Search Term Friday: The Inclusion of Eunuchs

Recently, someone came to the blog inquiring about the "inclusion of eunuchs." Those search terms linked to some reflections of mine from 2011 on three texts regarding the exclusion and inclusion of eunuchs in the People of God.

The reflection starts with this passage from the Torah excluding eunuchs from the assembly of the Lord:

Deuteronomy 23.1 (NIV)
No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.
For the translationally curious, The King James Version renders this verse in a memorable way:
He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
The New Living Translation I think is the most straightforward, avoiding the NIV's use of the loaded word "emasculated":
If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off, he may not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
So that's the starting point, the exclusion of eunuchs from the Assembly of God.

But later in Isaiah we encounter a great many passages where Zion, the temple and the assembly of God is universalized. All nations will come to Zion to worship God. And in the middle of these texts eunuchs are specifically mentioned. Previously excluded, eunuchs will now be included in the coming Messianic Kingdom.
Isaiah 56.3-5
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
Okay, now let's jump ahead to the New Testament. In Acts 8 we find Philip baptizing the first non-Israelite in the book of Acts. The man is from Ethiopia. Interestingly, the man is reading Isaiah. And he's a eunuch.
Acts 8.26-39
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
And thus, in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, eunuchs gain access to the Kingdom of God. That which was excluded has now been included.

In sum, this seems to be a pretty clear theological story about eunuchs moving from exclusion to inclusion. Persons who were sexually Other and were excluded in Deuteronomy 23.1 now find themselves included in the wider embrace of the Kingdom.

To be sure, people will have various opinions about what eunuchs symbolized regarding the sexual or gendered Other.

Regardless, we know this much for certain:

Those who were previously excluded eventually become included in God's ever widening circle of love.

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6 thoughts on “Search Term Friday: The Inclusion of Eunuchs”

  1. This is one of the constructs that I have used to argue for the efficacy of Salvation for those who were born “Intersexual” and who are in supposedly “homosexual relationships” with their partners. According to the mindset of phobic hyper-Conservative polemicists, all “same sex relationships” are condemnable and aberrant in accordance with God’s original plan, as they claim is clearly laid out in scripture. The habitual pejorative association fallacies employed by adherents on either side of this issue, is completely trumped by the beautiful higher level of “Grace” demonstrated by the Salvation
    of this Eunuch in the New Testament.

  2. The interesting thing for me about the story of Philip and the eunuch isn't so much that God is being "inclusive" by welcoming the eunuch. It's about the conversion of Phillip-- how God uses unthinkable, unclean, outlandish outsiders to show ostensible insiders something more about what God's kingdom is like. (Think of the parable of the Samaritan woman….)
    And, like Jesus' insistence on eating with the unprepared, God is inviting all of us to live in that Kingdom now: "Look, here's water."
    The hour is coming, and now is here: ready or not.

  3. I remember a preacher once remarking that the bit the eunuch is reading in that passage is only a page or two further on from the inclusion-of-eunuchs passage in Isaiah and almost certainly would have been on the same scroll. So he could well have been reading that passage BECAUSE he ached to be included in God's people and he wanted to work out how it could be for him as promised - and then because of God's genius timing, he finds out!

    Pure conjecture, of course, but a lovely idea - and seems to relate to the occasional experiences one has of God's wry smile as he pulls off a loving coincidence of this sort.

  4. Has God's circle of love ever been anything but wide? Wider than we can imagine; as far as the east is to the west. Wider than we can admit; the thief on the cross. I'm not trying to preach. I'm actually asking this question to myself and the community. Can God have a growth moment? Did he realize the error of his ways when he wrote version 1 of the gospel in Exodus and Leviticus?

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