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The Mystery of the Ethiopian Eunuch

Everything

The Mystery of the Ethiopian Eunuch

Peterson Toscano

by Peterson Toscano

I imagine you’ve heard a sermon about the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. It’s still regularly preached in Evangelical churches I attended. Still, from the dozens of Acts 8 sermons I consumed, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about this famous eunuch.

What is a eunuch anyway? Eunuchs in the Bible were typically castrated before puberty, sometimes with their consent, but usually not. They retained high voices. They didn’t develop body hair or facial hair like men. They looked and sounded different from the men and women around them.

They were also mostly single and childless. Never having children myself, I feel drawn to these solitary eunuchs. In a world where everyone seemed to be part of a family unit of some sort, they stood out as loners.

As an actor, I decided to explore the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8.

The author of Acts made sure we knew a lot about this eunuch, even though we never learn the person’s name. In fact, besides Jesus himself, no other character in the Christian Bible is so fully described.

Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. (Acts 8:27b-28)

The Ethiopian Eunuch is:

    •    a foreigner
    •    an African
    •    a eunuch (castrated male)
    •    a rich person
    •    a member of a royal court
    •    a literate person (most people in those days did not read including most of Jesus' disciples)
    •    a person of faith

I have often stood, imagining the Temple in Jerusalem with the crush of people, the many courtyards and fountains, the buzz of activity. It was a highly gendered space. Men and young men to one side, and women and children on the other. There was an area designated for foreigners and for gentiles. Everyone in their place.

I stood imagining the different designated areas. I saw all the families and wondered, “As a eunuch, where do I go?"  and “How do I feel being in this space where family is so central?” It felt familiar.

In the text we find the eunuch on a return trip home to Ethiopia. This Black, surgically altered, gender variant, rich civil servant, reads aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah.

I attended white Evangelical churches much of my life. Whenever a minister preached this passage he pointed to Jesus or to the Apostle Phillip, never to the eunuch. Pastors told me this passage was about Jesus, who suffered and died for our sins. They took a Hebrew Bible passage and embedded Jesus in it, saying, “This a prophecy about Jesus.” They also told us that like Phillip, we too should go around and share the Good News of Jesus. Oh, and don’t forget to bring them with you to church.

But what if we look at Acts 8 and Isaiah 53 from the perspective of the eunuch? Imagine you are a child taken from home and parents, taken to another country. Men held you down. They operated on you as you lay frozen with fear. You felt the searing pain of castration and suffered a long recovery.

You grew up but never experienced puberty. As boys matured, you did not change in the same ways. You began your work in the royal court. You longed to be in a family again, and even to have your own children. But you were busy and unable.

Non-eunuchs in the court respected and mocked you, sometimes at the same time. They envied your elevated status in the palace and jeered you for being less than a man. You felt rejected and alone. You were sick often and grew fragile because you lacked testosterone. Your bones grew brittle. Your heart grew bitter.

Then at a temple stall, you purchase a passage of scripture, one about a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. You’re curious about this person, "Is the prophet speaking of himself or of someone else?”

You read the words, and it is like you’re looking in a mirror. 

He was like a sheep being led to be killed.
He was quiet, as a lamb is quiet while its wool is being cut;
he never opened his mouth.

He was shamed and was treated unfairly.
He died without children to continue his family.
His life on earth has ended.          

You feel the weight of these words. You continue reading and come to chapter 56. You discover an extraordinary promise from God to both foreigners and eunuchs. A promise to you.

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from His people.”
Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord,
“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5)

No wonder you go home rejoicing.

There is a lot we don’t know about this eunuch—the very first baptized believer in the early church. I wonder what happens when someone who looks like the Ethiopian eunuch walks into churches and onto Evangelical campuses today. Do they too go home rejoicing?


Transfigurations - the film

If you want to learn more about gender non-conforming people in the Bible, check out my performance lecture, Transfigurations - Transgressing Gender in the Bible. It is now available as a film. A preview can be viewed here.


(Many thanks to Dr. Janet Everhart for her dissertation: Hidden Eunuchs in the Hebrew Bible: uncovering an alternate gender.)