And King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what was given her by the bounty of King Solomon. So she turned and went back to her own land with her servants.
–1 Kings 10:13 (ESV)
Now 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. And 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…
–Acts 8:26-27 (ESV)
The Ethiopian history described in the Kebra Negast, or “Book of the Glory of Kings,” relates that Ethiopians are descendants of Israelite tribes who came to Ethiopia with Menelik I, alleged to be the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (or Makeda, in the legend) (see 1 Kings 10:1-13 and 2 Chronicles 9:1-12). The legend relates that Menelik, as an adult, returned to his father in Jerusalem, and then resettled in Ethiopia, and that he took with him the Ark of the Covenant.
I’ve written before about the section of Acts 8 that chronicles the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in relation to D. Thomas Lancaster’s commentary in Volume 6 of the Torah Club: Chronicles of the Apostles. Today (as I write this “church report”), it was Pastor Randy’s turn to teach us his perspective during Sunday services where I go to church.
It was also Charlie’s turn to discuss it in Sunday school and it was interesting. I already knew that Charlie believed the Ethiopian was Jewish but as Pastor started delivering his message, he shared with us that he just that week had changed his opinion about the Ethiopian and now believes that he must have been a Jew! Interesting.
I’m torn between whether to write about the history of the Ethiopian Jews, which is a topic of some controversy and speculation, or if I should focus on why God found it necessary to send an angel to tell Philip to find the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26). I think I’ll focus on the latter.
Let me explain.
In teaching the Sunday school lesson, Charlie remarked more than once how unusual he thought it was for God to send “an angel of the Lord” to tell Philip to stop everything he was doing in Samaria and travel south on the desert road to find one man who was returning to his native Ethiopia after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Why was this one man so important?
From a traditional evangelical Christian point of view, converting a high-ranking official of a foreign country to faith in Jesus Christ is a great way to spread the gospel message to all of the other high-ranking government officials in that country as well as to the general body of citizens. But I don’t think we can exactly map 21st Century evangelical strategies to First Century CE Jewish devotion to the sect of “the Way.” Charlie thought, given how the message of Christ was transmitted first to the Jews, then to the Samaritans, and finally to the rest of the nations, that God believed the Jewish population in Ethiopia was close to the heart of their Creator, and that the “Good News” of Messiah was a message God intended for all Jews to embrace. After all, much of the New Testament text addresses the spread of the Gospel into Europe, Asia, and the Near East. What about the Jews to the south?
This is all speculation of course, and only one part of a single chapter in the New Testament is devoted to transmitting such a message in that particular direction, but what Charlie also said more than once got my attention. He said that God wanted to make sure all of the Jews got the message that God had changed the rules.
What? What rules?
(I should say at this point, when Charlie made his comment about “changing rules” I was seriously considering what I should say or do in response. I chose not to say or do anything, but given my sensitivity to the matter of supersessionism in the church, I was afraid that I would have to defend against such a theology at the cost of my budding relationship among these fellow believers. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that.)
Actually, something important did change thanks to Christ.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…
–Matthew 28:19 (ESV)
While Israel had always been intended to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6), this is the first indication that the Messiah wanted people from all of the nations, and not just from Israel, to become disciples of the Master and grafted in sons and daughters of God. As we progress forward and especially attending to Acts 10 and beyond, we see that God’s intent was not to require the Gentiles to convert to Judaism or abandon their own national and ethnic uniqueness in order to become disciples. The Holy Spirit was just as available to the Gentile disciple as to the Jew.
In this specific sense, something had changed. Prior to this moment in time, if a Gentile wanted to worship the God of Israel in a covenant relationship, he or she had to embrace Judaism (that’s more or less an exact quote from Pastor Randy). With the command of Christ, which the church calls “the great commission,” anyone from anywhere could worship God in a covenant relationship without converting to Judaism (the concept of conversion is complicated…it probably didn’t exist as such during the days of Moses or David, but it was a recognized practice during the late Second Temple period and beyond).
Did God want Philip to tell the Ethiopian that God changed the rules? A plain reading of the text doesn’t suggest such a thing. From my point of view, what God wanted Philip to tell the Jewish Ethiopian was the good news of the Messiah who had come and will come again, as revealed by Isaiah 53. Why God wanted this event to occur is up for grabs, but what the Ethiopian carried back with him to his land and to his people was the gospel message, or as much of it as Philip was able to transmit in the time they were together and related to the passages from Isaiah. What fruit resulted upon the eunuch’s homecoming and in the years and centuries to follow, we cannot know.
But if God changed anything, it wasn’t His “rules” or His Torah but rather access. God opened up covenant access to Himself for all peoples. There are two portions to the good news of Christ. Of course, there is the good news for the Gentile, that we can now come to God in covenant through the blood of His son. However, Christianity rarely considers the good news of Christ to the Jew who already had such a covenant relationship (which would include the Jews in Ethiopia), that the Messiah had come, the King of Israel had been born, that he died and rose and sits at the Father’s right hand, and that at the proper time, Messiah would cause a scattered Israel to be gathered together as a nation and one day, the King would rule from Jerusalem (I’m not suggesting two, separate paths of salvation, one for Gentiles and one for Jews, but because of Israel’s special unique relationship with God, the Messiah has more and different good news for the Jews in addition to the good news he has for the Gentiles).
On Friday May 24, 1991: Over the course of 36 hours, a total of 34 El Al Hercules c-130s – with their seats removed to maximize passenger capacity – flew non-stop.
14,325 Ethiopian Jews came home to Israel, to be greeted by thousands of Israelis who gathered at temporary absorption centers, hotels and hostels to welcome their brethren.
Operation Solomon saw the rescue of twice the number of Ethiopian Jews in Operations Moses and Joshua put together.
A Christian group said Tuesday, June 7, it would help organize “the return of the last 8,700 Ethiopian Jews to Israel” by sponsoring what are known as “Aliyah” flights, the coming months.
“Last Ethiopian Jews to Return to Israel, Christian Group Says”
-from worthynews.com, June 8, 2011
I know I’m stringing together bits and pieces of scripture, news, and commentary in a less than rock-solid structure, but consider for a moment that Jews from all across the nations have been returning to Israel and are being gathered to their people. God has never forgotten them nor will He ever forsake them. Perhaps that’s why He made it a point to send an angel to Philip and to insure that the message of the Messiah would reach all of his people, including the Jewish Ethiopians.
Just a thought.