Preaching so specifically about the Ethiopian eunuch the other week felt risky for at least two reasons:
- 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.
- What even was a eunuch?
I 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.