Eunuchs in the OT, Part 4
Hunting for Jewish Castrates during the Exile
HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE BIBLE
Key Passages: Deut 23:1; Isa 39:7, 56:3–5; Tobit 1:21–22; Dan 1:3–19; Neh 1:11c–2:1

By Bruce L. Gerig

 

Law and grace
Moses’ prohibitions relating to the genitally wounded
The Law of Moses specified that
“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (Deut 23:1, NRSV).  In Deuteronomy the “assembly of the Lord” usually referred to the Israelite community gathered at Mount Sinai; and therefore this would point to the religious community, not necessarily to everyone living later in Israel1 or to every gathering.  The LB (1976) reads, “. . . to the [Lord’s] sanctuary.”  However, Lev 21:16–21 also declared that “No descendent of Aaron [as a priest] . . . who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of [LB: ‘sacrifices to’] his God” (vv. 21, 17, NRSV).  “Blemish” here refers to any “physical defect” (v. 21, LB), and included among other examples given are “crushed testicles” (21:20, NRSV).  Another law rejected the offering of animals with damaged or removed testicles as sacrifices to the Lord (Lev 22:24–25).  David Burke suggests that the rationale behind Deut 23:1 and Lev 21:20 was probably multifaceted, intended to show that genital wounding was contrary to the divine order in creation, that it represented an unacceptable accommodation to foreign influence, that it disqualified priests from serving a God who created the world without blemish, and that it posed a threat to the patriarchal order.2  Eunuch priests very likely played a role in the pagan religious cults of Innana / Ishtar in the second millennium BC,3 and this law may have been intended to guard against the bringing of such cult practices into Israel’s worship.  However, although the Law of Moses sometimes called for the death penalty, it never called for castration as a punishment, as in Middle Assyrian legal codes,4 although, e.g., if a woman took hold of the genitals of a man fighting with her husband (which could injure his opponent there), the Law of Moses instructed that her hand be cut off (Deut 25:11–12).  William Countryman suggests that both the eunuch (Deut 23:1) and the ‘bastard’ son born out of wedlock (v. 2) were excluded from joining the Israelite worshipping assembly because they could not properly be related to the family, the basic social unit in Israel.5  This idea is reinforced in Isaiah’s later prophecy in Isa 56:3, where the eunuch is called a “dry” (NRSV) or “barren” (NEB) tree.  R. D. Patterson contended that because of Deut 23:1, it “can be doubted that Israel would have inaugurated the employment of eunuchs.”6  Yet, social practice does not always follow legal prohibition; and Israel failed to keep a great many of God’s commandments, e.g., even related to keeping the Passover (2 Kings 23:22) and the Sabbath (Ezek 20:12–13, 16, 21, 24; Neh 13:17–18).  A more reasonable assumption would be that the Israelites never castrated their own sons, although this did not keep their rulers from adopting the foreign practice of adding eunuchs (obtained from abroad) to perform royal court service.7  


Isaiah’s prophecies concerning Israelites who will be castrated
Isaiah’s prediction that Jewish youths of royal lineage would one day be taken into exile and castrated (Isa 39:7 = 2 Kings 20:18).  Hezekiah (727–698) was considered the most upright king that the southern kingdom of Judah ever had, because he “did what was right in the sight of the L
ORD” (2 Kings 18:3, 5).  For the Biblical record of Hezekiah’s reign, read 2 Kings 18:1–20:21, 2 Chron 29:1–32:33, and Isa 36–39.  Yet, during the early part of Hezekiah’s reign, he watched Shalmaneser V (726–722) and his Assyrian army invade the land, capture Samaria (the capital city and the northern kingdom of Israel) in 722, imprison King Hoshea there, and take away many Israelites in the north as captives (2 Kings 17:1–6).  Hezekiah’s reign also overlapped the prophetic ministry of Isaiah, arguably Israel’s greatest prophet, which extended from his Divine call in the year that King Uzziah died (733, Isa 6:1–8) into the reign of the evil king Manasseh (698–642), when Jewish tradition holds that the prophet was martyred.8  At one point, however, envoys arrived at Jerusalem from Merodach-baladan, a rebel king in Babylon; and Hezekiah enthusiastically welcomed these dignitaries, displaying to them all the treasures of his realm (2 Kings 20:12–13).  Later, when Isaiah learned of this, he rebuked Hezekiah, prophesying that “Days are coming when all that is in your house . . . shall be carried to Babylon, nothing shall be left, says the LORD.  Some of your own sons who are born to you [GNB: ‘your direct descendents’] shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs [sarisim] in the palace of the king of Babylon” (2 Kings 20:17–18, NRSV).  Dazzled by the fact that, as king of Judah, he was so well known even in distant Babylon, Hezekiah foolishly revealed to the foreign visitors the extent of Jerusalem’s wealth, which Babylonian leaders later would covet, come and carry off for their own benefit, along with captives from Judah.9  Probably Hezekiah saw Merodach-baladan as a credible ally against Assyria,10 and so had placed his trust in friendship with this foreign leader to protect Israel rather than to trust in the Lord.  From other historical records, it is known that while Sargon II (721–705) was king over the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Merodach-baladan II, a Chaldean ruler from the south, seized the throne in Babylon where he reigned for twelve years, before he was disposed and fled.  Then after Sargon’s death, this nuisance of a local king continued to stir up trouble and attempted again to take Babylon.  One can see how Hezekiah might be impressed with his audaciousness11 and chutzpah.  Of eighteen translations of Isaiah’s prophecy in 2 Kings 20:18, fifteen render sarisim as “eunuchs,” while the CEV (1995) reads vaguely: “they will be disgraced . . . .”  The importance of this prophecy is underscored by the fact that it and the accompanying story (2 Kings 20:12–19) are repeated in Isa 39:1–8, where one cannot help but connect this prophecy with Isaiah’s later Divine word concerning the Lord’s acceptance of those sarisim who worship him (56:3–5), which commentators almost unanimously interpret again as referring to “eunuchs.”  Upon hearing Isaiah’s first prophecy, Hezekiah found comfort in the fact that the invasion and mutilation predicted would not come until after his death; however, Derek Kidner suggests that the prophet Isaiah took this awful burden home with him where he lived under its weight, until God gave him another, unexpectedly comforting word for these Jewish eunuchs (56:3–5).12  

Isaiah’s promise of Yahweh’s grace extended to Jewish eunuchs (Isa 56:35).  The prophecies in the last chapters of Isaiah (56–66) are addressed to those who returned to Israel.  The temple still remained in ruins (63:18; 64:11), but its rebuilding was foreseen (56:6–7).  However, the restored community faced the question of who now should be admitted to the worshipping assembly.13  In this connection, in Isa 56:3–8 one reads one of the most startling Divine promises found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Here Lord tells Isaiah to declare to all: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD [LB: ‘Gentiles . . . when they accept 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.’  For thus says the LORD:  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” (56:3–5, NRSV, italics added).  Then, after turning to welcome foreigners who also have ‘joined themselves to the Lord’ (vv. 6–7ab), the prophecy concludes with “. . . for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  Thus says the LORD God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered” (Isa 56:7c–8, NRSV, italics added).  Most English translators render the gifts promised in Isa 56:5 as “a monument and a name” (RSV 1952, NASB 1960, JB 1968, NEB 1970, NIV 1978, NJB 1985, NRSV 1989, REB 1989, NAB 1995), although others specify “a place and a name” (KJV 1611, Lamsa [Aramaic] 1933, NKJV 1982), “a monument . . . a memorial” (Moffatt 1922), and “a hand and a name” (Green 1986).  The LB (1976) and GNB2 (1983) combine both Hebrew words and simply read “a / your name.”  A note in the NAB for Isa 56:5 views this monument like “a memorial inscription to prevent oblivion for one who had no children,” as seen, e.g., with Absalom, David’s son, who before he was killed “had taken a pillar and erected it for himself in the King’s Valley, for he said, ‘I have no son to perpetuate my name’” (2 Sam 18:18, NAB). In Israel, family and descendents were very important.  In the restored Temple, however, the Lord commands that the doors should now be opened for Gentile followers, as well as Jewish castrates, to all who are devoted to the Lord.  Faithful eunuchs should be granted both access to the Temple and accepted status within the Jewish community (Watts).14  Of course, such action would have been “highly controversial,” and we may be sure that this would never have been accepted by the post-exilic Temple authorities after the restoration of religious ritual and worship in Jerusalem (Blenkinsopp).15  One might suggest that this wide invitation to everyone who loves the Lord (regardless of their sexual state and racial background) will not be realized until Christ’s Millennial reign, when “all nations shall stream” into Jerusalem and “nation shall not [anymore] lift up sword against nation” (Isa 2:1–4, NRSV).16  Indeed, Ezekiel seems to envision a Temple in Jerusalem during this one thousand year period, along with animal sacrifices (Ezek 40–47), which Charles Dyer believes will commemorate Christ’s atoning death.17  Yet, one has to wonder where castrates would be coming from during this period of Christ’s reign?  A more clear (and documented) fulfillment of this prophecy is found in Acts 8:26–40, where God opens the door for an Ethiopian black eunuch, perhaps a Jewish proselyte, to be accepted fully into the new Church, the Body of Christ.  Or, he might only have been a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who was attracted to Jewish belief and practice, but had not been accepted as an actual convert (Geib).  Meanwhile, Jesus’ enigmatic statement about different types of eunuchs in Matt 19:12 suggests that the term “eunuch” for Christians may carry much wider symbolic meanings (McNeill), including even gay, lesbian, and transgendered people.18  Indeed, Isaiah’s prophecy in Isa 56:1–8 expresses nothing less than the universal, “unlimited nature of Yahweh’s love” (Burke).19  

However, there may be interesting word plays also here in Isa 56:5. Jay Green’s very literal translation renders “a monument [yad] and a name [shem] (NRSV) as “a hand and a name.”   According to the Brown-Driver-Brigg’s lexicon, yad (Strong, H3027) basically means “hand,” but by extension it can also to refer to “strength, power” or a “sign, monument”;20 and shem  (H8034) basically means “name,” but by extension it can also refer to “reputation, memorial, or monument.”21  Yet Joseph Blenkinsopp also notes that word yad was sometimes used as a sexual euphemism meaning “penis.”22  For example, Isa 57:8b refers to Israelite men having sex with pagan sacred prostitutes when it says, “you have loved their bed, you have gazed on their nakedness [yad, footnote: ‘phallus’] (NRSV).23  Then Hayim Tadmor notes another pun here in Isa 56:5, with the word shem (“name”), which in Akkadian meant “male successor.”24  So, there may be hidden allusions here to the eunuch as one who had lost part or all of his genitalia, as well as his sexual capability to produce seed and heirs.  Yet God intends to replace the Israelite eunuch’s physical loss and impotency with something better.  Earlier in Isaiah’s prophecies, God noted that if the Israelites kept his commandments, “their name would never be cut off . . . from before me” (Isa 48:18–19, italics added).  Yet they forsook the Lord, and therefore Isaiah declared that their country would become “desolate,” and there would be “few survivors” left in the land (Isa 1:4, 7, 9).  In contrast, those Jewish eunuchs who remained faithful to worshipping God, even though they had suffered another kind of horrible ‘cutting off,’ in God’s larger punishment of Israel, would be remembered forever.  In fact, this prophecy recalls the reference in one of Daniel’s visions to the righteous person, whose name “is written in the book” at the end of time (Dan 12:1), as well as the Apostle John’s reference to the “book of life” with this same meaning (Rev 20:15).

John Oswalt notes that this passage was intended to give the believing eunuch and foreigner “a sense of dignity and worth.  They are told not to depreciate themselves. Others might do it, but they are not to acquiesce in it.  God will not cut them off; they are not lifeless and fruitless.   These words are a concrete expression of the limitless grace of God.”25  All those who seek the Lord in sincerity and turn from their sins shall find mercy and pardon with the Lord (Isa 55:6–7), no matter who they are.  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8–9, NRSV).26  Still, does not one passage here in Scripture (Isa 56:3–8) flatly contradict another passage (Deut 23:1–8)?  In fact, one wonders whether Jesus did not root his interpretative method in the Gospels in such contrasts as this, for what was the point of the Law here in the first place?  Was it that castrated males and foreigners were intrinsically evil?  Hardly.  The ceremonial law was intended to make a theological point, more specifically in Deut 23:1 to emphasize the goodness of nature as it was created.  Yet, we are not to worship it.  Nor should one use the law to crush people under its weight.  Once the initial theological point is made, then a greater point can take precedence, namely, that God intends to make a feast for all peoples who worship him, as he declares: “On this mountain [in the new Jerusalem] the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food . . . [and] the LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isa 25:6, 8, NRSV; and cf. Rev 19:6–9, 21:4).  It is not important that eunuchs cannot produce children if they love the things that God loves and desire what he desires.  Family or barrenness have nothing to do with acceptability in God’s eyes.  He will give such eunuchs “an everlasting name,”27 in fact, nothing less than “eternal life” in the presence of God.  Isaiah takes a kindlier position than the Law with regards to eunuchs (Muilenburg);28 and certainly all those Israelites in various lands who had been castrated and forced into degrading servitude would find comfort in this remarkable  prophecy.  As Kidner writes, Deut 23:1 was given in love, to make this cruel mutilation abhorrent in Israel, if nowhere else; however, now in Isa 56:3–8 it is replaced with God’s love sensitively matching the Jewish eunuchs’ handicap with something better.29 

 
Eunuchs among Israel’s sons
Ahikar during the reigns of Sennacherib and Esarhaddon in Assyria

The Apocryphal Book of Tobit (found in Roman Catholic, Greek, and Russian Orthodox Bibles) describes how Tobit was taken with other Israelites into exile to Nineveh after Shalmaneser V (726–722) took Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel (722), although later Tobit refused to eat Gentile food (Tobit 1:1–2, 10–11, NRSV).  Tobit is probably a shortened form of the Hebrew name Tobiah (cf. the REB footnote for 1:1–2).  Yet, Tobit had a nephew named Ahikar, who later served Sennacherib (704–681) as “chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet, and in charge of administrations of the accounts” (1:22, NRSV).  (The signet seal was used to mark official documents as authentic.)  Yet, Tobit fell out of favor with Sennacherib when it was reported that he was secretly collecting the bodies of his slain compatriots and burying them (1:18), since the Jews considered an unburied corpse a curse which affected the peace of the deceased.30  So Tobit fled into hiding, for his safety (1:19–20).  However, when Sennacherib was murdered, his son Esarhaddon (680–669) ascended to the throne in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.  Esarhaddon reappointed the evidently greatly admired and capable Ahikar to his former high positions, including being in charge “over all the accounts of his kingdom, and he had authority over the entire administration” (1:21, NRSV).  Then Ahikar interceded for his uncle, Tobit, so that he was able to come out of hiding and return to Nineveh (1:22).  So, was Ahikar a eunuch?  According to Reade, Sennacherib seems not to have trusted eunuchs fully and so removed many of them from high positions at the beginning of his reign.31  Still, Kirk Grayson notes that the source for most boys turned into eunuchs in Assyria were foreign captives.32  Ahikar was taken to Nineveh, then no doubt castrated for court service during the reign of Shalmaneser V, prior to Sennacherib’s ascent to the throne (1:1–2).  If one holds that Ahikar was not castrated, then one has to offer a plausible explanation for how a captive from a small, irritable, subjugated nation in the hinterlands of the Assyrian Empire came to such a high position.  Surely he followed a route similar to Daniel: as a handsome youth he was chosen, castrated and then trained in court language, literature and protocol, to prepare him to enter the king’s service.  Then Sennacherib, noting the young Ahikar’s outstanding abilities and faithful devotion (and perhaps that he kept to himself, as Jews abroad tended to do) and also seeing that what he did prospered (with God’s blessing), promoted him until he became second in power in the empire (as cupbearer, seal-bearer, treasurer, and viceroy or palace administrator).  Also, as J. J. Lenzen writes, Ahikar was not merely a legendary wise man, but a real historical figure.33             

Daniel and other youths taken to serve Nebuchadnezzar in Babylonia
Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562) of the Neo-Babylonian Empire made three assaults on the southern kingdom of Judah, the first occurring in 605, at which time he made
Jehoiakim (608–598) a vassal and puppet king over Judah (2 Kings 24:1a; Jer 25:1–2, 29).  The Book of Daniel begins by describing Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of and coming into Jerusalem at this time, especially how “the king commanded his palace master [rab-saris, H7227, H5631; RSV: ‘chief eunuch’34] Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (Dan 1:3–4, NRSV).  The GNB2 reads here that these youths “had to be handsome, intelligent, well-trained, quick to learn, and free from physical defects, so that they would be qualified to serve in the royal court” (1:4).  All these youths “were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court” (1:5, NRSV).  Daniel along with his three close companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, were given new Chaldean (Akkadian35) names, which were: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (1:6–7).  James Coffman writes, “It is strangely pathetic to find the names of these precocious young princes of Israel among the eunuchs of the king of Babylon.”36  Daniel, a gifted, well-born and devout Jewish teenager, suddenly finds himself “ripped away from his family and deposited in a strange land,” then physically wounded.  He “had every reason to feel confused, bitter and even angry” (Bayliss).37  Yet, somehow he was determined to remain firm in his commitment to the God of Israel, as best he could.  

Of course, as Samuel Driver notes, the Bible never says (outright) that Daniel and his companions were castrated; and Driver holds that it is too much to infer this from the statement that they were put in charge of the master of the king’s eunuchs.38  In addition, Arthur Jeffrey writes that it does not need to be held that Isaiah’s prophecy in Isa 39:7 ever came to pass, or that Dan 1 is an example of this.39  R. D. Patterson agrees: “No certain evidence exists that Daniel and his three friends were made eunuchs . . . .”40  Alexander Di Lella writes that “the text [here in Dan 1] does not imply that the Israelite youths in the care of Ashpenaz were made eunuchs,” and he avoids any mention of Isa 39:7.41  Often writers, even of lengthy commentaries, simply ignore the questions as to whether the prophecy in Isa 39:7 ever came to pass and how likely it may have been, from a historical viewpoint, that Daniel and his companions were castrated for court service in Babylon.42  Of course, one can think of numerous reasons why Daniel might avoid mentioning such a defilement, considered so disgraceful and disgusting within his religious background.   

However, many other interpreters do believe that Daniel and his friends were castrated.  Many rabbis have held that Daniel and his three friends became eunuchs in Babylon.43  Josephus (c.37–c.100, the Jewish historian) wrote that some Jewish exiles were made eunuchs (although he does not specify who exactly);44 and Jerome (c.342–420, translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible) noted in a commentary that “From this passage [Dan 1] the Hebrews think that Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were eunuchs, thus fulfilling the prophecy which is spoken by the prophet Isaiah to Hezekiah [Isa 39:7]. . . .”45  The Babylonian Talmud: Sanhedrin (93b) connects Daniel and his friends with Isa 56:4-5, while Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer connects them with both Isa 39:7 and 56:4–5.46  Others who affirm the castration of Daniel and his companions, as a fulfillment of Isa 39:7, include: Origen of Alexandria (c.185–c.254),47 Theodoret of Cyrus in Syria (c.393–c.466),48 Robert Culver (1962),49 R. J. A. Sheriffs (1980),50 and James Coffman (1989).51  Bill Versteeg (2000) writes, “Daniel became a eunuch, serving the king of Babylon.”  When Ashpenaz saw his “lean body,” he ordered the soldiers to take him, and so he went off to attend the royal high school.52  Yvette Dube agrees: Daniel was made into a eunuch.53  John Burton and Thelma Coffman (1990) write, “It was usually true in that era [in Daniel’s time] ‘eunuchs’ were men who had been emasculated, although it was also true that ‘eunuchs’ were [sometimes uncastrated] ‘officers of the king.’  This was by no means true of the princes of Judah in Babylon.”  Daniel and his companions “were not officers of the king, but captives; and here, they even endured the humiliation of having their names changed.”  If one believes in Biblical prophecy and keeps in mind Isaiah’s word in 39:7, castration is the “only proper understanding of the fate of those princes of the royal household of Judah.”54  According to Abraham Ibn Ezra (c.1092–1167, the great Spanish rabbi), Daniel was probably around fifteen years old when he was taken to Babylon.55  

In summary, David Bayliss bases his claim that “Daniel was a eunuch” on a cumulative number of points, including:  First, it was customary for Mesopotamian kings in the first millennium BC to surround themselves with eunuchs as servants.  Second, Isaiah 39:7 prophesied that youths of royal blood would be taken away from Judah and made into eunuchs to serve the king of Babylon.  Third, the fact that Daniel and the other captured Israelite youths were entrusted to the “chief eunuch” suggests that they were to become young eunuchs themselves.56  Fourth, boys to be made into eunuchs were usually selected for their beauty, which is mentioned at the top of the list of selecting criteria in Dan 1:4.  Fifth, there is no mention of Daniel or his companions ever marrying (or having children).  Sixth, Daniel showed no interest in returning to Jerusalem after Cyrus the Great came to the throne (who allowed exiles to return to their homelands), which may have to do with his physical humiliation and the Deut 23:1 ban.57  These arguments individually by themselves are not totally convincing, but together they do present a compelling case for Daniel and his companions being made into eunuchs.  Even an Egyptian instructional text from the end of the thirteenth century BC (late 19th Dynasty) described the ideal scribe as “a youth distinguished of appearance and pleasing of charm, who can explain the difficulties of the annals like him who composed them” (italics added),58 although we have no sure way of identifying such youths as eunuchs in Egypt (because all of the Egyptian men generally shaved).  

Yet, Karlheinz Deller (1999) writes about eunuch traditions in Assyria and, if these traditions were passed down to the Babylonians (as they probably were), they might shed light on what happened more specifically to Daniel and his friends after they arrived in Babylon.  Deller notes that in Assyria, in Akkadian (the same language used by the Babylonians), there was a phrase sha resuttu which meant “eunuchship”; and this corps of eunuchs was headed by the rab sha reshi, the “chief eunuch,” who belonged also to the king’s cabinet.  No doubt admission to this powerful eunuch’s corps was quite attractive to both Assyrians and foreigners who became eunuchs.59  Many came to Assyria as captives or hostages, and for the Assyrian family’s second or third son it offered a brilliant career. There was probably no lack of candidates, and there is no reason to feel that joining this group was anything but honorable in the sight of many Assyrians.  In fact, foreigners who were made eunuchs were sometimes sent back as envoys to their native countries, where they could display their insignia of royal favor (cf. Nehemiah, with his royal garb and guard).  Once these boys were ready to enter court service (i.e., they had been emasculated), they were presented to the palace overseer (chief eunuch), who examined them.  Those who passed were then given new names, the most frequent of which read along the lines of “god so-and-so, protect the king!”  Of course, safeguarding the king’s life was their paramount duty.60  It might be noted in this regards, e.g., that Daniel’s new name was “Belteshazzar” (Dan 1:7) or Balat-su-usur (Akkadian), which was probably a shortened form of Nabu-balatsu-usur, meaning “Nebo, protect his [the king’s] life” (Archer).61  Deller notes that by receiving the new name the young eunuch relinquished his identification with his father and family.  Furthermore, this name-giving was probably part of an elaborate [initiation] ceremony, during which the young eunuch was given a eunuch’s garment, along with other insignia (symbols), including a dagger, earrings, and bracelets.  Then the eunuch’s formal training began.  Eventually he could move from more subordinate palace positions up the ranks, to become a “chief cook,” “quartermaster,” “prefect [chief officer] of the royal tombs,” “palace overseer,” “provincial governor,” or eventually even some more commanding position.62  

Did Ashpenaz and Daniel have a homoerotic relationship?  Some gay interpreters have drawn attention to Dan 1:9 (NRSV), which reads, “Now God allowed Daniel to receive favor [kesed, H2617] and compassion [rakam, H7356; KJV: ‘tender love’] from the palace master” (REB: ‘the chief eunuch,’ i.e., Ashpenaz).  Asif Iqbal, noting online that the KJV here reads “tender love,” writes that this therefore would contain an “indispensable element of physical love, or love which is manifested through physical contact.”  Therefore, he suggests that the chief eunuch felt more toward Daniel than simple kindness and compassion, and that he even initiated a homosexual affair with him.63  The first Hebrew noun kesed denotes “a deliberate choice of affection and kindness,” and this may be thought of as including kindness, mercy and steadfast love (Turner).64  It is a term often used to describe God’s feelings toward humankind (Brown-Driver-Briggs),65 and it is translated throughout the KJV as “lovingkindness.”   The noun rakam comes from a root meaning “to fondle,” and so to feel compassion or love toward someone or to feel love as a mother feels toward a child (Strong).66  Rakam really means “compassion,” and in Scripture it also is often used to refer to God’s emotions (BDB),67 to the warm tender feelings that he has toward humankind (Walker).68  However, nowhere in the OT are either kesed or rakam used to refer specifically to romantic or erotic feelings.  Most translations render rakam in Dan 1:9 as “compassion” (RSV 1952, NASB 1960, Green 1986, NRSV 1989, Van der Pool [Septuagint] 2006), “sympathy” (JB 1968, LB 1976, NIV 1978, cf. GNB2 1983, NJB 1985, NAB 1995), or “goodwill” (NEB 1970, NKJV 1982, REB 1989).  Now, the elder eunuch may have felt sexual feelings toward the very attractive, youthful Daniel, (or he may not have), but that anything happened sexually between them is most unlikely.  It would have been extremely dangerous for the palace master to engage Daniel, as the king’s property and as one set aside to one day serve the king, in any kind of physical intimacy; and if the latter leaked out in the court’s gossip mill, this would surely cost the chief eunuch his life.  Ashpenaz did not get to where he was without knowing how to exercise resolve, discretion and caution.  Instead, Daniel’s life as a eunuch at the Babylonian court was no doubt celibate.  Yet, he showed how a person with admirable qualities and a strong commitment to the Lord could not only endure, but rise to the highest positions in the land (Dan 2:48–49, 6:3)—although not without other officials’ envy, court intrigue, and mortal danger arising from this (Dan 5:4–24).  Yet, Yahweh gave Daniel a long life, stretching from 605 BC, when Daniel was brought to Babylon probably as a young teenager, through the “third year of Cyrus [the Great]” of Persia (Dan 6:28, 10:1), who was declared king of Babylon in 537.69  In the end, Daniel must have lived into his eighties, as well as being blessed by being given a number of unusual prophecies, along with their interpretations.  In the end, God made it up to Daniel a hundredfold, both for his physical loss and his steadfast faith, for Daniel would be memorialized by the record he kept of his life, his visions, and his prophecies.  

 
Nehemiah as a cupbearer to Artaxerxes in Persia  
Nehemiah’s memoir begins in the month of Kislev in “the twentieth year” (Neh 1:1) of the reign of Artaxerxes I (464–424), who followed his father Xerxes I to the throne of Persia.  However, most scholars today hold that this year was 445, actually the nineteenth full year of Artaxerxes’ reign; and so it has been suggested that there is possibly a scribal error in the Hebrew for “the twentieth year”—esreh (“twenty”) originally having read tesha esreh (“nineteenth”).  Nehemiah then received his distressing news from Jerusalem in the ninth month, Kislev (November–December), of 445 BC, but did not present his request to the king until Nisan (March-April), the first month of the new year, 444.70  The setting is Susa (1:1), springtime residence of the Persian kings (Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 8.6.22) and the city where Xerxes (Ahasuerus) held his great feast (Est 1) and also where Daniel had his vision of the ram and goat with their ‘horns’ (Dan 8; note in the KJV that Susa is called “Shushan,” 8:2). 
Nehemiah explains, “At the time, I was cupbearer [H4945, mashqeh; GNB2: ‘wine steward’] to the king” (1:11c, NRSV).  Later he adds, “I carried the wine and gave it to the king” (Neh 2:1, NRSV), which would have meant that he first tasted the king’s drink to see that it was not poisoned.71  However, one day Artaxerxes noticed that Nehemiah, usually pleasant in his manner, was very downcast (2:1b–2).  This was because Nehemiah had earlier learned of the decrepit state of Jerusalem, with its walls broken down and its gates destroyed (1:2–3).  Now the king’s servants were expected to keep their personal feelings hidden and always display a cheerful look in the king’s presence; yet Artaxerxes must have liked and trusted Nehemiah his cupbearer enormously, since no suspicious thought crossed his mind over Nehemiah’s downcast appearance, but rather the king shows a surprising interest to find out what is distressing his cupbearer.72  So Nehemiah cautiously asks the king if he might be granted the favor of a leave of absence, to go to his hometown to help rebuild it (2:3–5).  Artaxerxes agrees to this, giving him “letters” that would grant him safe passage and enable him to obtain the materials needed to repair the city and temple (2:6–8), and also commissioning him to serve as the new governor of Judah (5:14).  So, in spite of the comfortable and provided life that Nehemiah had at court, God has now called him to do something that required considerable sacrifice and self-denial.73  However, two other things should be noted here: “the queen also was sitting beside him [the king] while this conversation occurred (Neh 2:6), and also Nehemiah was later accompanied by royal “officers [H8269, sarim] of the army and cavalry” when he went to Jerusalem (2:9, NRSV).  As it turned out, he would spend twelve years in his first term as governor of Judah (5:14, 445–433), before he returned to report to the king (13:6a).  Then, after some time, he went again to Judah, to serve a second term (13:6b–7).74  We do not know how long Nehemiah lived or served as governor of Judah the second time, except Josephus writes that Nehemiah lived a long life (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 11.5.875); yet, according to Elephantine correspondence sent to the priests of Jerusalem, Bagoas was governor of Judah by 407.76    (Elephantine was an island in the Nile which lay between Egypt and Nubia, downstream from the First Cataract.) 

Persian historian Albert Olmstead notes that Artaxerxes must have been out of town as the Book of Nehemiah opens, because Nehemiah’s services were not needed for three months (1:1, 2:1), until the New Year’s feast; and during the king’s absence Nehemiah wept, fasted, and prayed over the distressing news from Jerusalem.  Actually Nehemiah’s request was a very tricky one, because earlier Rehum, governor of Samaria (and Judah) and his secretary had written to Artaxerxes, reminding him that the inhabitants of Jerusalem had long been a rebellious people and that if the Jews succeeded in rebuilding the walls of the city, they would then rebel and stop paying their Persian taxes (Ezra 4:7–16); and in reply Artaxerxes had issued an order that Jerusalem should not be rebuilt (Ezra 4:8–23).  So Nehemiah must have brought his request to Artaxerxes with fear and trembling, for in fact he was asking for the reversal of a royal decree, something unheard of.  Yet, when he looked so downcast, “Artaxerxes solicitously inquired the reason from his favorite.” Nehemiah replied, “May the king live forever,” a courtly answer; and then plucking up his courage, he explained why he was so sad.  “What are you asking for?” the king may have retorted (not used to playing waiting games).  Still more frightened, Nehemiah breathed a hasty prayer to God and answered, “If it please the king and if your slave has found favor in your sight, send me back to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ sepulchers, that I may rebuild it” (Neh 2:2–5). Nehemiah’s prayer was surely answered (in part) because by this time the wine which the cupbearer had been so liberally giving to his master was taking its effect.  Fortunately, the tipsy monarch did not identify Nehemiah’s hometown in Judah with the Jerusalem whose walls he had earlier ordered were not to be rebuilt!77  

Armerding and Harrison suggest that Nehemiah may have been appointed at an early age by Artaxerxes to be his cupbearer, an office “of no trifling honor” (Herodotus, Persian Wars 3.34), although he is mature and old enough now to serve as governor of Judah.  His duties no doubt also included some palace administration, since the “cupbearer” in most royal courts seems to have been a senior position.78  Raymond Bowman noted that cupbearers were always the most attractive men, who often became closer intimates of the king than the queen herself.79  Edwin Yamauchi notes that cupbearers were very important, since poisoning was a constant danger to kings and other members of the royal court in ancient times.  That these cupbearers were also given other responsibilities is seen with Ahikar, appointed by two Assyrian kings to serve as chief cupbearer, but who also held the signet seal and was in charge of administration and the royal accounts (Tobit 1:21–22).80  Joseph Blenkinsopp holds that Nehemiah was ‘not a eunuch,’ but rather he shows how Jews could rise to a high estate in the service of a foreign king.81  However, the Jews in Persia were probably looked upon warily, as a stubborn, rebellious, discontented, and basically untrustworthy people (Ezra 4:12, 15, 19); and one has to wonder whether captives from such a province would ever have been elevated to high positions in the Persian court unless they had first been humiliated and made loyal to the king by the act of castration.  Mark Throntveit notes that if Nehemiah was castrated and therefore had no offspring, the Nehemiah Memoir certainly preserved his name in a wonderful way.82 

Yamauchi has noted depictions of cupbearers in Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Canaanite, and Persian art.  From these and other literary sources he concluded that Nehemiah was probably well-trained in court etiquette, he was handsome, he knew how to select wines, he was a convivial [sociable] companion to the king (willing to lend an ear at all times), he had the closest access to the king and great influence (perhaps even determining who was able to see the king), and he enjoyed the unreserved confidence of the king.83  The Hiphil participle mashqeh (H4945: ‘causing to drink, i.e. a cupbearer or butler’) derives from the Hebrew verb shaqa (H8248), meaning ‘to give to drink.’ There are twelve references to cupbearers in the OT, two relating to Nehemiah (Neh 1:11c, 2:1), eight relating to Pharaoh’s chief “cupbearer” in the Joseph story (Gen 40:1, 2, 5, 9, 13, 20, 21, 23), and two relating to Solomon’s “cupbearers,” whom the Queen of Sheba admired (1 Kings 10:5; 2 Chron 9:4, KJV, NIV).84  The latter two passages describe the queen being impressed with all of Solomon’s “servants” (‘ebed, H5650, from H5647), “ministers” (sharat, H8334), and “cupbearers” (mashqeh, H4945, from H8248).  At their core meaning, ‘ebed refers to ‘one who is compelled to serve (i.e., a slave),’ sharat to ‘one who attends to or waits on another,’ and mashqeh to ‘one who is given a drink’ (cf. Strong).85  What is interesting about Solomon’s cupbearers is that they were distinctive and important enough at court to be noticed by the Queen of Sheba and also to be mentioned by the writer as one of three categories of servants.  No doubt, the cupbearers here also did more than taste Solomon’s wine, as important as this was.  In Nehemiah’s case, the lack of a definite article (“the”) before “cupbearer” in 1:11c points to Nehemiah being one of several (or more) cupbearers who served the king in this capacity.86  One can remember in 2 Kings 18:17 how Sennacherib of Assyria sent his general, chief eunuch, and chief cupbearer to Jerusalem, during the reign of Hezekiah, to try to get the city to surrender; and it is the chief cupbearer (rab-shaqeh, H7262, combining H7227 and H8248) who acted as spokesman for the delegation (v. 19ff). 87  Nehemiah does not mention specifically whether or not he was chief cupbearer—perhaps out of modesty, because his attention was focused elsewhere, or simply because he was not—although Artaxerxes’ response to his sad demeanor and surprising request, and also supplying him with a royal guard to accompany him to Judah, suggest a favored and intimate relationship between Artaxerxes and the handsome Nehemiah.  Xenophon’s description of Sacas, cupbearer of Astyages, Cyrus’s grandfather and king of the Medes (Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 1.3.8–9), shows how important the cupbearer was, both relating to the king’s attachment to him and to the cupbearer’s influence at court, selecting who could and could not enter the king’s presence and when.  This irritated the young Cyrus so much that he pestered his grandfather until he finally allowed Cyrus to bypass the cupbearer, Sacas, and come into the king’s presence whenever he wanted (1.3.11–13).  Relating to Ahikar, the text designated him first as “chief cupbearer” to Sennacherib and Esarhaddon, and then it was noted, in addition, that he was bearer of the king’s signet seal, treasurer of the royal accounts, and chief of the entire administration (Tobit 1:22, NRSV). 

The rare Hebrew word shegal (H7694) in Neh 2:6, meaning “queen, or royal consort,”88 in the Septuagint Greek reads pallakē (“concubine”).  Ctesias (flourished 400 BC), a Greek physician who served at the Persian court, reported that Artaxerxes had at least three concubines, the chief one being Damaspia (Ctesias, section 44).  This chief concubine is no doubt referred to here, since the definite article (“the”) is attached to shegal in the Hebrew.  Charles Fensham suggests that Damaspia might have been present as a witness because Nehemiah was in her favor.89  Albert Olmstead believes that the queen was here “no doubt by previous arrangement,” sitting beside her husband.90  However, the text does not indicate that she said anything to influence the king’s decision, and it was the rule that a Persian queen or concubine came into the king’s presence only when and if the king beckoned for her, otherwise the penalty could be death (cf. Est 4:11).  The more likely reason for Damaspia’s presence was the fact that the Persian king frequently dined with his mother and sometimes his wife (or favorite harem consort), while eunuchs stood nearby to serve them (Llewellyn-Jones).91  Still, as a eunuch serving the king, Nehemiah had contact with the royal ladies; and Damaspia may have at least offered a sympathetic ear and an assenting smile.  Joseph Blenkinsopp feels that the presence of the royal consort dining here with the king and Nehemiah is “far from decisive” in indicating that Nehemiah was a eunuch, because “the case is exceptional,” although he does not explain how.92  In contrast, Jacob Myers holds that Nehemiah must have been a eunuch if he served in the queen’s presence (Neh 2:6).93  Armerding and Harrison also hold that the fact that Nehemiah was able to be present when the king and queen were together would “imply that he was in fact a eunuch.”94  As Olmstead concludes, “From his position as royal cupbearer, permitted to wait on the royal women, we may be sure that Nehemiah was a eunuch.”95 

Still, Blenkinsopp argues that if Nehemiah had been a eunuch, surely some of his later Judean enemies (e.g., Neh 2:19, 4:1–9) would have brought up this accusation against him (because of Deut 23:1).96  Perhaps this did happen but because Nehemiah did not wish to speak about his mutilation he omitted it, or perhaps because of the support of the Persian monarch and accompanied by an armed royal guard, they did not make a row about it.  At least, as Mark Throntveit notes, when Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem he is accompanied by a military escort.  Arrival in such a style would impressively reinforce Nehemiah’s credentials to the skeptical neighboring governors and support the new change in royal policy.97  William Countryman notes also, “In his own right, he [Nehemiah] had no standing whatever among his own people; it was purely and solely his connection with the Persian king that gave him the power he wielded in Jerusalem.”98  Another objection that might be raised relates to the request of Shemaiah (a priest?99) on one occasion that Nehemiah go hide in the temple, because his ‘enemies are coming’ to kill him (Neh 6:10).  However, it turns out that Shemaiah had actually been sent by his enemies, to cause Nehemiah to “sin” and to give him a bad name (6:12–13).  Anyway, Nehemiah resolutely refused to enter the Temple, telling Shemaiah, “Should a man like me run away?    Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life?  I will not go in!” (6:11).  It might be that Nehemiah simply wanted to demonstrate his courage and faith in God; and yet this is also how a devout Jewish eunuch would be expected to answer. 

Many scholars have held that Nehemiah was most likely a eunuch, including: L. W. Batten (1913), Albert Olmstead (1931), Peter Browe (1936), William Albright (1946), John Bright (1959), Samuel Schultz (1960), Balmer Kelly (1962), Jacob Myers (1965),100 Carl Armerding and Roland Harrison (1986),101 and William Countryman (1988).102  A. E. Cundall (1970) writes, “Most officials in this position [as cupbearer to the king] were eunuchs, and since there is no indication that Nehemiah was married it is unlikely that he was an exception.”103  John Collins (1993) agrees, in his major commentary on Daniel, that Nehemiah “was almost certainly a eunuch.”104  Peter Alexander (2001) notes that the Persian cupbearer saw and heard everything, and when trust was built he could become the king’s confidant.  This would certainly mean that Nehemiah was castrated, although one can only imagine what a frightening and painful surgery this must have been.105 

Yet Edwin Yamauchi disagrees, and in an influential article (1980) he argued that Nehemiah was not a eunuch.  So, consideration must be given to his major arguments:  First, the Hebrew text does not say that he was a eunuch.106  True.  However, it might be expected that the devout Nehemiah would omit any mention of such a despicable act having been done to him, which was condemned by the Law of Moses, which cut him off from his worshipping community (Deut 23:1), and which robbed him of ever having heirs.  Yamauchi holds that the only places where saris means “eunuch” in the OT are in Dan 1 (related to Ashpenaz) and in Esther,107 a conclusion that is no longer tenable.  Second, a Septuagint miscopying has led some to wrongly believe that the Bible calls Nehemiah a “eunuch.”  Yamauchi notes that for the Hebrew mashqeh (“cupbearer”), some Greek Septuagint versions (e.g., the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Siniaticus) read eunouchos (“eunuch”) in Neh 1:11c.  Still, most ancient manuscripts (including the important Codex Alexandrinus) read oinochoos (“cupbearer”) here; and Septuagint scholar Alfred Rahlfs has called eunouchos where it appears in the Greek for Neh 1:11c simply an “error” in scribal copying.108  Yet, Llewellyn-Jones offers the view that perhaps the Greek terms oinochoos and eunouchos had become interchangeable,109 and so little distinction was made.  Third, the Persian etymology of tirshatta (“governor”) does not point to Nehemiah being a eunuch.  The Hebrew tirshatta (H8660: “title of a Persian deputy or governor”) is applied in the OT three times to Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:63; Neh 7:65,70) and two times to Nehemiah (Neh 8:9, 10:1).  Yamauchi notes how Eduard Meyer (1896) held that tirshatta derived from the Persian word tarash (“to cut”), and so he thought it pointed to the Persian governor being a eunuch.  Instead, Yamauchi agrees with W. Rudolph (1949), who connects tirshatta with the Persian word tarsa (“one to be feared or respected”);110 and so tirshatta is translated in the Jerusalem Bible (1966) as “His Excellency,” although most English translations stay with “governor.”  Most decisive here is the fact that the Gospels record that Zerubbabel was the forefather of Abiud (Matt 1:12, Luke 3:27), and so Zerubbabel could hardly have been a eunuch.111  Yet, this matter does not at all decide the larger question.  

Fourth, not every male in the queen’s presence had to be a eunuch.  Yamauchi notes that nowhere does the Book of Esther call Haman, Xerxes’ prime minister, a eunuch (Est 3:1ff); and yet he was invited to dine with the king and the queen (Est 5:4–8, 6:14).  Also Yamauchi appeals to the Assyrian ‘harem edicts,’ which had rules for both eunuchs and uncastrated courtiers entering the harem112—although these rules of conduct, coming down from the fourteenth–eleventh centuries BC, are half a millennium earlier.  Indeed, Llewellyn-Jones notes that the Persians were “even more jealous of their women than other cultures, keeping them locked up,” although the king frequently dined alone with his mother or wife (or consort), served by eunuchs.113  J. M. Cook writes, “Service [to the Persian king] was provided by eunuchs; and as under the Qājārs [who ruled Iran 1794–1925] there was no admittance except for eunuchs and for doctors (mostly foreign) in attendance at the court.”114  Esther’s request for the king to join her at a banquet along with an uncastrated official (Haman) must surely have been considered bizarre; and Xerxes’ allowing it at all can only be explained by his intense curiosity to discover the queen’s mysterious request, for which she had risked her life to come unsummoned into his presence; and then later she even stalled in revealing it (Est 4:10–17).  Instead, Neh 2 appears to have involved a routine royal dinner in Persia, where eunuchs attended the king and queen at their evening meal.  Herodotus describes one occasion when Persian ambassadors requested that their Macedonian hosts bring their women to join the feast (against the widespread tradition of having the two genders eat apart).  Sadly, it was not long before the Persian officials were fondling the Macedonian women.  So Amyntas, king of the Macedonians, asked that his women be allowed to retire for a spell to bathe; and later in their stead he sent back beardless youths dressed in the women’s garments, who killed the drunken Persians with hidden daggers (Herodotus, Persian Wars 5.18-21).  This story shows the apprehension that existed (and still exists today in most of the ancient Near East) over (uncastrated) men coming into contact with women who were not their wives or family members.  There is no way that Nehemiah would have regularly served in the presence of the king and queen had he not been a eunuch.  

Fifth, although there were many eunuchs in the Persian court, this does not mean that cupbearers necessarily were eunuchs.  Yamauchi notes Cyrus’s desire to select eunuchs “for every post of personal service to him, from door-keepers up” (Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 7.5.65, trans. Miller) and also the gifts of eunuchs that were sent to the Persian king, such as the five hundred boy eunuchs whom Darius received from the provinces of Assyria and Babylonia (Herodotus, Persian Wars 3.92). Yet he writes, “even if we grant that there were many eunuchs in high Persian service, this still does not prove that cupbearers were necessarily eunuchs.”115  What Yamauchi fails to recognize is that the issue here is not absolutely proving that a cupbearer was a eunuch, but only in concluding that very probably he was, considering all of the Biblical and historical evidence.  It is true that in many cases we are not told explicitly whether males who rendered personal service to the king were eunuchs or not; still Yamauchi does not give the weight that he should to Cyrus’s views in this matter, and the tradition that followed him.  Apart from being a eunuch, it is hard to explain how Nehemiah as a slave from a troublesome vassal state on the edge of the empire could have risen to such an elevated court position; and his serving in the queen’s presence settles the matter of whether or not he was a eunuch (he was).  

Sixth, the acclaimed “cupbearers” at Persepolis may be neither cupbearers nor eunuchs. Yamauchi notes that the view that Persian cupbearers were eunuchs comes in part from E. F. Schmidt’s interpretation of the famous Royal Audience Scene with the Crown Prince found in the Treasury area at Persepolis, which shows the king seated, while behind him stand the crown prince and then an attendant carrying a folded towel, which Schmidt declared might be the royal cupbearer and, because he was beardless, also a eunuch.  From this Raymond Bowman concluded, “Beardlessness of the cupbearer [here at Persepolis], portrayed with his napkin and fly-wisk, indicates that at least from the time of Xerxes such intimate servants were eunuchs in Persia, as they were elsewhere.”116  However, Yamauchi notes that the attendant carries a towel, and not a cup; and Schmidt wrote also that this servant might be “more plausibly, the lord chamberlain.”117  Still, it is likely that the attendants who wore the special headwear (baschlyk) which covered the lower part of the face did so to hide the beardless sign of their imperfection (castration) from the sight of the king, who was considered semi-divine; and the former were, in fact, all eunuchs. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (2002) notes the contention of J. M. Fennelly (1980) that the beardless males at Persepolis were actually eunuch priests in the service of the ‘goddess,’ but no evidence has ever surfaced to support the idea of eunuch priests serving in the state Persian religion.  Instead, Llewellyn-Jones writes, “It is better to see the Persepolis reliefs as depicting elegantly dressed and coiffured court eunuchs.”118  Albert Olmstead (1948), whose writing is still considered “[t]he basic work” on the Achaemenid Persian Empire (Huot, 2008),119 considered the attendant who stands behind the king and prince in the famous audience scenes at Persepolis “a eunuch.”120  While Donald Wilber (1989) believes that this figure was the “royal chamberlain,” he writes that he is “possibly a eunuch,” wearing the same headdress (baschlyk) as other servants (eunuchs) who are depicted carrying food on reliefs in various locations at Persepolis.121  Yamauchi and Wilber may be right in their belief that the attendant here was the palace chamberlain instead of a cupbearer, although we still know little about what the “napkin” symbolized fully, and also about what the full range of duties a cupbearer might have been appointed to do.  Yet, one has to ask, if these figures wearing baschlyk’s were not eunuchs, then where are the eunuchs at the Persian court at Persepolis, about which we read so much in literary accounts?  At least, it is clear to Kirk Grayson (1995), and to many others, that these attendants of the king wearing the baschlyk were, indeed, all eunuchs.122 

Seventh, because Herod the Great employed a eunuch cupbearer does not mean that Persian kings did.  Herod the Great employed three young eunuch servants, of whom he was very fond because of their beauty: one brought him his supper, another his wine, and the third put him to bed (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 16.8.1).  Yet, Yamauchi writes that one cannot use such evidence to argue that the earlier cupbearers of Persian kings in the fifth century BC were also eunuchs, because this is “anachronistic,” i.e., it transposes something from one historical period back to an earlier period.123  It is true that one should be very careful about taking a practice from one period and assuming that it existed in an earlier period, although sometimes this turns out to be true.  However, it should not be forgotten here that the practice of using royal eunuchs servants had had a very long history by Herod’s time, extending back to probably the fourteenth century BC in Assyria and Hatti, over eight hundred years before Cyrus the Great, and fourteen hundred years prior to Herod the Great.  These traditions hardly came from the Greeks, who naturally disliked castration,124 but rather from Persian practices that were witnessed by Alexander the Great and other Greek visitors to ancient Persia.  If one asks from where Herod the Great got his ideas about using eunuch cupbearers and other intimate servants, if not ultimately from Persia, then from where did they come?  Perhaps the intermediary was his friend, Nicholas of Damascus (see below), whose books of history included descriptions of Persian court life.  

Eighth, Ctesias’ many references to eunuchs are unreliable.  Yamuachi writes, “Ctesias is “notorious as an unreliable historical source,” and “it is questionable whether these references [to eunuchs in his writings] can be taken at face value.”  Although Ctesias was an eyewitness who as a Greek physician lived at the Persian court ca. 405–397 BC, no copy of his Persika (History of the Persians) has survived; and all that remains are extracts and summaries preserved by other authors, e.g., by the patriarch Photius of Constaninople (ninth century AD) and Nicholas of Damascus (a Syrian philosopher-historian).  Nicholas became a good friend of Herod the Great, took up residence at Herod’s court for nearly twenty years, and in fact acted as a kind of teacher to Herod in his studies.125  Yamauchi notes that Nicholas records how Ctesias wrote about a certain Artembares, who served for a time as cupbearer to Astyages (Cyrus’s grandfather) and who was also a eunuch.  Then, Herodotus also mentions an Artembares, a “Mede of distinction” and “one of the first in my [Astyages’] court,” a cupbearer to the king at the time when Astyages discovered that Cyrus was his grandson (History of Persia 1.114–118).  Now these references may or may not point to the same individual—although Yamauchi acknowledges that this still does not prove that Artembares the cupbearer was not a eunuch.  Yamauchi then goes on to note that later, when Artembares died, Cyrus himself served for a while as cupbearer to Astyages; and Cyrus was certainly no eunuch since he later married Cassandane and fathered Cambyses II, his successor.126  Yet, Cyrus’s wanting to serve a short spell as royal cupbearer after he had grown a little older may simply be an expression of his desire to experience for himself the power that Sakas had held earlier (Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 1.3.8–13), which the younger Cyrus so resented.  We still note that when Cyrus came to the throne, he apparently set about to fill every position of service around him with eunuchs (Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 7.5.65), including that of cupbearer.  

In the end, Yamuach concludes that “anyone who argues that Nehemiah was a eunuch relies only “upon a web of arguments which are in many cases untenable and in other cases less than convincing.”  The same may be said of his arguments.  Still, he admits “we cannot prove that Nehemiah was not a eunuch.”127  Instead, considering the views (and example) of Cyrus who was determined to place eunuchs in every post of personal service, the widespread use of eunuchs at the Persian court about which literary records amply testify, the fact that Nehemiah served in one of the most intimate royal positions possible (as cupbearer to the king), and especially since he was allowed to be in the queen’s presence, must lead one to conclude that Nehemiah was a eunuch.  Historical conclusions are very often based on probabilities and not absolutes, and upon weighing all of the historical evidence carefully, but not demanding such a high degree of evidence that the ancient reality eludes the scholar in the end, especially when dealing with taboo subjects, such as castration.

 
FOOTNOTES:   1. Kalland, p. 140.    2. Burke, p. 200.    3. Roller, p. 119.    4. Cf. Meek, p. 181.    5. Countryman, p. 150.    6. Patterson 1980, p. 635.    7. Gehman, p. 282.    8. Robinson and Harrison, p. 885.    9. Patterson and Austel, p. 275.    10. Blenkinsopp 2000, p. 488.    11. Cf. LaSor, “Marodach-baladan,” pp. 325–326.    12. Kidner, “Isaiah,” p. 611.   13. Radmacher, p. 865.    14. Watts, p. 249.    15. Blenkinsopp 2003, p. 140.    16. Cf. Grogan, “Isaiah,” pp. 315–316.    17. Dyer, p. 1305.    18. McNeill, pp. 64–66.    19. Geib, p. 350; Burke, pp. 200–201.    20. Brown-Driver-Briggs, H3027, pp. 388–391.    21. Ibid., H8034, pp. 1027–1028.    22. Blenkinsopp 2003, p. 139.    23. Cf. also Brown-Driver-Briggs, H3027, p. 390; Bandstra and Verhey, p. 433.    24. Tadmor 1995, p. 321.    25. Oswalt, Book of Isaiah, p. 457.    26. Cf. Ibid., pp. 457–458.   27. Ibid., pp. 458–459.    28. Muilenburg, p. 656.    29. Kidner, “Isaiah,” p. 620.    30. REB, note for Tobit 1:17.    31. Reade, pp. 36–37.    32. Grayson, p. 95.    33. J. J. Lenzen, Uruk vorläufiger Bericht, 18 (1962), 45, 51–52; in Yamauchi 1980, p. 133, n. 4.    34. Cf. Archer, p. 33.    35. Collins, p. 138.    36. Coffman, p. 19.    37. Bayliss, online p. 6.    38. Driver, p. 4.   39. Jeffrey, p. 365.    40. Patterson 1980, p. 635.    41. Di Lella, p. 129.    42. Cf. Archer, pp. 33–35.    43. Collins, p. 135.    44. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 10.10.1.    45. Collins, p. 135.    46. Origen, Commentary on Matthew 15.5; in Collins, p. 135.    47. Origen, Homilies IV in Ezekiel; in Lacocque, p. 22.    48. Theodoret of Cyrus, p. 23.    49. Culver, p. 773.    50. Sheriffs, p. 485.    51. Coffman, p. 20.    52. Versteeg, online p. 2.    53. Dube, online p. 1.    54. Burton and Coffman, pp. 359–360.   55. In Lacocque, p. 22.    56. Bayliss, online p. 5; cf. also Radmacher, pp. 1008–1009.    57. Bayliss, online p. 6.    58. Pritchard, p. 475.    59. Deller, p. 305.    60. Ibid., p. 306.    61. Archer, p. 35.    62. Deller, p. 306.    63. Iqbal, online pp. 1–2.    64. Turner, p. 174.    65. Brown-Driver-Briggs, H2617, pp. 338–339.    66. Strong, H7356, cf. H7355.    67. Brown-Driver-Briggs, H7356, p. 933.    68. Walker, p. 755.    69. Archer, p. 37.    70. Cf. Bowman, p. 671; Yamauchi 1988, pp. 571–572, 595, 684.    71. Blenkinsopp 1988, p. 213; Xenophon, Education of Cyrus 1.3.9.    72. Yamauchi 1988, p. 684.    73. Piazza, pp. 118–119.    74. Yamauchi 1988, p. 685.   75. Ibid., p. 589.   76. Armerding and Harrison, p. 514.    77. Olmstead 1978, pp. 313–15.    78. Armerding and Harrison, p. 513.    79. Bowman, p. 671.    80. Yamauchi 1980, p. 133, n. 3.    81. Blenkinsopp 1988, pp. 212–213.    82. Throntveit, p. 66.    83. Yamauchi 1980, pp. 134–135; cf. also Yamauchi 1988, p. 683.    84. Cf. Yamauchi 1980, p. 132.    85. Strong, H5650 / H5647, H8334, H4945 / H8248.    86. Yamauchi 1988, p. 684.   87. Green translation of 2 Kings 18:17; Radner, “The King’s Advisors,” online p. 2; cf. Wiseman, “Rabshakeh,” pp. 30–31.    88. Brown-Driver-Briggs, H7694, p. 993.    89. Fensham, pp. 161–62.    90. Olmstead 1978, p. 315.   91. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 30.    92. Blenkinsopp 1988, p. 213.    93. Myers, p. 96.    94. Armerding and Harrison, p. 513.    95. Olmstead 1978, p. 314.    96. Blenkinsopp 1988, p. 213.    97. Throntveit, p. 69.    98. Countryman, p. 150, n. 8.    99. Opperwall-Galluch, p. 471, entry 25.    100. Sources noted in Yamauchi 1980, p. 135: Batten, p. 45; Albert T. Olmstead, History of Palestine and Syria to the Macedonian Conquest, 1931, p. 588; William F. Albright, A Brief History of Judah from the Days of Josiah to Alexander the Great, 1946, p. 11; Bright, 1959, p. 382; Schultz, p. 268; Kelly, p. 27; and Myers 1965, p. 671.  Peter Browe, Zur Geschichte der Entmannung, 1936, pp. 37ff; in Bowman, p. 671:   101. Armerding and Harrison, p. 513.    102. Countryman, p. 150, n. 8.    103. Cundall, pp. 404–405.    104. Collins, p. 136.    105. Alexander, online pp. 4–5.    106. Yamauchi 1980, p. 135.    107. Ibid., p. 136.    108. Ibid., p. 136; Alfred Rahlfs, ed., Septuaginta, p. 923; also Sheriffs, p. 485; and Van der Pool, LXX text and translation for Neh 1:11.    109. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 24.    110. Yamauchi 1980, pp. 136–137.    111. Ibid.    112. Ibid., p. 137.    113. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 30.    114. Cook, p. 227.    115. Yamauchi 1980, p. 138.    116. Bowman, p. 671.    117. Schmidt, 1, 1953, p. 169.   118. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 43, n. 20.    119. Huot, online p. 3.    120. Olmstead 1978, p. 217.    121. Wilber, p. 89.    122. Grayson, p. 89.    123. Yamauchi 1980, p. 139.    124. Schneider, p. 765.    125. Tougher, p. 146; Gottheil and Krauss, online p. 1.    126. Yamauchi 1980, pp. 139–141.    127. Ibid., p. 142.         

 
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Wiseman, Donald J.   “Rabshakeh.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4, pp. 30–31.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Xenophon.   Cyropaedia (Education of Cyrus), 2 vols.   Greek text with English trans. Walter Miller.   Cambridge: Harvard University Press; and London: William Heinemann, 1960.   

________.    Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia).   Trans. Wayne Ambler.   Ithica and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. 

Yamauchi, Edwin M.   “Ezra, Nehemiah.”   In Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 4, pp. 563–771.   Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988. 

________.    “Was Nehemiah the Cupbearer a Eunuch?”   Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92 (1980): 132–142.

 
TRANSLATIONS:   Contemporary English Version, 1995.   Good News Bible, 2nd ed. 1983.   Jerusalem Bible, 1968.   King James Version, 1611.   New American Bible, 1995.   New American Standard Bible, 1960.   New English Bible, 1970.   New International Version, 1978.   New Jerusalem Bible, 1995.   New King James Version, 1982.   New Revised Standard Version, 1989.  Revised English Bible, 1989.   Revised Standard Version, 1952.

 

© Bruce L. Gerig 2010


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