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Eunuchs

by Tim O'Hearn

We were a second or third grade Bible class, playing twenty questions. The other team picked a character from Acts 8, and naturally our first question after determining it was a person was, “male or female.” At that point my mother, as teacher, had the unenviable task of explaining what a eunuch was to a group of young kids. She did so valiantly, but not very convincingly. That round went to neither team.

In the opera world there was a time when eunuchs were in high demand. Young boys were made eunuchs, called castrati, to create a strong, clear, high voice. Families who had talented young boys could make a fortune turning them into castrati. The last true castrato died in the early 1900s, and many say that opera is better for it. The problem was that the choice was rarely left to the child.

In the ancient world, eunuchs were often held in high regard. Because they were not considered a threat to the throne, they often held high positions. Obviously, they were in charge of the house of the wives, but this often ledIt is interesting to think that Potiphar may have been a eunuch in the traditional sense. to other high administrative positions. Eunuchs feature prominently in the Bible, and not just the story in Acts 8.

In law and prophecy

While eunuchs were generally held in high regard elsewhere, they were not so fortunate among the Jewish people. Most specifically, they could not hold the position of a priest.

Speak to Aaron, saying: ‘No man of your descendants in succeeding generations, who has any defect, may approach to offer the bread of his God. For any man who has a defect shall not approach: a man blind or lame, who has a marred face or any limb too long, a man who has a broken foot or broken hand, or is a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man who has a defect in his eye, or eczema or scab, or is a eunuch. No man of the descendants of Aaron the priest, who has a defect, shall come near to offer the offerings made by fire to the LORD. He has a defect; he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. He may eat the bread of his God, both the most holy and the holy; only he shall not go near the veil or approach the altar, because he has a defect, lest he profane My sanctuaries; for I the LORD sanctify them.’ (Lev 21:17-23, NKJV)

Deuteronomy 23:1 expands this prohibition so that any eunuch may not “enter the assembly of the Lord.” This latter phrase is generally taken to mean they were prohibited from entering the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. It should be noted that these passages go into clinical detail about the physical characteristics, and do not use the word eunuch. There is a separate Hebrew word for that, which generally applies to a political position.

The prophets gave eunuchs hope to be included in the people of God. Isaiah, in particular, says:

Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment, and do justice: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. Blessed is the man that doeth this, and the son of man that layeth hold on it; that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and keepeth his hand from doing any evil. Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the LORD, speak, saying, The LORD hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. (Isa 56:1-5)

Eunuchs in the Old Testament

There is, as previously mentioned, a specific word in Hebrew that is translated eunuch. While it may include the traditional definition, it is often expanded to include certain high officers without regard to their actual physical status.

The first person described as a eunuch or officer is Potiphar, into whose care Joseph was given. Because he was married, the translators generally use the word officer. It is interesting to think that Potiphar may have been a eunuch in the traditional sense, which could explain his wife’s interest in the young slave, Joseph. After Joseph was thrown in prison, he encountered two others who were described a eunuchs. These were the chief butler and the chief baker for whom he interpreted dreams.

While eunuchs in the harem were often overlooked, at least once they had the opportunity to take revenge on their charges. Some time after the death of King Ahab, Jehu killed a subsequent king of Israel. As he rode into Samaria, the queen mother Isabella (Jezebel) put on makeup and leaned out of a window of the harem to try to get in Jehu’s good graces. Instead he asked who was on the Lord’s side, and “there looked out to him two or three eunuchs. And he said, Throw her down. So they threw her down.” (2 Kings 9:32-33)

Even though eunuchs were not allowed “in the assembly,” in Israel, apparently they were allowed in the government. According to Jeremiah 29:2, eunuchs were among the first group of Jews taken into Babylonian captivity. One eunuch was executed by the Babylonians because he was in charge of the men of war. (Jer 52:25) When Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern and left to die, it was Ebed-Melech, an Ethiopian eunuch, who begged the king to save him. (Jer 38) This is the first mention of an Ethiopian eunuch in the Bible.

Once the Jews were in Babylon, they had regular contact with eunuchs. When Nebuchadnezzar wanted to train some of the captives and make them government officials, they were put in the care of eunuchs under Ashpenaz. (Dan 1) When the Persians took over, Ahasuerus had seven eunuchs whom he sent to order the queen to come to him; an order which she refused. (Esther 1) Throughout the book of Esther, the king’s eunuchs are named, although the King James Version calls them chamberlains. Some took charge of the preparation of the young women, including Esther, who were being prepared for the king. Others were doorkeepers. They generally held positions of honor and importance.

In the New Testament

Jesus taught about divorce, saying, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.” (Matt 19:9) When some of his disciples said that this meant it was good not to marry, he responded:

There are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. (Matt 19:12)

Some people may choose to forgo marriage in order to devote their lives to God. In this sense, the monastic system is approved. As long as the monks are devoted to service and are not tempted (1 Cor 7) they may choose to make themselves as if they were eunuchs.

And then we have the most famous biblical eunuch. In Acts 8, Philip is told to go to a deserted road. There he meets up with a eunuch. This person was an important servant of the Kandake of Ethiopia. (That is a title, not a name as the King James Version seems to suggest, spelling it Candace. As sister to the king of Cush, she would bear the royal heir.) Some have wondered whether this should be considered the first gentile convert. Probably not. The fact that he (to use that pronoun for convenience) had traveled to Jerusalem to worship, even if he could not enter the Temple, indicates he was a Jew. There had been Jews in Ethiopia at least since the reign of Solomon. Ethiopian tradition says that the royal line descending from the Queen of Sheba were descendants of a union between her and Solomon. Whether or not that is true, there is no doubt that the Ethiopian Jewish community has always been quite large.

The eunuch was probably accompanied by a large retinue. It is unlikely that such an important individual, or anyone for that matter, would travel the Gaza road alone. There was too great a danger from robbers. Of all this caravan, the Holy Spirit directed Philip to the chariot of the eunuch in charge. That person was reading from Isaiah 53. When Philip asked if he understood what he was reading, the eunuch recognized that Philip was ready to teach him.

Beginning with the scripture being read, Philip taught about Jesus. He probably had him turn a littleEbed-Melech was the first Ethiopian eunuch mentioned in the Bible. farther in the scroll, to the passage quoted earlier from Isaiah 56. This would be good news for the eunuch, for it meant that there was hope that he would no longer be excluded from the worship of God. Philip continued, showing from the Jewish scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah. Furthermore, that Messiah would bring salvation from sin.

The eunuch listened to what Philip was teaching him. The chariot had been proceeding at less than a running pace, probably because not all of the retinue were in chariots but on foot. Thus they had plenty of time to study the scriptures. When they approached a body of water large enough, the eunuch asked what kept him from being immersed. As a Jew, he already knew of immersion in water as the primary rite of purification. It was necessary before entering the Temple, but the eunuch was unable to enter the Temple. So when Philip told him that if he believed he could be immersed, he rejoiced. Not only could he participate in something previously forbidden him, but by doing so he would be joined with the Messiah of whom he had been reading.

We are not told any more about this eunuch. Because he “went on his way rejoicing” we can speculate that he spread the gospel when he got home to the Ethiopian Jewish community.

We often pass over the eunuchs in the Bible. Or in the case of the latter one, miss the significance of his faith. The gospel is available to all people, regardless of condition. Those who appear to us to be somehow damaged may be of great value to God. And that is true of us all, because we are all blemished in some way.