Isaiah draws concentric circles around the Kingdom. Written by an Israelite seer in a time of great national distress, the book offers warning, encouragement, judgment, and prophecy about both the circumstances of his time and the coming Messianic Kingdom.
As in all books of the Bible, God’s love is there—if we are looking. And in chapter 56, Isaiah tells us God’s attitude towards two particularly hopeless outsiders:
Isaiah 56:3. Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”
The text identifies two groups practically hyperbolic in their “other-ness”: non-Israelites and eunuchs. To the ancient mind, these two groups are outcasts in intimate relationships (having a family), and/or community (belonging to the covenant people), two of the most important aspects of life in the Old Testament.
In the ancient near east, “eunuch” was a kind of catch-all term used for men who could not father children. It could represent a slave who was castrated as a child; it could represent a man who had an accident or was injured. In theory, childhood castration made male servants both more trustworthy and more expendable by staving off family ties. In some situations, castration was a form of punishment for certain crimes.1
While forced servitude and castration are incredibly rare today, the ancient near-eastern eunuch surely wrestled with the same questions we humans have asked ourselves for time immemorial: “Do I belong?” or the more insidious, “Am I really a man?” “Am I really a woman?” and finally, “Is there something terribly wrong with me?”
For the eunuch, there was.
Today, as in all ages, similar doubts trouble both youths and adults, from couples struggling to conceive to artistic men and muscular women. In modern American culture, the question “Am I normal?” begs for acceptance, validity, and identity. But in the ancient near east, the eunuch’s problem was more physical. In that world, children formed a legacy, helped perform tasks and manage property, cared for parents in their old age, and—for Israelites—represented hope of inheritance in the land promised to God’s people.
God promises a solution in the text:
Isaiah 56:4-5. For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
God’s promise is complete as it is simple: “I will give…a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.”
Within the biblical context, this statement is stunning. Children were so important to God and His people that a number of Old Testament stories of deliverance center on childbearing: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Hannah and Elkanah, Elizabeth and Zechariah. Each couple was granted a male child. In Israel, brothers of dead husbands were responsible to provide an heir to the widow, “…that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (Deut. 25:6). Family—children—were vital.
And in these verses, God promises to the eunuch “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.” For the ancient eunuch, progeny and the sense of belonging found in being the patriarch of a family had been forever banished. But God so values a person’s commitment to serve Him that He would promise to a family-less person, viewed by their society as maimed and broken, something superior.
The other group in the text, called foreigners in the ESV, wrestles with a different question: “Is my identity a barrier for God?”
Tribalism pervaded the ancient world. It’s difficult for a modern-day American to even imagine the degree to which an ancient near-easterners’ ancestry decided their economic status, religion, geographical area, their fate. And for men and women of non-Israelite descent, born outside God’s covenant people, spiritual life was ostensibly hopeless. By definition, non-Israelites had not been born into God’s ethnic covenant community.
But in this section, God says to the foreigner:
Isaiah 56:7-8. “…these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, “I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.”
Not only does God declare that He will make foreigners “joyful” in the temple, He says that He will accept their sacrifices. The verses finish by promising that this is to be expected; in the future, God will gather more than just ethnic Israel when He gathers His people to Him.
For these two types of outcasts, God’s requirement is the same: keep My covenant. These blessings are not arbitrarily thrown at all eunuchs and all foreigners. They are merited by devotion to Yahweh that He Himself
The text of Isaiah is written in the context of the old covenant, but following Christ’s resurrection, one of the first converts to Christianity represents both of the types mentioned in this passage: the Ethiopian eunuch.
Acts 8:26-29. 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 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
In the verses following, Philip finds himself with a gold-plated witnessing opportunity: the Ethiopian asks him about Isaiah 53. By the end of the scene, Philip has baptized this non-Israelite eunuch, welcoming him to the body of Christ.
The significance of this account—and its early place in Acts—should not be underestimated. As soon as God established the new covenant, Isaiah 56 was acted out as Philip fulfilled God’s desire for this progeny-less foreigner to be included in the body of His Son, Jesus. Extra-biblical tradition even credits this encounter with the early establishment of the Christian church in Ethiopia.2
These passages in Isaiah and Acts offer modern Christians both a powerful evangelism tool and a window to God’s heart of compassion. From little boys and girls asking, “Am I really a boy?” or “Am I really a girl?” to heartbroken young couples unable to conceive, the eunuch’s problem lives on. And in postmodern, post-Christian society, many sources offer counterfeits of real love and acceptance. As America aggressively ferrets out racism, the pain of the foreigner is alive and well, too. Children and adults face the core belief that because of the circumstances of their birth, they are not enough. Outside of the community. Outside of hope.
But God responds to these pains the same. He says, “I will give you an everlasting name.” God asks for our commitment and promises us the life in the Kingdom we desperately need and the community, the meaning, we yearn for. Never mind our pasts, our origins, our bodies—He promises us a place. He promises us better