their nature which is spiritual.” I agree with everything you said, but this sentence might make some people mistakenly think that demons can only cause “spiritual effects”, such as temptations, but not physical effects.

  • Howard

    That tradition is mentioned in the notes for the Ignatius Study Bible.

  • Howard

    The passage in 2 Maccabees about the Ark being “hidden” until “God gather together the congregation of the people, and receive them to mercy” (which certainly sounds to me like an End Times prophecy, not just the end of the Exile in Babylon) might be a foreshadowing of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

  • http://xcontra.wordpress.com X Contra

    I think about Eden frequently. It is well-described yet mysteriously not observable. Anyone who has studied general relativity, however, would not consider a two dimensional map as definitive proof of absence of something in 4 dimensional spacetime. :D

  • Dila

    No mention of Our Blessed Mother as the new ark of the covenant?…The old is fulfilled in the new:)

  • heidi

    The demons can influence us spiritually or can obsess/possess us. However, they can not participate in the act of procreating a human being without being either human or divine.

  • heidi

    Howard, you are spot on. For the ark to be found would mean that its fulfillment had not yet been revealed. Example: would God permit a remnant of the manna to be found now that we have the Eucharist???
    Yes, the ark is ‘hidden’ in the Blessed Virgin as the manna is ‘hidden’ in the Eucharist. Col 2:17 : These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 

  • Howard

    I can’t tell if you think they can only act on human beings. That is not the case; they can also act on animate or inanimate matter. They were able to turn the staffs of Jannes and Mambres into snakes, for example. It is clear that God forbids them from using most of this ability. It is MUCH LESS CLEAR what limitations exist simply due to their nature, rather than as an absence of divine permission.

    One thing that would certainly be within their natural abilities would be to (1) possess the man during intercourse and (2) influence the subsequent growth of the child. From most ancient perspectives, such a child would be considered to be the offspring of the possessing spirit, even it that was not literally true. If there’s anything you can imagine that we can do with either hormonal treatments or genetic engineering, it would be within the natural abilities of demons to greatly exceed that.

  • Howard

    Oh, and I thought you would also ask where Elijah is. One popular answer, of course, is the original earthly Paradise, i.e. Eden.

  • heidi

    Mystery Eden:
    Just as in Gen 1 and 2, there is a panoramic view of creation (GEN 1) contrasted by an intimate view (GEN 2), so the word for earth (panoramic and impersonal) the names given respectively are “Elohim” and “earth”. This broad view of Gen 1 is personalized in Gen 2 when Elohim and Earth are given the personal identiites of Yahweh and Eden.
    The title “Eden” identified a place of pristine peace (shalom). However, it is simply the earth before sin.

  • Howard

    That was not exactly my meaning. I meant that Mary is the New Ark, and that like the old Ark that was hidden in a cave she is “hidden” by having been taken up into Heaven. I am tying the 2 Maccabees passage directly to the Assumption and contradicting the many people who say it is nowhere mentioned in Scripture.

  • Brian Ingram

    The Garden of Eden also known as paradise is not a particular place on
    earth but another dimension /place. When Adam and Eve were expelled
    from the garden access for them and us was and is barred. In
    the Apocalypse of Moses, Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise which is identified as in the Third Heaven.

  • Heidi

    Yes, I agree that that prophecy from 2 Mac is an allusion to the Assumption. However, most people who claim the Assumption is not scriptural dont accept 2 Mac as scripture anyway. The scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Assumption is the line in Gen 2:23:“This at last is bone of my bones
    and flesh of my flesh;
    she shall be called Woman,
    because she was taken out of Man.”

    Because Christ has not only assumed flesh for all eternity, he has also assumed time for all eternity. So Christ and Mary are not only in heaven (not a physical place per se) but also must be residing in some physical and temporal region, ie the restored Eden. If Christ as the new Adam was restored to this realm in the Ascension, then the new creation could only be fully inaugurated by the “woman” being given to the new Adam. The rabbis (targums and other ancient rabbinical writings) new that something extremely critical and eschatological hinged on Adam’s saying “bone of my bone flesh of my flesh”. However, their musings on it were of no avail as its meaning would only be revealed in Mary, the Assumption and the New Eden.

    What a beautiful thing to contemplate: Our Lord in heaven/eden. Mary being presented to Him in the Assumption and Him saying-once and for all time- “At last, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”.

    St. Paul: “Woman is the Glory of Man”

  • LJD

    I find it interesting that the Jewish faith does not accept the Holy Trinity and yet, a review of Creation in the Book of Genesis shows the multiplicity of God. In Genesis God states “Let Us” when talking about creating. Since only God creates things in the Book of Genesis, there had to be more than one within the same God. This is a clear reference to God the Father and God the Son from the very beginning of Creation. I have never heard how the Jewish faith explains this passage from their own Book of Creation.

  • Jim

    At least about the giants, the bible itself says who they were: the children of fallen angels conceived with human women. The Greco-Roman myths correspond to the bible and seem to carry a seed of the truth.

  • concalb

    The Jewish faith also missed this part in Genesis Chapter 18 starting with verse 1, Whe the Lord appear to Abraham by the oak of Mamre and Abraham saw three man stading near him, he then ran to greet them and bowed down to them and Abraham brought water and washed their feet. After the lord left Abraham’s tent they went to the near by town of Sodom and Gomorrah and you all know what happened to them, fire and brim stone fell from the sky and destroy the city for all their wicked ways. The Lord God appear in the form of three persons, this was Go’d plan from the very beginning to save man kind; The Father, The Son and the Holy Spirit.

  • http://codephined.com Daniel Brooks

    I was thinking the exact same thing.

    Rev 11:19 And the temple of God was opened in heaven: and the ark of his testament was seen in his temple, and there were lightnings, and voices, and an earthquake, and great hail.

    The ark hadn’t been seen for 300-400 years when John says that he saw it, then continues to reference Our Blessed Mother… and this is just one reference!

    Rev 12:1 And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars

  • Riki

    TO MARY, ARK OF THE NEW COVENANT

    O Mary, Daughter of Zion
    Mother of Judah’s Lion
    bring us, children of Your Tribe,
    to Your Son, God’s Divine Scribe

    Though being the chosen people
    we act as dumbed down sheeple
    if we keep rejecting Him
    our future looks extremely grim

    Some of us accepted the Messiah
    after prompts by Jeremiah
    but most descendants of Judea
    live as in the times of Hosea

    O Virgin of Israel
    bring the ones seduced by Samael
    to Jeshuah Savior and Son of God
    even “ceaselessly” us do prod.

    Rita Biesemans, July 16 2013
    Our Lady of the Mount Carmel lead us up the Mountain

  • Heidi

    Their nature does not permit generation. This is from St Thomas. Yes, they could possess human men and procreate using the male human sperm. However, the text says the offspring were giants- showing that these children reflected the genetic union of whoever the parents were. It is much more reasonable to go with the Augustine city of God city of men interpretation.

  • Heidi

    No where does the bible say that.

  • Ed

    An article I read a few years ago in Scientific American, accompanied with satellite photos showed the two rivers mentioned in the Garden of Eden merging in the Indian Ocean, where the Bible says they did. The explanation for this was rising sea levels at the end of the last ice-age.

  • Citizen Christian

    The Nephilim of Genesis could not have been angels as we understand them (i.e., spiritual beings). They, instead, would probably have been perfect humans that fell and were expelled from their home planet; similar to Adam and Eve.

    I believed (only an opinion) these perfect humans did and, still do, have perfect children before they were (are) transformed into angels. They and their descendants (on their home planet and where they exist in the universe today) do not have to be redeemed because, unlike Adam and Eve and their descendants, they never fell and, thus, would have no original sin.

    I believe their original home planet is where the Garden of Eden use to exist. If these perfect humans had passed the test and not rebelled against God, they would have been transformed into angels after a long period of time living as perfect humans in their home world. If they had passed this test, there bodies would not have died, but would have been transformed into glorified angelic beings (i.e., the angels) and they would have been brought to heaven by God.

    However, the Nephilim of Genesis did not pass this test, resulting in their own original sins, and were expelled to the earth; and, to the descendants of Adam and Eve, they would have been seen as very old, powerful and evil (e.g., the giants).

    Now segway to Genesis, Chapter 6, verse 4, which states: the Nephilim appeared on earth (as well as later*), after the sons of heaven [bred] with the daughters of man, who bore them sons. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.” These Nephilim did not come from earth and were considered very old (heroes of old) and the earthlings must have known that the Nephilim, if they had passed the test, would have been transformed into angels. These is the only reason the Nephilim are equated with the angels because if they had never fallen, they would have become angels.

  • Howard

    “However, the text says the offspring were giants- showing that these children reflected the genetic union of whoever the parents were.” The part of this sentence after the dash has no clear relationship to the part of the sentence before the dash.

    I do not think that the “giants” were physical offspring of demons. At this point I would, however, like to know if you think a demon could, for example, pick up a hammer — not through a possessed person, but by directly acting on the hammer.

  • Citizen Christian

    How is this theory possible, you might ask? I came to this conclusion, by reading the two different (contradictory) accounts of the creation story in Genesis.

    If you read the first Genesis creation account (Chapter 1), you will read that God told the first man and women (not called Adam and Eve in this first account) that they could eat from “every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be [their] food (Genesis 1:29).” In this first account, there is no mention of the Garden Eden (as in the second creation account — Chapter 2) or that God had only placed them in the limited area of a garden. Rather, they were told to “fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28).” There is also no mention of the “tree of knowledge and good and evil” in the first creation account. In the first creation account, it is assumed the whole earth is the Garden of Eden.

    Finally, because the sun and moon were not created until the fourth day of creation (see Genesis 1:14-19), there was no way that God created the heavens and the earth over six days based on 24 hour earth days; because without there having been the sun and moon, the gravitational and centrifugal forces that create our 24 hour earth days could not physically exist as we know it. So the six days of creation, from the first creation account, are based on God’s days in heaven. Who says there cannot be eternal time in heaven? In this respect, Saint Peter states: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day (2 Peter 3:8).

    Based on the foregoing, it can be deduced that God created the heavens and earth from heaven based on heaven’s clock, not the earth’s. It can also be deduced that the light that existed on the first three days of creation was not from the sun and moon (which had not been created yet), rather from God’s own uncreated glory from heaven. He then rested on the seventh day in Heaven where he had created the heavens and earth from.

    It is my personal opinion that these six days of creation that occurred in Heaven would appear to span, relative to earth time, billions of years. Therefore, when God, in the first creation account, after he created the first man and women and everything else; “looked at everything He had made, and He found it very good (Genesis 1:31),” it is my belief that God’s original plan worked in that perfect humans lived for a very long time (past the very long sixth day of creation — possibly billions of years) before their later descendants first fell — namely Adam and Eve.

    Adam and Eve are still the first parents of all humans on earth; however, based on the first creation account in Genesis and the story of the Nephilim, they would not be the first humans of creation. The Nephilim, therefore, would have been Adam’s and Eve’s distant cousins. If Adam and Eve had passed the test, they, like the Nephilim, would have been transformed into angels in heaven. The second creation account, which does directly contradict the first creation account, is probably an allegory of the fall of the first two humans (Adam and Eve) in God’s perfect creation, rather than the fall of the very first man and woman God created.

    It is my opinion, then, that angels in heaven are our direct cousins. Jesus points out that when we go to heaven we will be more like the angels. In this respect, he states: “they [fallen humans] can no longer die, for they are like the angels (Luke 20:36).” What makes us different than our angelic cousins is that we are conceived in original sin and, therefore, have to be redeemed by the blood of Jesus on Calvary before we can enter into heaven and become “like the angels”.

  • Bimbula Bambula

    It is good that the writer first tries to look for answers in the Bible, but of course, there are no anwers in the Bible. Or are there any?

    God is outside of the Universe, He is outside of space and time. He creates the Universe with time and space, and all living things in it including Paradise (Eden) and Man. He declares that all is very good. Obviously, He will not destroy Paradise and Man, thus Paradise exists as it is part of His created Universe. Man sins and is expelled from Paradise and moves or placed to an other created space, Earth. And Earth goes to hell in a handbasket.

    Both, Paradise and Earth are within the created Universe, but does not have to be the same.

    By sinning against God we lost various capacities of our soul, one of them is our ability to see. Yes, we can see with our physical eyes, small things with the help of microscope and large and distant things with our satellites in space. But these things can never show us Paradise.

  • Lonely Voice

    I knew an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian for a few years. They do believe that they have the Ark and that they are Hebrew descendants. They also believe that when Jesus, Mary, and Joseph escaped from Herod, they went to Ethiopia to visit the Ark in a sort of Ark to Ark transition. I challenged him that they went to Egypt but after looking at an old map, I found that Ethiopia was part of Egypt back then.

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