THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Reverend William E. Flippin, Jr. Headshot

The Ethiopian Eunuch as a Foreshadowing of the Coming Gentile Mission (Acts 8:36-49)

Posted: Updated:
Print

I have always been fascinated by the continent of Africa, especially the country of Ethiopia. It seems to me that my heart literally skips a beat when I think about Ethiopia and what it means to me personally.

Recently, I have studied the meaning of Ethiopia in the Greco-Roman world and have concluded that the Ethiopian eunuch as described by Acts 8:36-49 was a foreshadowing of the coming Gentile Mission. On the road to Gaza, Philip, the charismatic deacon came upon an Ethiopian eunuch. Was this eunuch even of Ethiopian origin did he look like Halle Selassie or was this just a reference to someone who resided to the "ends of the earth"?

I believe that it is the later that a person of "Ethiopian origin" does not refer to the actual kingdom of Meroe or the legendary land of romance whose inhabitants enjoyed that utopian existence as illustrated in the references of Solomon and Sheba. In 23 BCE, the Romans launched a military expedition to Ethiopia which caused any reference to the real or perceived references in the Greco-Roman world literature to be explicitly negative. The statement of "Ethiopian" was derived not from archaeological research or authentic ethnographical study but from the location of Ethiopia: the ends of the earth. That view is further reflected in classical, biblical and patristic sources such as Isaiah 18:17 and Luke 11:31. It is the key to understanding why the person whom Philip baptizes is an Ethiopian.

The convert is a great catch, socially and symbolically. He is a male member of the ruling class and, at the same time a marginal figure (inasmuch as actual eunuchs were theoretically excluded from the people of God). Josephus, the Jewish historian expands the prohibition against males with defective genitals (Deuteronomy 23:1) by claiming they are outcast and lacked the mutual respect for life. The Romans also associated circumcision with castration as a form of genital mutilation. The writer of Luke-Acts used this marginal figure I believe to fulfill the promise of Isaiah 56:3-7.

The Ethiopian Eunuch represents the foreshadowing of the coming Gentile mission as announced in Acts 1:8 and Luke 24:13-35, why does the author not place it at the close of his work? Because the three questions posed by Philip leading to the Eunuch's baptism speaks not of conversion but instead illustrates a continual story of "conversion," a foreshadowing of the Gentile mission.

It is hard for me to even think that perhaps this figure mentioned in Acts was not Ethiopian and just a foreshadowing of the mission to come is hard to fathom. However, I do believe that this story reveals the most meaningful aspect of the gospel's message-its liberating and saving power for the marginalized people of the world. The story universalizes the dignity and worth of all descendants of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, not limited to Ethiopians but affirms that we are all Gentiles saved by God's grace expressed twenty years later in the writings of Paul to the church of Ephesus. Such a foreshadowing is not a negation of our heritage or "blackness" but expands our scope in embracing the overall Gentile mission affirming that the grace of God can overcome all human constraints.