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Eunuch

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Eunuch

    A castrated male. The Hebrew word sārîs is derived from an Akkadian phrase, ša rēši, literally, “(the one) of the head,” meaning a royal attendant or official. Context largely determines whether the Hebrew should be translated “eunuch” or simply “official.”

    In early biblical writings, eunuchs appear as members of the royal court with no mention of their physical condition. The first references occur in texts coincident with the Davidic monarchy of the tenth century BCE (e.g., Gen. 37.36; 39.1; 40.2, 7). References increase in the seventh‐century Deuteronomic history (e.g., 1 Sam. 8.15; 1 Kings 22.9; 2 Kings 8.6; 9.32; 23.11) and are most frequent in literature of the sixth century BCE and later (e.g., Jer. 29.2; 34.19; 38.7; 41.16), especially in narratives depicting the Babylonian and Persian courts (Dan. 1; Esther). This distribution does not support the view that the use of eunuchs was a custom imported into Israel from neighboring cultures. The inclusion of eunuchs among the royal entourage (e.g., 2 Kings 24.15, in which the context implies “eunuchs” rather than NRSV's “officials”) suggests that eunuchs were native to ancient Israel.

    Later writings are preoccupied with the physical condition of the eunuch. In Isaiah 56.5, the eunuch who fears oblivion because of his childlessness is reassured that the eschatological commonwealth holds for him a “monument and a name (yād wāšēm) better than sons and daughters.” In Sirach 30.20, the eunuch's inability to consummate his desire is a metaphor for an invalid's frustration in enjoying life (cf. 20.4).

    In the New Testament, the eunuch is a potent ascetic symbol. Matthew 19.12 recognizes that eunuchs come from differing circumstances, including those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” In Acts 8.27, Philip converts an Ethiopian court eunuch who is reading from the book of Isaiah; the passage may be an allusion to the eunuch of Isaiah 56.

    Gene McAfee

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