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Don C. Benjamin, PhD

Dean at Kino Institute of Theology
Eunuchs: physical or political?
In ordinary speech eunuchs are castrated males.  In the world of the Bible and in the Bible itself, eunuchs (Heb: saris) were trusted members of rulers’ inner circles of advisors.  In exchange for this position of trust, eunuchs have waived their right to challenge the rulers they serve and take over their authority.  They were a ruler’s defenders.  For example, in Persia the eunuchs who defended Xerxes and other officials who wanted to overthrow him feuded. Ultimately, the eunuchs lost, and Xerxes was assassinated in 465 B.C.E.[1] Most rulers tried to maintain a balance of power between these two groups.[2]

Eunuchs were a special group of administrators in Assyria. Originally, they were entrusted with protecting the harem, but as early as 2,000 B.C.E. they held various high offices, and during the Neo-Assyrian period (934-608 B.C.E.) eunuchs were an essential part of royal government.  In fact, a collective term in Akkadian for royal officers was eunuchs and bearded ones.[3]

Assyrian reliefs, frescoes and seals typically portray eunuchs surrounding the Great King without beards, and other royal advisors with beards.[4]  This artistic convention has led to the conclusion that eunuchs were castrated.[5]

Eunuchs were not castrated to prevent them from having intercourse with their rulers’ women in the harem.  They were entrusted with these diplomatic wives because they had sworn unconditional allegiance to their rulers, and would not compete with their rulers for the covenants their marriages to their women had ratified.

Since they did not seem to have direct contact with the harem, most likely the term eunuch (Heb sārı̂s) should not be taken literally. It would be better translated as royal official. Near Eastern traditions refer to various royal officials and military officers as eunuchs.[6] Assyrian art depicts eunuchs carrying the bow, arrows and spear of their rulers, holding umbrellas over the heads of their rulers and waving fly-whisks or fans to protect their rulers from insects. Eunuchs also accompany their rulers on lion hunts where they carry their rulers weapons, drive their chariots and dress their kills. Eunuchs are also depicted as musicians playing lyres and harps; as scribes writing letters for their rulers, recording plunder and prisoners from battle, drafting the annals of their rulers on the battlefield.

The Akkadian root for the word eunuch (Akkadian: saris) is not sar meaning ruler, but sa resi meaning he who is chief. Assyrian art depicts eunuchs leading or directing others to their royal audiences.  In the books of Samuel-Kings (1 Kgs 22:1-99) the saris is officer of the court who arrests and escorts defendants into the presence of a ruler. Likewise, in the book of Esther, seven eunuchs are sent to bring Vashti from her banquet to Xerxes. They may also have been sent to summon Haman to both of Esther’s banquets with Xerxes (Esth 5:5; 6:14). This access to rulers gave eunuchs significant authority.[7]

A Trial of Ahab

(1 Kgs 22:1-9)

 

But Jehoshaphat also said to the ruler of Israel, ‘Inquire first for the word of Yahweh.’

 

 6Then Ahab, the ruler of Israel, gathered the prophets together, about 400 of them, and said to them, ‘Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?’

 

The prophets answered: ‘Go up; for Yahweh will give Ramoth-gilead into the hand of the king.’

7But Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there no other prophet of Yahweh here of whom we may inquire?’

 

8Ahab of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘There is still one other by whom we may inquire of Yahweh, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.’

 

Jehoshaphat said, ‘Let the king not say such a thing.’

 

9Then Ahab of Israel summoned a saris official and said, ‘Bring quickly Micaiah son of Imlah.’

Eunuchs may also be charged to carry out the sentence if the defendant is found guilty. Again, in the book of Esther (Esth 7:9-10) when Harbona informs Xerxes that Haman is planning to assassinate Mordecai and Xerxes sentences Haman to death, eunuchs carry out the sentence.  

Eunuchs are often foreigners like Joseph at the court of pharaoh in Egypt (Gen 37-38) or the seven eunuchs in the court of Ahasuerus or Xerxes in Persia (Esth 1:10-11). Mehuman, along with Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar, all have non-Persian names. The order of the names in this list may imply their rank. They minister before the ruler (Heb hamĕšārĕtı̂m ˒et pĕnê hammelek) in matters dealing with outsiders.  The fact that there were seven eunuchs may be inspired by Persian creation stories, which described the divine assembly of Persia as having seven ministers. Thus the earthly court of Xerxes was set up to imitate Persia’s divine assembly.[8]

Likewise in the books of Samuel-Kings (2 Kgs 18:17), the Rab-Sakeh who serves the Great King of Assyria is no doubt a eunuch and a foreigner sent to negotiate with the people of Judah.  He speaks not only the diplomatic language of Aramaic, but Hebrew, the language of Judah.

In the book of Esther, Xerxes launches an empire-wide search for a new queen. Among the women brought to his palace after a year-long beauty treatment was Esther or Hadassah, daughter of Abihail, the niece and adopted daughter of Mordecai, a Jew. A beautiful and shapely maiden, Esther was not only the favorite of Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the harem, but was also the most popular candidate in the palace. Not surprisingly, Xerxes chose her as his queen.

Although geographically distant from Syria-Palestine, Cush (Sudan/Egypt) was known to the Hebrews not only because of its commercial activity during the time of Solomon (970-930 B.C.E.) and continued in subsequent centuries, but also because some Cushites visited Syria-Palestine or even settled there.

A Cushite was among the servants of David (2 Sam 18:21–32). Jeremiah was released from imprisonment through the advocacy of Ebed-Melech, a Cushite and a eunuch in the household of Zedekiah of Judah (Jer 38:7–13; 39:15–18).

Nathan-Melech (Heb nĕtan-melek) is a chamberlain under Josiah, king of Judah (2 Kgs 23:11). Josiah removed the horses dedicated to SÛamasû, the divine patron of the sun, which were near the chambers of Nathan-melech, as part of his reformation of worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.

Nathan-melech is a sārı̂s official or eunuch, but the term need not be understood in the physical sense. Though similar to the Arabic root sarisa, meaning to be impotent, the term is actually an Aramaic loanword of Akkadian origin (ša rēši), which means he who is at the head (of the king).

The exact status of a sārı̂s official is difficult to determine, for the term is given to officials of various standing in the court (Gen 37:36; 1 Kgs 22:9; 2 Kgs 18:17; 20:18; 25:19). The name Nathan-melek means the king has given. It is a theophoric name declaring that the child has been given (nathan) by a member of the divine assembly (melek). Technically, however, melek is not the name of a member of the divine assembly, but a title like king and may refer to Yahweh as king. Nonetheless, it is also possible that melek refers to Molech, a nick name for Milcom, the divine patron of Ammon (1 Kgs 11:7, 33; 2 Kgs 23:10; Jer 32:35; 49:1).

Nehemiah (Heb emĕyâ) was a leader of the Jewish community who returned to Judah with Zerubbabel shortly after 538 b.c.e. -- the end of the Babylonian exile.[9] The Bible describes Nehemiah as enjoying the honorable and privileged dignity of the cupbearer --a wine taster. In Babylon eunuchs were responsible for tasting their rulers’ food to be sure that it had not been poisoned.  Therefore, Nehemiah himself may have been a eunuch.  The similarity between the Greek words for cupbearer (Greek: oinochoos -- wine pourer; Hebrew: šāqāh -- to drink) and for eunuch – Greek: euno-echos) created this confusion in identifying the social status of Nehemiah (Esdras-B 11:11).[10]

Rabsaris (Heb rab-sārı̂s; Akk rab-ša-rēši) was a high-ranking Assyrian official. The word in Assyrian means literally chief eunuch. A rabsaris official and a rabshakeh official played major roles in the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, Great King of Assyria (2 Kgs 18:17).

Shaashgaz (Heb ša˓ašgaz ) is a eunuch in charge of one of the two harems of Xerxes (Esth 2:14). His specific office the keeper of the concubines (Hebrew: šômēr happı̂lagšı̂m), entailed the oversight of the harem of Xerxes’ existing wives; Hegai was responsible for the women auditioning to become his new queen (Esth 2:3).

The Septuagint confuses Shaashgaz and Hegai giving them both the name Gai (Esth 2:8-14). Shaashgaz is an incidental character in this story being mentioned only in the context of how Xerxes selected a new queen. Each prospective wife would leave Hegai’s harem and spend just one night with the king at which time she became a secondary wife and was sent to Shaashgaz’s harem — unless Xerxes made her queen in place of Vashti (Esth 2:13–14). Esther would have been sent to this second harem had she not been chosen as the new queen (Esth 2:16–18). [11]


Bibliography

Deller, Karlheinz. "The Assyrian Eunuchs and their Predecessors." In Priests and Officials in the Ancient Near East, 303-311. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C Winter, 1999.

Everhart, Janet S. "Hidden Eunuchs of the Hebrew Bible." Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers no. 41 (01/01, 2002): 137-155.

Grayson, Albert Kirk. "Eunuchs in Power : Their Role in the Assyrian Bureaucracy." In Vom Alten Orient Zum Alten Testament, 85-98. Neukirchen-Vluyn; Kevelaer, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag; Butzon & Bercker, 1995.

Kadish, Gerald E. "Eunuchs in Ancient Egypt." In Studies in Honor of John A Wilson, 55-62. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

Kim, Bok-Rae. "The Third Gender: Palace Eunuchs." In Children in Slavery through the Ages, 135-151. Athens: Ohio Univ Pr, 2009.

Kim, Jin Yang. "The Two Eunuchs in the LXX Version of the Book of Esther." Proceedings - Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 25, (01/01, 2005): 87-96.

McCarter, P. K. "Biblical Detective Work Identitifies the Eunuch." Biblical Archaeology Review 28, no. 2 (03/01, 2002): 46-48.

Parker, Tom. "Ebed-Melech as Exemplar." In Uprooting and Planting, 253-259. New York: T & T Clark, 2007.

Siddall, Luis Robert. "A Re-Examination of the Title Ša Reši in the Neo-Assyrian Period." In Gilgameš and the World of Assyria, 225-240. Leuven; Paris; Dudley, Mass: Peeters, 2007.

Spencer, F. S. "The Ethiopian Eunuch and His Bible : A Social-Science Analysis." Biblical Theology Bulletin 22, no. 4 (12/01, 1992): 155-165.

Tadmor, Hayim. "Was the Biblical Sārîs a Eunuch." In Solving Riddles and Untying Knots, 317-325. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 1995.

Yamauchi, Edwin M. "Was Nehemiah the Cupbearer a Eunuch." Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92, no. 1 (01/01, 1980): 132-142.

Brentjes, Burchard. "The History of Elam and Achaemenid Persia: An Overview." In Civilization of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson. Vol. 2, 1001-1021. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995.

Clines, David J. A. Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther Eerdmans, 1984.

Deller, Karlheinz. "The Assyrian Eunuchs and their Predecessors." In Priests and Officials in the Ancient Near East, 303-311. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C Winter, 1999.

Gerig, Bruce L. "Homosexuality in the Bible." 2011, http://epistle.us/hbarticles/eunuchs2.html.

Grayson, Albert Kirk. "Assyrian Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia." In Civilization of the Ancient Near East. Vol. 2, 959-968. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995.

———. "Eunuchs in Power : Their Role in the Assyrian Bureaucracy." In Vom Alten Orient Zum Alten Testament, 85-98. Neukirchen-Vluyn; Kevelaer, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag; Butzon & Bercker, 1995.

Moore, Carey A. Esther. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.

North, Robert. "Palestine, Administration of (Persian), Postexilic Judean Officials." In Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman. Vol. 5, 86-90. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Reade, Julian. Assyrian Sculpture. London: British Museum Pubns, 1983.

Wiebe, John M. "Mehuman." In Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4, 681-682. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Yamauchi, Edwin M. "Was Nehemiah the Cupbearer a Eunuch." Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92, no. 1 (01/01, 1980): 132-142.



[1] Burchard Brentjes, "The History of Elam and Achaemenid Persia: An Overview," in Civilization of the Ancient Near East, ed. Jack M. Sasson, Vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995), 1020.

[2] Karlheinz Deller, "The Assyrian Eunuchs and their Predecessors," in Priests and Officials in the Ancient Near East (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C Winter, 1999), 308.

[3] Albert Kirk Grayson, "Eunuchs in Power : Their Role in the Assyrian Bureaucracy," in Vom Alten Orient Zum Alten Testament (Neukirchen-Vluyn; Kevelaer, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag; Butzon & Bercker, 1995), 85-98.Albert Kirk Grayson, "Assyrian Rule of Conquered Territory in Ancient Western Asia," in Civilization of the Ancient Near East, Vol. 2 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1995), 964.

[4] Deller, The Assyrian Eunuchs and their Predecessors, 303 Julian Reade, Assyrian Sculpture (London: British Museum Pubns, 1983), 13-36.

[5] Bruce L. Gerig, "Homosexuality in the Bible," http://epistle.us/hbarticles/eunuchs2.html 2011).

[6] John M. Wiebe, "Mehuman," in Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4 (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 681-682.

[7] Reade, Assyrian Sculpture, 31

[8] Wiebe, Mehuman, 681-682

 

 

 

[9] Robert North, "Palestine, Administration of (Persian), Postexilic Judean Officials," in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Vol. 5 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 87.

[10] Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Was Nehemiah the Cupbearer a Eunuch," Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92, no. 1 (01/01, 1980), 132-142.

 

 

 

[11] The Stories of Esther in the Bible and the Stories of the Harem of Shekriya in 1001 Arabian Nights may well be parallel. Carey A. Moore, Esther (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), 23-24.David J. A. Clines, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther Eerdmans, 1984), 266.

 

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