Exegetical Exercise (Acts 8 26-40)

painting of the baptism of the Ethiopian by St Philip

Baptism in the wilderness

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, August 13 is Acts 8:26-40. These are my notes on the text:

This is an amazing text from a literary point of view; and there are a lot of ideas packed into this text-as-literature.

Similar and Related Texts: The gospel accounts of the work of John and Baptist and the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:1-17; Mark 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-22; John 1:19-34); Mark 1:1-11 is especially interesting, because there is parallel language and events (e.g., Jesus “comes up out of the water” and sees the Holy Spirit … cf. the experience of Philip & the Ethiopian in v. 39); Luke’s account is immediately followed by Jesus’ genealogy – maybe significant, since we are dealing with the same author, and there’s a little stress on the problem of genealogy in this passage, and since Luke’s genealogy stresses the genealogy that all humans share with Jesus, and since the idea of the universal availability of the gospel is one of the ideas in this passage. There is some real resonance with Exodus 14 & 15, the crossing of the Red Sea & its celebration, as well.

The Isaiah passage cited in vv. 32-33 is Isaiah 53:7-8; but it’s also worth remembering Isaiah 40:3 (or 40:3-5), cited in the baptism narratives; and Isaiah 56, which specifically mentions eunuchs as people who will be among the “all peoples” for whom God’s house is a house of prayer (one of Jesus’ own memory verses, according to Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:45). For why eunuchs might not be among those people at the time the events in the passage take place see Leviticus 21:16-24 (which deals with priests) and Deuteronomy 23:1 (but for that matter, 1-8, which deals with participation in the assembly – presumably corporate worship, but there is some midrash that reads this as a prohibition on marrying into the Jewish people).

Words: In v26, “an angel of the Lord” (in Greek an aggelos, a messenger, and just btw, a little embedded part of the “euaggelion,” the “good message” or as Christians are always saying, the “good news”) instructs Philip to “arise” or “rise up” (it’s a common word; so maybe it doesn’t need to remind us that it’s what Jesus does on Easter), and go to or at a word that literally means “noon,” so the angel might be telling Philip to be there or go there at noon, or the angel might be telling Philip to go in the direction of noon, i.e., south (which makes sense if we think of daybreak as east, in which case “sundown” would be west and midnight would be north; the Greeks are perfectly capable of telling time in other ways, so why use this peculiar expression?), to “the road” (in Greek hodos – which could also be translated “way,” and just btw, the word that gives the book of Exodus its name: ex-hodos, the way out) from Jerusalem to Gaza. Then, literally, “This [road] is herēmos” – that is, it is “deserted,” “lonely,” (think “hermit”?), which might also mean or could be translated as that it goes through the desert, or the wilderness.

So already in the first two sentences we have Philip having an experience similar to many of the Hebrew Bible “called” people (Gideon, Samson’s mother, Moses, …) as well as Luke’s called people (Zechariah, Mary), in which he is directed towards the wilderness (cf. Moses’ call and career; cf. John the Baptist & Jesus). What happens when angels show up? What happens in the wilderness? Hmmm.

In v27, Philip rises and goes, and sure enough, here is “a man, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official” of the queen of Ethiopia and in charge of all her treasure [gazēs, which sounds and reads suspiciously like Gaza, and which is, again, not the only word for “treasure” available to the author, so perhaps chosen on purpose to spark that little idea that this turns out to have been the way from Jerusalem to Gaza/treasure … and what would that treasure turn out to be?], who had been to Jerusalem to worship and was returning and was seated in his chariot and was reading the prophet Isaiah. This is a very long sentence that gives us the whole string of identifying features [as participles when it comes to the verbs, so they are acting like adjectives; this is a long establishing “take” on this person that Philip and the reader suddenly sees, with all this descriptive verbiage there all at once, a single gestalt].

Here’s something to note about this person: he’s exotic, and ambiguous. As an Ethiopian, he is from far away, beyond Egypt, connoting all those stories about the Queen of Sheba – remember that quip Jesus makes about the Queen of the South [hmmm – cf. those instructions to Philip] coming to see Solomon and look, one greater than Solomon is here (Matthew 12:42, Luke 11:31), for instance; as a eunuch, he is a man, but at the same time is not, is different from a man; as a court official he is something like a ruler, in fact the word could be used to mean ruler, but this man who is not a man is a servant of a ruler [being in charge of all the treasure of the ruler, he is a bit in the position of Joseph vis-à-vis Pharaoh …]; as someone who came to worship in Jerusalem, he is presumably Jewish – perhaps a God-fearer, perhaps a member of that legendary Jewish community in Ethiopia – but as a eunuch he’s presumably excluded from full participation in the Jewish worshipping community. So he is, immediately and intrinsically, in lots of overlapping ways, an archetype of an intrinsically complex figure whose “place” or status of belonging is really unclear. And could it be significant that he is traveling by chariot [the same vehicle the Egyptians use in Exodus 14]? The chariot is mentioned three times between now and the end of the story.

In v29 “the spirit” says to Philip to “go” [literally proselthe] and join the chariot, so he runs, hears the words from Isaiah, and asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” Which in Greek is a striking question, because the word for reading is a compound word based on the word for understanding. [ana-ginoskō/ginoskō] On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being most surreal, I’d give this scene at least an 8. But instead of acting outraged, the man, Ethiopian, eunuch, treasure official says “How can I, without someone to guide me?” – literally, someone to hodēgeō – there’s that “way” word again.

The storyteller pauses to catch us up to which passage in Isaiah is being read here, by quoting Isaiah 53:7-8, in which the lamb before his shearers “opens not his mouth,” and which refers to someone whose “generation” or descendants can’t be described, since his life is cut off from the earth … perhaps especially poignant for the Ethiopian eunuch doing the reading, who is not going to have any physical descendants, and who asks Philip who the prophet speaks of here. So the next thing Philip does is “open his mouth” (unlike the lamb) to do something that in Greek is a single word, to deliver a good message, or “to proclaim the gospel.” About Jesus. So Philip looks remarkably like a messenger (aka angel) of the Lord at this point. (cf. v26)

And suddenly in v36 the travelers come upon some water. [Maybe we are up to a 9 on the surrealism scale by this time.] The Ethiopian eunuch, fresh from his presumably restricted worship experience in Jerusalem, frames the question about baptism in terms of what would prevent him from participating. Apparently nothing. [Thank goodness Philip was ordained in Acts 6:6, so that even the sticklers for proper procedure don’t need to have any qualms about this.]

The word “water” is repeated four times in the space of three verses: there’s water, the man calls attention to the water, they go down into the water, they come back up out of the water. After which: the Spirit takes some immediate action, which is reminiscent of the Spirit’s practice around baptism (cf. the gospel accounts), and the newly baptized eunuch goes off rejoicing, which is also precedented when people come through water in the wilderness liberated and safe (cf. Exodus 15). But … definitely a 10 on that scale.

Summary: The extremely ambiguous figure in the story, who the text hints is like treasure, or even a single lost sheep, who has perhaps just recently been excluded from a fully satisfactory reconciling encounter with God through worship, here encounters someone who is positioned by the text as an angel/messenger of the Lord [Jesus] and who more or less acts as “a voice crying in the wilderness,” undergoes a formative and liberating experience in the wilderness that involves listening to a proclamation of good news and coming safely through water, unlike the Egyptian charioteers of Exodus but like a member of the liberated community of God’s people, and goes away rejoicing, now unambiguously part of the community of the baptized who have died and risen with Christ, personifying the prophetic words of Isaiah that “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isaiah 56:8). All orchestrated by the movement of the Spirit, the same one that appeared to Jesus in the wilderness at the baptismal beginning of Jesus’ own ministry that set the pattern for the ministry of all his followers. That’s a whole lot of meaning in a compact travel-size narrative.

[edited 8.11.17 to correct the incorrect reference to “Jephthah’s mother” – apologies!]

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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