The reason I started this blog series was because Matthew 19:12 caused the topic to resurface inside of me:
"For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.""
To understand the people Jesus was talking about, I did a little digging. This post might be a little technical for some readers, but I think it's an essential part of the journey as we continue on.
In the Bible, the word eunuchs was used to refer to two distinct groups of people: 1) Palace officials, and 2) Men who lacked sexual potency in some way.
First, on palace officials:
"In oriental courts eunuchs were used for roles in the royal court (initially, no doubt, because this made them ‘safe’ in relation to the royal harem, but then also to develop a cast who could devote themselves to public affairs on behalf of the monarch without the distraction of family). Over time this seems to have generated a class of people who were prepared for civil service by means of castration (mostly at a post-puberty stage?) and whatever training was deemed relevant.... So a first image for eunuchs is that of members of a class of castrated civil servants. There is a question, however, about whether the word srys necessarily continued to imply a castrated state, or whether it eventually came to be used of those who were exercising a role which in the history of the language had at an earlier time been restricted to eunuchs" (Nolland, 777).
From the literature, there seems to be a consensus that the term eunuch came to mean a palace official in a general sense, so every use of the term cannot be assumed to inform us as to a person's sexual development. The first occurrence of the word in the Bible is found in reference to Potiphar (Gen 37:36). Most scholars doubt that Potiphar was a eunuch biologically because of the fact that he was married. (We could perhaps entertain some commentary here on Potiphar's wife and the reasons for her sexual prowess outside her marriage, but it would all be conjecture.)
However, the second group of individuals is of more interest to me for the purposes of this conversation. Unfortunately, what made a man a eunuch biologically was never clearly defined. We do know that it included both men born with incomplete reproductive organs and men who did not develop normally upon hitting adolescence. In addition, it included men who were physically castrated despite previous normal development (Schneider, electronic ed).
Because sexual potency was mostly valued in Judaism because of the call to procreate (Gen 1:28), it is also possible that eunuchs included sterile men. I have not found any literature about this specific subset of men. If they were included, their reproductive problems would not have been revealed until adulthood. Because polygamy was the norm in Ancient Israel, a man had the opportunity to reproduce with more than one woman, which would serve to show if he was infertile or one of his wives was.
In regard to Jesus' reference in Matthew, Jesus' reference to "eunuchs who have been so from birth" would have at least included, though not have been limited to, intersex individuals who lived as males. Then, "as now, children were occasionally born with defective genitals and subsequently would fail to develop male secondary characteristics as they grew up" (Nolland, 778).
Jesus' words are more interesting if they are viewed in light of the historical treatment of eunuchs in Israel. Other than being accepted as servants to royalty, they were excluded from the assembly of God's people.
Deut 23:1 says, "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord." The context, which is very interesting, lists those people who could not belong to God's people, including eunuchs made so by man, children born out of wedlock, Ammonites, and Moabites.
However, later, the Lord allows these former outcasts in. Isaiah 56 is a beautiful chapter in which God speaks welcome to eunuchs, foreigners, and the dispersed of Israel. Now, in place of exclusion, we see these words about eunuchs in Isaiah 56:3-5:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
4For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5I 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.
We later see these verses of Isaiah 56 fulfilled in one man, the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8. A Gentile and a eunuch, this man converted and was baptized by Philip.
The account of the Ethiopian eunuch is an important one in understanding the ways of the Kingdom of God. He was one of the first believers, not one of the last. As in the stories of the centurion with great faith, the samaritan woman at the well, the star-gazing magi, and the slave-girl fortune teller, the Kingdom of God is an upside down Kingdom, a place in which God shows that it is not earthly credentials but faith that makes you a member of His family. This is a pattern that is not unfamiliar to Bible readers: God gives names of honor to those who are considered the least of society, even in the Old Testament--the barren women, the foreigners, the younger brothers. And it is a pattern that I, as a woman, am grateful for.
While there is much more that could be said about Scripture's reference to eunuchs, in this brief overview we can start to see a bit about their experience within Israel and the earliest days of Christianity. Hopefully these reference points will guide our conversation as we continue. I'd love to hear your thoughts or other Scriptures that inform us as we proceed. I will be discussing creation, the fall, and Genesis 1:27 at length in a future post, so stay tuned for that in Part 4. Also, read the final installments Part 5 and Part 6.
Schneider, Johannes. "εὐνοῦχος, εὐνουχίζω." in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Kittel, Gerhard, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Trans. G. W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-1976.
Nolland, John. The Gospel of Matthew. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.