In the time of Jesus, Ethiopia was not the country in East Africa that we think of today, but was roughly analogous with the territory of Biblical Kush. This land would have covered most of today’s Sudan and parts of upper Egypt, with Meroë as its capital. Ethiopia was ruled over by Candaces, or queens (Acts 8:27).
In Antiquities (8:165-73), the Jewish historian Josephus argues that the Queen of Sheba with whom Solomon concluded a trade mission was also one of the earliest queens of Ethiopia. Further, there was a very early tradition that Solomon loved the Queen of Sheba and sent her home with not only gifts, but children that he had fathered with her. Ancient Jewish and Christian sources (Irenaeus and Jerome among them) agreed that the descendants of the Queen of Sheba by Solomon, and the Ethiopian eunuch in particular, were to be regarded as at least partially Jewish.
Acts 8:26-40 points to the eunuch’s embrace of Judaism through his attempt to visit the temple and reading the prophet Isaiah. Related people groups who were co-descendants of Abraham, like the Edomites, were to be welcomed into the temple and embraced (Deut 23:7-8), which was the first major expansion of the kingdom of God. As such, the eunuch was probably not a convert to Judaism, but born Jewish. It is for this reason that Cornelius and his household are regarded as the first Gentile baptized converts to Christianity (Acts 10:45-48) and not the Ethiopian eunuch.
But if the eunuch was another of the thousands of Jews (Acts 2) or even related groups like Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25) who had already received the Holy Spirit, why does his case merit special mention? Just as Jesus commanded, the gospel was being preached in expanding circles, first Jerusalem, then Judea, then Samaria, then all the earth (Acts 1:8). This Ethiopian represented an allied people group that had split off from the Jewish people much further back in history than the Samaritans, but was still “family” and to be reached before the gentiles.
The reason for the inclusion of the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and the second major expansion of the kingdom of God is the bodily reality of the eunuch. As a eunuch, he would have been prevented from entering the temple compound (Deut 23:1). Without needing to check his private parts, temple guards would have been able to see clearly the effects of several years, perhaps a lifetime, of lack of testosterone in production of female secondary-sexual characteristics. The guards would have been suspicious already of court officials coming from lands that were known to create eunuchs. The Ethiopian eunuch made the journey from Meroë to Jerusalem, a distance of about 1,500 miles. At the end of that journey he was refused entrance to the temple and the baptismal pools in which Jews and new converts to Judaism became ritually pure before entering the temple compound. The hopeful words of Isaiah 56:3-5 about eunuchs being included in temple service was regarded as prophesy – if that – rather than authoritative law by the party of the Zadokites (Sadducees) who primarily administered the temple compound. Thus, the eunuch was kept out and excluded.
It is difficult for me to imagine his disappointment and hurt at being refused entrance to participate in worship because of what had been done to his body. He must have been crushed as he was riding home. That he was reading the prophet Isaiah at all instead of giving up on a temple system that prohibited him from full participation is testimony to his faithfulness to God. Phillip heard him reading the particularly applicable passage:
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants? (Isaiah 53:8)
The anguish of soul that this man must felt reading about humiliation, deprivation of justice, and lack of descendants must have been tortuous after being turned away from his pilgrimage to the temple.
Into his despair, the Holy Spirit brought Phillip to explain that this passage pointed to the messiah. Jesus was also humiliated and deprived of justice. Jesus also would not have a family or descendants. The eunuch’s next question to Phillip must be read in this context. If Jesus, who is the messiah and the holy one of God could empathize with the suffering of this man, what was to stop him from finally being baptized and declared pure and whole? Nothing! He was not just displaying eagerness to be baptized, but making sure that nothing still stood in the way of his being recognized as a full member of God’s Kingdom. Even after Phillip was taken away, the eunuch, recognized as a whole and complete person, went on his way rejoicing! (Acts 8:39) I believe this is one of the great understatements in scripture.
Phillip had already shared the message of Jesus with the Samaritans. Now God expanded the community to include not just Ethiopian descendants of Solomon’s royal line, but a man who had been formally excluded from worshiping in the temple because of his queered body. Phillip helped expand the understandings of who was part of God’s beloved community, to include even the previously restricted. In this way, he was truly bearing much fruit for the kingdom.