The Wilderness and the Eunuch: Baptism in Acts 8:26-40

[Below is an exegesis I wrote for my Theology and the New Testament class. I haven’t done much exegesis, so I’m not sure how exactly to do a normal one. Luckily, the assignment was to do “creative exegesis,” so I’m safe! Also, I’m sure what I have written here has been said before by others, so I offer this up to add my voice to an already singing choir.]

Reading the Acts of the Apostles for guidance on topics surrounding ecclesiology provides an interesting problem: how can a text about a time before there is an established Church and before that Church’s ritual practices are also established be used to inform the life and practice of Christians today, many of whom belong to denominations whose rituals are codified in orders of worship?[1] In the Acts, there is not a clear concept of the Trinity, and, as in the story of the eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, the Holy Spirit’s role in baptism does not always easily map onto current understandings that the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon the baptized through either baptism or confirmation. While, following denominational protocol, not everyone should or will baptize as Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch, the story has some broader significance for baptismal practice: the wilderness is authorized as a location for mission and baptism, and baptism is open to all who believe, including those considered to be racially and sexually “other.”

The passage begins with an angel of the Lord’s prompting of Philip to “Get up and go” to a road that runs through the wilderness (NRSV Acts 8:26). The wilderness (ἔρημος) is also sometimes translated as “desert,” as in the Common English Bible; the word carries connotations both of extreme weather (little or no water) and of a lack of political or national affiliation—Peter and the eunuch meet in an uninhabitable geography. In Luke 4:1-2, following his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into ἐρημία to be tempted by the devil, and Jesus resists all of the devil’s attempts to seduce him into subordinating himself to the devil. The wilderness is thus also a potentially hostile place. And yet, it is here that the angel sends Peter to meet the eunuch, who is reading Isaiah. Upon Philip’s questioning as to whether he understands what he is reading, the eunuch replies, “‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’” (Acts 8:30-31). So Peter becomes his guide in the wilderness—a site of spiritual wandering—through Isaiah, through the gospel news, and to baptism. The eunuch spots water by their chariot deep enough for the two to go “into,” and he is baptized (8:36-8). Following this, the Spirit of the Lord whisks Peter away, leaving the eunuch to rejoice (8:39). The wilderness desert is shown to be a place where one may find guidance, instruction, and even the water necessary for baptism. The wilderness—a place formerly of solitude and temptation—is thus authorized by the Spirit as a place fit for initiation into Christian living.

The identity of whom Peter is led to by the Spirit is also significant. As the followers of Christ begin spreading the gospel throughout the region, the Spirit demonstrates that baptism is open to those of different political affiliation, geographic location, and sexual status. The name of the eunuch is never given, so the other identifiers given to him (Ethiopian eunuch, court official) act as a name—he is defined by difference. “Ethiopian” implies that the eunuch has dark skin.[2] The eunuch is “a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians” and is “in charge of her entire treasury” (Acts 8:27). The eunuch holds a position of power in the regime of a foreign ruler. Both his skin and his position of power set him apart from the Jewish identity and heritage and from Peter and the other believers who shared all that they had (4:32-7). Perhaps most remarkably, the eunuch was travelling to worship in Jerusalem. Due to his status as a eunuch, he would not have been able to be a Jew or a Jewish convert (see the prohibitions against those with “crushed testicles” in Leviticus 21:20 and Deuteronomy 23:1). Due to the purity laws, eunuchs “provoked deep purity concerns over their lack of wholeness, completeness, and fittedness to the proper type and kind.”[3] Megan K. DeFranza writes, “from an ancient Hebrew perspective,” a perspective that carried on through the birth of early Christianity, eunuchs were the “epitome of ‘other’”: “ethnically other, religiously other, sexually other, and morally other,” in addition to being “other” with regards to gender.[4] Perhaps he was able to pass in Jerusalem, but, learned and literate as he is, he likely would have known the prohibitions against his presence. In baptism, then, the eunuch’s body, traditionally distrusted and despised, finds a place of welcome in the growing body of Christ.

In Acts 8:26-40, baptism is not explicitly a bestowal of the Holy Spirit through the medium of water and the laying on of hands. It is, however, prompted by an angel of the Lord and the Holy Spirit (8:26, 29). Through the baptism of the eunuch, that which was once “other” is ushered into the kingdom of God: the wilderness is drawn into the geography of God’s grace, the eunuch’s body into the body of Christ. This movement of welcoming, and in particular, welcoming the “other,” is still at the heart of Christian baptism.


 

[1] It is worth noting that there was then and is today a wide range of expressions of the Christian faith, making it difficult to speak of a singular “established Church” beyond the mystical sense of the unity of all followers of Christ as Christ’s body. So, perhaps it is better to ask, how can the practices of Christians before the pre-ecumenical and ecumenical councils inform the practice of Christians in post-Reformation denominations?

[2] See footnote to Acts 8:27 in the HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised and Updated.

[3] James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013): 191-2.

[4] Megan K. DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015): 78, 79.

[Featured image source here.]

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