One of my favorite books on prayer is Beginning to Pray by the Russian Orthodox Archbishop Anthony Bloom. Bloom makes a statement that has always shocked me. He says: “To meet God means to enter into the ‘cave of a tiger’—it is not a pussy cat you meet – it’s a tiger. The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not seek information about it.” (Paulist Press paperback edition, 1970, page xv)
Bloom is speaking about the need for the Gospel to reach beyond the intellect into a person’s whole being. But what I have always taken from this statement is the insight that God is not someone we can contain into our intellectual or theological cages. God remains free. Whenever we try to domesticate him, he is likely to break out of our cages and surprise us, if not shock us, with his saving actions.
A prime example is the story that the evangelist Luke tells in his Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 8:26-40, he recounts how God led an early Christian evangelist named Philip to walk onto a desert road in southern Palestine. There he encounters an Ethiopian who had been to Jerusalem to worship.
On his return trip, the Ethiopian is seated in his chariot reading a scroll of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. What he is reading mystifies him. When Philip offers to explain the text, the Ethiopian invites him to join him in his chariot.
Philip gives Isaiah a Christian interpretation. The text is about Jesus, Philip says, and uses this opportunity to tell the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. The courtier is moved to believe. As they pass some water, he asks Philip to baptize him. Philip does. The Ethiopian becomes the first black African to become a Christian.
Why It Was Daring to Baptize This Ethiopian
But there is much more going on in this story than a surface reading indicates. The black African was a well-educated man. He was reading. He is also probably what was known in the first century as a God-fearer. This was a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism, its monotheism and high ethics, but did not officially convert. Many early Christian converts came from this category.
What holds this Ethiopian back from converting to Judaism? It was not his African ancestry. It was that he was considered a sexual outsider. He was a eunuch. And by the dictates of the Torah, eunuchs were barred from membership in the people of God, or at least barred from full participation in the Temple worship.
This rule was based upon Deuteronomy 23:1, which prescribed: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”
The eunuch was sexually mutilated and therefore an outsider denied access to the gathering of God’s people in the temple. This was the letter of the Torah. And because devout people would regard the Torah as divine law, presumably it could not be changed.
But try to tell that to God. The Deuteronomy passage was not the final word of God on the subject of eunuchs that we find in the Bible. Through the mouth of a later prophet, recorded in Isaiah 56, God speaks a word of hope to eunuchs. The day is coming when eunuchs will be included within the gatherings of God’s people.
Says the Lord in Isaiah 56:4-5:
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.
In this word of promise, God breaks out of the letter of Deuteronomy. He is not to be contained by it.
This gives deeper meaning to the Ethiopian eunuch’s question to Philip: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip answers the question by baptizing the Ethiopian. The sexual outsider becomes a spiritual insider.
All this, Luke says, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. The story begins with a command coming to Philip through an angel. And twice later in the story, Luke mentions the Spirit’s direct action in the movement of the story.
Welcoming the Ethiopian eunuch into the circle of God’s people is a saving action of God. For as God says in Isaiah 56:8, his saving work is gathering outcasts into the circle of his people. “I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” (Isaiah 56:8)
Respecting the Wild Tiger
Now what fascinates me in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as well as in the Isaiah passage is how God does not confine his actions within the letter of Deuteronomy. God freely moves outside the boundaries of the cage. He remains, in Bloom’s vivid image, the wild tiger.
This is not the only example in Scripture. The supreme example is the Holy Spirit’s leading the infant church to incorporate Gentiles as equal members into the church.
This struck the earliest Jewish Christians as a shocking innovation. The Old Testament had envisioned that Gentiles in the last days would come to Jerusalem to be instructed in the ways of God (see Isaiah 2:2-3). But the implication was that Gentiles would be subordinate members of the people of God, not equal members with the Jews.
The Spirit’s action caught the infant church totally by surprise. That is clear throughout the New Testament. Luke captures that sense of surprise in his recounting of the conversion of the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10).
The letters of the apostle Paul bear witness to how the movement of the Spirit roiled life in the church for decades to come. (And to some degree, the reverberations continue into our day through the long and ugly history of Christian anti-Semitism. As if they have not learned the deeper meaning of the Spirit’s action on their own behalf, Gentile Christians have practiced reverse discrimination in their relationship with Jews.)
What these actions by God say to me is that God cannot be domesticated, not even by the written words of the Bible. I say that not out of any disrespect for the Bible, but because of the witness of the Bible itself.
Every time we think we have caged God into our expectations of how God should act, we have set ourselves up to be surprised. That was true for the generations living in Biblical days. I believe it remains true for our generation as well.
I know that my discussion of Deuteronomy 23 and Isaiah 56 ignores a source critical approach to reading these texts. In that approach, we would explain the differences in attitude in the two texts to their having different authors/editors writing in different eras of Israelite history. They would then represent different theologies.
The canonical form of both texts, however, presents them as words of God. And that is how a good many Christians will read them. If we read them that way, then God seems to have changed his mind between Mosaic times and the post-exilic times when the author of Isaiah was writing. My discussion is particularly directed to those who will be reading the Bible in that way.