My Encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch

Preaching so specifically about the Ethiopian eunuch the other week felt risky for at least two reasons:

  1. The eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 reads as a category-defying character, with a sort of in-between sex/gender identity and a home that was the unknown “ends of the earth” described in Acts 1:8.
  2. What even was a eunuch?

DeFranza EerdmansI found a great deal of help in understanding the eunuch and his identity from a just-published book from Eerdmans: Megan DeFranza’s Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God.

As the book treats sex difference widely, it examines the oft-misunderstood (or unknown!) category of intersex, with eunuchs providing a sort of historical case study in chapter 2. Did you know that Jesus spoke approvingly of eunuchs, and described three kinds?

The chapter was an immense boost to my appreciation of all the uncertainties that could have been at play as Philip encountered the eunuch, part of a group of people that DeFranza cites a 4th century poet as calling “exiles from the society of the human race, belonging to neither one sex nor the other.” They’re male, but not fully, at least not in the expected sense. And there were prohibitions in the Torah like this one in Deuteronomy 23:

 No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.

Yet, as DeFranza and others have suggested, already in the broad sweep of Scripture, there seemed to be hope for eunuchs. Moving from the books of the Law to the prophets, Isaiah, just a few chapters after what the eunuch was reading in his chariot, there is:

To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off…. (Isa. 56:3ff)

But if he may not “enter the assembly of the LORD,” maybe he couldn’t be baptized, either?

Josephus, a first century historian, was no exchanger of pleasantries with eunuchs. He wrote:

Let those that have made themselves eunuchs be had in detestation; and do you avoid any conversation with them who have deprived themselves of their manhood, and of that fruit of generation which God has given to men for the increase of their kind….  (Antiquities 4:290)

It seems that the eunuch—a man probably used to giving orders and approval to decisions on the home front—in this poignant moment is asking Philip for his approval. Having heard the good news of Jesus as Philip explains the Scriptures to him, the eunuch wants to know, “Am I allowed in?” Am I excluded or included? Can I be baptized into Jesus?”

Philip had no problem baptizing him into the fellowship of Jesus. Philip surely knew of God’s promise through Isaiah to give the eunuch “a name better than sons and daughters” (which they could not have!). Philip surely had surmised that this man who had traveled from Ethiopia to Jerusalem–a great cost and sacrifice of time… and could he even get in at the temple?–was committed to worshiping God with his whole life. Philip had experienced the Holy Spirit’s presence in Jerusalem and all Judea and (just verses before) in Samaria… and now he must have thought, “Here are the very ends of the earth–the blurring and transcending of many categories–coming right here to this odd deserted road I’ve just been called to!”

Yes, the eunuch had to be baptized.

 


 

The chapter on eunuchs is as far as I’ve gotten in Megan’s book. (And if I’ve gone astray anywhere in the above, it’s my doing, not hers.) But I’ve found myself transformed by this vicarious encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. As I told my congregation, I come back to this passage again, now asking these questions:

Where have I drawn my own borders? How open to re-examination am I in how I think about others and their place in the kingdom of heaven? How can I learn from the eunuch and allow that would-be outcast to change my heart? What do the people Jesus calls brother and sister really look like? Will I allow “the uncategorized” or marginalized or ignored ones to instruct me and lead me into deeper appreciation for the wideness of God’s mercy?

I don’t expect Megan to answer all these questions for me, but hers is a very important book, timed perfectly for this moment in the life of the church and society at large. I’m excited to read the rest of it, as my own encounter with God’s grace shown to the eunuch continues to work on my heart and mind.

 


 

Find Dr. DeFranza’s book here at Amazon. The publisher’s book page is here. Megan writes compellingly about the book’s coming into being here.

Titus For You, Reviewed

Tim Keller’s For You series now includes contributions from other authors. I reviewed Keller’s Romans 1-7 For You here. In this post I review Tim Chester’s Titus For You.

But allow me to allow Chester to introduce the book. Here he is:

 

The books in the For You series claim to not be commentaries. Instead, the Titus For You product page describes what kind of book it is:

Written for people of every age and stage, from new believers to pastors and teachers, this flexible resource is for you to:

• READ: As a guide to this wonderful letter, exciting and equipping you to live out the truth in your life.
• FEED: As a daily devotional to help you grow in Christ as you read and meditate on this portion of God’s word.
• LEAD: As notes to aid you in explaining, illustrating and applying Titus as you preach or lead a Bible study.

Titus For YouThe book is short and its tone conversational. Chester begins with a short introduction to the book, then divides Titus into seven units (each of them split again into two parts) for comment. Reflection questions throughout help the reader digest the book, and could also be used in small group settings. At the close is a short glossary and six-book bibliography of sorts.

What folks will find most beneficial about Chester’s book is his ability to re-state Paul in easy-to-understand terms. For example, when discussing Titus 1:7-11 Chester says:

There are two common dangers in pastoral ministry and Paul is alert to both of them. They are what we might call over-pastoring and under-pastoring.

He elaborates on each kind of pastoring to help explain Paul’s exhortations to Titus in this first chapter.

Similarly helpful was Chester’s description in the section on Titus 2 (especially verse 14) of the Christian’s identity:

In Christ, we are members of the royal family of the universe. That is our status, and we cannot lose it. And our behaviour should match who we are. Royal children have royal manners.

One can easily see Chester’s concern with practical application of Paul’s letter in broader contexts. This makes it suitable as a go-to for devotional reading.

The introduction to Titus was not as substantive as I’d have liked. Or, at least, I wouldn’t feel prepared to lead a small group through the book from just having read this short introduction. (There was hardly anything about Crete, Titus’s setting.) Even the introduction in a good Study Bible (of similar or shorter length) could be more elucidating as to how to understand and read Titus.

I appreciated Chester’s interpretation of Titus as having to do with church “succession planning.” He (rightly, in my opinion) distinguishes between instructions for church structures that are “context-specific” and those that are “for ministry in every time and place.”

Nonetheless, I disagree with Chester’s interpretation that eldership in the church is to be male-only. This is a piece of Paul’s letter that I take to be context-specific and not universally binding–though I’m not sure Paul even intended in Titus to be talking about an elder’s sex, as such. Even as I tried to have an open mind on the issue, I didn’t think that the author made much of a case for his interpretation of Titus. And the idea of men as “good leaders in their home” does not really appear in Titus at all–not even in a context-specific instance.

UPDATE, 6/30/14: I glossed over this before, but wanted to mention (along similar lines as the above) that I found his application of Titus 2 to be offensive. I’m sure he didn’t intend it to be, but nonetheless: “It is not that younger women cannot have a career. But if they are wives and mothers, home is the primary place where they are to serve.” On the contrary, this is not a biblical mandate, and God calls plenty of “wives and mothers” to serve outside of the home, even to have robust careers… just as God calls “husbands and fathers” to the same!

There are some typos scattered throughout the book (including erroneously spelled Greek, as was also true in the Keller Romans volume) that the reader will have to try to ignore.

I did find Titus For You a largely worthwhile read (in spite of interpretive disagreements I had at other spots, too), but I think that for background and Bible study and teaching preparation, readers might want to start elsewhere. Then, perhaps, one could turn to Titus For You for some helpful suggestions as to how to understand and teach the application of the passages–theological caveat above notwithstanding.

Thanks to Cross-Focused Reviews and The Good Book Company for the review copy. You can find Titus For You on Amazon here.

Tough Guise: Violence and Masculinity in the Media

Tough GuiseThis last week I was part of a panel for Gordon’s Faculty Film Series for the film Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity. Narrator and anti-violence educator Jackson Katz talks about the construction of masculinity through the media, particularly a masculinity where men are defined as tough, not “soft,” aggressive, etc. Here’s the summary of the film (from the study guide referenced below):

The idea that manhood or masculinity represents a fixed, inevitable, natural state of being is a myth. What a culture embraces as “masculine” can be better understood as an ideal or a standard – a projection, a pose, or a guise that boys and men often adopt to shield their vulnerability and adapt to the local values and expectations of their immediate and more abstract social environments. This projection or pose can take myriad forms, but one that’s crucial to examine is the “tough guise”: a persona based on an extreme notion of masculinity that links the credibility of males to toughness, physical strength, and the threat or use of violence.

There is a substantial study guide that goes with the film, which notes:

The central argument of Tough Guise is that violence in America is overwhelmingly a gendered phenomenon, and that any attempt to understand violence therefore requires that we understand its relationship to cultural codes and ideals of masculinity and manhood. Central to the video’s argument are the following:

» Masculinity is made, not given – as opposed to one’s biological sex;

» Media are the primary narrative and pedagogical forces of our time;

» Media images of manhood therefore play a pivotal role in making, shaping and privileging certain
cultural and personal attitudes about manhood;

» A critical examination of privileged media images of manhood reveals a widespread and disturbing equation of masculinity with pathological control and violence;

» Looking critically at constructed ideals of manhood – at how, why and in whose interests they are  constructed differently in different historical, social and cultural contexts – denaturalizes and diminishes the potential of these imagined ideals to shape our perceptions of ourselves, our world and each other.

The film was difficult to watch, not just because I have young boys, but because how masculinity is so often constructed in this society (have to be in control, must be physically overpowering, can’t cry or show emotion, etc.) causes damage to both men and women.

There’s quite a bit to digest in the study guide, which could be beneficial even without the movie. You can watch the whole film here. More about it is here.

Jared Wilson (from Gospel Coalition “colonizes” and “conquers” post) apologizes

I wrote about (rather, against) the use of “colonizing” language to describe the sex act here and here, reacting to a recent Gospel Coalition post.

Just now Jared Wilson, author of the original post, has issued an apology. He’s even taken down the original offending post. Read his apology here.

Sex as colonization? A reply to my comment, and my reply back

I linked yesterday morning to a Gospel Coalition piece that has gathered a lot of attention on the Internet recently. I wrote my reply to the piece here.

Yesterday Jared Wilson, author of the original post, wrote this reply as a follow up to the first post and its many critics. I asked Jared for clarification of a few things in the comments here, and he posted a reply, if anyone wants to see it. Just click here, then search for “Abram” in the comments (as of the time of writing this I’m the seventh comment down).

UPDATE: Here’s my reply to Jared’s reply, printed in full below (left as a comment at his site). The Douglas Wilson article he mentions (to which I respond below) is here.

Jared, thanks very much for your reply.

I read and re-read and re-read again Doug Wilson’s follow up piece. I get a little bit more where he’s coming from.

However, “colonizes” still gets me. He spent one sentence in his post explaining that particular choice of words, in which he quoted Song of Solomon 4:12 (“A garden locked is my sister, my bride”) as an example of Scripture having to do with “colonizes” (if I’m reading him right).

But reading through the following verses in Song of Solomon… “SHE” (ESV) replies, “Blow upon my garden… let my beloved come to his garden.” (“come to” ESV=Hebrew “come into” for intercourse) Then “HE” says, “I came [in]to my garden, my sister, my bride.”

That’s it. Just “came into.” The Hebrew word there is the common way of referring to intercourse (lit., “he went into her”=English “he had sex with her”). Wilson quotes the “locked garden” verse as implying, “My garden is locked… therefore come colonize me.” But that’s neither what she says nor what he does after that verse in response to her locked garden.

“Colonizes” is *really* exegetically difficult to pull out of that passage both based on Hebrew word meaning *and* the full context of the passage in which it occurs (which, as you’ve rightly pointed out, context is a key determiner of meaning). All this holds true, too, by the way, of his explanation of his use of the verb “conquer,” based on Song 4:4. It’s not in there and it’s not what the passage seems to mean.

So if “colonizes” cannot come from the place Wilson mentions, does he find it elsewhere in Scripture to be an appropriate description of the male-female sex act? It not, that’s a continuing concern to me….

Sex as colonization?

This morning I followed a friend’s Facebook link to a Gospel Coalition blog post. Here is the post I read. It’s hard to summarize, but the basic topic is the “good, God-honoring, and body-protecting authority and submission between husbands and wives.” That part sounds not so bad, but the blog post quotes a guy named Douglas Wilson who says:

In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage.

You can go to the post to read the quote in a bit of a fuller context, but I was still amazed to read this at a site that is usually as exegetically careful as the Gospel Coalition. Once you’ve read the initial blog post, I’ve reproduced the comment I left at that site here:

This, of course, is the most difficult part of the initial quote:

In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.

A key concept of discourse analysis (Steve Runge talks about this with reference to the Greek New Testament) is that “choice implies meaning.” So instead of the Biblical Hebrew “goes into,” Wilson chose “penetrates.” Instead of “establishes/builds,” he chose “colonizes,” etc. It’s his prerogative as an author to choose those words, whether one likes them or not.

The problem is, each of those words has meanings associated with them, whether we want them to or not. This is true whether or not a word *should* mean a certain thing. (I’m thinking of Jared’s comment, “It is difficult to understand, I’m sure, when they are defined with violence in mind. In this isolated passage Wilson has ruled that out.”)

I don’t agree that Wilson has sufficiently ruled that out (that last paragraph when he speaks against “devours” is too short to do that, but maybe the rest of Wilson’s work does?). But even if he has ruled out violence, his *choice* to use especially *colonizes* is confusing. As the immense and growing field of post-colonial literature attests, colonization has left untold trauma in its wake. And, yes, colonization was all too often violent. Rape often occurred as part of colonization, so that choice of word (remember, choice implies meaning) in this context (speaking about rape–even if against it) was particularly surprising and probably did not help the author’s case at all.

Also, Wilson’s saying “the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party” is just bizarre. Besides seeming like an unwarranted barb against egalitarians, what seems to be implied (with that sentence contextualizing the next two) is that there is no way (“cannot”) for *both* parties (“egalitarian”) to be *pleasured* (“pleasuring party”) all the time, since one is busy “penetrat[ing]” (with pleasure) and the other (merely) “receives” and “surrenders” (implied: even if she doesn’t receive pleasure from it?). You can see how it’s not a far leap in the reader’s mind from there to rape imagery, whether Wilson means this or not. I’m certainly not accusing him of anything. But it was, at best, a bad choice of words.

Is it egalitarianism that he is speaking against? Or is it against the idea of man and woman both having pleasure in sex? In other words, would Wilson approve of a “complementarian pleasuring party where the man penetrates and the woman receives, both receive pleasure, and if one does not, per I Cor 7:4-5, both stop out of mutual love for each other?” I’d assume he would, based on these comments above.

But “surrenders” in this context, especially when used unidirectionally and paired with “colonizes”–IF Wilson means to apply them specifically to the sex act, which it seems he does–is an unfortunate choice of words. If/when there is any “surrendering” in sex, it goes both ways, as the apostle Paul points out. (I know Paul is talking about *not* having sex, but his larger principle from I Cor 7:4 surely applies to having sex, too.) Neither has authority over his/her own body, but yields it to the other. “Colonizes” and “surrenders” are pretty difficult to square with this.

UPDATE: A reply and my reply to the reply here.