6. Biblical Eunuchs

The three types of Eunuchs (according to Jesus)

You might wonder why I have a chapter on eunuchs. Sure, they're mentioned here and there in the Bible, but what do they have to do with homosexuality?

The word "eunuch" occurs 27 times in 23 verses in the King James Version of Bible.1 And although the meaning of the word isn't always clear, it generally refers to a castrated male, or a man who, for one reason or another, is not attracted to women.2 Fortunately for us, Jesus was an expert on eunuchs. Here's what he had to say about them:

There are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. Matthew 19:12

So according to Jesus, there are three types of eunuchs: those who are born eunuchs, those who are forced to become eunuchs, and those who choose to be eunuchs.

This verse suggests that Jesus was in favor of eunuchs, however they are produced. But he was especially fond of eunuchs of the third kind: those who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He seems to have been a proud member of that category.

Jesus's second type of eunuch likely refers to castrated males, those who have been "made eunuchs of men." But what did Jesus mean by the first kind -- those who were born eunuchs? Are they, as John J. McNeill suggest in The Church and the Homosexual, "the closest description we have in the Bible of what we understand today as homosexual"?3 If so, then Jesus clearly believed that some people are born gay, and he was completely okay with that.

Elsewhere in the Bible, however, Yahweh seems a bit confused about eunuchs. He condemns them in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, saying that men without fully functional genitalia must be excluded from all types of religious activity.

He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD. Deuteronomy 23:1

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying ... Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, ... or hath his stones broken. Leviticus 21:16-20

And yet he seems to favor them (more or less) everywhere else in the Bible, as shown in the following stories.


Eunuchs on Jehu's side

In the book of Second Kings, God sent Jehu on a mission to kill every wall-pisser in King Ahab's family.4 One of those on his hit list was Ahab's wife, Jezebel (even though she probably never pissed against a wall).

After killing Ahab's son, Jehoram,5 Jehu rode his chariot over to Jezebel's house. When Jezebel heard Jehu was coming, she put on her makeup and sat by the window. Jehu poked his head in the window and said to Jezebel's eunuchs, "Who is on my side?"

And he lifted up his face to the window, and said, Who is on my side? who? And there looked out to him two or three eunuchs. 2 Kings 9:32

And then Jehu said, "Throw her down." So the eunuchs threw her out the window, where she was trampled by horses, her blood splattering everywhere.

Throw her down. So they threw her down: and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses: and he trode her under foot. 9:33

Image result for 2 Kings 9:33 eunuchs

According to Nancy Wilson, the eunuchs are heros since they "throw the wicked Queen Jezebel out of the window to her death! They act as agents of God and the prophet Elijah."6


Nehemiah, the king's cupbearer

I [Nehemiah] was the king's cupbearer. Nehemiah 1:11

That's about all there is to it. But it's enough, since, as Michael Piazza in his essay "Nehemiah as Queer Model for Servant Leadership" explains: Nehemiah was cupbearer; cupbearers were homosexual eunuchs; Nehemiah was chosen by God to rebuild Jerusalem. God only chooses those that he approves. Therefore, God approves of homosexuality.

Usually royal households used homosexual eunuchs in order to ensure the safety of the queen and royal daughters from rape. It is quite likely that what we have in the story of Nehemiah is historical evidence that God called a man sexually attracted to other men, or at least a sexual outcast. God was calling a member of the queer community to lead the rebuilding of the city of God and rebuild the people of God.7

God will give eunuchs an everlasting name

There can be no doubt about this one, though. God prefers eunuchs to everyone else, and will give them a better place and an everlasting name. Eunuchs should be proud of being eunuchs, fight for eunuch rights, and march in eunuch pride parades.

Neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree. For thus saith the LORD unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off. Isaiah 56:3-5
John J. McNeill says that Isaiah's reference to eunuchs in this passage is actually a prophecy about homosexuals.8 They will be welcomed into the church and given an honored place therein, when the church finally understands the true meaning of scripture.

Jeremiah is saved by an Ethiopian eunuch

Ebedmelech, an Ethiopian eunuch, was a hero in the of the book of Jeremiah. He recruited thirty men to help him pull Jeremiah (he was a very big man) out of King Zedekiah's dungeon.

Now when Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs which was in the king's house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the dungeon ... Ebedmelech went forth out of the king's house, and spake to the king saying, My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have cast into the dungeon; and he is like to die for hunger in the place where he is: for there is no more bread in the city. Then the king commanded Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, saying, Take from hence thirty men with thee, and take up Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon, before he die. So Ebedmelech took the men with him, and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took thence old cast clouts and old rotten rags, and let them down by cords into the dungeon to Jeremiah. And Ebedmelech the Ethiopian said unto Jeremiah, Put now these old cast clouts and rotten rags under thine armholes under the cords. And Jeremiah did so. So they drew up Jeremiah with cords, and took him up out of the dungeon. Jeremiah 38:7-13

You might think that this is just another case of a eunuch saving the day. But there may be more to it than that. Here's how Nancy Wilson explains this passage's importance:

In some cases, these eunuchs actually go against their own bosses (and kings) and rescues the kings, queens, or spokespersons of God. One really important example of this is the Ethiopian eunuch in Jeremiah 38:7-13. At the risk of his own life, Ebed-melech, the Ethiopian, "a eunuch in king's house," rescues Jeremiah by pulling him out of a cistern. Jeremiah, the unmarried prophet, was being held there, waiting to be murdered by his own people. Ebed-melech becomes an agent of God in rescuing Jeremiah.9
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God brought Daniel into tender love with the prince of the eunuchs

During the Babylonian captivity, King Nebuchadnezzar asked the prince of the eunuchs to find a few "children in whom was no blemish ... to stand in the king's palace."

Nebuchadnezzar ... spake unto Ashpenaz the master of his eunuchs, that he should bring certain of the children of Israel ... in whom there was no blemish ... to stand in the king's palace. Daniel 1:1-4

Daniel was one of these unblemished children.

Now among these were ... Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Daniel 1:6

And the prince of the eunuchs fell into tender love with Daniel -- whatever that might mean.

Now God had brought Daniel into favour and tender love with the prince of the eunuchs. Daniel 1:9

But it might mean, I suppose, that Daniel was a eunuch himself. Or perhaps even more than that. Perhaps it was, as Keith Sharpe suggests in The Gay Gospels, just "another example of a eunuch apparently enjoying a sexual relationship with another male."10


Another Ethiopian eunuch

In the Book of Acts, the angel of the Lord spoke directly to Philip, telling him to go on a journey to Gaza. So Philip left for Gaza. On the way, he came across an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading Isaiah in his chariot.11

The angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward ... Gaza. And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority ... was ... sitting in his chariot reading Esaias [Isaiah]. Acts 8:26-28

The spirit told Philip to go talk to the guy in the chariot.

Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot. 8:29

The eunuch asked Philip about the passage from Isaiah that he was reading, and, after Philip explained it to him, asked to be baptized.

And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? 8:36

Philip said that if he believed, he could be baptized. The eunuch said he believed, so he baptized him.

And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him. 8:37-38

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So neither Philip nor God had any problem with the Ethiopian eunuch. He wasn't asked to renounce his eunuchness before being baptized. He was accepted just the way he was.

And, according to Jeff Miner and John Connoley there may have been more to it than that, as they explain in their book The Children Are Free, When the Ethiopian introduced himself to Philip as a eunuch, Philip would have immediately known he was dealing with a man who was part of a class commonly associated with homosexual desire.12

In any case, Philip went ahead and baptized him. And that's a big deal, at least to the folks at WoudJesusDiscriminate.com, who say:

The implications of this story are profound for gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. ... For if there were some authentic scriptural basis for excluding the Ethiopian eunuch because of the real possibility he was homosexual, we can be sure that Philip, a man who followed God even when God led him into the wilderness, would have been quick to pursue it.13

Blessed is the eunuch

The apocryphal book of Wisdom says that eunuchs are more acceptable to God's mind than non-eunuchs. They are especially blessed with the special gift of faith.

And blessed is the eunuch, which with his hands hath wrought no iniquity, nor imagined wicked things against God: for unto him shall be given the special gift of faith, and an inheritance in the temple of the Lord more acceptable to his mind. Wisdom 3:14

Okay, that's it. These all the Bible says about eunuchs. (There are five other passages that mention eunuchs, but they don't add much to the discussion and aren't used in the homosexuality debate.)14

Still, it is a bit confusing, isn't it? Eunuchs are excluded from religious ceremonies in Deuteronomy 23:1 and Leviticus 21:16-20, yet elsewhere in the Bible they seem to be viewed (more or less) favorably. They're not abominations. No one is commanded to stone them to death. They are neither condemned to hell nor excluded from heaven. Indeed, God seems to prefer them to non-eunuchs, at least most of the time; and Jesus encourages his followers to become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake.

So what can we make of all this? Does the Bible approve of eunuchs? And what is the relationship between the biblical concept of eunuch and the modern one of homosexuality?

Well, I'm not sure, but maybe Paul can help. He seemed to be a eunuch himself of one kind or another. But what was the "thorn" that troubled him so much? And what did he have to say about homosexuality? These questions are discussed in the next chapter.


Notes

  1. For a list of all the eunuchs in the Bible see Nancy Wilson, Outing the Bible, 163-7.

  2. See the article on eunuchs in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 205-6.

  3. John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, 65.

  4. "Thus saith the LORD God ... thou shalt smite the house of Ahab thy master ... For the whole house of Ahab shall perish: and I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall." 2 Kings 9:6-8.

  5. God's 107th killing: Jehoram of Israel in Drunk With Blood: God's Killings in the Bible, 191-193.

  6. Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe, 282.

  7. Michael S. Piazza, "Nehemiah as a Queer Model for Servant Leadership" in Take Back The Word, 118.

  8. John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual, 64.

  9. Nancy Wilson, Outing the Bible, 89.

  10. Keith Sharpe, The Gay Gospels, 164.

  11. Much is made of the fact that the Ethiopian was reading from the book of Isaiah. Here, for example, is what Nancy Wilson says about it: "It is not incidental that Luke quotes this passage of Isaiah or that the eunuch wanted to understand it. ... The Ethiopian eunuch was reading a prophecy of a Messiah with whom he could identify!" (Emphasis in original.) Outing the Bible, 93-94.

  12. Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley, The Children Are Free, 42

  13. The early church welcomed a gay man: Would Jesus Discriminate?

  14. Well, there are a few other verses in the Bible that mentions eunuchs, but they seem to do so in a (more or less) neutral way.

    "Isaiah said unto Hezekiah, Hear the word of the LORD ... thy sons ... shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. Then said Hezekiah unto Isaiah, Good is the word of the LORD which thou hast spoken." 2 Kings 20:16-19, Isaiah 39:5-8

    "(After that Jeconiah the king, and the queen, and the eunuchs, the princes of Judah and Jerusalem, and the carpenters, and the smiths, were departed from Jerusalem;)" Jeremiah 29:2

    "The princes of Judah, and the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, and the priests, and all the people of the land, which passed between the parts of the calf." Jeremiah 34:19

    "Then took Johanan the son of Kareah, and all the captains of the forces that were with him, all the remnant of the people whom he had recovered from Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, from Mizpah, after that he had slain Gedaliah the son of Ahikam, even mighty men of war, and the women, and the children, and the eunuchs, whom he had brought again from Gibeon." Jeremiah 41:16

    "He took also out of the city an eunuch, which had the charge of the men of war; and seven men of them that were near the king's person, which were found in the city; and the principal scribe of the host, who mustered the people of the land; and threescore men of the people of the land, that were found in the midst of the city. So Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took them, and brought them to the king of Babylon to Riblah. And the king of Babylon smote them, and put them to death in Riblah in the land of Hamath. Thus Judah was carried away captive out of his own land." Jeremiah 52:25-27