4For thus says the LORD,
“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
5To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.“–Isaiah 56:4-5
Imagine if you were a special “type” of person … someone who belonged to what might be called a “sexual minority” … a person who would be conveniently used by others when your special gifts and talented were needed … yet, although you were good-natured, attractive, talented and trustworthy, you had absolutely no rights or legal standing whatsoever.
Not too hard to imagine, huh?
Well, that’s exactly the predicament faced by a group of people known as “eunuchs” in the Bible.
Rembrandt’s Baptism of the Eunuch
Even the name, itself, sounds strange. Be that as it may, some scholars say there upwards of 40 Old Testament verses containing a word – in Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic – used to mean “eunuch” … while, in at least two New Testament passages, eunuchs are at the heart of the message.
So, what, exactly is a eunuch?
Simple: A eunuch is someone who has no physical attraction to people of the opposite sex. Back in the Bible, eunuchs didn’t have sex with women and they didn’t have children. Since they had no children, they had no vested interest in leaving a fortune to the next generation. Therefore, they had no reason to be crooked or seek advantage for their own offspring.
Some people were just born that way. Others were made that way surgically in order to serve their masters. Still others chose to deny themselves and be celibate in order to focus entirely on God.
Translated to English, eunuch essentially means “keeper of the bed chamber” or “overseer of the household.”
Put another way, a eunuch was an “emasculated man.” Many historians believe that eunuchs were homosexuals.
In other words, people living thousands of years ago all across Europe and Asia acknowledged a certain category of men as different from the norm. Their difference consisted in the fact that they had no sex drive toward women and that difference was conceived of as natural and inborn. We know, too, of ancient cultures where there were women who, by nature, had no lust for men.
Does the island of “Lesbos” ring a bell?
The ancient Hebrews didn’t practice castration. The Law excluded eunuchs from public worship, partly because self-mutilation was often performed in honor of a heathen god, and partly because any maimed creature was deemed unfit for the service of Yahweh. That ban, however, was later removed. The kings of Israel and Judah often followed their royal neighbors in employing eunuchs as guardian of the harem and other official posts.
Apart from castration, eunuchs were naturally incapacitated, either for marriage or for begetting children.
Eunuchs were common in other cultures featured in the Bible. Remember Potiphar, who managed the household of a high-ranking official in Pharaoh’s court? He was a eunuch. Maybe that explains why the official’s wife made a play, instead, for Joseph, he of the coat of many colors. Joseph tried to escape and left the woman holding his garment (but that, my friends, is another story).
Eunuchs were trusted around the women who were married since they weren’t a threat in committing adultery with another man’s wife or engaging in pre-marital sex with a household of women.
In fact, eunuchs were exalted to such positions that they watched over the harems of the kings they served. Both boys and girls were sold into slavery as eunuchs by their parents to give their child a better life or to provide for the rest of the family.
Eunuchs could be extremely beautiful and attractive. Some say that Daniel – along with his friends Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego — were virile and handsome men who were castrated before being banished into captivity by the Babylonians and sent to serve Nebuchadnezzar. First century historian Josephus asserts that Daniel and his three friends were made eunuchs. Even before that, the writer of 2 Kings 20:18 predicts, “And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood that will be born to you, will be taken away and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
While in exile, Queen Esther – the wife of Persian King Xerxes – had a eunuch assigned to serve her personal needs, showing that in this time period it was common for such women to be attended by “men who didn’t pose a sexual threat.” According to the Book of Esther (1:10), the king had seven eunuchs who served him.
The New Testament also refers to eunuchs. Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians, sent one of her eunuchs to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh, God of the Hebrews. As the eunuch was drawing close to Jerusalem, the Apostle Phillip, one of the leaders in the early New Testament church, was sent by God to explain and preach the gospel to him.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. (You can read the entire story yourself in Acts 8:26-31.)
Ironically, some could say that the Apostle Paul was a eunuch in that he remained single and celibate to fully concentrate on his mission for Christ.
What’s really important here is the idea that even a eunuch could be baptized, draw close to God, and become part of God’s family.
I believe this reaffirms the impartiality of God.
“Whosoever believes,” says the Scripture … and that includes eunuchs.
Which brings us to what Jesus has to say about these extraordinary people. Let’s take a look at Matthew 19:8-12, where Jesus and his disciples are discussing marriage and divorce, and the conditions under which it is permissible to divorce:
8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” 10The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” 11Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
In this context, Jesus is saying that some people aren’t suitable for marriage. His reasons are lumped together under the category of being a eunuch.
The Lord himself expanded the meaning of eunuch to include those who are unmarried for a variety of reasons. Some are made this way by others. Some are born this way. They are unable to get married because they have no natural inclination to have sexual relations with a mate of the opposite sex.
It is highly unlikely that Jesus is referring to a straight, but impotent, male … or a castrated one, for that matter … when he talks about eunuchs.
Why? Because castrated and impotent men still can be attracted to women.
A eunuch is a man who can’t reproduce, not necessarily a man who isn’t sexual. Some men were castrated specifically so they could stay young and pretty and be sexual with other men.
We’ve all heard the joke about the pamphlet entitled, “What Jesus Said about Homosexuality.” Open it up and it’s blank. Of course, that’s true. Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, per se.
But as knowing and wise as Jesus was – or, as the fundamentalists like to say, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) – wouldn’t you think that He’d know there would one day be a terrible problem in his church, in Christianity, and in culture over homosexuality, gay rights, and same-sex marriage? Then, why didn’t he say anything specific?
I believe he did:
Jesus said, “Let the one who can accept this accept it.”
Not everyone can accept this.
So, I have to wonder: Is Jesus talking to us, preaching to the choir? Or is he talking about others in his church who need to understand and accept what he’s saying here about eunuchs … about those of us who don’t conform to society’s norms about gender?
Eunuchs were foreigners to God’s temple when Isaiah made his prophecy, due to one of those damning Deuteronomy verses (23:1): “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.”
But Isaiah here states that God Almighty will wipe away the bonds of the Mosaic Law through his love, mercy, and grace.
It is, therefore, very clear that eunuchs not only have a place in heaven, but are given “a name better than sons and daughters.”
Can it get any better than that?