Non-Conforming (Acts 8:26-40)
It would be a shame to miss out on the first example in Acts of the gospel moving from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:4-25), and now the “ends of the earth,” aka Ethiopia. We need to exercise some care not to identify “Ethiopia” too closely with the modern nation state, although there are certainly historical relationships. Instead, in ancient usage, the label “Ethiopia” has been “used to refer to Africa [south] of Egypt, to Arabia, and even to India” (Gealy, IDB II:177f.).
The reference here is to the world beyond Palestine. “At times it simply appears to have been a useful word to give vague designation to all peoples far distant from the Mediterranean basin living in the far [south] and [east]” (ibid). I would not suggest that Luke is employing such a vague reference here, since there are details in the story specific to an Ethiopian royal realm. But it is useful, I think, to allow Luke to have multiple meanings in the background of this term. The gospel is moving out!
By the time of our text, it was clear that “Ethiopian” generally referred to the territory south of Egypt. And Ethiopians would certainly have been darker-skinned and curlier-haired than natives of the Mediterranean basin. Ethiopia was a center for trade and wealth, with traffic in grains, cereals, and fruits, precious metals and minerals, ivory, ebony, and herbs of various kinds.
The main character in our reading is not named. His position, status, and competence, however, are clearly identified. “That a high official in the queen’s court – indeed the treasurer of her kingdom,” Gealy writes, “should be able to read the Greek roll of Isaiah is not a problem,” since the realm had been at least somewhat Hellenized since no later than the time of Alexander the Great. Our Ethiopian friend was a person of power and influence, of education and training, of intellect and curiosity.
But was he a Jew? Whether he was a Jew by birth or by proselyte baptism is not the question. The question is his ethno-religious status in light of the fact that he was a eunuch. The Levitical regulations in Leviticus 21:20 and Deuteronomy 23:1 state clearly that a man with crushed testicles or removed penis could not be part of the congregation of Israel. Such a one could not be treated as ritually clean, and there was no procedure for reversing either the physical surgery or the purity status.
If the Ethiopian eunuch was a Jew, he was in multiple senses a “non-conforming” Jew. Some scholars argue that the text of Isaiah 56:3-5 renders the earlier regulations out of date, but that is not a strongly held view. It’s worth noting here those verses.
3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off. (NRSV)
On the basis of the Torah regulations, Gealy concludes that the eunuch was not a born Jew and was unlikely to have been a Gentile proselyte (IDB II:178). Rather, he suggests that the eunuch was “Jew-adjacent,” (my terminology) what was known as a Gentile “God-fearer.”
Jeremias, however, offers a more nuanced view of the situation. Based on the regulations in Deuteronomy 23, rabbis issued legislation regarding “Israelites with grave racial blemishes” (terminology from Jeremias). While such Jews could be included in the community of Judaism, they could not be part of the ritual and political system of leadership. Members of these classes “were forbidden marriage with Levites…, with legitimate Israelites, and with illegitimate descendants of priests.”
Eunuchs couldn’t be part of the worshipping community. I suspect that when the eunuch was in Jerusalem for Passover, he was not permitted to enter any further into the Temple than the Court of the Gentiles. They could not marry (at least not other Jews). They couldn’t be part of the Sanhedrin or participate as officers in a criminal court. So, Jew or not, eunuchs were rejected as participants in the full life of Judaism.
Our Ethiopian friend is, therefore, “Mr. Intersectionality” – especially for readers from the dominant, white, European cultures. He represents an ethnic or “racial” group which can easily be regarded as “Other.” He is gender non-conforming, even if that status was forced on him without consent (the likely scenario, since consent was probably given by the parents before he reached puberty). He is a “foreigner” in the life of Judaism as it is centered in Jerusalem, and an outsider to the Roman imperial system.
Esau McCaulley discusses the Ethiopian eunuch in Reading While Black. In the history and tradition of Black interpretation of Christian scriptures, the eunuch is one of at least two representatives of African believers in those scriptures (the other being Simon of Cyrene). “Within the narrative world of Acts,” McCaulley writes, “the conversion of this Ethiopian manifests God’s concern for the nations of the world” (pages 108-109).
The text shows the eunuch as literate, curious, thoughtful, and familiar with the Hebrew scriptures (in their Greek translation). He is reading from one of the Suffering Servant songs in Isaiah and needs to have the text interpreted. Philip assists with the reading and interpretation at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. “The early Christians interpreted Isaiah 53 as a reference to Jesus whose death for sins reconciles Israel and the world to God,” McCaulley notes. “This might have been what Philip explained to the Ethiopian” (page 110).
McCaulley suggests that the eunuch was especially attracted to the description of the Suffering Servant as one who had justice denied to him. Even though the eunuch was likely wealthy, influential, and politically powerful, he was still damaged goods. “In a culture with strictly defined gender roles, he would be seen as aberrant,” McCaulley continues. “Is it possible that he felt that what had been done to him was a grave injustice – for which he was forced, for his own safety, to keep silent like the suffering Christ?” (page 110).
The outsider status of the Suffering Servant (Christ), perhaps spoke to the eunuch in his life situation. He is then a touchstone for outsiders of all sorts who come to a relationship with Jesus. “If the eunuch did connect with Jesus as the one who suffered injustice,” McCaulley argues, “then he would be the starting point for an unending stream of Black believers who found their own dignity and self-worth through the dignity and power that Christ received at his resurrection” (pages 110-111).
McCaulley wants us to be clear about several things. First, it is sin that makes outsiders of us all – not something wrong with the eunuch (or Black people) ontologically. Second, the gospel calls forth and raises up our genuine humanity as children of God.
It’s worth quoting his whole conclusion. “The eunuch remained an image bearer. Christ showed the eunuch who he truly was. Christ, similarly, does not convey worth on ontologically inferior blackness. Those of African descent are image bearers in the same way as anyone else. What Christ does,” he declares, “is liberate us to become what we are truly meant to be, redeemed and transformed citizens of his kingdom” (page 111).
Pastor Lenny Duncan also discusses the Ethiopian eunuch in his book Dear Church. “The story of the queer folks in the church is the story of the Holy Spirit leading one of the early church’s most prominent disciples to baptize a queer person of color,” he writes, “a person who was studying Scripture already, which meant he was already part of the Jewish tradition or at least exploring it” (page 76). He reminds us that “the church is already queer.” The faith story of a “gender non-conforming” person is in our earliest manual on missiology, the book we call the Acts of the Apostles.
Duncan notes that some ELCA folks speak in hushed tones about our decisions as a denomination regarding human sexuality and Christian discipleship – tones that declare these decisions to be the beginning of our decline and downfall as a denomination. That’s bullshit, of course. Christianity has declined as a percentage of the US population by one percentage point per year for most of my life. So, let us not push the blame off on people we have victimized and demonized for centuries.
“People are deciding not to come to our churches,” Duncan reminds us, “because we have allowed [our churches] to become country clubs where we pantomime discipleship or to be German/Swedish cultural centers, not because we finally got the courage to love God’s own children” (page 78). The ELCA is going to continue to decline because of cultural shifts and demographic changes. Will we “go down” loving or fearing?
The Ethiopian eunuch offers a chance to reflect on the gifts and challenges of “otherness.” That must begin, of course, by talking about who is “other.” If the discussion centers me as a white, male, straight, cisgender, middle class American – if I remain the default position for Christians (and perhaps for “real Americans”), then let’s talk about something else – like arrangements for closing the church for good. But if we’re open to the surprising places where the Spirit lands, then we have some reason to go on our way rejoicing.
References and Resources
Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.
Duncan, Lenny. Dear Church. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.
Lewis, Karoline. “On Withering” (April 23, 2018) https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-withering.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2020.
Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification. Kindle Edition.