Eunuchs in the OT, Part 3
Hunting for Castrates in Israel before the Exile
Key Passages: 2 Kings 9:30–33, 18:17, 23:11, 24:12–15; Jer 34:19, 38:7–10, 39:1–3, 41:16; Dan 1:3–19; Gen 37:36, 39:1, 40:1–23; 1 Sam 8:15; 1 Chron 28:1

By Bruce L. Gerig


Debate over terms referring to eunuchs (in the ancient Near East and in the OT)
Following the lead of P. Jenson (1892), F. Delitzsch (1896), H. Zimmern (1899), and the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (1906),1 later scholars agreed that the Hebrew word saris is a loanword from the Akkadian (Assyrian–Babylonian) sha reshi, meaning “one who is at the head [of the king]” (cf. H. Bauer and P. Leander 1922, Kenneth Kitchen 1961, Roland de Vaux 1965, Joseph Fitzmyer 1967, John Brinkman 1968, Riekele Borger 1971, R. D. Patterson 1980, R. J. A. Sheriffs 1980, David Burke 1982, Albert Grayson 1995, and Karen Radner 20072), i.e., “an attendant who stood at the head of, or near, a royal figure or dignitary” (John Collins 1993).3  David Burke writes that, originally a general term for “courtier” or “official,” sha reshi (and its Sumerian cuneiform counterpart, LÚ.SAG) underwent a specialization of meaning (“eunuch”), especially after the turn of the first millennium BC; and this probably occurred as eunuchs were increasingly found to be the most reliable personnel to serve in the harem, and then in other court positions.  This same specialization of meaning is found with the Hebrew word saris, in later parts of the OT, concludes Burke.4  

However, specialists have long debated whether sha reshi (singular) and shut reshi (plural) with the meaning of “eunuch(s)” referred to all of the royal officials in Assyria, or only to a certain segment, or perhaps to none of them at all.5  Relating to the Bible, the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon (BDB) gave “eunuch” as the primary meaning of saris (H5631) in OT usage, relating it to verbs for “emasculate” in Syriac, Aramaic, and Arabic.6  However, Robert North in the Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992) disagreed, writing that saris simply referred to a high, usually foreign, official.  He seemed vague about finding any “eunuchs” in repeated references to sarisim in ancient Israel, and he called the BDB “rather outdated” in assigning “eunuch” as its primary meaning.  However, his contention that “eunuch” in the OT does not always mean “eunuch”7 is a kind of sloppy language that only adds to the confusion.  The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of Chicago (CAD, 14, 1999) assigned two meanings to sha reshi: (1) “attendant, soldier, officer, official,” and (2) “eunuch,” but illustrates the latter in only a few instances, with almost no discussion.8  Karlheinz Deller, an Assyriologist at the University of Heidelberg, who obtained an advance copy of the text for volume 14, tried to persuade Erica Reiner, former editor-in-chief of the CAD, that if sha reshi did not mean “eunuch” per se, then what was was the Assyrian–Babylonian word for this?  However, she was not persuaded.9  

Yet, a growing number of researchers have come to believe that sha reshi and saris really became the words for “eunuch” as usage moved into the first millennium BC.  Albert Grayson (1995), another Assyrian specialist, writes that “the textual evidence is overwhelmingly in favor” of viewing sha reshi as being the word for “eunuch” in the Neo-Assyrian period, recognizing that “eunuchs played a significant role in Assyrian society and administration.”10  In one Middle Assyrian law (Tablet A, section 20), from the library of Tiglath-pileser I (thirteenth century BC, but dating back perhaps to the fifteenth century), sha reshen was already used with the meaning of “turn . . . into a eunuch.”11  One ancient omen reads, “May your semen dry up like that of a eunuch [sha reshi] who cannot beget.”  The Middle Assyrian ‘Palace and Harem Edicts’ called for the examination of the sha resh sharri (“royal eunuch”) to check whether he should be admitted to the harem and court; and the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary understood marruru here to mean “to check whether a person is castrated.”12  Even more important, it became common during the Neo-Assyrian Empire to refer to the sha reshis (“beardless ones”) and sha ziqnis (“bearded ones”) as comprising the whole body of Assyrian officials.13  The CAD notes this collective use of sha reshi with sha ziqni, but ignores its significance; and by mentioning this in its first section (under sha reshi, meaning “attendant, soldier, officer, official”), it suggests that such Akkadian references should only be understood as pointing to “royal officials” and “bearded officials,”14 which makes little sense.  In fact, Grayson writes that a majority of Neo-Assyrian scholars now believe that sha reshi basically meant “eunuch” (including Riekele Borger, Karlheinz Deller, J. N. Postgate, Julian Reade, Hayim Tadmor, and Kazuko Watanabe, as well as Grayson himself).15  In one Assyrian prophecy, the goddess Mulissu promises Ashurbanipal (ruled 668–627), while still a prince, that he would exercise authority “over the sons of the bearded [shut ziqni] and over the halpete [Ivancik and Simo Parpola: “replacements”; or the CAD: “successors(?)”] of the eunuchs [shut reshi],” implying that the latter did not produce sons.16  Although A. L. Oppenheim (1973) tried to argue that the beardless figures appearing everywhere in Assyrian art were simply adolescents who had not yet grown a beard,17 a closer inspection of Assyrian reliefs shows that, in general, the bearded males and beardless males appear indistinguishable from each other in terms of height, build, musculature, and adult look,18 although, e.g., in one scene from Nimrud (now in the British Museum) a lioness is shown mauling a beardless figure who is clearly a boy, with a small body and slender arms.19  

Grayson notes that shut reshi in Babylon not only served the king as high court officials, but also wealthy private citizens, who commonly used them also as harem guardians, household servants, messengers and the like, in situations where the terms “royal” or even “official” would hardly apply.20  Moreover, various texts identify individuals with sha reshi and a job title, in instances where it would only make sense for the former to mean “eunuch,” and not “official.”    Kazuko Watanabe (1999) noted also in her study of Neo-Assyrian seal inscriptions how beardless worshippers are frequently identified like “sha reshi of the king XX, governor of YY”; and she holds that sha reshi here must mean “eunuch.”21  Karlheinz Deller’s sense is that the total number of eunuchs in the Neo-Assyrian Empire was probably much larger than scholars originally thought, especially during the reign of Sargon II (721–705).  In fact, many officials identified only by title in Assyrian texts were probably also eunuchs.22  So as Deller asked, if sha reshi did not mean “eunuch” in ancient Assyria, then what was the word for this?  He holds that other languages also had unequivocal words for “eunuch,” such as eunouchos in Greek and saris in Hebrew and Aramaic.23  For example, Plutarch the Greek writer (c.46–c.120) would later note that Lysimachus resented being called a “treasurer,” because in his time so many treasurers of state were eunouchoi (Plutarch, Demetrius 25.5).24  Furthermore, Hayim Tadmor has argued persuasively based on ancient evidence that the “Rab-saris” in 2 Kings 18:17 (NRSV) does not mean “chief official,” but “chief eunuch.”25  It should also be pointed out, in general linguistic usage, that when a term accrues a narrower, particularly a charged (taboo) meaning, the former meaning usually begins to fall out of usage rather quickly, because of the unpleasant (insulting) association that accompanies the new meaning.  This can be seen, e.g., with the word “gay” in our own time, which earlier carried such meanings as “joyous,” “bright,” “showy,” “pleasurable,” or “wanton,”26 but then in the 1960s and 1970s was taken over by activists to replace “homosexual.”27  Now the New Oxford American Dictionary (2005) defines “gay” (the adjective) as first meaning “homosexual,” and then comments in a footnote that: “As a result [of this newer meaning], the centuries-old other senses of gay . . . once common in speech and literature, are much less frequent.  The word gay cannot be readily used unselfconsciously today in these older senses without sounding old-fashioned or arousing a sense of double entrendre [suggesting that what is “gay” is homosexual] . . .”28  In like manner, one has to wonder whether, as sha reshi became more widely applied to castrated males, there did not also arise a discomfort among ‘normal’ men in having this term applied to them, either in titles or texts.  Tadmor notes, along this same line, that “It is hard to imagine how saris could have born two simultaneous meanings in Biblical Hebrew: that of a royal courtier [not castrated] and that of a [court] eunuch.”  Moreover, Biblical Hebrew already had perfectly good terms to use to refer to royal courtiers or servants;29 so why add a foreign term for the same thing, which brought along such derogatory baggage? 

Kirk Grayson (1995) notes, “The attitude of modern scholarship toward the subject of eunuchs has been almost universally the same: the matter is to be avoided entirely, or, if that is impossible, it is to be dismissed as a trivial and unsavory institution,” even though eunuchs were a “major force” in various civilizations, from ancient to modern times.30  Kathryn Ringrose (2007) comments, as well, that “Since many western scholars still approach the topic [of castration] with revulsion, we also lack serious studies of eunuchs” as they existed in many cultures.31  This is no less true in Biblical studies, where one suspects there is a widespread dislike and avoidance of anything sexual that moves beyond the heterosexual and conventional into something unusual or little known and understood, an attitude that has distorted research in the past both related to homosexuality and eunuchism.  Vern Bullough (2002) also comments that there has been a “reluctance to deal with the topic [of eunuchs]” in scholarly writing “in the immediate past . . .”32  Lynn Roller (1998) has drawn attention, as well, to what she sees in modern scholarship as “negative judgemental [sic] attitudes toward the practice of sacred eunuchism” earlier in the cult of Innana / Ishtar in ancient Sumer. 33  

Hayim Tadmor in his article “Was the Biblical saris a Eunuch?” (1995) notes that in Assyria and Babylonia the shut reshi “were usually eunuchs and [so] . . . the term should be rendered as such in translation, rather than ‘head officers,’ ‘officials,’ or the like.”  He also calls for a reappraisal of the Biblical evidence relating to saris and sarisim (plural).34  He divides the OT references to sarisim into three categories: first, those connected with the queen’s quarters; second, others so-labeled in the OT and among court officials, but not specifically identified with the harem; and third, those mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecies about certain Israelites being made eunuchs, along with possible cases of historical fulfillment.35  Although he notes that how sha reshi came over from Akkadian into Hebrew is difficult to identify, he believes that the most likely route was through Phoenicia; and most likely person who brought this practice into Israel was Jezebel, who was taken as queen by Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel36 in the mid ninth century BC.  Not using Tadmor’s scheme exactly, parts 2-4 in this series will follow the outline given at the end of the introductory article, “Eunuchs in the OT, Part 1.”  

During the divided kingdoms of Israel (928722) and Judah (928586)
Sarisim in the queen’s quarters (Ahab dynasty and near the end of the kingdom of Judah)
Jezebel and her harem (2 Kings 9:32).  As noted earlier, Tadmor suggests that “the term sarisim, together with . . . castrated courtiers, were introduced into Israel by the Phoenician princess Jezebel during the reign of Ahab.”37  (For the Biblical description of Ahab’s rule, see 1 Kings 16:29–22:40a.)  Ahab (873–852), the eighth king of northern kingdom of Israel (called sometimes also Samaria, after its capital), is said to have done more evil than any of the kings who preceded him (l Kings 16:30); and this was related in no small part to the influence of his queen Jezebel (21:25), daughter of Ethbaal, the priest-king of Sidon (16:31) and a ruler who through murder became king also of Tyre and the other Phoenician port cities.38  Jezebel quickly established the worship of Baal as a rival to the worship of Yahweh in Israel, persecuted the prophet Elijah and other worshippers of the true God, and introduced human sacrifice.39  

Later Elisha, who succeeded Elijah as Yahweh’s chief prophet in Israel (2 Kings 2:1–14), summoned Jehu, a former officer in Ahab’s guard, and anointed him to be the next king of Israel, to follow Ahab and his sons, Ahaziah (who ruled for perhaps a year or so) and then Jehoram (who followed him to the throne and ruled 851–842).  Jehu was also instructed to kill the queen mother, Jezebel, to avenge the blood of all of Yahweh’s servants (followers) whom she had killed (9:1–7).  So Jehu set out for the capital city of Samaria.  Now when Jezebel heard that Jehu was coming, “she painted her eyes, and adorned her head,” and sat at her palace window (9:30, NRSV).  She probably dark-outlined her eyes, put on a wig, and added jewelry, to publicly confront the rebellious commander with all of the authority of the royal house and official cult (Johnston).40  However, when he arrived, Jehu saw two or three eunuchs [sarisim] looking out of the window with the queen; and he called up to them, saying: “‘Who is on my side?   Who? . . .  Throw her down.’  So they threw her down; and some of her blood splattered on the wall and on the horses, which trampled on her” (2 Kings 9:32–33, NRSV).  Of eighteen English translations inspected, fourteen translate sarisim here as “eunuchs,” as well as do numerous other interpreters (e.g., C. U. Wolf, John Taylor and Norman Snaith, R. D. Patterson and Hermann Austel, and Earl Radmacher).41  Still, the NASB, GNB2 and NJB translate sarisim here as “officials,” and the CEV as “palace workers.”  As noted in our earlier survey of eunuchs, such personnel serving in the harem would definitely have been castrated men, who could sometimes turn against their mistress or master in quite a treacherous way, as is seen here.  

A number of factors could have influenced Jezebel to employ eunuchs in her harem.  First, the earlier, powerful Hittite Empire in its New Kingdom period (1400–1200) extended down the Mediterranean coast and included the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon;42 and the kings of Hatti regularly employed eunuchs as court servants and sent them out as special envoys.43  Of course, this was more than three hundred years before Jezebel’s time and what kind of ‘memory’ remained of this is not clear.  However, second, we also know that a Phoenician trafficking in boys dates back to Homeric times (Homer lived in the eighth century BC, and ‘Homeric times’ covered 1200–800), since the Odyssey mentions Phoenician shipmasters purchasing or kidnapping boys to be sold to wealthy purchasers (14.297, 15.449).    Also, Joel 3:4–6 (around 600 BC) mentions Tyre and Sidon taking Israelite boys into slavery and selling them to the Greeks.  Moreover, David Greenberg notes that it is unlikely that such drastic measures would have been taken simply to acquire eunuch household servants; instead these boys were surely intended to become homosexual partners44—or eunuchs perhaps in some cases to be sold to the east.  Third, as the Neo-Assyrian rule expanded in the ninth century, so would its presence and influence in the West.  The Phoenician harbor cities of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Arwad had long been valued for the luxury goods which their shipping enterprises provided; and even when the Assyrians came to subdue Syria in the eighth century BC (demanding large amounts of tribute), they left these cities independent so as not to disturb their valued trade.45  We know that the use of eunuchs in the harem and other court positions goes back in Assyria to the fourteen century (the ‘harem edicts’) along with a similar Hittite practice between 1400–1200.46  One cannot help but view Jezebel as a kindred spirit to Semiramis (Sammuramat) in Assyria, wife of Shamsi-Adad V (823–811) and then powerful queen mother of Adad-nirari III (810–783),47 who surrounded herself with eunuchs, while making money off of the sale of them, as well.48  Jezebel, as a princess from very old cities with a cosmopolitan outlook and international connections, most likely absorbed the already old practice of placing eunuchs in harem and other court positions, which she then brought with her to Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, when she became Ahab’s queen.  The Phoenician cities’ far-flung commercial contacts would make Jezebel well-aware of ancient traditions, east and west.  Tadmor notes that it is very unlikely that any other males would have been permitted to move about freely in Jezebel’s private quarters, except eunuchs.  Although we lack records concerning specific court protocols in Tyre and Sidon at the time, in contemporary Assyria only eunuchs were permitted to enter the royal harem, with the efficacy of their castrated state periodically rechecked and verified.49 

Jehoiachin’s harem (2 Kings 24:12, 15 = Jer 29:2).  Jeremiah, another of Israel’s great prophets, was active during the last years of the southern kingdom of Judah, spanning the reigns of Josiah (639–609), Jehoahaz (609), Jehoiakim (608–598), Jehoiachin (597), and Zedekiah (596–586), who finally saw Jerusalem utterly destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562) and his Babylonian army.50  Earlier Nebuchadnezzar had come (605) and forced Jehoiakim to serve as his vassal.  However, when the Babylonians suffered heavy losses in a battle on the borders of Egypt (601), Jehoiakim rebelled, perhaps by withholding tribute (Donald Wiseman, 1956).  Nebuchadnezzar was not able to deal with this defection right away; so when Jehoiakim died abruptly, his son Jehoiachin inherited the precarious situation (2 Kings 24:1–7).51  Then suddenly Nebuchadnezzar appeared (597), surrounded and laid siege to Jerusalem; and “Jehoachin of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself, his mother, his servants [‘ebed, plural ‘ebedim, H5650], his officers [sar, plural sarim, H8269], and his palace officials [saris, plural sarisim, H5631; NEB: ‘eunuchs’] (2 Kings 24:12, NRSV).  Then the king, “the king’s mother, the king’s wives, his officials [sarisim; NEB: ‘eunuchs’], and the elite of the land” were taken into captivity to Babylon (24:15), along with “all the men of valor,” and the city’s artisans and metalsmiths, who would make good soldiers (v. 16).  Zedekiah was then made puppet king over the people left behind (v. 18).  Out of eighteen English translations, only six translate sarisim as “eunuchs” in 2 Kings 24:12 (Moffatt 1922, Lamsa [Aramaic] 1933, NEB 1970, Green 1986, REB 1989, and Van der Pool [Septuagint] 2006), although the placement of sarisim right after “the king’s wives” in verse 15 clearly points to them being eunuchs.  Also, since the Hebrew uses other terms here (24:12) for royal “servants” (‘ebedim) and court “officers” (sarim), what would be the point of adding sarisim unless this term referred to something entirely different (“eunuchs”)?  Another reference to this event is recorded in the Book of Jeremiah, which notes that “King Jeconiah [= Jehoiachin], and the queen mother, the court officials [sarisim; NEB: ‘eunuchs’], the leaders [sarim, H8269; NEB: ‘officers’] of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem” (Jer 29:2, NRSV).    Joseph Blenkinsopp acknowledges, at least, that eunuchs served in the court in Jerusalem, especially mentioning Jehoiachin’s sarisim here (2 Kings 24:12, 15).52  

Zedekiah’s harem (Jer 41:16).  After finally destroying Jerusalem and sending many captives back to Babylon (586), Nebuchadnezzar appointed Gedaliah to the difficult task of serving as governor over the vinedressers and farmers who remained behind in Judah (Jer 40:1–5).  Gedaliah selected as his residence the city of Mizpah (40:7–8), seven miles north of Jerusalem.53  However, at a banquet there Ishmael (of royal descent and out of jealousy), with ten others, assassinated Gedaliah (41:1–2) and took captive all of Zedekiah’s royal daughters and the others at Mizpah whom Nebuzardaran, captain of the Babylonian guard, had committed to Gedaliah (41:10).  Ishmael fled and escaped (v. 15), although Johanan retrieved all those whom Ishmael had taken captive, including the “soldiers, women, children, and eunuchs [sarisim] . . . (Jer 41:16, NRSV).  Still, Johanan, probably a captain of the one of the Judean guerilla bands,54 was afraid of the Chaldeans (Babylonians) left behind and so he decided to take his group and flee to Egypt (41:17–18).  The Lord instructed them through Jeremiah not to go but instead to remain in the land, where he would protect them (42:7–22).  However, Johanan still took “the men, the women, the children, the princesses, and everyone else” in his group, including Jeremiah, and went to Egypt (43:5–7).  In Jer 41:16, fifteen out of eighteen translations render sarisim as “eunuchs,” while the NAB reads, “women, children, and their guardians [italics added].”  Finally, most English translators can no longer deny that there were castrated males in Judah.  As Tadmor notes, the list here clearly includes eunuchs as a separate category, along with males, females, and minors.55  

Sarisim serving the king (Ahab dynasty and near the end of the kingdom of Judah)
Sarisim who serve Ahab and Jehoram (1 Kings 22:9 = 2 Chron 18:8; 2 Kings 8:6).  Two other appearances of sarisim are found in the Ahab dynasty, apart from the reference already noted of the harem eunuchs who threw Jezebel to her death.  Earlier, Ahab “the king of Israel summoned an officer [saris; NEB: ‘eunuch’] and said, ‘Bring quickly Micaiah’” the prophet to me (1 Kings 22:9, NRSV = 2 Chron 18:8).  Then later his son Jehoram (= Joram56), the tenth king of the northern kingdom of Israel (851–842), when he heard a woman’s complaint about losing her house and land while she was abroad, “appointed an official [saris; NEB: ‘eunuch’] for her, saying, ‘Restore all that was hers . . .’” (2 Kings 8:6, NRSV).  In Ahab’s case (1 Kings 22:9), seven out of eighteen translations use “eunuch” or “one of the eunuchs,” although the Hebrew is singular57 (Moffatt 1922, Lamsa [Aramaic] 1933, JB 1968, NEB 1970, Green 1986, REB 1989, Van der Pool [Septuagint] 2006); and in Jehoram’s case (2 Kings 8:6) only four use “eunuch” or “eunuchs,” although the Hebrew again is singular58 (Moffatt, JB, NEB, Van der Pool [Septuagint]), while the NAB adds along with its translation “official” a footnote reading “literally ‘eunuch,’ and perhaps actually so in this instance.”  It is true, as Tadmor notes, that it cannot be determined from these contexts whether or not the sarisim whom Ahab and Jehoram sent out were eunuchs.59  Yet, Henry Gehman believes that eunuchs probably served other functions as well as in the harem, in the courts of Ahab and Jehoram.60  As seen in Assyria, it was probably a short step from employing eunuchs in the women’s quarters to finding them useful in other ways.

It should also be noted (although this occurred following the Ahab / Ahaziah / Jehoram dynasty), that Jehu (the eleventh king of the northern kingdom of Israel, 842–814), who succeeded Jehoram to the throne, is pictured on the famous Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (858–824).  The main scene, of four related panels which move around this 6-1/2 foot high monument (see “Online photos of archaeological works,” at the end of this article), shows Jehu (or perhaps his ambassador, although this seems less likely) kneeling prostrate before the Assyrian king, an audience which occurred near Mount Carmel on the Mediterranean coast, in Israel.61  Shalmaneser is surrounded by four royal servants, all of whom are (beardless) eunuchs.  A fifth servant (with a beard) awaits orders, with clasped hands; while another eunuch, the ‘gatekeeper’ to the king’s presence, motions the Israelite tribute-bearers to come forward with their gifts, of gold, silver, tin, and weapons.62  This shows that by this time (and surely earlier) rulers in Samaria knew that the Assyrian kings surrounded themselves with court servants who were often eunuchs.  Yet, strangely, no further mention is made in the Biblical record after this point of eunuchs in Israel.  Why?  Perhaps the royal copying of customs from the brutal, conquering Assyrians had lost its allure?  What seems more likely is that the Biblical accounts of the later kings of Israel (Jehu through Hoshea, 842–722) become increasingly brief and formulaic (2 Kings 9:6–10:36, 13:1–17:23).  Few references to specific events are included, and there are no references at all to “servants” (‘ebedim, H5650) or “officers” (sarim, H8269) in relation to these later kings of Israel, although we do read once that Hosea sent “messengers” (malak, plural malakim, H4397) to the king of Egypt (17:4).  So, although not specifically mentioned, eunuchs no doubt continued to serve the royal court in the northern kingdom until its destruction, in 722–721.      

A saris who lives near the Temple, in Josiah’s reign (2 Kings 23:11).  Turning to the southern kingdom, Josiah (the sixteenth king of Judah, 639–609), after reading the “book of the law” (referring either to part[s] or the whole of the Pentateuch), humbled himself before the Lord (2 Kings 22:1, 8, 11, 18–19) and set about to remove the idols and other objects dedicated to pagan gods that were in the Temple, to dispose of the idolatrous priests, and to destroy the “places of burning [topheph]” where children were sacrificed (23:1–10).63  Josiah also “removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun, at the entrance to the house of the LORD, by the chamber [NEB: ‘room’] of the eunuch [saris] Nathan-melech, which was in the precincts [NEB: ‘colonnade’] . . .(2 Kings 23:11, NRSV).  Out of eighteen translations, nine use “eunuch” here, with three others using “chamberlain” (early translations: KJV, Moffatt, RSV).  Other renderings prefer “official.”  Although the Biblical text is silent on Nathan-melech’s specific position and function, he must have been an important official, whose location in the Temple was more well known than even that of the great solar chariot that stood nearby, perhaps with live horses.64  One can remember “the women [Fred Young, Ronald Youngblood: cultic prostitutes?65] who served at the entrance to the [Lord’s] tent of meeting” at Shiloh while Eli was high priest, over four hundred years earlier, and with whom his sons had had sex (1 Sam 2:22, NRSV).  However, in 2 Kings 23 we read that Josiah “broke down the houses of the male temple prostitutes [qadesh, plural qedeshim, H6945] that were in the house of the LORD” (23:7, NRSV).  Interpreters disagree today whether these qedeshim were sacred male prostitutes or simply servants dedicated to the pagan gods; and it also remains speculative whether Nathan-melech was one who offered himself sexually to worshippers or not.    Still, since those who served Josiah in personal and official ways are commonly referred to here as “servants” (‘ebedim, H5650; 2 Kings 22:9, 23:30), saris in 23:11 would clearly seem to point to a eunuch who was engaged in royal service at the time.  Furthermore, the Septuagint Greek renders the Hebrew lishka (H3957, “chamber”) in 2 Kings 23:11 as gazophulakion (“treasury room”),66 bringing to mind the frequent association that existed between eunuchs and treasurers, as seen earlier with Ahikar in Assyria (Tobit 1:21–22) and then later with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–27).  One also remembers Plutarch’s comment about treasurers in the first century AD very often being eunuchs (Demetrius 25.5).67  However, Nathan-melek might also have been a member of the royal guard (who were often eunuchs) stationed at the Temple entrance, although this duty was normally carried out by Levite “guardians of the threshold” (1 Chron 9:19), a group specifically mentioned in 2 Kings 23:4.  Although Nathan-melech was a eunuch, his main function here remains a mystery. 

Sarisim who served Zedekiah (Jer 34:19).  Zedekiah (596–586), the last king of Judah, was not only an evil king but deceitful and inept in his relations both with Jeremiah and with Nebuchadnezzar.68  Jeremiah brought ‘word from the Lord’ to Zedekiah, declaring that Jerusalem would be handed over to the king of Babylon and destroyed by fire (Jer 34:1–3, 6) and also that “the officials [sarim, H8269] of Judah, the officials [sarim] of Jerusalem, the eunuchs [sarisim], the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf shall be handed over to the enemies” (Jer 34:19, NRSV), along with the king “and his officials [sarim] (v. 21).  This prophecy was given as the Babylonians attacked various fortified cities in Judah (34:6–7), brought about because of Zedekiah’s earlier placing of his trust not in Yahweh but in alliances made with Egypt and Phoenicia, against Nebuchadnezzar.69  The people walking between the parts of a slaughtered calf here was part of an ancient covenant-making ritual (cf. Gen 15:7–21) in which the people now promised to free all Israelite slaves in Judah, as the Lord had commanded them to do (Jer 34:8–9).  This covenant also typically implied a curse, i.e., if those swearing such an oath failed to keep their pledge, may they themselves be cut in pieces like the calf.70  Interestingly, eleven translations render sarisim in Jer 34:19 as “eunuchs” (KJV 1611, Moffatt 1922, Lamsa [Aramaic] 1933, RSV 1952, JB 1968, NEB 1970, Green 1986, NKJV 1982, NJB 1985, NRSV 1989, REB 1989).  Although we are told little about these sarisim, the combination of sarim with sarisim surely reveals the inclusion of both bearded and beardless males in service to the Judean king, as in Assyria.  

An Ethiopian saris who rescues Jeremiah from a cistern (Jer 38:7).  Various “officials” (sarim) complained to King Zedekiah about Jeremiah’s terrifying public pronouncements (e.g., that all who stayed in Jerusalem would die by the sword, famine and pestilence), so that soldiers were deserting (Jer 38:1–4).  Therefore, the king handed the prophet over into their hands; and “they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son” (38:6) to die.  However, when “Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian, a eunuch [saris] in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern,” he asked the king to spare his life (Jer 38:7–9, NRSV).  Ethiopia here refers to the area of the Upper Nile, south of Egypt, sometimes  referred to as “Cush” or “Nubia” and identified by Herodotus with the kingdom of Meroë,71 from whence no doubt also came the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40.72  Norman Penzer includes much later reports (sixteenth century AD on) of Europeans who traveled to Constantinople, where they found in Ottoman harems black eunuchs and the Kislar Agha (“Chief Black Eunich”), which were very much in fashion.73  Could Jer 38:7 be one of the earliest references available to black eunuchs in history?  Anyway, in the story here, Ebed-melech went with some others, with the king’s permission, and they pulled Jeremiah up out of the cistern (vv. 10–13).  Probably this was a storage reservoir, with no water in it but with lime-clay mud at the bottom.  The eunuch’s name means, appropriately enough, “servant of the king.”74  Geoffrey Grogan notes that, sadly, only a foreigner cared enough about Jeremiah to rescue him; still, if he was a court eunuch, Ebed-melech would have had easy private access to speak to the king.75  Henry Gehman affirms that eunuchs were employed “in the degenerate court of the successors of Josiah” (cf. 2 Kings 24:15 = Jer 29:2, 2 Kings 25:19), probably all foreigners.76  Of eighteen translations, fourteen render saris in Jer 38:7 as “eunuch,” except those translations that seem nervous about mentioning eunuchs at all (LB 1976, NIV 1978, NAB 1995, CEV 1995).  Also, it should be noted that the Hebrew here reads literally “Ebed-malech, the Ethiopian man of the eunuchs, in the king’s house” (cf. Green), showing that there were more eunuchs than one who served in Zedekiah’s court.  This is also made clear in the King James translation: “one of the eunuchs which was in the king’s house . . .” (Jer 38:7).  

A saris commander of Zedekiah who is captured and killed (Jer 52:25 = 2 Kings 25:19).  Because of Zedekiah’s rebellion, Nebuchadnezzar finally came to deal with Jerusalem once and for all, laying siege to it and then taking the city (586), stripping the Temple bare, and setting everything ablaze (Jer 52:4–23).  Zedekiah, who tried to flee, was captured and blinded after his sons were killed (52:10); and over four thousand Israelites were taken into captivity (52:28–30).  Also, the captain of Nebuchadnezzar’s guard took captive two priests, three guardians of the threshold, and also “from the city he took an officer [saris, NEB: ‘eunuch’] who had been in command of the soldiers,” along with others (Jer 52:24–25, NRSV; cf. also 2 Kings 25:18–19).  These were all taken to Nebuchadnezzar at Riblah (in Syria), where they were killed (Jer 52:26–27).  Here, only eight out of eighteen translations render saris as “eunuch,” the rest mostly as “officer.”  John Taylor and Norman Snaith argue that because the saris here was “in command of the soldiers,” he probably was not a eunuch, since the latter “are generally unwarlike.”77  Yet, Israelite kings must have known that eunuchs frequently served in Assyrian military posts, even as highly-placed commanders.  

Foreign sarisim who visit Jerusalem (of Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar)
An Assyrian chief eunuch who is sent by Sennacherib to Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:17).  Hezekiah (the thirteenth king of Judah, sole ruler 715–698) was considered the most righteous of all of Judah’s kings (2 Kings 18:5), although throughout his reign he suffered problems with Assyria, to whom his predecessor, Ahaz (743–716), had committed the kingdom of Judah as a vassal state (16:7).  Early in his reign (723), when he ruled as coregent with Ahaz (727–716), Hezekiah saw the capital and kingdom of Samaria fall to Shalmaneser V (726–722) and his Assyrian army (2 Kings 18:9–12), although when Shalmaneser died suddenly, his son Sargon II (721–705) claimed and celebrated the victory as his own.  Then, after Sennacherib (704–681) came to the Assyrian throne, he invaded western Palestine, in the fourteen year of Hezekiah’s reign (701, cf. 2 Kings 18:13) and occupied principal Philistine, Phoenician and Judean cities.78  Hezekiah sent Sennacherib tribute, including even gold and silver from the Temple (2 Kings 18:13–16).  Then Sennacherib “sent the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh [rab-shaqeh, H7262] with a great army” to Jerusalem (18:17, NRSV), demanding that the city surrender (18:31–32).  The Rabshakeh, serving as chief spokesman, warned the populace that they were doomed if they did not open their gates (18:27).  When these words reached Hezekiah, he begged God for help (19:1, 14–19) and that very night the angel of the Lord “struck down” 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (perhaps with a bubonic plague?).  Thereafter, Sennacherib returned to Assyria (19:35–36). 

The first Hebrew term here, tartan, derives from the Akkadian turtannu, meaning literally “second in command [to the king,]” or “supreme field commander,” while rab-saris relates to the Akkadian rab(u) sha reshi, meaning literally “chief at the head” or “chief eunuch.”79  Seven English translations simply transliterate the Assyrian loanwords here in 2 Kings 18:17 (KJV 1611, Lamsa [Aramiac] 1933, RSV 1952, NASB 1960, NKJV 1982, NRSV 1989, Van der Pool [Septuagint] 2006).  However, the New English Bible (1970) translates these terms as “the commander-in-chief, the chief eunuch, and the chief officer,” Jay Green (1986) as “the general, chief of the eunuchs, and chief cupbearer,” and the New American Bible (1995) as “the general, the lord chamberlain, and the commander,” the last further explaining in a footnote that only the first term is military in origin.  Only three translations render the second title as “chief eunuch” (NEB, cf. Green, REB), while others offer translations for rab-saris such as “comptroller” (Moffatt 1922) or “chief treasurer” (LB 1976), “chief officer” (NIV 1978), or “lord chamberlain” (NAB 1995), all of which appear more speculative.  Tadmor points out that in the Neo-Assyrian Empire the chief eunuch (rab sha reshi) often served in military roles as commander-in-chief.80  Deller further describes how the chief eunuch even sometimes replaced the king on long campaigns.81  Grayson notes how Shamshi-Adad V (823–811) wrote, “On my second campaign I issued orders and sent Mutarris-Ashur, the chief eunuch, one clever and experienced in battle, a sensible man, with my troops and camp to the land of Nairi.”82  Stephanie Dalley and J. N. Postgate write that major units in the Assyrian army were normally commanded by the chief eunuch, and also the higher ranks of the Assyrian army included quite a large number of eunuchs.83  There would therefore be no contradiction between the rab-saris here being both chief eunuch and holding a high military position.  With regard to the third term, the New American Bible (1995) in a footnote for 2 Kings 18:17 says that rab-shakeh (H7249) refers technically to the “chief butler,” although the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon connects it to the Akkadian title rab shaqu (shaqe) or “chief cupbearer,” with R. D. Patterson and Hermann Austel agreeing with the latter.84  Only Jay Green’s translation sticks with the literal meaning of “chief cupbearer,” while other translations for rab-shakeh chose “staff commander” (Moffatt 1922), “chief officer” (NEB 1970, REB 1989), “chief of staff” (LB 1976), or “field commander” (NIV 1978).  Following another track, the Jerusalem Bible (1968) and the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) sought to clear up the confusion here by viewing all of these titles (presumably with their literal meanings) as referring to one and the same individual; and so they render all three terms in English simply as the “cupbearer-in-chief” (who was also a eunuch and came with a military commission).  The spokesman here is always identified as the rab-shakeh or the “chief cupbearer” (2 Kings 18:19ff), although tartan is the first title given when the Assyrian delegation is introduced (18:17).  It would be clearer here, of course, if the name of a single person bearing these multiple titles or responsibilities was given, as in the case of Ahikar (Tobit 1:21–22).  However, since this is missing, it is best in 2 Kings 18 to consider the three titles as belonging to three different individuals, and to give the titles their literal meanings, so that they refer to: the “commander-in-chief,” the “chief eunuch,” and the “chief cupbearer,” all high positions in ancient Assyria.  That the rab-shakeh (“chief cupbearer”) acted as spokesman for the team may show either his special closeness to King Sennacherib or perhaps that he was the most fluent in speaking Hebrew among the three Assyrian officials who had come to Jerusalem (cf. 18:28). 

Still, Julian Reade noted that in Sennacherib’s Assyrian palace reliefs beardless attendants (eunuchs) seem outnumbered by bearded attendants; and so Reade theorized that, at the beginning of his reign, Sennacherib removed from high office and in general downgraded his eunuchs, who perhaps had become too powerful and dangerous a party at court.  Still, one scene from a number of reliefs which record Sennacherib’s capture of Lachish (a town some thirty miles southwest of Jerusalem) in 701 shows the Assyrian king seated on his throne, attended by two (beardless) eunuchs, both of whom wave fly-wisks and hold hand-cloths ready to serve his highness; so eunuchs still remained in positions close to the king.85  Perhaps the chief eunuch and chief cupbearer here were eunuchs, while the Tartan, or supreme commander, was not. 

A chief eunuch at Nebuchadnezzzar II’s first capture of Jerusalem (Dan 1:3–20).  Nebuchadnezzar’s first capture of Jerusalem in 605 is described at some length in Dan 1.  At this time Jehoiakim, king over the southern kingdom of Judah, was made a vassal, sacred vessels were carried off to Babylon from the Jerusalem Temple, and then “the king ordered Ashpenaz, his highest palace official [rab-saris, H7227, H5631; RSV: ‘chief eunuch’], to choose some young men from the royal family of Judah and from other leading Jewish families.  The king said, ‘They must be healthy, handsome, smart, wise, educated, and fit to serve in the royal palace.  Teach them how to speak and write our language . . .’” (Dan 1:3–4, CEV).  So, Daniel and his close friends, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, along with other high-born youths, were selected (vv. 6–7) and placed in a three-year training program, under Ashpenaz’s supervision, at the end of which time they were presented to Nebuchhadnezzar as ready to become his royal servants (vv. 8–18).  Ashpenaz is called rab-saris (“chief eunuch,” 1:3) in this chapter, as well as sar-hassarisim (“chief of the eunuchs,” 1:7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 18; sar, H8269; saris, H5631),86 both of which mean essentially the same thing.  Eleven out of eighteen English translations of Dan 1:3 call Ashpenaz a “chief eunuch” (or similar wording), while the NASB (1960) reads “chief of his officials” with the footnote “Or: eunuchs,” and a LB (1976) footnote also reads “Literally, ‘his chief eunuch.’”  Five avoid the term “eunuch” entirely, preferring “chief of his court officials” (NIV 1978), “chief official” (GNB2 1983), “palace master” (NRSV 1989), “chief chamberlain” (NAB 1995), or “highest palace official” (CEV 1995).  However, many commentators hold that Ashpenaz was indeed a eunuch, including: Theodoret of Cyrus in Syria (ca. 450),87 Samuel Driver (1900),88 Carl Keil (1949),89 Arthur Jeffrey (1956),90 Robert Culver (1962),91 Kenneth Kitchen (1966),92 Edward Young (1970),93 Alan Millard (1979),94 David Burke (1982),95 James Coffman (1989),96 John Collins (1993),97 Earl Radmacher (1999),98 and David Bayliss (2008).99  If he followed in Assyrian tradition, this eunuch was not only head of the Nebuchadnezzar’s court eunuchs, but he was also minister of the royal palace (Keil).100  

A chief eunuch who is with Nebuchadnezzar II at Jerusalem’s destruction (Jer 39:3, 13).   In the ninth year of Zedekiah (the twentieth and final king of Judah, 596–586), “King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and all his army came [again] against Jerusalem and besieged it” and took it; and then “all the officials [sarim, H8269] of the king of Babylon came and sat in the middle gate: Nergal-sharezer, Samgar-nebo, Sarsechim the Rab-saris [rab-saris, H7249, ‘chief eunuch’], Nergal-sharezer the Rab-mag [rab mag, H7248], with all the rest of the officials [sarim] of the king . . .” (Jer 39:1, 3, NRSV).  Of eighteen English translations surveyed for Jer 39:3, six ignore rab-saris entirely (Moffatt 1922, JB 1968, LB 1976, GNB2 1983, CEV 1995, NAB 1995), five simply transliterate the Assyrian loanword as “Rab-saris” (KJV 1611, RSV 1952, NASB 1960, NKJV 1982, NRSV 1989), while only four translate the foreign term as “chief eunuch” or “chief of the eunuchs” (Lamsa [Aramaic] 1933, NEB 1970, Green 1986, REB 1989).    Zedekiah tried to flee but was captured, blinded and taken to Babylon (39:4–7).  The prophet Jeremiah, however, was handed over to Gedaliah, who had been appointed governor over the poor Israelites who remained behind (39:11–12, 14).  Charles Feinberg notes that Nergal-sharezer was Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law, who succeeded him under the name of Neriglissar; and the rab-saris was “head of the [royal] eunuchs . . .”  The Middle Gate probably divided the upper and lower parts of Jerusalem, and the purpose of the meeting here was probably to plan future military strategy or to establish their headquarters in the city.101  “Samgar-nebo” has not been documented as a name in Akkadian, although “Nergal-sharrezar” is mentioned in Babylonian documents as a governor of Sin-magir, a district north of Babylon.  Therefore, Donald Wiseman and others think that “nebo” should actually be considered as part of the name “Sarsechim,”102 the whole list then reading, as in the New English Bible (1970): “Nergalsarezer of Simmagir, Nebusarekim the chief eunuch, Nergalsarezer the commander of the frontier troops . . .” (Jer 39:3).  Obviously, the spellings of Akkadian words became altered as the sounds were transposed over into Hebrew.  

The NEB (1970) translates rab-mag as “commander of the frontier troops” (Jer 39:3, 13) and the NIV (1978) more generally as “high official,” while the NJB (1985) reads “chief astrologer.”  Charles Feinberg points out that the Akkadian word meant literally “chief magi.”103  The Magi (Greek magos, plural magoi) in Matt 2:1 pointed to ‘sorcerers, magicians, or wisemen’ (Strong, G3097, cf. also G3096); and Daniel speaks of such a category serving the Babylonian king, including “magicians . . . enchanters . . . sorcerers, and . . . Chaldeans” (Dan 2:2, NRSV), the last class group (who practiced sorcery and witchcraft) acting as spokespersons for the whole group (Dan 2:10, 3:8).104  Wilson has suggested that the Magi in Matt 2:1 (NIV) “were probably eunuchs” and “quite possible, they were queens [gay men]” as well.105  However, whether the rab-mag in ancient Babylon was typically or ever a eunuch is unknown.  (At least, the “sages” in Xerxes’ Persian court apparently were not, cf. Est 1:13–14, NRSV.)  The most sensible reading here is that the rab-mag was Nebuchadnezzar’s chief “wise-man,” occultist, and reader-of-signs, while the rab-saris was “chief eunuch” over all of the eunuchs who served at the royal court. 

Early uses of saris/sarism in the OT (in the Joseph, Samuel, and David narratives)
In the Joseph story (Gen 37:36; 39:1; 40:2, 7).  After Joseph’s brothers sold him to slave-traders, they then “sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials [sarisim, NEB: ‘eunuchs’], the captain of the guard” (37:36, NRSV; cf. also 39:1).  Then later we read that Pharaoh threw “two officers [sarisim, NEB: ‘eunuchs’], the chief cupbearer [sar-shaqa, H8269, H8248] and the chief baker [sar-opheh, H8269, H644]” into prison (40:2, 7), where they and Joseph met.  The last two Hebrew titles read literally “chief of the cupbearers” (sar-hammasqim) and “chief of the bakers” (sar-ophehim).  Some Jewish rabbis held that Joseph himself was a eunuch, because he was “a very handsome young man” (Gen 39:6, LB), the kind of youth who was often made into a eunuch slave (Herodotus, Persian Wars 8.105);106 however, the fact that he later married and fathered two children (41:50) points to this not being the case.    Rabbis in Genesis Rabba (2.87.3) envisioned Joseph as a vain, self-promoting pretty boy whom Potiphar purchased to become his catamite, and so God punished Potiphar by turning him into a eunuch.107  While this has no real basis in the text, still it is a valid question to ask whether saris applied to Potiphar, the chief cupbearer, and the chief baker could mean that these were royal eunuch officials serving in Pharaoh’s court.

Egyptologist Gerald Kadish (1969) in his study on the subject concluded that “there is no clear evidence for the existence of eunuchs in ancient Egypt, that is to say, men who were deliberately castrated so they might be employed in circumstances in which fertile men would be deemed dangerous or inappropriate.”108  Frans Jonckheere (1954), a French physician, searched for eunuch physical ‘types’ in ancient Egyptian art and texts, but he found only ‘ambiguous’ evidence, according to Kadish.109  Still, hieroglyphs both for “male” (a symbol of a kneeling man, preceded by an erect phallus) and for “eunuch” (a kneeling man, without the preceding erect phallus) are found in Middle Kingdom pottery texts, showing that at least castrated men were known about in early Egypt.110  Still, Egypt often did not follow traditions that were widespread elsewhere in the ancient Near East, e.g., there were no intersex religious servants in Egypt as tied to the cult of Innana / Ishtar in Mesopotamia; and also Egyptian men (except for the kings and gods) were always depicted as clean-shaven, ignoring the admiration commonly held elsewhere for the beard and mustache as signs of masculinity and virility.111  As a result, there is no easy way (e.g., looking for beardless men) to identify eunuchs in Egyptian pictorial scenes, as in Assyrian and Persian art.  Elfriede Haslauer, in her article “Harem” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (2005), writes also that “there is no evidence for the presence of eunuchs in the royal harem or private household” in ancient Egypt.112  Yet, she notes that in the Middle Kingdom (1986–1759) and New Kingdom (1539–1069113), a male “tutor of the royal children” had access to the harem and “may also have been an overseer of the queen’s household.”  And under him in the harem served a male “deputy,” “scribes,” an “inspector of the harem,” and “doorkeepers” who guarded the women’s residence.  A scene from the temple of Akhenaten (ruled 1633–1525) shows the overseer of the king’s harem, inspectors of the harem, and guards (all with their offices identified in accompanying inscriptions), standing near the king and queen, royal children, and other ladies.114  Scholars usually place Joseph in the Hyksos period115 (1633–1539), during the Second Intermediate Period, when foreign ‘shepherd-kings’ invaded and ruled northern Egypt, although David Rohl (1995) in his ‘new chronology’ locates Joseph in the earlier 12th Dynasty, at the end of the Middle Kingdom, perhaps arriving in Egypt around 1683 BC.116  Still, one has to wonder with Haslauer’s descriptions of all these men working in the Egyptian royal harem, whether they were really all ‘normal’ (fertile) males.  

Although Egyptologists in general are skeptical that eunuchs played any significant role in Egypt, other scholars disagree.117  Kathryn Ringrose, one writer on eunuchs, holds that there “were certainly eunuchs in ancient Egypt.”118  Assyriologist Kirk Grayson believes that the use of eunuchs was so widespread in the ancient Near East that Potiphar must have been a eunuch; and if the ancient Egyptians did not employ eunuchs in important court positions, this would have made them almost unique in the ancient world.119  Sex historian Vern Bullough holds that Potiphar was probably all three: a “courtier,” an “official,” and a “eunuch”120 (cf. the translations of saris in the NAB, NRSV, NEB for Gen 39:1, respectively).  Cultural historian Piotr Scholz believes that hundreds of eunuchs served in the Egyptian court, as well as in Babylonia, Assyria and Persia.121  Even Gerald Kadish acknowledges that the three persons called saris in the Joseph story in Genesis (pharaoh’s captain of the palace guard, his chief cupbearer, and his chief baker) is most “odd” and probably “not fortuitous” (by chance),122 since the term then does not appear again until 1 Samuel.  Only three out of eighteen English translations for Gen 39:1, relating to Potiphar, translate saris as “eunuch” (NEB 1970, Green 1986, Van der Pool [Septuagint] 2006).  Still, it is interesting that the very early (third century BC) Septuagint translation of Genesis into Greek understood saris to mean “eunuch” (eunouchos, G2135); and Jerome’s Latin translation (around 400 AD) saw this meaning here as well (eunuchus).123  Some rabbis even suggested that Potiphar was “chief of the eunuchs,” third in rank among the officers of the Pharaoh; and so Potiphar and his wife must have had other eunuchs who worked in their household.124  More significant, when one looks at the Joseph story again more closely, one has to wonder why the author did not utilize the Hebrew word ‘ebed (“servant” of the king), as is used elsewhere in this narrative (Gen 40:20; 41:10, 37; 45:16).  Also, we read that Potiphar was “captain [sar, or ‘officer’] of the guard” (Gen 37:36; 39:1; 40:3, 4; 41:20, 12, NRSV).  So why then even add that Potiphar was also a saris, if this word simply meant the same thing (“officer”)?  Gen 37:36 and 39:1 recall the Assyrian seal inscriptions which refer to individuals as ‘saris [a eunuch] of the king,’ and then add the person’s job title.  In spite of a lack of evidence from ancient Egyptian records, it is difficult not to conclude from Biblical evidence that Potiphar and the chief cupbearer and the chief baker were all actual eunuchs serving the pharaoh.  

In Samuel’s prophecy (The United Kingdom, 1 Sam 8:15).  When Samuel grew old, the elders of Israel came to him and asked him to “appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Sam 8:4–5, NRSV).  This displeased Samuel, but the Lord told him to do so anyway, because the people had rejected not the prophet but the Lord himself “from being king over them” (v. 7).  Yet, Samuel warned the people that a human king would force many of their sons and daughters into his service, confiscate their fields, and take from their harvest “and give it to his officers [sarisim] and his courtiers [‘ebedim, H5650] (1 Sam 8:15, NRSV).    Now only six English translations render sarisim here as “eunuchs” (JB 1968, NEB 1970, Green 1986, REB 1989, NAB 1995, Van der Pool [Septuagint] 2006).  The Israelites’ desire to copy foreign nations and their pagan customs was clearly a sign of apostasy125 and a lack of trust in God.  Whether Saul looked ahead to a time when Israel’s rulers would take over the foreign practice of using “eunuchs” as royal servants is not entirely clear from the passage.    However, relating to ‘ebed (H5650, Brown-Driver-Briggs: “slave, servant, chief, officer of the king,”126), this word is usually rendered as “servant” in the NRSV; and in 1 Sam it is applied regularly to all those around King Saul who advised him (1 Sam 16:15-17), who carried out his wishes (18:22-23, 28:7-8), or who served as a “chief” over something (21:7).  Since ‘ebed conveys the same meaning as saris (if the latter simply meant “officer”), it would seem unnecessary to introduce the second word here.  Interestingly, the passage does not say that Israel’s future kings will take Israelites and make them sarisim (eunuchs), which never seems to have happened.  Yet, Tadmor asks, could serisim here have been intended to refer to eunuchs who would attend the court?127 

In David’s court (The United Kingdom, 1 Chron 28:1).  Later, King David “assembled together all the officials [sarim, H8269] of Israel, the officials [sarim] of the tribes, the officers [sarim] of the divisions that served the king, the commanders [sarim] of the thousands, the commanders [sarim] of the hundreds, the stewards [sarim] of all the [royal] property . . . with the palace officials [sarisim, H5631] . . . and all the warriors [gibborim, H1368],” to tell them that Yahweh had told him that he had chosen Solomon, his successor, to build a house for the Lord (1 Chron 28:1-6, NRSV).  Five English translations render sarisim here as “eunuchs” (JB 1968, NEB 1970, Green 1986, REB 1989, Van der Pool [Septuagint] 2006).  The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon notes that sar can convey a wide range of meanings (as seen in the above translation), including: ‘chief, official, captain, leader, commander, general, head, overseer,’ etc.128  Again, there would be no need here to use both sar and saris, if the latter simply meant “officer” rather than “eunuch.”129  At least Henry Gehman believes that sarisim means “eunuchs” here in 28:1.130  Yet the question remains, how would David have been persuaded to add eunuch servants?  He had only minimal international contact with Tyre (2 Sam 5:11, 24:4–7) and apparently none with Mesopotamian nations.  Samuel’s prophecy, which directly preceded the anointing of Saul, beginning the (united) kingdom of Israel, might be dated around 1047 BC; and David’s statement relating to the Lord’s promise that Solomon would build the Temple was probably given fairly early in his reign (2 Sam 7:1–13), perhaps around 995 BC.  David’s main achievement was to take a small, disunited people and expand them into a considerable empire.131  One argument that can be made for David’s employing eunuchs, however, relates to his accumulating a growing harem of women and children (2 Sam 3:2–5, 5:13–16), perhaps twenty female companions or more.132  Yet, we face an early date here and also the international “Dark Age” (1100–900), when political and social changes destabilized the ancient Near East.133  Moreover, David seemed to have used only a limited number of court servants (2 Sam 8:15–18, 20:23–26).  Still, one or more of his foreign wives (most of whose names and countries of origin are not given in the Biblical text, cf. 2 Sam 3:2–5, 5:13–14) might have brought along eunuch servants.  David conquered Aram (Syria) with the city of Damascus (2 Sam 8:5–6), located to the north, about one hundred miles east of Tyre and Sidon, and on trade routes to and from the east.134  Since David appears to have frequently married for political reasons, there is also the possibility that he may have cemented his alliance with King Toi of Hamath (2 Sam 8:9–10), an important royal Hittite city located 125 miles further north of Damascus, by taking a princess from there as a wife, although she would be one of David’s unnamed partners in the Bible.  There is certainly a good possibility for the appearance of eunuchs in 28:1, brought in to serve as harem servants.  

Solomon’s harem (The United Kingdom).  A question, finally, must be raised about the harem of Solomon (968–928), David’s successor, who was more internationally-engaged than his father, expanding trade with Tyre (1 Kings 5:10–12) and increasing profits from the north-south trade routes that ran through Israel.135  His greatest failing, of course, was marrying a endless number of foreign wives.  In fact, the Bible records that he acquired seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, many of whom brought their foreign gods and practices with them, so that they “turned away his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11:1–4).  One cannot help but wonder how such a large harem was organized and managed, and also whether many of his foreign wives did not bring along eunuch servants with them, especially those wives who came from places like Sidon and Hatti (1 Kings 11:1).  Indeed, very likely there were eunuchs (from the north) who served in the harems of both David and Solomon. 

Hunting for Jewish Castrates during the Exile

Online photos of archaeological works:

Black Obelisk, of Shalmaneser III, ca. 825 B.C., from Nineveh (now at the British Museum),, then click on to enlarge: “Shalmanesser Iii . . . Jehu doing homage . . . [and] deputation sent by Jehu . . .” accessed May 3, 2008.  These are the first and third scenes of four which continue around the monument.  In the first scene eunuchs to the left hold the royal bow and a parasol, while eunuchs to the right hold a fly-wisk and towel, and the royal scepter (?).  The king holds a ceremonial bowl, as Jehu the king of Israel bows prostrate before him.

FOOTNOTES:    1. Schneider, p. 766; Tadmor 1995, p. 318, n. 7.   2. Brown-Driver-Briggs, H5631, p. 710; Burke, p. 201; Collins, p. 134; Patterson 1980, p. 635; Sheriffs, p. 485; Grayson, p. 90; Radner, online p. 3.    3. Collins, p. 134.    4. Burke, p. 201; CAD, 14, p. 292.    5. Tadmor 1995, p. 317.   6. Brown-Driver-Briggs, H5631, p. 710.    7. North, p. 87.    8. CAD, 14, pp. 292–296.    9. Deller, p. 304.    10. Grayson, pp. 93, 91.   11. Meek, in Pritchard, pp. 180-181; Nissinen, pp. 25; 145, n. 26.    12. Grayson, pp. 91-92.    13. Ibid., p. 92.    14. CAD, 14, pp. 294, 292.    15. Grayson, p. 92.    16. Tadmor 1995, p. 318, n. 6; CAD, 14, p. 294.    17. Grayson, p. 92; Tadmor 1995, pp. 317–318, and n. 1.    18. Cf. Barnett, plates 8, 35, 134, 172; and Reade, passim.    19. Cf. Strommenger, pl. LXII.    20. Grayson, pp. 94–95.    21. In Deller, pp. 309–10.    22. Ibid., p. 306.    23. Ibid., p. 304.    24. Wead, “Ethiopian Eunuch,” p. 197.    25. Tadmor 1983, pp. 279–82.    26. Random House Dictionary, “gay.”    27. Speirs, p. 362.    28. New Oxford American Dictionary, “gay.”    29. Tadmor 1995, pp. 322–23.    30. Grayson, p. 85.    31. Ringrose, p. 495.    32. Bullough 2002, p. 5.    33. Roller, p. 131, n. 2.    34. Tadmor 1995, p. 318.    35. Ibid., pp. 319–23.    36. Ibid., p. 324.    37. Ibid.    38. Johnston, “Jezebel,” p. 1057.    39. Mosiman and Seale, pp. 75–76.    40. Johnston, “Jezebel,” p. 1058.    41. Wolf, p. 179; Taylor and Snaith, p. 276; Patterson and Austel, p. 207; Radmacher, p. 473.    42. Van De Mieroop, pp. 147–49.    43. Deller, pp. 309–10.    44. Greenberg, p. 121, n. 172.    45. Van De Mieroop, p. 207.    46. Deller, p. 310.    47. Tadmor 1995, p. 324; cf. Van De Mieroop, pp. 230, 295.    48. Penzer, p. 135; Scholz, p. 70.    49. Tadmor 1995, p. 319.    50. Cf. Soderlund, pp. 985–86.    51. Schultz, “Jehoiakim, 1,” p. 977.    52. Blenkinsopp 2000, pp. 487–88.    53. Cf. Crichton, p. 422.    54. Roberts, “Johanan, 1” p. 1080.    55. Tadmor 1995, pp. 319–320.    56. Not to be confused with Jehoram, the king of Judah with the same name, who ruled at the same time, cf. 2 Kings 8:16.    57. Tadmor 1995, p. 320.    58. Ibid.    59. Ibid.    60. Gehman, p. 282.    61. Wiseman, “Assyria,” p. 334.    62. Cf. King and Stager, p. 262.    63. Prewitt, p. 876.    64. Patterson and Austel, pp. 286–287.    65. Young, Fred, “First and Second Samuel,” p. 277; Youngblood, “1, 2 Samuel,” p. 585.    66. Van der Pool, 2 Kings 23:11.    67. Wead, “Ethiopian Eunuch,” p. 197.    68. Pratt, “Zedekiah, 2” p. 1186.    69. Radmacher, p. 928.   70. Grogan, “Jeremiah,” p. 598.    71. Youngblood, “Ethiopia,” p. 193.    72. Wead, “Ethiopian Eunuch,” p. 197; cf. also footnote for Jer 38:7 in the NRSV.    73. Penzer, pp. 43–47.    74. Radmacher, p. 933.    75. Grogan, “Jeremiah,” p. 616.    76. Gehman, p. 282.    77. Taylor and Snaith, p. 276.    78. Pfeiffer, “Israel, History of the People of,” p. 917; Patterson and Austel, p. 256.    79. Ibid., p. 259, n. 17.    80. Tadmor 1995, p. 320, n. 14.    81. Deller, p. 308.    82. Grayson, p. 93.    83. Ibid., pp. 93–94, n. 49.    84. Patterson and Austel, p. 259, n. 17.    85. Cf. Reade, p. 37; pl. 73.    86. Cf. Collins, p. 140; Tadmor 1995, p. 322; Brown-Driver-Briggs, H5631, p. 710; Burke, p. 201.    87. Theodoret of Cyrus, p. 23.    88. Driver, Book of Daniel, p. 4.    89. Keil, p. 73.    90. Jeffrey, p. 364.    91. Culver, p. 773.    92. In Pentecost, p. 1330.    93. Young, E., “Daniel,” p. 690.    94. Millard, p. 907.    95. Burke, p. 201.    96. Coffman, p. 19.    97. Collins, p. 134.    98. Radmacher, pp. 1008–1009.    99. Bayliss, online p. 5.    100. Keil, p. 74.    101. Feinberg, “Jeremiah,” p. 621.    102. Wiseman, “Samgar-nebo,” p. 308.    103. Feinberg, “Jeremiah,” p. 621.    104. Archer, pp. 39–40; Aune, p. 214; Lee, “Enchant; Enchanter; Enchantment,” p. 78.    105. N. Wilson, p. 131.    106. G. Taylor, p. 36.    107. Abusch, p. 108.    108. Kadish, p. 61.    109. Jonckheere, passim; Kadish, pp. 57–59.    110. Sethe, Kurt, 1926; in Malik, online p. 1; Kadish, p. 61.    111. Cf. Billard—kings wearing false beards: pp. 74, 82, 116, 183, 197, 225; gods depicted with beards: pp. 164–65, 182; ordinary, clean-shaven men: pp. 36–37, 56–57, 60–63, 103, 189, etc.; and cf. Scholz, p. 75.    112. Haslauer, online p. 1.   113. Following conventional British dating here, cf. Rohl, pp. 15, 20.    114. Haslauer, online pp. 5–6.    115. Kitchen, “Joseph,” p. 1130.    116. Rohl, pp. 17, 20, 339.    117. Grayson, p. 89, n. 23.    118. Ringrose, p. 499.    119. Grayson, p. 89, n. 23.    120. Bullough, p. 5.    121. Scholz, p. 74.    122. Kadish, p. 56.    123. Ibid., p. 55.    124. Ginzberg 2001, p. 212.    125. Payne, “1 and 2 Samuel,” p. 290.   126. Brown-Driver-Briggs, H5650, p. 713.    127. Tadmor 1995, p. 320.    128. Brown-Driver-Briggs, H8269, p. 978.    129. Ibid., H5631, p. 710.    130. Gehman, p. 282.    131. Payne, “David,” p. 876.   132. Gerig, online pp. 3–6.   133. Van De Mieroop, p. 189   134. Cf. Payne, “David,” pp. 876, 874.    135. Payne, “Solomon,” p. 567.   


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Archer, Gleason L., Jr.   “Daniel.”   In Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 7, pp. 1–157.   Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985.

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Aune, David E.   “Magic; Magician.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 3, pp. 213–219.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.  

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Brown, Francis, with Samuel R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs.   The Brown–Driver–Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB).   Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, (1906) coded with the numbering from Strong’s Concordance, (1894) 2001. 

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.  

Coffman, James B.   Commentary on Daniel.   Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1989.

Collins, John J.   Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia).   Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.

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Culver, Robert D.   “Daniel,”   In Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, eds., Wycliffe Bible Commentary, pp. 769–800.   Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.

Deller, Karlheinz.   “The Assyrian Eunuch and Their Predecessors.”   In Kazuko Watanabe, ed., Priests and Officials in the Ancient Near East, pp. 303–311.   Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1999. 

Driver, Samuel R.   Book of Daniel.   Cambridge: University Press, 1900, repr. 1905.

Feinberg, Charles L.   “Jeremiah.”   In Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 6, pp. 353–691.   Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.

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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. 

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Grogan, Geoffrey W.   “Jeremiah.”   In Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 6, pp. 355–691.   Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986.

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Herodotus.   Persian Wars (Historiae).   Trans. George Rawlinson.   In Francis R. B. Godolphin, ed., The Greek Historians, 1, pp. 3–563.   New York: Random House, 1942. 

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Johnston, Eleanor B.   “Jezebel.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2, pp. 1057–1059.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

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Lee, Gary A.   “Enchant; Enchanter; Enchantment.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2, p. 78.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

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Taylor, Gary.   Castration.   New York and London: Routledge, 2000.

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. 

Theodoret of Cyrus.   Commentary on Daniel.   Trans. Robert C. Hill.   Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2006. 

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

Van der Pool, Charles, trans.  The Apostolic Bible: Polyglot.   With OT (Septuagint) and NT Greek text and English translation.   Newport, OR: Apostolic Press, (1996) 2006.  

Wead, David W.   “Ethiopian Eunuch.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2, p. 197.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

Wilson, Nancy.  Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible.   San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

Wiseman, Donald J.   “Assyria.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1, pp. 332–341.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

________.   “Samgar-nebo.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4, p. 308.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988.

Wolf, C. U.   “Eunuch.”   In George Arthur Buttrick, ed., Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 2, pp. 179–180.   Nashvile: Abingdon, 1962.

Young, Edward J.   “Daniel.”   In Donald Guthrie and J. A. Motyer, eds., New Bible Commentary: Revised, pp. 688–702.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, (1953, 1954) 1970.

Young, Fred E.   “First and Second Samuel.”   In Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, eds., Wycliff Bible Commentary, pp. 273–305.   Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.

Youngblood, Ronald F.   “1, 2 Samuel.”   In Frank Gaebelein, ed., Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 3, pp. 551–1104.   Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.

________.   “Ethiopia.”   In Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 2, pp. 193–197.   Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

TRANSLATIONS:   Contemporary English Version, 1995.   Good News Bible, 1983.   Jerusalem Bible, 1966.   King James Version, 1611.   Lamsa, George: Holy Bible . . . from the Aramaic of the Peshitta, 1933.  Living Bible, 1976.   Moffatt, James: Holy Bible, 1922.   New American Bible, 1995.   New American Standard Bible, 1960.  New English Bible, 1970.  New International Version, 1978.   New Jerusalem Bible, 1998.   New King James Version, 1982.   New Revised Standard Version, 1989.   Revised English Bible, 1989.   Revised Standard Version, 1946.  


© Bruce L. Gerig 2010

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