Eunuchs in the OT, Part 1
Introduction and Summary
Key Passages: 2 Kings 9-24; Jer 34-41; Isa 39:7, 56:3-5; Dan 1; Est 1-7; Neh 1-2, Gen 37-40, 1 Sam 8:15

By Bruce L. Gerig

John McNeill in The Church and the Homosexual (1976) notes that the term “eunuch” in the Bible is not only used in its literal sense referring to males who have been physically castrated, but “also in a symbolic sense for all those who for various reasons do not marry and bear children” (cf. Matt 19:12).1  Most people have never met a real eunuch, although many GLBT people today may know a male-to-female transsexual who has had the operation.  Also, perhaps a million hijras (mostly trans, intersex, and gay persons who have willingly chosen to be totally castrated) are estimated to live in India today (Zeka),2 and eunuchs still serve in harems and holy places throughout the Muslim world (Scholz).3  Eunuchs are found in the pages of the Bible, as well, and everywhere throughout the ancient Near East, described and pictured in historical records.  Yet, not all castration was the same:  Some males were “clean cut,” that is, they had both their penis and testicles removed.  Many more eunuchs in ancient times were “partial castrates” who had only their testicles removed, by cutting, tying or dragging.  Other partial castrates did not have their testicles removed but rather permanently damaged, by crushing, twisting or bruising.  A smaller number had only the penis cut off, while no harm was done to the testicles.4  Into the last category perhaps also fall cases that resulted from warriors who wanted to take home ‘war trophies’ (cf. 1 Sam 18:27) and so castrated the dead corpses of their defeated foes.  For example, the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah (thirteenth century BC, 19th Dynasty) recorded on a memorial that he collected 6,359 uncircumcised penises after defeating an invading Libyan army, along with additional penises from children of the chief, brothers of the priest, and other special persons.5  Total castration done to a live person was a dangerous process, with a high mortality rate (sometimes losing three out of four castrates),6 resulting from infection, bleeding to death, or scarring and closing of the urethra duct.7  Fortunately, the more common form of castration in the ancient Near East involved only removing or injuring the testicles,8 which prepared a male for harem service.9  Robert Biggs concluded from his studies of Assyrian incantations that boys were usually made into eunuchs by crushing their testicles.10  Kathryn Ringrose (2007) notes that boys castrated before puberty remained beardless with a fresh complexion and with fat deposits characteristic of women.  They often seemed to exhibit unusually long arms and legs and a tall, frail frame.  Their voices did not ‘change,’ but remained high pitched.  Their hair appeared thick and luxuriant and did not fall out as they aged; and their beauty was admired since they preserved their youthful look for longer than usual.  Total castrates, if they survived the initial operation, were fitted with a small (lead) pipe that kept the urethra open after the removal of the penis.  However, they often faced lifelong urinary tract problems; and all eunuchs in time suffered from premature aging, osteoporosis, and diabetes.11  Reay Tannahill notes that the agony and shame felt by males castrated against their will can hardly be imagined.  For example, Sima Qian (Ssu-ma Ch’ien, 145–c. 90 BC), who was “sent to the silkworm house” to be castrated after being accused of attempting to mislead the Chinese emperor, wrote eight years later how he still sat “in a daze,” sweat drenching his clothes as he thought of his shame and wishing only that he could “hide away in the farthest depths of the mountains.”  Still, Qian went on to become the Grand Historian of the Han court.12 

The Hebrew word saris (Strong H5631, plural: sarisim) in the OT derived from the Akkadian expression sha reshi, which literally meant “he who is head, chief” and referred to court officials who served the king.13  Yet, over time sha reshi also became an expression meaning “turn into a eunuch,” and especially after 1000 BC both the Akkadian and Hebrew words were increasingly used in a specialized sense to refer to castrated officials.14  Saris appears forty-seven times in the OT, including four times as rab-saris (H7249, H5631) and six times as sar-hassarisim (H8269, H5631), both labels meaning “chief eunuch.”15  Yet because of the possible double meaning here (“royal [uncastrated] official” or “castrated official”), many Bible interpreters were hesitant about identifying eunuchs in the OT narrative, especially among the Israelites and even among later Jews who were taken captive and deported to foreign courts and capitals.16  In English translations, one finds a range extending from the New English Bible (1970), which translates saris/sarisim as “eunuch(s)” in every instance, to the Contemporary English Version (1995), which avoids using “eunuch(s)” entirely, preferring general terms like “officer(s)” and official(s).”  Of sixteen English translations inspected,17 most display a skepticism toward early references in the Bible, although many acknowledge eunuchs later in Queen Jezebel’s harem (2 Kings 9:32), in the Babylonian court (Dan 1), in the Persian court (Est 17), and in Isaiah’s two unexpected prophecies about sarisim (Isa 39:7, 56:35).  Assyriologist Kirk Grayson (1995) noted that castration has been “virtually taboo in modern scholarship,” eliciting “very few serious studies,” even though eunuchs have been documented as an important institution in China, Turkey, Mediaeval Islam, Byzantium, Greece, the Hellenistic world, later Roman times, Assyria, Babylonia, Achaemenid Persia, and among the Medes, the Urartus, and the Hittites (the last two empires located in what is now modern Turkey); and in many of these civilizations the proportion of eunuchs found among officers was particularly high.18  Still, many Bible scholars believed that because of Deut 23:1, which banned genitally wounded males from taking part in Israel’s worshipping community, castrated males would never have been found in Israel.19  Yet, one must remember how Jeremiah harshly condemned God’s people who had forsaken the Lord to serve foreign gods—and therefore they shall go serve strangers in a foreign land (Jer 5:19).  They had stolen and murdered, committed adultery and practiced perjury (7:9), and brought detestable idols into the Temple and sacrificed their children on pagan altars (7:30–31).  Because they had not kept the Sabbath, the Lord said he would ‘set Jerusalem afire’ (17:27).  So, after breaking so many of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1–17), what would keep apostate Israelite rulers from disregarding Deut 23:1, if they so chose?  Although there is no evidence that Israel castrated her own people, it is likely, as John Taylor and Norman Snaith suggest, that Israelite rulers began importing and using eunuchs in imitation of their powerful neighbors—a general attitude that long characterized Israel (1 Sam 8:5, Deut 17:14–17, Judg 2:10–12, 1 Kings 11:1–3)20—beginning with Jezebel in the northern kingdom of Israel21 and then appearing with the last rulers in the southern kingdom of Judah, in their respective capitals of Samaria and Jerusalem.  With regard to the Jews taken into captivity, one must not forget that castrating captives for royal court service was standard practice for their conquering potentates.  Most eunuchs, brought to kings as tribute, were war captives or youths who had been kidnapped in slave raids (even in Israel, cf. Joel 3:4–6).22 

After studying historical evidence for the extensive and widespread use of eunuchs in harem supervision and other service to kings (e.g., as personal aides, guards, generals, and governors),23 during the Neo-Assyrian (883–609 BC), Neo-Babylonian (626–539 BC) and Achaemenid24 Persian (559–330 BC) empires, which dominated the ancient Near East during the period of the divided Israelite monarchy (Israel and Judah) and then later after they had fallen, and also carefully investigating all references to saris/sarisim in the OT (see accompanying articles listed at the end of this article), these conclusions may be stated:  First, it is likely that Jezebel, the princess from Tyre (a cosmopolitan city with merchant ties to Assyria25) whom King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom took as his queen in the ninth century BC, introduced eunuchs as harem and possibly other court servants in Samaria (cf. 2 Kings 9:32).  Second, it is also likely that when saris suddenly reappears as a title among the court retinues of Jehoiachin (or “Jeconiah,” Jer 29:2) and Zedekiah (Jer 39:1–2, 41:16–17) in Jerusalem near the end of the Southern Kingdom (ca. 608–586 BC), this term referred to eunuchs and not simply royal “officials,” for which there were other Hebrew terms available without carrying the stigma of castration.  Third, noting numerous historical examples of eunuchs serving Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian kings as foreign emissaries and military officers, the sarisim who accompanied Nebuchadnezzar II to Judah (between 604–586 BC) were surely eunuchs (2 Kings 18:17, Jer 39:3, 13; NRSV: “Rab-saris”).  Fourth, most translators agree that the sarisim mentioned in Nebuchnezzar’s Babylonian court (Dan 1; REB: “chief eunuch,” but NRSV: “palace master”) and in Xerxes II’s Persian court (Est 1–7) were all eunuchs.  Fifth, all interpreters agree on reading Isaiah’s two unexpected prophecies about sarisim as referring to “eunuchs,” the first a divine prediction that certain sons of Judah would one day be made into eunuchs (Isa 39:7) and the second a divine command reversing Deut 23:1 and in its place inviting all Jewish eunuchs who love God to join his worshipping community (Isa 56:3–5).  Many Bible interpreters fail to recognize, however, that these Isaiah passages strongly suggest that certain Jews taken into Exile were castrated to serve various kings.  And yet, who?  Sixth, Ahikar, the Jewish chief cupbearer to the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Esarhaddon was certainly a eunuch (Tobit 1:21-22), as was Nehemiah who served as a cupbearer later to the Persian king Artaxerxes I (Neh 2).   Certainly Daniel and the other handsome, high-born youths whom Nebuchadnezzar took from Jerusalem to Babylon to become servants in his court (Dan 1) were also castrated, as well as may have been Mordecai, in the Book of Esther (2:21, 6:10), who seems to have served as a palace doorkeeper for Ahasuerus (Xerxes I).  Seventh, but what about earlier uses of saris(im) applied to Potiphar and to Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker (Gen 37:36; 40:2, 7)?  There is little hard evidence for eunuch court officials serving the Pharaoh (especially since Egyptian men customarily shaved off their beards), although the rare use of this term here in the OT must mean something and they all seem identified like later Assyrian eunuchs, both with the term saris, and then with each one’s specific job title given.  Saris(im) does not appear again then in the OT until Samuel describes customs which kings established in Israel will institute (1 Sam 8:15).               

One might expect that most castrated males lost their sexual passion, although their sexual capabilities were regularly debated in all palaces that incorporated eunuch servants.26  Even Ecclesiasticus 30:20 (an Apocryphal text written about 180 BC) noted how “a eunuch groans when he embraces a virgin” (REB).  In fact, if testicles were removed after puberty, a eunuch could still have an erection, since he continued to receive testosterone from the adrenal glands, although he was sterile (did not produce sperm).  Even if boys had their testicles crushed at a young age, some of them still received testosterone from their testicles, allowing them to have erections.  And even totally castrated eunuchs could receive anal pleasure from the prostate gland, resulting in a sort of climax, but without the normal ejaculation.  Therefore, some have argued that eunuchs were really castrated to assure that all of the children born in a harem would be from the seed of the master.27  Whatever the reasons, some ancients found the smooth, hairless, hermaphroditic bodies of young eunuchs appealing; and they considered half-man, half-woman a wondrous union of the two genders, combining charms from both.28  Not every eunuch was used for homosexual purposes, of course, but many were; and eunuchs with a boyish beauty were in great demand among certain male elite as bed partners (Wittfogel, Fürstauer, Seibert, Hopkins, Greenberg),29 even if these men also had wives.  With regard to eunuchs being used sexually by royal women in the harem, the Greek and Roman authors hint at nothing, nor do any other ancient sources.  However, the sexual relationship between Alexander the Great and the handsome young eunuch Bagoas (formerly a catamite lover of Darius III) is well documented;30 and the Roman writer Curtius Rufus (6.5.22) makes it clear that this sexual relationship was just another Persian royal custom which the Macedonian conqueror took over.  Less well-known is the account of the sexual passion of the Persian king Artaxerxes (probably one of the later Artaxerxeses, II–IV) for an attractive eunuch named Tiradates; and when the eunuch died, the king fell into a deep despair.  Finally, when his servants arranged for a look-alike female courtesan (high class prostitute) to be sent into his bedchamber dressed in the eunuch’s clothes, the king somewhat revived, although he could not enjoy sex with her.31  It should be remembered that many hijra eunuchs of modern India offer themselves as prostitutes to men.32  Also, the Kama-sutra (“Short Sayings on Love”), a Hindu text written between the first and sixth centuries AD and claiming to be based on much older traditions, expressed the view that all eunuchs, both those who looked more effeminate and those who looked more masculine, engaged in homosexual activity to a greater or lesser degree (2.11).33 

So how might eunuchs of ancient times be compared and contrasted with gay men and male-to-female transgendered individuals today in the West?  Indeed, eunuchs in the ancient world were little understood, were widely viewed as ‘strange’ persons, and were looked upon by many with scorn and derision.  Scott Spencer (2006) notes how “the effeminate eunuch embodied shame, impotence, and social deviance” in the ancient world, and was often viewed as “a threatening liminal figure [neither male nor female],” as “something . . . monstrous [and] alien” (Herodotus, Historiae 8.106).34  Then Jews, made eunuchs by circumstances beyond their control, were forced to leave their families and religious communities behind, and they had to make for themselves a new home in a new land.  As Ringrose notes, “All historical eunuchs were ambiguous figures.”  Their services were valued, and yet they were often despised.  “They were often objects of desire [because of their youthful, attractive looks] yet at the same time many found them to be repulsive.”35  As Tom Horner notes, since these eunuchs had no choice in their condition, there is “a special pathos to the situation in which those who had been made into eunuchs in the ancient world were often looked upon with scorn. . . .”36  Yet, there was also diversity among these eunuchs.  For example, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones (2002) notes that some eunuchs (Assyrian) looked very corpulent (muscled) and strong, while others (Persian) appeared slim and elegant.37  Still, whatever ancient and modern comparisons might be suggested, gay men and trans people today in the West never had their sexual organs forcibly taken from them (so their grief results mostly from homophobic and transphobic reactions or having to bear sexual organs which they feel do not fit their true gender); also transgenders today have increased freedom and opportunities to fulfill their full and natural gender desires.  Yet, this important parallel remains:  Just as God in his grace opened his arms to Jewish eunuchs in Isaiah 56:3–5, so God today in his grace invites all GLBT people who love him and want to serve him to become full members in his spiritual family and worshipping community. 

Castration in Ancient Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia

Eunuchs in the OT, Part 2: Castration in Ancient Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia
     General historical survey
     Eunuchs in the Neo-Assyrian Empire (883–609)
     Eunuchs in the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626–539)
     Eunuchs in the Achaemenid Persian Empire (559–330) and the Book of Esther

Eunuchs in the OT, Part 3: Hunting for Castrates in Israel before the Exile
Debate over terms referring to eunuchs (in the ancient Near East and in the OT)
During the divided kingdoms of Israel (928–722) and Judah (928–586)
      Sarisim in the queen’s quarters (Ahab dynasty and near the end of the kingdom of Judah)
      Sarisim serving the king (Ahab dynasty and near the end of the kingdom of Judah)
      Foreign sarisim who visit Jerusalem (belonging to Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar)
Early uses of saris/sarisim in the Old Testament (in the Joseph, Samuel, and David narratives)

Eunuchs in the OT, Part 4: Hunting for Jewish Castrates during the Exile

Law and grace
      Moses’ prohibitions relating to the genitally wounded
      Isaiah’s prophecies concerning Israelites who will be castrated
Eunuchs among Israel’s sons
      Ahikar during the reigns of Sennacherib and Esarhaddon in Assyria
      Daniel and other youths taken to serve Nebuchadnezzar in Babylonia
      Nehemiah a cupbearer to Artaxerxes in Persia

FOOTNOTES:    1. McNeill 1976, pp. 64–65.    2. Personal conversation with Alessandra Zeka.    3. Scholz, p. 26.    4. Penzer, pp. 142–143; Bullough 2002, pp. 2–3; Ringrose, p. 497.    5. James Henry Breasted 1962, noted in Bullough 2002, p. 6; cf. Scholz, p. 22.    6. Scholz, p. 16.    7. Bullough 2002, p. 3.    8. Ringrose, p. 497.    9. Bullough 2002, p. 4.    10. Robert D. Biggs 1969, noted in Grayson, p. 92.    11. Ringrose, pp. 497–498.   12. Tannahill, pp. 252–253.    13. Brown-Driver-Briggs, p. 710; Grayson, pp. 90–91.    14. Burke, p. 201; Gehman, pp. 281–282.    15. Burke, p. 201.    16. Cf. North, p. 87.    17. KJV, Moffatt, RSV, NASB, JB, NEB, LB, NIV, NKJV, GNB2, NJB, J. Green, NRSV, REB, CEV, NAB.    18. Grayson, p. 97.    19. Cf. Patterson, p. 635.    20. Taylor and Snaith, p. 276.    21. Cf. Patterson, p. 635.    22. Grayson, p. 95; D. Greenberg 1988, p. 121.    23. Burke, p. 200.    24. Achaemenid was a dynastic family name.    25. Van De Mieroop, p. 207.    26. Ringrose, p. 498.    27. Bullough 2002, pp. 4, 10.    28. Scholz, p. 18.    29. Karl Wittfogel 1957, Johanna Fürstauer 1965, Ilse Seibert 1974, Keith Hopkins 1978; all noted in D. Greenberg 1988, p. 123.    30. Lleyellyn-Jones, p. 35; Scholz, p. 82.    31. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 35.    32. Nanda, pp. 52–64; Scholz, p. 27.    33. Horner, p. 140, n. 2.    34. Spencer, p. 355.    35. Ringrose, p. 501.    36. Horner, pp. 68–69.    37. Llewellyn-Jones, p. 24.          


Brown, Francis, with Samuel R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs.   The Brown–Driver–Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon.   Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, (1906) 2001 and coded with the numbering from Strong’s Concordance

Bullough, Vern L.   “Eunuchs in History and Society.”   In Shaun Tougher, ed., Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond, pp. 1–17.   London: Gerald Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2002.

Burke, David G.   “Eunuch.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2, pp. 200–202.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.  

Gehman, Henry S.   “Eunuch.”   In Henry S. Gehman, ed., New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 281–282.   Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1970. 

Grayson, Albert K.   “Eunuchs in Power: Their Role in the Assyrian Bureaucracy.”   In Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz, eds., Vom Alten Orient zum Alten Testament: Festschift fur Wolfram Freiherrn von Soden zum 85. Geburtstag am 19. Juni 1993, pp. 85–98.   Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1995. 

Green, Jay P., Sr., trans.   Interlinear Bible: Hebrew–Greek–English.   With Strong’s Concordance numbers added above each word.   Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, (1976) 1986. 

Greenberg, David F.   The Construction of Homosexuality.   Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1988.

Horner, Tom (Thomas M.).   Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times.   Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978. 

Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd.   “Eunuchs and the Royal Harem in Achaemenid Persia (559–331 BC).”   In Shaun Tougher, ed., Eunuchs: In Antiquity and Beyond, pp. 19–49.   London: Gerald Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2002.  

McNeill, John J.   The Church and the Homosexual.   Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976.

Nanda, Serena.   Neither Man nor Woman: The Hijras of India.   Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1990.  

North, Robert.   “Palestine, Administration of: Postexilic Judean Officials.”   In David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5, pp. 86–90.   New York and London: Doubleday, 1992.

Patterson, R. D.   סריס (sārîs), official, eunuch.”   In R. Laird Harris, ed., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2, pp. 634–635.   Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.   

Penzer, Norman M.   The Harem.   London: Spring Books, 1936, repr. 1965.

Ringrose, Kathryn M.   “Eunuchs in Historical Perspective.”   History Compass 5/2 (2007): 495–506. 

Scholz, Piotr O.   Eunuchs and Castrati: A Cultural History.   Trans. J. A. Broadwin and S. L. Frisch.   Princeton: Marcus Wiener, (German 1999) trans. 2001.      

Spencer, F. Scott.   “Eunuch.”   In Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2, pp. 355–356.   Nashville: Abingdon, 2007.    

Strong, James, comp.   Strongest Strong’s: Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.   Rev. and corrected by John R. Kohlenberger III and James A. Swanson.   With “Hebrew–Aramic Dictionary–Index to the Old Testament” and “Greek Dictionary–Index to the New Testament.”   Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Tannahill, Reay.   Sex in History.   New York: Stein and Day, 1980.

Taylor, John, and Norman H. Snaith.   “Eunuch.”   In James Hastings, ed., Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 275–276.   New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1963. 

Van De Mieroop, Marc.   A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000–323 B.C.   Malden, MA; and Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2004. 

Zeka, Alessandra.   Personal dialogue with the filmmaker after a showing of her film Harsh Beauty (2005), on hijras in India, viewed June 10, 2007 at the NewFest film festival, New York. NY.

TRANSLATIONS:   Contemporary English Version, 1995.   Good News Bible, 2nd ed. 1983.   Jerusalem Bible, 1968.   King James Version, 1611.   Living Bible, 1976.   James Moffatt, 1922.   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, 2008, 2010

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