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The Ethiopian Eunuch

Ethiopian Icon from St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church


This coming Sunday is the fifth Sunday of Easter, and this year, in the common lectionary, it will feature the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch from Acts 8. I find this story to be one that best shows how wide God’s love is, and just how everyone is included.

 

There are many reasons why the eunuch would normally be denied from the religion. One being the fact that he was undoubtedly black. From the fact that ‘Ethiopian’ was used as a catch all term for black Africans in this time, not to mention that he really was from Ethiopia and oversaw the ‘entire treasury of Cadence’ (a title given to the Ethiopian Queen). This made him a very important person with influence, which was part of the reason Luke wished to share this story.

 

The part that most interests me, however, is the fact that he was a eunuch. Obviously, this was also an important part to Luke as he never even names him and only uses eunuch to refer to him. He’s identified as Ethiopian and as an official, then after that he is only referred to as ‘eunuch’.

 

The word ‘eunuch’ comes from the Greek word εὐνοῦχος which more directly translates to ‘bedroom guard’, as these (often castrated) men were trusted with women as their sexual desires were limited (or negated). According to Old Testament law, these people were forbidden from the priesthood and not even allowed into the inner parts of the temple like men were. Both religiously and politically, eunuchs were separated and given different laws, seen as not men, or half men by the general population. Even Philo the Jew, a first century philosopher, referred to eunuchs as “neither male nor female.”

 


Ethiopian Manuscript


While I do think there is no true analog for the way eunuchs existed before the 5th century in today’s world, I do also think it’s clear that they were not viewed to be within the binary gender options of ‘male’ and ‘female’. They were legally not men, treated differently, had their own laws applied to them, and were undoubtedly shaped by the way the society treated them. No matter which sex they were assigned at birth, their role and view in society was treated as another gender.

 

Jesus himself acknowledges the different ways one could become a eunuch in Matthew 19.12: “For there are eunuchs who have been eunuchs from birth. And there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by other people. And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven. Those who can accept it should accept it.” (CEB) Here he acknowledges that there are those born as eunuchs and those that choose to become eunuchs, this othered gender that faced different challenges from the binary genders.

 

Despite it being stated in Leviticus and Deuteronomy that eunuchs were ‘not pure’, God still showed that his law extended to them through Isaiah - in Isaiah 56.5 - where he says: “In my temple and courts, I will give them a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give to them an enduring name that won’t be removed.” (CEB)

 

Even though there are no eunuchs today as they were in the bible, there are people that fall outside the gender binary of ‘male’ and ‘female’, an identity known as ‘non-binary’. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that some eunuchs of that time would identify with the term. Others may have seen themselves as asexual (those who experience little to no sexual desire) or were intersex (born with the genitalia of both sexes).

 

All these identities fall under the ‘Queer’ umbrella, so it’s no surprise many queer Christians look to the eunuch as an example of how we are not excluded from God’s love, despite what some would have us believe. God’s love is always shown as expansive and inclusive in the bible, many stories in Acts, such as this one, constantly showing that everyone is welcome.




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