Intersecting Identities — Queer Theology and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Deborah:  poet, prophet, warrior. From Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible

I am very excited to contribute yet again to the annual Queer Theology Sychroblog. This year’s theme is Identity.

Diversity in the Bible

As someone who has spent a lot of time reading and studying the Bible, I can appreciate the diversity it presents. For one it is not a single book. The Bible is a collection of books ranging in number depending if you read a Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant bible. The writings range in type: letters, historical accounts, poetry, law, prophecy, even erotica.

The settings of these writings are diverse–Africa, the Middle East, Europe–as are the languages in which they were written. The writers and people who appear in the texts are also diverse. And gender in the Bible is diverse. There are not simply male and female characters. For instance, there are angels, who although are sometimes presented as male, are also described as not really having a gender.

So Many Eunuchs

Ebed Melech, an Ethiopian eunuch rescues the prophetJeremiah

Then there are the eunuchs of the Bible–so many eunuchs. We must remember that in ancient times, eunuchs stood out. They typically had their testicles removed before puberty, sometimes with their consent, but usually not. As a result, they did not develop secondary sex characteristics that come during puberty. They retained high voices. They did not develop the body hair or the facial hair like men of their time. They looked and sounded different from the men and women around them.

Eunuchs could not produce offspring. While some did partner, most did not. They were often single and childless unless they adopted. 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 have taken time to explore the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8. This is not the only Ethiopian eunuch in scripture. I have written about eunuchs before and spoken about the Ethiopian Eunuch, Ebed Melech, who appears in Jeremiah 38,39 (see video below.)

The Multiple Identities of an Ethiopian Eunuch

Many eunuchs were castrated before puberty–they retained high voices and did not develop the facial hair, body hair, and muscle that come with testosterone. They were sexual and gender minorities.

What is extraordinary about the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 is that the author of Acts goes out of the way to signal to the reader the many intersecting identities of this one person. 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)

To someone of the time hearing this description, they are struck with diverse identities in one person. The Ethiopian Eunuch is:

  • a foreigner
  • an African
  • a eunuch
  • a rich person
  • employed at a royal court
  • literate (most people in those days did not read including most of Jesus’ disciples)
  • a person of faith

Embodying the Text

As an actor, 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. Embodying as much as I can of the Ethiopian Eunuch, I stand looking at the different designated areas. I see all the families. I wonder, “Where do I go?” I also wonder how I might feel being in a space where family is so central; for me as a eunuch that is just not in the cards.

On the return trip home to Ethiopia, this surgically altered, gender variant, rich civil servant who is a person of faith reads aloud from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. Likely it is an expensive scroll. Probably written in Hebrew. No doubt this eunuch is a polyglot, able to converse in Ethiopian, Greek, Hebrew, and who knows what else. The eunuch reads aloud because that is how people typically read in the ancient world.

The Eunuch reads a very particular passage that comes from Isaiah 53.

Attending white Evangelical churches much of my life, whenever this passage was preached, and it was preached often, the minister either pointed to Jesus or to the Apostle Phillip. Never to the eunuch. For most ministers I heard, the passage served as a delivery system to remind Christians that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. They take a Hebrew Bible passage and import Jesus into it saying this is a prophecy about Jesus. That reading of it, or like Phillip, we too should go around and share the good news.

One Text, Multiple Readings

There are multiple ways of reading this text, but to me the most interesting is to consider it from the perspective of the eunuch. Likely as a child this one was taken from home and parents. This one was physically held down, likely without giving consent, and was operated on. Through a painful procedure with the real risk of infection and more pain, testicles were removed.

This one grew up but never went through puberty. As boys matured and changed, this one did not change in the same ways. This one was assigned a position in a royal court. This one could not start a family. This one was both respected and mocked, sometimes at the same time because of an elevated status in the palace and what was seen as a social deformity. This one may well have felt isolated, rejected, and even experienced physical challenges and disabilities because of the lack of testosterone in the system.

Who IS the Prophet Speaking About?

This one then is puzzling over a passage of scripture about a man of sorrow acquainted with grief. This one is curious about the identity of the person being described. This one asks question, “Is the prophet speaking of himself or of someone else?”

Reading he passage through the eyes of this eunuch, I wonder what this one sees and feels. Does this one look at the text and see a mirror, someone similar, and feels drawn and validated? This one reads:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, but he opened not his mouth; he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and was as a sheep silent before her shearers, and he opened not his mouth.

He was taken from oppression and from judgment; and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living…

In my imaginations about this Ethiopian Eunuch I feel the weight of these words. Some translations say, “Justice was denied him.” It speaks of his humiliation. It asks, “Who can speak of his offspring?”

On that chariot ride we have no idea if this unnamed eunuch and Phillip continued reading and came to what has since been labelled Isaiah chapter 56. But if they did, they would have read an extraordinary promise from God to both foreigners and eunuchs.

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)

Art by Mila and Jayna Ponder

Radical Inclusion

There is a great deal we do not know about this Ethiopian Eunuch and will never know. This one appears as the first baptism of the early church and is often credited with being the founder of the church in Ethiopia. What is most telling to me is that an early disciple of Jesus felt compelled by the Spirit to sit and talk and build community with this person who is so radically different in every way from Phillip. This is not simply a “queer” Bible character, but like many people, this one possesses in one body a host of socio-economic, political, national, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities.

I often tell audiences that ultimately I am not interested in the identities of the people in the Bible way back then. Rather I am concerned about our multiple identities today and how they intersect with varying degrees of access to power, privilege, and justice. I consider how in some spaces people can feel they must check something at the door in order to enter. I urge myself and others to consider the challenges and the rewards of fostering spaces where people can bring their whole selves.

Transfigurations–the film

In about a month I will release a full video version of my performance lecture, Transfigurations–Transgressing Gender in the Bible. In it I reveal stories of gender and sexual minorities in the Bible including eunuchs. If you want to know when it is released, sign up for my newsletter.

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

Meet Ebed Melech, a gender variant savior

Check out the other people who contributed to the Synchroblog 2017

“THE RECURRING QUESTION or Very Random Thoughts on the Theme of Identity”by Neil Ellis

“Who Am I?” by Brandon L. Beck

The Queer Virtue Take On Identity (video) by Rev. Liz Edman

“Identity.” by Laura Jesson

“Would I be considered a Gay Apostle” (video) by TheKSource

“Identity Politics Is How I Survive” by Fr. Shannon Kearns

“Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” by Fr. Rick Lopez

On The Changing Of Your Name by River Cook Needham

 

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