Philip and the Eunuch

Rembrandt, Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626

This morning I’m going to be getting into the weeds of Acts - the passage we heard, the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. As we read the Bible, we encounter a wall of text, a text which can at times be pretty daunting and inaccessible. The Bible often assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of its readers. The New Testament assumes we’re familiar with the stories in the Hebrew Bible, St Paul’s letters assume we are broadly familiar with Jesus, his ministry, and the salient points of Christianity, and the whole biblical text, being written two thousand odd years ago, assumes we’re familiar with the cultural and social norms of first-century Palestine. There’s also the text itself. Although the Bible, with its multiple translations, has brought forth some of the most beautiful poetry and prose ever committed to paper or parchment, it is not all worthy of such acclamation. It is in parts, clunky, and in parts, dull, and that’s before you’ve even begun to consider some of the claims contained within its pages - those claims which are simply wrong or contradictory.

But the nice thing about the passage we read, in which Philip overhears the Eunuch reading from Isaiah (one of the books in the Hebrew Bible), is that the inexplicable nature of the Bible is acknowledged. Philip asks if the Eunuch understands what he’s reading, and the Eunuch protests that he cannot without someone guiding him, thus inviting Philip to be his guide. And, if you’re going to do some biblical exegesis, who better to guide you through than one of Jesus’ own apostles? So, the scene is that this Eunuch, an important court official of the Ethiopian crown, is on his way back home to Ethiopia, sitting in the back of his chariot, reading the Hebrew Bible as he goes. And note that he’s reading the Bible aloud, otherwise Philip would have probably not even noticed what he was reading, although I suppose admittedly we are told he was prompted by the Spirit.

Now, in a past address, I said that the skill of reading silently, that we take for granted, did not exist until about the fifth century. There is a famous story about St Augustine coming across Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently to himself, and Augustine being shocked by this. A lot of scholars have put Augustine’s shock down to the very fact that Ambrose was reading in silence at all, the assumption being that this was an unheard of skill, but I have since learned that this is a debatable point. It’s probably more likely that Augustine’s shock was not on account of Ambrose’s silent reading abilities, but rather down to the fact that he would choose to read in silence in a room filled with other people. It was that which was considered rude in Roman culture.

Aristotle and his pupil Alexander.

Aristotle and his pupil Alexander.

And indeed, there are other accounts which pre-date the Augustine/Ambrose encounter of people reading in silence. For example, in the 4th Century BCE, so that’s before the Philip/Eunuch encounter as well, there are accounts of Alexander the Great reading letters from his mother in silence. Now Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle, the Father of Western Philosophy, so he was extremely well educated, so perhaps the ability to read in silence in a predominantly illiterate world, was just rare, an ability of the very well-educated. It’s difficult to say. So, whether the Eunuch is reading out loud out of necessity, or perhaps because he was reading to others, is unknown, nonetheless here he is reading aloud as he goes along. Philip hears him reading from the book of Isaiah, they have this exchange, and the Eunuch invites him up into his chariot, so that they can go through the passage together.

Note that the Ethiopian Eunuch is never named. He is referred to throughout as a Eunuch; the writer of Acts really fixates upon this point. So, what does he mean by this, what does he mean by the word ‘Eunuch’? Well it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it does... This was not written in the 21st Century. We today, of course, have a plethora of labels to describe different sexual orientations, and genders. In the first century the word  ‘Eunuch’ was more of catch-all term, so yes, it referred to men who had been castrated, but it also could refer to men who were effeminate, lacked an interest in women, or had an ambiguous gender from birth. Such individuals, given their inability or lack of drive to procreate, at this time in history were relied upon to serve in various capacities. They could be trusted, for example, to be the servants or the guards of noble women, or, given that they had no dependents of their own, and no progeny to leave legacies to, they were also often given the responsibility of managing money. And this fits our Ethiopian Eunuch, who was said to be a court official of the Queen (or that could perhaps just mean a royal woman) of Ethiopia, in charge, we’re told, of the entire treasury. Now, although such individuals could be relied upon to serve in these important capacities, they were, in society at large, a reviled people group. Outcasts within society. And what was this Ethiopian outcast of society up to? We’re told he was on his way back home, having come to Jerusalem to worship. Worship God at the Jewish Holy Temple.

Now the Jewish Temple had various sections, and according to Hebrew law, there were prescribed rules as to who was permitted to enter each of these sections. Within the first set of walls, the first set of cloisters, you would come to a large courtyard. This courtyard was as far as the Gentiles were allowed to proceed, persons who were not Jewish. Then beyond the outer court, you would come to the women’s court, and then the men’s court, and then the priest’s court, with its square altar, and beyond that the inner Temple itself - first the Holy Place, and finally the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God which contained the ark of the covenant - a space that only the high priest could enter once a year, on the day of atonement. It was in the outermost courtyard, the Gentile’s courtyard, that Jesus turned over the tables of the money changers, because it disrupted and blocked the access of the Gentiles. Jesus then put an embargo on all people carrying any merchandise through the Temple (Mark 11:16), disrupting the possibility of all commerce. And this principle of Jesus, I believe, should carry forward in all places that are set apart for the worship of God, such as our Meeting House. Commerce in such a place would degrade the principles on which it was established; as Fairfax expressed them, “…we are now in the Tabernacle of Meeting where we meet not only one with another, but all with God.”

And so, returning to our Ethiopian Eunuch visiting the Temple, how far towards the Holy of Holies would you imagine he was permitted to go? Well, being an Ethiopian, you might assume he’s able to go as far as the outermost courtyard, where the Gentile’s worshipped God. But as he was a Eunuch he would not have been permitted to even go this far. For as it says in Deuteronomy 23, “A man whose testicles have been crushed or whose male member has been cut off is not to be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh.” Eunuchs weren’t welcome in God’s house. So, the Ethiopian Eunuch would have travelled all that way, and been met with rejection. Rejection as a foreigner, as a black African, as an Ethiopian, as a Gentile, and as a Eunuch. It’s with all this social and religious context in mind that we can recognise just how remarkable the encounter between Philip and the Eunuch is. Philip, with no hesitation whatsoever, sits beside him as an equal, eager to discuss the Bible. And what is the verse in question? What was the Eunuch reading aloud? As I said, it was a section in the book of Isaiah, fortuitously a part about the Suffering Servant of God, who was “cut off” from the people of God. A section which would have chimed-in very closely with what the Eunuch himself had just experienced in Jerusalem, being reviled, shunned, and “cut off” from God, being as he was unable to worship. As he was reading this passage in Isaiah, we can assume that he probably read the passages in the next chapter also, in which God promises blessing upon all those who had been excluded. It reads:

“Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labour!”…”and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree….I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off…Thus says the Most High God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel…” Yahweh declares: “eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and follow the covenant will have an everlasting name and blessing, better even than sons and daughters, an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

This is a very powerful passage. Whenever the Hebrew Bible talks about the relationship between God and his people, it talks in terms of covenants, and sons and daughters are a recurring theme of such covenants. For example, If you take the first covenant between God and Abraham in the Book of Genesis, it’s all about Abraham’s descendants, and how they will be blessed. But here in Isaiah, it is stressed that this blessing of God extends beyond sons and daughters, beyond Abraham’s progeny, it encompasses all: foreigners, barren woman, and Eunuchs alike. But the law keepers of Jerusalem had lost sight of this. They had excluded, when they were supposed to include. They were not receptive to the Spirit, that Spirit which prompted Philip towards what should be our default position, that of love and inclusion

Philip tells the Eunuch about Jesus, about his message of radical love, about the one who has been called the suffering servant. For just like the Eunuch, Jesus was also reviled and cut off, he was the stone which the builders rejected, which became the chief cornerstone. And with that the Ethiopian Eunuch asks to be baptized. Note that there was no doctrinal test administered, he is not asked to jump through a series of prerequisite hoops, his ambiguous gender is not a factor, his lack of Jewish identity is not a factor, the fact that he is a foreigner is not a factor, Philip does not consult with others, there are no meetings to determine if it’s appropriate. He is simply baptised and welcomed into the company of God’s faithful, with no qualifications. He is just welcomed. There is no deliberation, no talk, just action, led by the Spirit. Receptive as Philip is to the Spirit’s movement, he acts. It is very refreshing. In a heartbeat, Philip is in the water, baptising the Christ-seeking, scripture-reading Eunuch. He goes on his way rejoicing, the first Christian of Africa, the first missionary. From then until now there have been Christians in Ethiopia, all possible because the Spirit called Phillip to move across traditional barriers, just as we are called by the Spirit to move across traditional barriers - to make houses of prayer such as this, places of hospitality, houses for all who seek after the sacred.

Amen.

Lewis Connolly