Faithfully Standing Outside the Temple

The story, Baptism of the Eunuch, is well-known (Acts 8:26-40). There are famous paintings of it, like this Rembrandt from 1626. An Ethiopian Eunuch, a treasurer from a high court, is returning home from Jerusalem along an out-of-the-way dirt path.

Baptism of the Eunuch,  Rembrandt, 1626

Baptism of the Eunuch, Rembrandt, 1626

He’s reading from the Prophet Isaiah. (I’m sure the hand written text on a delicate papyrus scroll made for good travel reading on a chariot ride along a bumpy dirt road.) He’s already a person of faith.  

Phillip, the apostle, gets a quick message from an “angel of the Lord” who tells him to go to this road and hop on in that chariot with the stranger from Africa. This Ethiopian Eunuch (who has no name in the story) somehow not perturbed by this stranger's uninvited entrance into his travel vehicle, instead invites his wisdom on a strange passage in his reading:

“Like a sheep he was lead to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 

Phillip uses this opportunity to tell the story of Jesus and the new covenant. The Ethiopian Eunuch is inspired and as they travel past water he asks to be baptized, saying “what is to prevent me from being baptized?”

In the ancient world Eunuchs were often employed for noble political offices. Our Ethiopian friend in the story was the treasurer for a great queen. Trusted. Honored. Protected. However, the Jewish Law would have forbidden his participation in religious life. He was banned by Deuteronomy 23:1 to enter the Temple. That passage reads: “No one whose testicles are cut off or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” 

Not a lot of ambiguity there. 

Some Eunuchs in the ancient world chose to make themselves Eunuchs, and some were made forcibly so. If I, Kelby, was a eunuch reading about a sheep lead to slaughter, a lamb silent before its shearer, humiliation, and being removed from the life of the living and I was not a voluntary Eunuch, I imagine I'd be having some strong feelings and not-so-pleasant memories about this passage. I would be feeling forsaken. I would be in need of grace. Ok, so then this apostle guy jumps into my chariot and tells me the story of his murdered and mutilated messiah, who teaches love and inclusion and new life. All it takes is baptism. I’d be excited by this message, too. Finally, I can participate in religious life? I’m loved? I’m wanted? I can see my story reflected in the chief prophet?  I would be jumping in the nearest pond with my new inspiring stranger friend. This is a good and entertaining conversion story. And plenty of people have been preaching about it for millennia. 

Most contemporary commentators who write about the political implications of this story comment on the abundance of grace given to a eunuch, someone living between the gender binary of male and female. Others comment on his identity as an Ethiopian emphasizing the spreading of the gospel message to the ends of the earth. One commentary I found emphasized the grace for a “megalomaniac” court politician, a privilege treasurer whose unexpected humility and faith deserves recognition. Given that our Ethiopian Eunuch doesn’t have a name in the text, I think it’s fair to assume that both his status as an “Other” from a foreign region and the status of his gender identity are important. Given the purpose of his travels to Jerusalem to worship and his chosen chariot reading we should take note that he was deeply interested in faithQueer commentators see in the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch the story of the desire of LGBT people to receive grace, and the preparation of many religious LGBT people waiting to receive it. However we slice and dice it (no pun intended), the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch teaches us something about the abundant grace and love of God. We don’t know what Phillip said to him but we do see the story strip away the barriers of access to God for someone previously judged and outcast. 

The Gospel message is clear. Nothing should prevent you for receiving the grace of God.  Christianity preaches unconditional inclusion.

I can also hear the Eunuch calling outside the Temple in Jerusalem – silently or aloud, wondering why his queen could hold him dear while the Temple shuts him out. I can see him carrying this anguish into his reading of the Prophet Isaiah, looking for answers, and stumbling upon the passage he shares with Phillip. 

Where do you feel forsaken? 

Kelby Harrison