No, this is not a soap opera screenplay. Its my imaginative attempt to get at the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, in Acts, Chapter 8. Let me know if you think it worked or not:
ALL MY CHILDREN
Acts 8: 26Now) an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth.33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 38And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
“You should be happy and not miss what you can’t have anyway,” they kept telling me. “Marriage, child-rearing and having a family are not all sweetness and delight,” they add. Well, even if that’s true, I would have liked to have chosen my state of singleness, infertility and celibacy, rather than have it imposed on me soon after my birth, all for the sake of my family’s wealth and honor. My father designated me, the last born of all his children, as a gift to the queen, to be one of her eunuchs, thus cementing the alliance between his clan and the royal family.
As I grew up I soon came to realize that I was different. Not only was I loaned out to the royal family and pampered like a pet, I soon came to understand that such would be my lot for life, my destiny: a pet for the royal family. To be exact, an accountant and financial guardian for the royal family’s wealth. They usually give such positions to the infertile and to eunuchs, so that we’ll consider them our family, so that we won’t take it into our heads to start our own dynasties with their resources. A secure and comfortable position, I’m often reminded, as long as there’s no palace coup or invasion. Still, I would have liked to have had some choice in the matter.
Ethiopia is not the only kingdom I know, though it is where I live and serve. I have spent much time studying and doing diplomacy in the royal courts of Arabia, India, Persia, even Rome. It was while studying algebra and philosophy in Alexandria, Egypt, that I learned Greek and Latin. And Hebrew. For I spent much time with Jewish rabbis learning their sacred scrolls.
It was not there that I first learned about Jews and Judaism. Ethiopia has long had a Jewish minority, at least as far back as when some Jews fled from the threat of captivity in Babylon and established a colony near the falls of the Upper Nile, at the southernmost outpost of the Egyptian Empire. But even before then there was contact between us and Israel, as when another Ethiopian queen visited King Solomon to test his wisdom. Moses even took a wife from our part of the world.
Being around royalty all the time will do things to you. Either you will come to see all the opulence and decadence and intrigue and luxury as your birthright, the way things are, or you will cry out for mercy and help, so that you can keep what little sanity, integrity, humility and compassion you can hold onto. I try to do the latter, because ever since I came to understand how I was different, and why, I have been crying out to someone, somewhere, for mercy. But not to the queen’s tribal gods. They are cruel and bloodthirsty, and their priests bless all the intrigue, violence and corruption of the royal court.
But in our midst is a small minority of people who worship one God, who live righteous, modest and respectful lives: the Jews. In fact, some of the royal relations are Jewish, are descended from King Solomon. Much attracted to them and their faith, I sought them out and strove to learn as much as I could from them. With some of them, however, I could only come so close and no closer. Some of them fear me because of my proximity to high levels of power, as though I might be some sort of spy, who would provide damaging information if ever there were to break out some official persecution against them. Its happened before. Others fear and despise me for being what I am: infertile, unable to marry and be a father.
It wasn’t until I studied in the great library of Alexandria, Egypt, that I was able to explore all things Hebrew. The rabbis there I found to be more open and cosmopolitan, and happy to receive any converts they could find, whatever the color of their skin. In fact, they told me that the conversion of myself and my people was prophesied in Psalm 68: “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands toward God.” There in Alexandria I was baptized and became a convert, a practicing Jew.
But one barrier remained. Not my color but my state as a eunuch. The Law of Moses does not permit me to participate in the holiest of sacrifices. I would simply have to do the most I could, and the best I could, the rabbis told me, short of being in on the sacrifices in the holier precincts of the temple, where no one with any deformity or infirmity could attend.
Which almost turned me away from my new found faith until I came across these words from Isaiah, the prophet: “Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any 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 not be cut off. …. these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”
“When will this come to pass,” I asked a rabbi, “that I shall be able to worship freely and fully and offer all the sacrifices of someone who is clean and whole?”
Said the rabbi, “When the Messiah comes, then shall all be fulfilled.”
Another passage gave me hope, also from the prophet Isaiah: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with grief. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not….we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted…… led like a lamb to the slaughter, silent as a sheep before her shearers, he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants?”
Who was that passage about? I asked many rabbis. They had many different answers, but most of them said, “Not the Messiah! Heaven forbid that when he comes, he should suffer such humiliation and defeat.” What I didn’t tell them, but which I kept hidden in my heart, was that sometimes I felt like the prophecy was about me! Me! I know what it is to be despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, familiar with grief, someone from whom people hide their faces, despised, esteemed not, considered stricken by God, led like a sheep to the shearers. And who can speak of my descendants? There will be none. But I dared not say this to the rabbis. Yet I read that passage over and over again, until I could recite it in the Greek translation, my native Amharic, and even the original Hebrew. After all, those two languages are not all that different. In fact, my most treasured possession is my copy of the scroll of Isaiah, which I purchased in Alexandria. With only the slightest push, it rolls open to those very same favorite passages of Isaiah, that’s how often I have read them.
And thus I was reading it after a trip to Jerusalem, for the high holy day of Passover. Even while my servant was driving my chariot, even while we bumped along the desert road to the port city of Azotus, where I was going to take a boat to Alexandria and another one up the Nile, I was reading the scroll of Isaiah, about the smitten, rejected servant with no descendants.
For after that visit to Jerusalem I was feeling again like someone despised and rejected by men. The services and celebrations were wonderful, of course. And I celebrated the Passover feast with other Ethiopian Jews. But again and again I was reminded of my second class status as a eunuch, and sometimes, for being Ethiopian. Judean nationalism was on the rise, in response to Roman repression. And all who look or talk differently than Judeans are feeling the heat.
Once the festivities were over, I left the city, feeling somewhat mixed about my experience, wondering if I would bother ever to come again. And so, even as my chariot bumped along, I turned toward a familiar source of comfort, the scroll of Isaiah the Prophet, and read aloud the words, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with grief. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not….we considered him stricken by God…who can speak of his descendants?” Reading them aloud is what gives them power. Only barbarians read words silently, in their heads.
And that’s when that strange man hailed me. Of course I thought it was odd enough that he would be out there in the desert, alone by himself, where thirst might claim his life, or the sun might strike him silly, or where scorpions, lions, cobras and bandits lurk among the rocks. But to add to the bizarre nature of this encounter, he was calling out for me, as though he expected to find me out there. And even more bizarrely, he did expect to find me there.
He didn’t ask me the usual questions, like “What is your name?” or “Where are you from?” He asked me, “Do you understand the passage you are reading?” Immediately I thought to myself, “Yes, its about me. I know all about being despised and rejected by men, and having no descendants.” But I stifled the urge to say that.
So I said, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?”
Because he looked like he was just aching to explain it to me, I invited him into the chariot, thinking, “This had better be something different.” Off we went, toward Azotus. And then this man began to tell the most amazing tale. I felt my heart strangely warmed as he recounted the story of another Jew who, like myself, was despised and rejected by men, who knew what it was to suffer unjustly, and to leave no descendants. This man was a carpenter and a rabbi who taught and gathered disciples, not too unusual in itself. But one who healed the sick, raised the dead, multiplied bread to feed the hungry, walked on water, and who welcomed the unclean and the un-whole like myself to his table for fellowship. In fact, said this man Philip, being in his presence was like being where I never could go, in the Holy of Holies even, and seeing the glory of God glowing over the Ark of the Covenant. And for all that, he was despised and rejected by men, especially the ones I served, the highest, most important, leading men in the world of politics and religion. For all that love and power he displayed, he was shamefully and publicly executed upon a barbaric Roman execution stake. This holy man of God then knew intimately and personally what my daily experiences of shame and exclusion are like. Not just a holy man, he was the promised Messiah!
Then and there I knew that no one would make up such a story about a crucified Messiah, not after all the times the rabbis themselves said, “God forbid that the Messiah should suffer the kind of humiliation and desolation described in the scroll of Isaiah the Prophet. But they left out the other part of the prophecy: “He shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.”
And that’s exactly what the Most High, the God of our Fathers, did by raising His anointed one from the dead on the third day after his execution. He vindicated His promised King and everything he did and taught, along with everyone who believed in him, by bringing him back, alive from the grave. And now he continues to do wonders and to gather disciples from all around the world, from all sorts of people.
I was nearly at the point of tears as he concluded this part of his message. So I asked him, “Do you think he would take someone like me for a disciple?”
Why wouldn’t he? The man asked.
“Well, for one thing, I’m Ethiopian, not Judean,” I said.
“But I’m a convert, and not Jewish by birth!” I added.
“He’s already claimed quite a few of those,” he said. “We’ll take as many as want to come.”
“There’s one other thing you should know about me,” I said.
“Go ahead,” he replied.
“I’m unclean, or un-whole, according to the law of Moses. I’m a eunuch.”
There, I said it. And I felt better, if a little scared at the thought that he might then tell me that the deal is off. But he only smiled and said, “How would you like a big happy family of your own?”
“You’re kidding. How’s that supposed to happen?” I asked.
“If you become the first Ethiopian convert and go back to share this news with other Ethiopians, and if they accept and embrace Jesus the Messiah too, you’ll become the father of a growing family of new disciples, new members of The Way.”
“You’ll take me as I am?” I asked. “Un-whole and unclean?”
He replied: “Jesus taught that its not what goes into the mouth that makes us unclean anymore, but what comes out of the mouth, by way of lies, lust, hatred and greed. I suppose the same applies to anything done to the body. Its not what anyone did to your body that makes you unclean anymore, but what you do with it from now on. So if you believe with your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead and confess with your mouth that he is Lord, you are clean and are claimed by God for a glorious inheritance, and a lineage like what our father Abraham was promised. Not only you, but all who shall believe from your testimony. Go back to your beautiful country and your noble, beautiful people with this message, and many and mighty in God shall be your descendants.”
I nearly fell off the chariot when I heard that. So I asked, “What must I do to be his disciple and follow this way?”
What he said next stunned me even more. “You must confess Jesus as Lord and be baptized.” Baptism I knew about, as a way for Gentile converts to be cleansed and begin a life of Judaism. That’s how I had entered the fold in Alexandria.
So I said, “I’m already a Jew. I thought you knew that.”
“But I was baptized too,” Philip replied. “So was Jesus. And all his disciples.”
This was almost more than I could take. By submitting to baptism, every fellow Jew in the Nazarene’s movement was effectively starting their faith all over again, from the same place that a Gentile convert would. Like I had. That could only mean one thing: that we had all been equally un-clean, and that we all could become equally clean and whole, in the sight of God Almighty whatever our past, or our condition.
But then a question occurred to me, one I just had to ask. “How is it that you just happened to be here along the road, like you had been expecting me, even prepared to talk with me about one of my favorite Bible passages?”
He said, “An angel of God told me to come here, by the roadside. In fact,” the man went on to say, “As soon as I saw your chariot, the Holy Spirit of God told me to go over and join you.”
Incredible! The Most High God sent his messenger into the most barren and dangerous of places just to meet me, just when I was about ready to give it all up, and he sent him there for my sake and no one else’s. I, who have been chosen against my will for barrenness, uncleanness and incompleteness, who have been despised and rejected for it by other men, as though it were my fault, who have been excluded from full citizenship and participation in the commonwealth of Israel, was suddenly chosen by the Most High to receive this revelation of His most mighty work to welcome and restore such foreigners and outcasts as myself. God did all this to include and redeem me according to his promise in the scroll of Isaiah, that he would give even eunuchs like me an everlasting memorial in his temple and a name better than what any sons or daughters might give.
Just then I noticed that we were approaching one of several oases and watering holes along the desert road. So I asked him, “What prevents me from being baptized here and now?” I should not have been surprised when he responded as though he were eager all along to pop the same question on me. Down into the water we went, where he blessed me in the name of Jesus and then dunked me under. All the while the chariot driver was watching us with a bemused smile on his face. He didn’t understand much Greek, the language in which we had conversed. I explained it all to him later. He’s now a deacon in our church. That makes him one of my first sons, in the faith at least.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Upon leaving the water, his smile of welcome, and his hearty embrace (for me, a man once considered unclean, with no possibility of love!) undid years of feeling excluded and unwanted. The water not only washed away a past of ignorance and sin, it washed away the depression and defensiveness with which I had long faced the world, living with my shoulders always hunched in fear and shame, always wondering who’s going to smirk at me or reject me next. Suddenly any future possibility of rejection didn’t scare me anymore. I knew then, in the depths of my heart, that I had been fully made clean and whole and embraced by God, and was ready to embrace his world, come what may.
I was just about to ask him, “So what comes next?” when I noticed he was missing. I looked over at the chariot and saw the driver, attending to the horses. “Where’s our passenger?” I asked. “Did you see where he went?”
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m just watching out for the horses. Am I supposed to watch out for your hitch-hikers too?” Then his eyes got wide with surprise. In a landscape as barren as this, how many places can you hide a full-grown man? I suddenly realized that I had just had an encounter like people had had with prophets like Elijah or Elisha. The Spirit of God brings him first one place, and then the next, to deliver his message and do his work. Any lingering shred of doubt in me was then gone.
And now the Spirit has sent me back to my native Ethiopia, where I am now the happy father and mother of a mighty church, two generations’ worth of believers already, as my children in the faith, like the chariot driver, have shared the same message and birthed their own churches. I still go back occasionally to Jerusalem, but now to confer with the man who baptized me, Philip, and with the eye witnesses of Jesus and his resurrection.
Now, as I look west toward the high green mountains of Ethiopia, and south, along the Great Rift Valley and toward the dense dark rain forests, north along the Nile, and east, toward the sea and the desert kingdoms beyond, I see the possibilities for more descendants according to the promise of the Most High, like what he gave our father Abraham, of grandchildren more numerous than the sands on the seashore and the stars in the sky, should my children in the faith carry this wonderful news in those directions. Thus the shame of my barrenness and broken-ness is gone, healed by the one by whose stripes we are healed, and washed away in the waters of baptism. Through Jesus I, who once was excluded from holy temple chambers, now have access to holier, more heavenly places. Mine is now a greater name, and a greater joy, than what any human family could ever have given me.