In Acts, Luke tells the story of the expansion of the church. In Acts 2, the church converts thousands of Jerusalem-based, multi-ethnic Jews (Acts 2:7-11, 40). In Acts 6, the leadership expands to include Hellenistic Jews. In Acts 8, after Stephen’s martyrdom, persecution scatters all but the apostles into Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1, see also Acts 1:8). Earlier in Acts 8, Philip, one of the seven deacons of Acts 6, preaches to and baptizes in Samaria. Then, he receives a new mission.
First encounter: Acts 8:26-29
Luke frames Philip’s encounter as divinely directed. An angel or messenger of God (verse 26) sends him to the Gaza road, and the Spirit directs him to join himself to the chariot he sees (verse 29).
Luke then pauses the story to describe the person in the chariot: a man, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official over the treasury of the Kandake,1 a pilgrim coming from Jerusalem, a reader of the prophet Isaiah. Luke’s list illuminates the power and the marginality of the unnamed chariot-rider. His wealth and literacy are signified by his chariot and the scroll of Isaiah. He is an Ethiopian, a descriptor likely referring to the color of his skin, and possibly also to traditional items of clothing. As Jews were exiled to Ethiopia after the Babylonian conquest (Zephaniah 3:10), and as he has just made a pilgrimage to the Temple, he may well be a Jew.
Five times over the entire narrative, Luke calls this person a eunuch—a castrated man. Eunuchs were easily spotted, being shorter and softer than their peers, and usually beardless. Enslaved boys and men working in positions of power were often castrated to render them infertile and ensure the purity of the royal line.
Being a eunuch would have restricted his access to the portion of the Temple reserved for Jewish men, even if he were born a Jewish male (Deuteronomy 23:1). Preachers must be particularly careful here not to wax anti-Jewish in how they describe this restriction. Jews were not alone in their discomfort with eunuchs, and scriptures like Isaiah 56:3-5 imagine a welcome and heritage for eunuchs in the day of the Lord.
Only after we are introduced to the complication of this wealthy, politically powerful, scripture-reading, God-worshiping eunuch do we hear the Spirit command Philip to join him, and watch Philip break into a run.
Whom are we reluctant to join because of their complicated story? Where might the Spirit be sending us? What complicated stories do we wear on our own bodies?
Four questions and a quotation
This story revolves around four questions and a quotation. Philip only asks one of these: “Do you understand what you are reading?” With this question, Philip opens the possibility for dialogue with the eunuch. The eunuch responds with a question: “How can I unless someone guides me?” This riposte can be read as the eunuch’s scriptural ignorance, although one certainly cannot gauge that from one question. More generously, these questions could be read as an invitation to dialogue between the two men in the tradition of havrutah, the Jewish practice of study in pairs.
Luke reprises next the two verses that the eunuch is reading. These come from Isaiah 53:7b-8b, part of the “suffering servant” section of Isaiah. According to Shaye J. D. Cohen, first-century Jews did not study prophetic writings often, preferring Torah. Christians, however, leaned heavily on prophetic writings to interpret their messianic claims around Jesus.2 This passage from Isaiah 53 highlights Luke’s overall claim that Jesus’ crucifixion was an injustice, a fulfillment of this prophetic passage. Simultaneously, Isaiah’s description of a silenced victim whose generation was cut off may reflect the eunuch’s own experience of forced emasculation, which would explain his attraction to the passage.
Following the quotation, the third question invites the mutual textual deliberation to begin. The eunuch poses the question: “About whom…does the prophet say this? About himself or about someone else?” Luke does not tell us what Philip says. It could have been a speech, like Peter’s in Acts 2, but equally it could have been a dialogue.
The impact of Philip’s conversation becomes evident in the fourth question that the eunuch asks: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Here the restriction in Deuteronomy 23:1 hangs in the air. Philip is silent. This may reflect Luke’s conviction that Jesus’ resurrection ushers in the promise of welcome for “the eunuchs…who keep my sabbaths and choose the things that please [God] and hold fast [to God’s] covenant” (Isaiah 56:4).
In most English translations, Acts 8:37 either occurs in brackets or as a footnote. This verse, not original to the story, was later inserted because of ecclesiastical discomfort at the eunuch’s missing confession of faith in Jesus. Luke, in his original story, left the question hanging in the air, perhaps for his readers to answer for themselves.
How might you answer the eunuch’s question? What question would you ask in his place?
The end of the beginning (Acts 1-8)
The end of the encounter between Philip and the eunuch also marks the end of the beginning of the story in Acts. In Acts 9, Luke shifts to the mission to the Gentiles, beginning with the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. This mission will bring the church to an important inflection point, a decision about the welcome of Gentile Christians. But that is next week’s story.
Fulfillment of the prophesies, With Scripture and water you claim people as your own. Claim us with water and the word, so that we may rejoice in the life given to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the one whose spirit lives in us, Jesus Christ. Amen.
All who believe and are baptized ELW 442, H82 298 O blessed spring ELW 447 On our way rejoicing ELW 537
There is a river, Ellen Gilson Voth