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Whom is the prophet talking about?

What precisely made the eunuch stop at Isaiah 53? 

 

After so many biblical stories about barren women, it is almost a relief to meet a barren man in Scripture. This article is meant to show that precisely this barrenness allows the Ethiopian eunuch to take the message of Isaiah 53 personally. Acts 8 tells about a most fertile classroom context..

 

When Philip jumps onto a moving carriage somewhere in the desolate countryside between Jerusalem and Gaza, a kind of didactic lab comes into existence. On board we find a reader with a book he finds hard to understand, and Philip has offered him to act as an interpreter. Thus we have the triangle of subject matter, teacher and pupil. In the centre there is the question: evoked by the material, posed by the pupil, discussed by the teacher. In a church context we might discern such an interactive learning triangle in Bible text, preacher and listener. There, too, a question should be at the centre, evoked by the text, visible in the questioning faces of listeners, and picked up in the preacher's sermon.

The thrill of both an educational and a preaching situation s in the dynamics within the triangle. In a real learning process none of the three angles or 'parties' remains untouched. After a good lesson or sermon, not only the pupil or listener has acquired wisdom or has changed. The teacher or preacher will have made discoveries himself as well, and the subject matter has linked itself to the world in new ways that will make it sound different from now on. That is what happened on that rumbling carriage according to Acts 8,26-40. The triangle consisted of an Ethiopian eunuch, the Greek-speaking Jew Philip, and a fragment from Isaiah 53. The question in the centre of this triangle was: 'About whom is the prophet speaking: about himself or about someone else?' (verse 34).

I have always considered this question an all too easy feeder for Philip, who now could immediately start to speak about Jesus. I have never liked the story about Philip and the eunuch, because I thought it lacked tension and dynamics. The eunuch reads a hard-to-understand fragment from the book of Isaiah. Philip then gives a  ready-made christological explanation. Whereas a couple of verses back the eunuch did not understand a word of it, he now asks to be baptized on the spot. But w as readers are not informed about what convinced him, since Philip's sermon is not included. Luke just tells us: '...starting from that text he proclaimed Jesus unto him' (verse 35).

In some commentaries, this non-included sermon is thought to have been a classical account of christology. The eunuch would then have been convinced by the soundness of doctrine. He himself, apart from being an inquisitive Bible reader and an exemplary churchgoer, would remain a man without a face and without characteristics. If a different person would have been travelling in the carriage, Philip would have delivered exactly the same sermon. The enthousiasm of the eunuch remains ethereal in this way, it cannot be shared by the reader. That is why I have for a long time considered this a rather cheapish missionary story. My opinion has changed, however, when I suddenly came to hear a new sound in the eunuch's question.

 

Luke spends a lot of words in describing who the reading traveller is. He is introduded in verse 27 as 'a man, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a high-ranking official of Candace the queen of Ethiopians, who was over all her treasure, who had come to worship in Jerusalem.

Some commentators remark that the concept of 'eunuch' was in those days commonly used as referring to court officials and did not necessarily imply castration. That may indeed be the case generally, but in Acts 8, Luke uses other words to indicate the man's function at court: he calls him a dynastes (high official) and describes the character and extent of his function. But after the introduction, Luke does not refer to the man as 'the Ethiopian' or 'the dynastes' or 'the treasurer', he does not even refer to him just as 'the man': he keeps referring to him as 'the eunuch'. The possible associations brought to Luke's mind might be adequately described in the book of Isaiah, a couple of paragraphs after the text at which the Ethiopian has stopped. In Isaiah 56,1-8 the generosity of the Eternal One is said to extend itself unto the foreigner and the eunuch. Whereas the eunuch describes himself as 'a barren tree', an appreciable place is promised unto him in the house of the Lord, 'better than sons and daughters, an eternal name that will not expire'. Such a promise mirrors the misery of the eunuch's situation as Isaiah sees it: that he has nobody to make his name live forth, that his place under the sun will be gone as soon as he himself will be no longer there.

After so many biblical stories about barren women, here in the end we have a barren man. But whereas commentaries usually comment extensively on the misery of the barren woman, they seem not to wonder which role the barrenness of this man might play in his story.

According to the story in Acts, however, the eunuch does not read the quite adequate passage on eunuchs from Isaiah 56. He stops at Isaiah 53,7-8, cited in the Septuagint version:

He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; 
as a lamb being dumb before his shearer 
so he did not open his mouth:

In his humiliation his judgment was withheld from him; 
his generation - who will tell about it? 
For his life is taken from the earth. 

After these words, the eunuch asks Philip about whom the prophet is speaking: about himself, or about someone else?

If we are to take Luke seriously as a storyteller, as exegetes we will have to ask the obvious question: why has Luke this particular man ask this particular question in relation to these particular words from Scripture? The eunuch does not, after all, ask what the Isaiah fragment is about, but whom it is about. If this is to be more than merely a comfortable leg up for Philip (for whom the whom question would serve as a neat hyperlink to Jesus), the question seems to suggest that the eunuch feels these words address his own situation. He himself will pass into oblivion, without raising his voice in protest. However powerful he may be, justice will mot be done to his life, no one will make up the balance once he will be gone, his life story will not be preserved and passed on - for when he will decease, nothing will remain of him on earth. 'My lord, about whom are this words?' - in this question one might perceive a thrill: this is about me! That is why he is a fully engaged listener once Philip starts speaking. And the Jesus Philip proclaims is not the theological puzzle piece that solves the riddle of prophecy. For the eunuch, Jesus appears as a promising fellow-sufferer: dying without offspring like he himself will onze pass away, but still living on with God and among his people, in a different kind of family. That is why the eunuch wants to be baptized on the spot, in order to enter this family circle in which there is a future even for a man without offspring. In this way, even that other prophecy from Isaiah 56 is efficiently fulfilled: the eunuch gains eternal remembrance, he will forever have his place in the story that Luke tells about the family of Christian faith.

Luke cites the Isaiah 53 fragment as a text in which the eunuch recognizes himself. This is confirmed by the way Luke has trimmed the citation. Before and after the cited words are sentences about the violence that faces the 'servant of the Lord' and about the sins of his people for which he must suffer. These elements are kept outside the citation, because they are not the aspects the eunuch can identify with. What he does in fact identify with, is the element of taking one's fate without protest and then disappearing ingloriously and namelessly. The sad defencelesness of a man who, powerful as his position may be, has no choice but to accept his fate, is in the course of the narrative being changed into a joy so great that he does not even for a moment cling unto his godparent Philip, but goes his own way in radiant confidence: he is fully part of the family.

Now it becomes clear why Luke does not have to write out Philip's sermon. Philip's argument is not decisive for our understanding of the narrative. His sermon can link up with the thrill of recognition in the eunuch's question. He introduces Jesus, and in doing so he offers the eunuch a family circle in which his fate is acknowledged and overcome at the same time. In the dynamics of text, reader and interpreter each of these parties (Isaiah, the eunuch and Philip) makes a real contribution. Philip does not simply answer the eunuch's question (about whom does the prophet speak?) by saying: Isaiah 53 is about Jesus. The prophet's words are about you (the eunuch) and about Jesus, and in its light the two come together - first in a sermon, and next in baptism.

 

In Luke's story the eunuch is reading Isaiah in the Septuagint version. Luckily so, because the eunuch would not have been able to identify with the Isaian servant to the same extent if he had been reading a literal translation of the Hebrew text. In the latter, the suffering servant is treated in a most unfriendly way by his contemporaries. After the word about the servant's defenceless suffering, the response ofhis contemporaries is formulated as: we'čt doro mi jeshuheah - and as to his generation, who would bother? The context makes it clear that the particle et is used here to underscore the switch from the servant to his generation as the grammatical subject. But theSeptuagint, which is not very precise in its translation of the surrounding verses either, has interpreted the particle as denoting a grammatical object. In consequence, the meaning of the word 'generation' (Hebrew dor, Greek genea) changes as well. Whereas in the Hebrew text it denotes the contemporaries who do not bother that a man is perishing because of their evildoings, in the Septuagint 'his generation' has come to denote 'his lineage', those who came before him or those to come after him. His fate is now no longer that his contemporaries have him be swept away into oblivion without giving it a thought - instead, his is a lonely story of a man who passes into oblivion because he has nobody to remember his lineage.

It is intresting to see that older translations usually have copied the Septuagint (and Vulgate) interpretation back into the Hebrew Isaiah text, so that Isaiah 53 and its citation in Acts 8 have almost the same wordings. In most of the newer transaltions, the differences between the Hebrew text in Isaiah 53 and the Greek translation in Acts 8 are made visible.

 

So, the eunuch feels addressed by theSeptuagint Isaiah thanks to the fact that it is saying something that was not implied in the Hebrew original. Had Philip been a highly educated Dutch Reformed minister, he would probably have answered the eunuch's question as follows: 'You should know that actually the original text goes differently' - next, he would have given a long sermon on the Lord's suffering servant according to Isaiah, but the servant of Kandake would have had hardly any reason at all to pay attention to such a lecture. But happily neither Philip nor Luke has been conscious of the fact that the Hebrew text did say something else. For us who know, the lesson might well be this: that the Spirit is not tied to the oriinal text, but is operating through new meanings as well, even if they are the result of slipshod translation.

 

The dynamics within the triangle of text, hearer and preacher has changed the hearer and has ade the text sound differently. But whathas happened to the preacher? There is an indication in the text. Before, Philip has cruised Samariah, working miracles, preaching and baptizing, but the apostles have to come from Jerusalem to pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon the Samaritans: '...for He had not yet come upon any of them, they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus' (8:16). If nothing would have changed in that respect, so if the Spirit would still have to be administered as an additional delivery from Jerusalem, we would be forced to conclude that the storyteller has made the eunuch depart to Ethiopia baptized and full of joy, but without the Spirit. But within the narrative, and as opposed to the previous story, the Holy Spirit is communicating intensely with Philip (verses 29 and 39). After having baptized the eunuch, Philip is literally absorbed in th Spirit while the eunuch is absorbed in pure joy. Happily lost in Pentecost!

 

In this article I have presented the story of Acts 8 as a dynamical triangular relation between Isaiah 53, the eunuch, and Philip. At a closer look, I see this form enclosed in a second, wider triangle. For apart from the tiangle within the story there is the triangle of the story itself, in which Luke is our storytelling guide, we as readers being the pupils, and Acts 8 itself being the didactic material. And just as the eunuch as a non-neutral reader heard Isaiah 53 address him in a way it had never addressed anyone before, in a way Philip would never have been able to show him - so we ourselves do not read Acts 8 as non-neutral readers, and perhaps we will see things of which Luke himself has had no inkling. Eventually, apart from the didactic triangles within the story and of the story, there is a triangle about the story, in which I myself try to address you, dear reader, this article being the material. Here as well it will be true that you are not a neutral reader, and that quite other things might strike you as interesting than those I am trying so hard to show you - but so it is wherever the Spirit is working.

 

Piet van Veldhuizen