The Ethiopian ‘Eunuch’   3 comments

According to the concordances, a eunuch was ‘a confidential court official, usually a castrate.’ After his discourse on marriage, carefully recorded by Matthew, Jesus uses the word to describe three types of men who cannot marry, marriage being about a woman and a man becoming one flesh and one family. Those who were eunuchs by birth (presumably those born homosexual), those who were made eunuchs by men (castrates) and those who choose not to marry in order to serve God more freely (celibates).  Marriage was arranged by the parents of the man and the woman, and there was an understanding that it should take place only between fellow Israelites, though many disregarded this, as is clear from the Old Testament. The engagement was binding and a ‘bride’s price’ (mohar) was payable to the bride’s father, who had to pay a dowry. These could be paid in servants, land, property or work, as well as in money.

Matthew 19 v 11:

Not everyone can accept this word, but only for those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.

(New International Version)

In this private, follow-up  discussion with disciples, away from the legalistic Pharisees, Jesus makes it clear that these groups of me are not expected to fulfil the duties of marriage. The fact that he tells them this in a private word, after the Pharisees have left, suggests that the subject was controversial, and that his disciples may well have contained men who were ‘born that way’, or who didn’t see how they could marry and follow him, or both. Marriage was not easy for those living an itinerant lifestyle, since it depended on heavily on the more settled pattern of village and town life which many Palestinians were living by this time. By the same token, a group of unmarried men who spent a lot of time in each others’ company would undoubtedly attract rumour and speculation, and in quizzing Jesus over the marriage laws, the Pharisees may have been hinting at this. Certainly, he had been often criticised for mixing too much with tax-collectors, prostitutes and publicans, and homosexuals would certainly have been included in this category of ‘sinners’. If this was the case, in not condemning homosexuality, but quietly accepting it, Jesus could have been accused of going against the teaching of the Torah. In his time, there was an argument raging over the grounds for divorce, and many women were exploited for their dowry and then ‘dumped’ by the husbands after a short time for very little reason. Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees that he believes the only grounds for divorce are adultery. He shields the disciples from the pointing fingers of the hypocritical pharisees, who allowed men to divorce their wives with no just cause, but at the same time reassures them that they need not marry while following him. It is sometimes wrongly claimed in current debate, that homosexuality was relatively unknown in the ancient world, that it is a modern ‘lifestyle’ choice. Jesus’ words reveal this not to be the case, but we know little of how it was regarded. In the Old Testament, the struggle for the survival of the tribes against war, famine and plagues, was what motivated aggressive opposition to anything which got in the way of procreation and the ‘multiplication’ of families. Hence the reason for the references to the sinfulness of masturbation, ‘spilling one’s seed on the ground’, and the acceptance of polygamy, particularly among the nomadic tribes. The needs of ancient societies were very different to those of modern societies, and there are signs in the New Testament that times and attitudes were already changing in his day, hence Jesus’ determination to provide a new context in which to interpret the Torah.

Philip must have known that this mission to witness on the Gaza road was important, as it involved a journey of anything up to 80km, from the Samaritan city where he was staying, to Gaza, on the coast (see map of Palestine).

It’s entirely possible that this Treasurer of the Court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, or the Upper Nile Valley, or Nubia as it was then (‘Cush’ in Hebrew), was homosexual from birth, as important officials were often given charge over castrated servants. Either way, the actions of Philip in sharing his carriage, often depicted as a chariot, show that, at the outset, he did not regard this Ethiopian Jew as in any way ‘unclean’ compared to himself.

The Acts of the Apostles, 8 vv 26-39:

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get ready and go south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This road is not used nowadays.) So Philip got ready and went.  Now an Ethiopian eunuch, who was an important official in charge of the Treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia, was on his way home. He had been to Jerusalem to worship God and was going back home in his carriage. As he rode along, he was reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. 

The holy spirit said to Philip, “Go over to that carriage and stay close to it. ” Philip ran over and heard him reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. He asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The official replied, “How can I unless someone explains it to me? ” And he invited Philip to climb up and sit in the carriage with him. The passage of scripture he was reading was this:

“He was like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered,

like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off.

He did not say a word.

He was humiliated, and justice was denied him.

No-one will be able to tell about his descendants,

because his life on earth has come to an end.”

The official asked Philip, “Tell me, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else? ” Then Philip began to speak; starting from this passage of scripture, he told him the Good News about Jesus. 

As they travelled down the road, they came to a place where there was some water, and the official said, “Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptised?” (Philip had said to him, “You may be baptised if you believe with all your heart.” “I do,” he answered; I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” ) The official ordered the carriage to stop, and both Philip and the official went down into the water, and Philip baptised him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. The official did not see him again, but continued on his way, full of joy.

Queen Candace’s Treasurer, a very high-ranking Court official, was clearly an African Jew who had been to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple. He was from a region called Nubia. During the Egyptian settlement and enslavement, many Jews had spread a long way up the Nile Valley, and had inter-married. So, although he was rich, he may have been considered to be not a true member of the faith by some, but Philip does not adopt this attitude. The fact that he is reading the scriptures aloud is also an indication that he was devout, as well as educated in Hebrew, though perhaps not having the benefit of a rabbi to explain them. Philip comes to his aid. It must have been quite a long conversation if it began with Isaiah and led on to the fulfilment of the prophecies by Jesus. It would be good to know whether, after looking at this passage, in Isaiah 53 vv 7-8, Philip dwelt next on Isaiah 56: vv 3-5, which contains the following passage on ‘eunuchs’:

Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say,

“The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”

And let not any eunuch complain,

“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the Lord says:

“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 ands its walls,

a memorial and a namethat will not be cut off.”

As both a ‘foreigner’ and a eunuch, this powerful and important man must have felt excluded from those among the exiles of Israel who would be ‘gathered’ together according to the prophecies. However, Isaiah’s prophecies are inclusive, and even refer directly to ‘the Cush’.  This passage makes it clear that all that is necessary is to hold fast to justice in order to receive salvation. It also contains the words used by Jesus to drive out the money-changers from the Court of the Foreigners:

My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.

The Ethiopian had been using this very same Temple Court in which his fellow-Africans had seen Jesus’ acted parable of inclusiveness at the Passover Festival. He may have been attending the Feast of Tabernacles the following autumn, since Philip had been in Samaria for six months, though this was a different Philip from the original apostle. As a ‘foreign’ Hebrew, the Nubian would have been restricted to the outer courts of the Temple and, if known to be a eunuch, would not be allowed in the Temple at all, though he would be unlikely to travel the distance involved without the likelihood of being able to worship in the precincts. This is further evidence of him being a ‘eunuch by birth’ since a castrated eunuch would have undergone more obvious hormonal changes.

Graciously, this African becomes the first from his continent to accept God’s invitation to faith in Jesus Christ, his Son, and asks to be baptised in the first pool of water they come too. This was not the ritual washing required of those who became Jews, nor was it the baptism of John, open as it was for Jew and Gentile alike, as a sign of repentance. Philip tells him that this is the baptism commanded of new converts by Jesus, including the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again, Philip is overjoyed to accompany him into the water, and is himself given the Spirit to go on to preach to the Romans and Greeks on the Great Sea Road through Azotus and the coastal towns to Caesarea, while his glad new convert turns south from Gaza to spread the word along the Nile on his way home, the beginning of a long history of Ethiopian Christianity. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is truly inclusive of all, regardless of ethnicity, gender or sexuality! Not a hint of racism or homophobia here, not in Philip’s mission!

 

 


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3 responses to “The Ethiopian ‘Eunuch’

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  1. An interesting note is that the eunuch would have been turned away from worshiping in the temple because he was a eunuch. He would have been excluded and kept outside. Under the new covenant he is welcomed in with open arms. Jesus arrival on the scene means no one is excluded or kept away.

    http://wordofawoman.com/2012/03/21/the-true-magic-kingdom/

    • Thanks for this note. I needed to edit the blog a little anyway, so I’ve integrated your comment, though as a foreign Jew he would have been able to enter the outer precincts and worship in the court of the foreigners. He may not have been known as a eunuch.

  2. Pingback: 5/06/2012 Share Boldly | ForeWords

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