What Is a Eunuch in the Bible?


The Bible mentions eunuchs over 20 times in the Old and New Testaments. A eunuch plays an important role in passages in Esther, Acts, and one of Jesus’ teachings about marriage. While eunuchs were common in some cultures in the ancient world, people are less familiar with them today. This fact leads Bible readers to wonder what eunuchs were.

A eunuch in the Bible is a castrated male. Eunuchs had a reputation for being trustworthy, so they often had roles that placed them in royal courts, including in the harems of dignitaries. Jesus also referred to eunuchs metaphorically when he taught that God calls some to singleness.

What do the Hebrew and Greek words translated as “eunuch” literally mean? What restrictions did eunuchs have in ancient Israel? What hope did the prophet Isaiah give to eunuchs? Why did Jesus refer to them? In what story in Acts does a eunuch play a role? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Holy Bible
Why couldn’t eunuchs participate in worship in Israel? See below

Eunuchs in the Old Testament

The Hebrew word translated as “eunuch,” meaning a castrated male, can also be rendered as the title of a court official. The reason is that many court officials were eunuchs.

For example, in Isaiah 56:4, all major Bible translations render the Hebrew word saris (סָרִיס) as “eunuchs.” However, in Genesis 37:36 and 39:1, the same word is translated as an “officer” (ESV, KJV, NASB) or “official” (NIV, NLT) in Pharaoh’s court.

Most references to literal eunuchs (see below for a metaphorical example) refer to Gentiles because Israel didn’t practice castration.

For instance, the references above to Genesis 37:6 and 39:1 refer to court officials in Egypt. Furthermore, Esther contains multiple references to eunuchs, yet the story takes place outside of Israel in Susa (see Est. 2:3, 6, 15).

The Law restricted eunuchs in ancient Israel

The Old Testament restricted eunuchs from serving as priests. Leviticus 21:20 includes a list of unqualified men, including “a hunchback or a dwarf or a man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles” (ESV).

Physical characteristics that disqualified a man from performing certain functions in worship weren’t inherently sinful.

Leviticus scholar Mark Rooker explains, “God’s perfection demanded the highest degree of perfection possible among those who minister and among the offerings presented to him. This demand for perfection of both the priest and the offering was ultimately and uniquely fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.” [1]

Additionally, castrated men couldn’t be official members of the congregation of Israel. Deuteronomy 23:1 reads, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”

Some Deuteronomy scholars don’t believe this restriction applies to those with deformity from birth but non-Israelites who once served other gods in other cultures. [2]

One Deuteronomy scholar writes, “Their exclusion from the worship assembly, as discriminatory as such a policy might seem, was to underscore the principle of separation from paganism, where such deformities were not only acceptable but frequently central to the practice of the cult.” [3]

God’s eternal promises extended to eunuchs

When describing the era of the forthcoming Messiah, Isaiah gives hope to eunuchs who the Law excluded from certain aspects of community life. The passage implies that despite their restrictions, eunuchs could obey God, keep the Sabbath, and receive an eternal reward.

Isaiah 56:3a-5 reads, “Let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off'” (ESV).

Bible study
What did Jesus say about eunuchs? See below

Eunuchs in the New Testament teachings of Jesus

The only time Jesus referred to eunuchs was when he described being single. The first two examples he mentioned are literal eunuchs who are not so by choice. His third reference to eunuchs is by choice and is a metaphor for being unmarried.

Jesus says, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matt. 19:12, ESV).

The Greek word translated as “eunuch” is eunouchos (εὐνοῦχος). It literally means “alone in bed,” but generally refers to an unmarried man. When used figuratively, as Jesus does in this passage, the word doesn’t refer to a castrated man but a single one committed to not having sex.

Paul writes of the same principle in 1 Corinthians 7:32-34a, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (ESV).

What is a eunuch?
What eunuch decided to follow Jesus Christ? See below

The Ethiopian Eunuch in the Book of Acts

In Acts 8:26-40, Luke tells the story of an Ethiopian eunuch who decided to follow Jesus Christ after Philip helped him understand the book of Isaiah. The man being a eunuch isn’t central to the story, but the fact helps readers understand his background and role as a court official in Egypt.

Luke writes, “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure” (Acts 8:26-27a).

Philip told the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus, and he was then baptized (Acts 8:35-38).

References:
[1] Leviticus by Mark F. Rooker. New American Bible commentary. p. 276.
[2] Deuteronomy by Peter C. Craigie. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. p. 296-297.
[3] Deuteronomy by Eugene Merrill. NAC. p. 307.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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