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Faith & Wisdom

Eunuchs in the Bible

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If you've read George R.R Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" (adapted for TV as "Game of Thrones"), you've probably run across the term "eunuch." 

While today, people often use the term "eunuch" negatively, eunuchs held important positions back in Biblical times. 

Naturally, the history of eunuchs is long and fascinating. And in this article, we want to discuss it. Specifically, we'll cover what eunuchs are, what the Bible says about eunuchs, and the three types of eunuchs as outlined by Jesus.

What is a eunuch?

In modern times, we use "eunuch" to refer to a human male who was castrated. "Eunuch" is said ˈjuːnək' or 'yu nək.' Castration is the process of removing a man's testicles or rendering the testes ineffective through surgical or chemical intervention. Sometimes, doctors will perform castration for medical reasons.

Though the term "eunuch" is synonymous with castrated males today, that wasn't always the case. If we look back to Biblical times, we see that most eunuchs fit into one of four categories:

  • Eunuchs in title only: These eunuchs held significant positions of power (including positions close to a ruler) and thus remained abstinent and childless for their jobs. Many kingdoms also had a chief eunuch.
  • Castrated eunuchs: These eunuchs had no testicles, partially removed testicles, or damaged testicles. 
  • Celebate eunuchs: These eunuchs remained abstinent or chose not to father children to live for God. 
  • Castrated eunuchs with important jobs: These eunuchs performed jobs that required them to get castrated (for example, eunuchs who were guards for the bedrooms of a home).

The etymology of "eunuch"

The word "eunuch" comes from the Greek word "eunoukhos." "Eunoukhos" comes from two words: "eunē" for "bed" and "ekhein" for "to hold" or "to keep." Naturally, "eunoukhos" specifically references castrated eunuchs who worked in women's quarters as harem guards.

In Hebrew, "eunuch" is often translated to "saris." It's important to note that "saris" doesn't always refer to a castrated man, as previous generations have also used it as a synonym for "infertility." In Middle English, eunuchs were called "eunuk," and in Latin, "eunuch" is said as "eunuchus."

If you asked someone to explain the definition of eunuch today, they might bring up male opera singers. During the 18th century, young boys would get castrated so that their voices remained high-pitched and childlike after puberty. These boys then trained to be opera singers (called "castrati").

If you'd like to hear what a castrato sounded like, there's a single recording of Alessandro Moreschi available online. He sang in the Sistine Chapel choir and died in 1922.

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Eunuchs in the Bible

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Eunuchs played a prominent role in society back in Biblical times, so naturally, the Bible mentions them several times. Prominent eunuchs from the Bible include:

  • The seven eunuchs from Esther 1:10-12: Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, and Karkas
  • Hegai (Esther 2:3 and Esther 2:15)
  • Shaashgaz (Esther 2:14)
  • Hathak (Esther 4:1-9)
  • The unnamed Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39)

Additionally, the Bible references non-voluntary eunuchs in Isaiah 39:7 and 2 Kings 20:18. These verses contain identical prophecies that explain that Hezekiah's descendants will become eunuchs for the King of Babylon. 

This prophecy occurs after Hezekiah welcomed the Babylonians into his home and sinfully showed off his worldly treasures. 

Though Hezekiah was a loyal servant to God, showing off his silver and gold was a serious mistake that negatively impacted his bloodline. 

Hezekiah's prophecy shows us two of the main ways people in Biblical times viewed eunuchs — either as chaste and Godly men who upheld the Great Commandment or as individuals who deserved punishment. 

We can also see this duality when Jesus mentions eunuchs in the New Testament. 

3 types of eunuchs as outlined by Jesus 

Jesus mentions the "three types" of eunuchs during a speech to his apostles in Matthew 19:12: "For 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. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." 

These eunuchs include:

  • Men who were born as eunuchs
  • Men who became eunuchs through interference by man (either voluntarily or involuntarily) 
  • Men who choose to be eunuchs for God 

Though we don't know exactly how Jesus viewed each type of eunuch, his phrasing in Matthew 19:12 implies that he views voluntary eunuchs as holy and non-voluntary eunuchs as honorable depending on their actions. 

Additionally, as Jesus acknowledges that some eunuchs live for God, he validates them as good people living the Christian way (as opposed to, say, the Nicolaitans).

Ultimately, this verse shows us that God created eunuchs and considers them part of His plan for the Earth.

History of eunuchs

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Eunuchs weren't confined to just Biblical times, as many cultures have recorded the role that eunuchs played in society. For example: 

  • Eunuchs played a political and social role in the Middle East from the Assyrian Empire (which lasted 850–622 BCE) to the Lagid Dynasty. Many eunuchs also held positions in the Achaemenid court.
  • Eunuchs in Byzantine times worked in the royal court in intimate roles (like bathing, dressing, and grooming royals).
  • Eunuchs in ancient China also worked in intimate roles, but castration was also used as a punishment during the Sui Dynasty.
  • Korean eunuchs ("naesi") played many roles in society throughout the early Middle Ages. 
  • Eunuchs have held various roles in Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, and India throughout history.
  • Eunuchs existed during the Ottoman Empire. 

Of course, many men (especially those who developed prostate cancer) still live as eunuchs today. 

Oh Lord, how our world has changed

We can learn a lot about God by diving into His word and examining the world as it was 2,000 years ago. 

Today, the concept of social or political eunuchs seems strange to many Christians. But this is only proof that God's world is constantly evolving. When we look back on the history of eunuchs, we're reminded that the world has changed a lot since Biblical times. 

As 2 Corinthians 4:18 reminds us: "While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which aren't seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which aren't seen are eternal." 

But while the world has transformed, God's word hasn't. If you'd like to learn more about God's word, listen to our series "James Earl Jones Reads The Bible." Or, to listen to other content, you can download our app from the iOS app store or Google Play.

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