The Exclusion and Inclusion of Eunuchs

I'd like your help thinking about something.

To start, I want to walk you through three texts regarding the exclusion and inclusion of eunuchs from the People of God.

I hope we all know what a eunuch is. If not, Google it and then come on back.

We start with a passage from the Torah excluding eunuchs from the assembly of the Lord:

Deuteronomy 23.1 (NIV)
No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.
For the translationally curious, The King James Version renders this verse in a quite memorable way:
He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.
The New Living Translation I think is the most straightforward, avoiding the NIV's use of the loaded word "emasculated":
If a man’s testicles are crushed or his penis is cut off, he may not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
All told, I kinda like "wounded in the stones." My son is playing middle school football. I think I'll remind him to wear proper protection by saying, "You don't want to get wounded in the stones do you? Excluded from the assembly of the Lord? Then put your cup on!"

Anyhow, that's the starting point, the exclusion of eunuchs from the Assembly of God. But later in Isaiah we encounter a great many passages where Zion, the temple and the assembly of God is universalized. All nations will come to Zion to worship God. And in the middle of these texts eunuchs are specifically mentioned. Previously excluded, eunuchs will now be included in the coming Messianic Kingdom.
Isaiah 56.3-5
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”

For this is what the LORD says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
Okay, now let's jump ahead to the New Testament. In Acts 8 we find Philip baptizing the first non-Israelite in the book of Acts. The man is from Ethiopia. Interestingly, the man is reading Isaiah. And he's a eunuch.
Acts 8.26-39
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”


The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.
And thus, in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, eunuchs gain access to the Kingdom of God. That which was excluded has now been included.

In sum, this seems to be a pretty clear theological story about eunuchs moving from exclusion to inclusion. But my question is this, what does the eunuch symbolize? Theologically, what was being excluded in Deuteronomy 23.1? And why? Further, why was the inclusion of eunuchs a sign of the Kingdom coming?

I don't know enough about how eunuchs were perceived in ancient Israel and in Second Temple Judaism to get a handle on these texts. But something important is going on with the inclusion of eunuchs. This seems to be more than a story about genital mutilation. But maybe that's all it is. But is there more? Something about gender? Something about sexuality?

Any thoughts on this would be appreciated. Regardless, I know this much for certain: That which was previously excluded by God eventually becomes included in God's ever widening circle of love.

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25 thoughts on “The Exclusion and Inclusion of Eunuchs”

  1. My guess is that there are two ways you could read it: the first is that holiness is understood as being related to completion: a eunuch is missing a bit so can't enter the temple in the same way that you couldn't sacrifice a lamb with a leg missing or that was mutilated or deformed in some other way. 

    The second is to do with boundaries: purity codes are always about drawing a line between inside and outside, clean and unclean. Eunuchs trouble the boundary between male and female, and so there's an ambiguity about their status which doesn't sit comfortably with the desire to rigorously codify everything. So the inclusion of eunuchs is a variation on the theme of 'In Christ, there is no longer male nor female': eunuchs aren't properly either, but in Christ it doesn't matter any more.

  2. Interesting thought brought to mind by Marika. 

    Eunuchs were excluded because they were incomplete. But the temple was incomplete because it doesn't include them. So the end of incompleteness comes ironically by including the incomplete.

  3. I'm not sure it helps, but I think the core of this is Christological.  We all get the glory roles of Christ - prophet, priest, king.  What we miss is that God is in the depths as well.  God reveals himself in the eunuch cut off.  In the barren given a posterity.  I go to sheol and you are there.

    The Church Fathers read the Dt. passage and the stuff around it in two ways: men/women gender roles needing to be separate, and in the scope of entering the land and remaining in it.  Both essentially purity codes for marriage and maintaining a people of God.

    The law says these are excluded and there are all kinds of logical reasons that make sense (if in a harsh way to our modern western individualistic ears).  The gospel scrambles our logic.  The Eunuch cut off without posterity receives the very name of God.  Christ himself cut off is yet one with God.

    (General Sources: ACCS, Keil & Delitzsch, Von Rad, Interpreters Commentary(v1), Oswalt NICOT Isaiah, Luther's Works)

  4. I've never thought about the Ethiopian eunuch's story being a completion of an Isaiah prophecy... that's really cool to learn today. I don't know how much of this can be stretched into issues of sexuality and gender. Although, there are some definite similarities...  Eunuchs probably didn't have any input on becoming eunuchs... much like sexual orientation today. Regardless of whether you believe nature, nurture, or some combination of both determine sexual orientation - one thing is for certain: no half-way intelligent human being believes sexual orientation is a choice made like choosing which socks to put on. But this issue is not going away any time soon, and it appears that the universal Church does several things with this: they try to embrace it, ignore it, repair it, condemn it, and sometimes make fun of it. Holiness, however is a choice and wrestling with what God expects out of regenerated believers is necessary. Love does win, but the more whole a person becomes in Love, the more the fruit of their lives must certainly reflect that - this is to say that some sort of life change evidence is going to happen if indeed the Spirit of God is working in a life. Our church (Presbyterian USA) is literally being split with the issue of sexual orientation, the role of homosexual persons, and dertermining Biblical standards for purity and holiness. This is indeed a critical issue, but there is a greater problem with our denomination and all others - we all say we believe the right things, but the evidence of this (fruit) is not proportionate to all the "believing" going on.  I think this is probably a much bigger problem than knowing what to do with issues of sexuality and gender. If we get the real nuts and bolts together of truly getting the Gospel and being changed individually and collectively to reflect the verse you've chosen from 1 John at the top of your blog, I think the wisdom of handling the challenge of sexuality and gender issues will come much more easier.

  5. Certainly an out of the box question for a Thursday morning. But, very interesting.

    I am certainly not an expert here (anywhere?); but, here is some information. As far as I can tell, there are three types of people who were excluded from the assembly of the Lord, emasculated men, illegitimate children, and descendants of Ammonites or Moabites.

    First, who got in? Children with parents who had been faithful and circumcised their male children. It is the parents who got one in. So, now we find that it is also the parents who cause exclusion of their children. Crushing of the genitals was typically a pagan act that parents performed so their children could serve in the homes of the upper class and was associated with idolatrous practices. When they performed this act of 'unbelief' on their child they excluded them.

    It too was the parents who caused the exclusion in the other two cases. But, as always, faith is the key to salvation and not membership in any group, even the assembly of the Lord.  Eunuchs were never barred from believing.

  6. I think it's worth noting that the eunuch had just traveled to Jerusalem to worship… and hadn't been let in to the temple. Did he know that before making the trek? If so, his is an amazing faith. If not, he had to be more than a little disillusioned. As someone his question of "What can stand in the way of my being baptized?" may very well be a reflection on that experience. What now? Go ahead, tell me that I'm disqualified from this, too.

    I’m a little uncomfortable, however, with trying to make the eunuchs symbolize too much. There were other bodily circumstances that excluded the Israelites from participating in worship. Temple worship required perfection. Jesus opened a way that allows we imperfect to also approach God with confidence.

  7. I don't think the eunuch symblises anything, but it's a clear case of the unacceptable becoming acceptable. The Rabbis accepted Midianites - I forget the exact wording, but there's an argument in the Mishnah to the effect that since the Assyrians mixed the nations up so much, nobody knows who is or isn't a Midianite anyway - but mamzers, born of illegal unions, are still something Orthodox Judaism hasn't come to terms with.

  8. Still thinking of a fuller answer, though what you know for certain, I know too. When I last preached on this text, I was a little thrown by the fact that the reader of the Acts passage pronounced the word throughout as 'ee-noosh'... How not to embarrass him was my biggest anxiety.

  9. Seems to me this is analogous to circumcision. Only circumcised Jews made the "cut" so to speak. A eunoch was not an appropriately circumcised Jew - so, no dice. Once Christ came, no need for an appropriate circumcision. All are welcome.

  10. I've been thinking about this today, inspired by some of ya'll's comments (that's right, I wrote "ya'll's").

    I think the root issue here is about reproduction. The problem with eunuchs is similar to that of female "barrenness" in the OT. The problem is the inability to carry on the People of God forward via reproduction. The covenant people were mainly the offspring and the offspring's offspring of the patriarchs. Thus, an inability to reproduce represented an inability to carry forward the covenant.

    This helps us understand a bit of the Isaiah prophecy. The complaint of the eunch is about repoductive failure: “I am only a dry tree.” Thus, God's promises in the coming Kingdom a sort of "spiritual" fertility, or at least something better than fertility: "to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters."

    Moving to Acts 8, then, it's not suprising that the first non-Israelite convert is also a eunuch. The combination of sociological Otherness (Ethiopia was the "edge of the world"), genetic distinctiveness, and reproductive incapacity sharply highlight how God's Kingdom is escaping the genetic, sociological and reproductive boundaries of the Israelites. It's the universalizing vision of Isaiah. Participation in the Kingdom is not longer conferred via kinship bonds but through faith and the "new birth" of baptism.

    Now, with all that said, with reproduction undermined by these texts, we might go on to ponder the role reproduction plays in current debates about marriage. So there may be additional relevance here.

  11. The promise to Abram is a land and descendants (Genesis 15:5, 22:17, & 26:4).  A eunuch couldn't receive this blessing and was unclean.  Jesus changes everything because it's not about the land and it's not about physical descendants it's about being part of the family of God. 

    I hadn't connected this to the Homosexuality debate prior to your post.  Clearly there are some parallels here.

  12. Well did you know this very day Australia has announced new guidelines for passports allowing for a third gender option: 'indeterminate'. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-14926598

  13. It has seemed to me for  awhile now that Otherness is largely the theme of Acts 8:1 - 11:18 (framed by the reference to those who were "scattered" in 8:1 and 11:19). And that most of the stories contained in this section are each paradigmatic in a way, bound together by the common thread of their questionable status in the kingdom, that is, their otherness. Each with a protagonist that is normally excluded, anathematized, or otherwise scandalous for the early Jewish Christian community.

    It is almost as though the writer is answering a repeated question that might be framed as, "What about the So-and-So's? Do they get in?" And each time the answer is Yes. Samaritans? Yes. What about practitioners of Witchcraft? Yep. Those whose bodies are sexually non-normative? Yes, them too.

    And also, former Persecutors of the church. And finally, the crescendo to full inclusion of Gentiles, sealed by Peter's statements in 11:15-17 ("who was I to oppose God"?).

    As for the eunuch himself (gender-based pronouns notwithstanding), I think there are a couple of subtle turns of phrase in the story that point to his non-normative status as a focus in the text. For me it hinges on his question about the Isaiah passage: "Is the prophet talking about himself or someone else?" 

    Notice phrases from the passage quoted by the author of Acts: 
    -- "he was led like a sheep to the slaughter"
    -- "as a lamb is silent...he did not open his mouth"
    -- "in his humiliation he was deprived of justice"
    -- "who can speak of his descendants?"

    Now read those through the eyes of a man who might possible have been made a eunuch not by accidental injury, but by purposeful action as a young man. I think it's possible the story is meant to suggest that the eunuch sees his own situation -- his own  injustice, humiliation, slaughter -- in the text.

  14. I'm not sure where I've read it, but I know some have made that connection about the eunuch's humiliation. How he sees his victimhood reflected in the Suffering Servant. In this we again see Jesus standing with the victims, the marginalized, and disenfranchised. 

    The Good News is for the eunuchs.

  15. I was thinking along these same lines, Angie. But rather than saying there is no need for circumcision, I think instead that once Christ came, the locus of circumcision changed from an external organ to an internal one, namely, the heart, as Paul affirms in Romans 2:25-29.

  16. I think you're right that reproduction is important. But I also think it's important to remember that even fertile women and mothers were excluded from the inner areas of the temple, along with the eunuchs: I'm not convinced that the eunuch's exclusion is just about reproduction: surely there's a broader question of gender and holiness at play here?

  17. I agree. I'd frame my sketch above as the most conservative, least deconstructing approach to the texts. For my own part, I very much think something about gender is in play--the definition of "maleness"--and, thus, has something to say about issues regarding sexuality and gender.

    But to push further along those lines I think I need more information about the lives of eunuchs in "bible times" and the cultural associations surrounding them. Were they considered to be asexual? Where they chaste? What were their sex lives like? Etc.

    For example, if eunuchs were (partly) shunned because they were considered to be "female" (e.g., they could not penetrate but only be penetrated by) I think we have some traction on some contemporary issues. But what I don't know is if those associations existed.

  18. A very tempting path if I understand where you are heading, but I think Matt 19 on marriage, divorce and eunuchs need to be pulled in.  Jesus restates there the ontological foundation of marriage as one man and one woman from genesis.  Which is in a pre-fall state also which is almost impossible to think about.   The Pharisees (and the disciples) want divorce - they want a law because of the hardness of their hearts.  Jesus' reply is not to relax that fundamental definition of sexuality and marriage, but to say that being the eunuch is the other option and not a redefinition of marriage and sexuality.  In fact it is Jesus who is the eunuch for the kingdom - the one crushed for our iniquities and cut off without descendants.  And that act is salvific - fulfilling the promises to Abraham of many children and securing the bride the church.  All kinds of paradox there.

    This is a very tough saying (and I take some comfort that Jesus adds "the one who can accept this should" to it).  Some eunuchs are born that way.  (Echoing homosexual experience).  Some are made that way by men. (There are those who have been abused in a multitude of ways such that marriage is just not psychologically possible).  Others choose to be a eunuch for the kingdom.  The call is not to redefine what God has defined, not to make a law for the hardness of our hearts, but emulate, follow or be like Jesus.  It is also a call for the church to be the real community for these people.  If marriage was originally because it is not good for us to be alone, we still are not alone in the community of Christ even if not married.

    The thin reed I'd grab out of it is that Jesus assumes many can't accept.  And ontological marriage is part of the law.  The law is good and wise and we should pay attention to it, but the gospel is bigger.  Our sin-addled post fall state of incomprehension of marriage and sexuality won't completely stop the gospel - that even if we can't be Eunuchs for the kingdom - He already was. 

  19. Which reminds me of the post-biblical story about Origen, who may have taken Jesus' statement about some making themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven rather literally. A more complete reversal of the Old Testament position couldn't be imagined.

  20. I never thought I'd find myself wishing I knew more about eunuchs! A quick google though, turns up the claim that Apuleius referred to eunuch priests as 'cinedae' (i.e. people who were penetrated) and claimed that they called each other 'girls' in private; that they may have been sacred prostitutes, and that the early Christians certainly thought they were. 

  21. Here is Brian Mclaren's take, which in short is that there IS a good deal about sexual identity in the NT story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. That Eunuchs were "sexually other" and"non-hetrosexual." http://theooze.com/tv/brian-mclaren-q7-the-sex-question/ about 1:13 seconds in....

  22. "In fact it is Jesus who is the eunuch for the kingdom--the one crushed for our iniquities and cut off without descendants." Clearly that's correct, and I would never have had the psychological strength to push through the taboos and just plain painful thoughts to get to that realization. It is a huge paradox, which must transform the Abrahamic covenant. A rich and core vein of thought here. Thanks to you and Richard for opening it!

    Here's a gambit I like to use in talking to others about the NT, and it's relevant to what you note further on in your comment: Do you want the progressive, inclusive Jesus, relative of course to his time? Or do you want the conservative, exclusive Jesus you get by freezing the biblical narrative in its time?

    Jesus' unyielding stance toward marriage is a potent challenge to the validity of my  gambit, which I'd always thought was more or less valid as a good way to get people to think more deeply about their belief. Now it begins to look like both sides of my little dilemma present half truths...

    Putting the next brick in place, the Church becomes the bride of Christ, turning the tables on his becoming "the eunich for the kingdom." 

    So here's my little question: Can you or Richard or someone else go meta on this for the less intrepid folks among Richard's readers? 

  23. I started writing out a comment for this discussion, but it turned into something a little longer than I was comfortable posting. —That apprehension of "imposing", if you know the feeling. If you'd like to read it, you can find it here: http://www.thegoodquestion.com/2011/09/of-eunuchs-and-social-non-contributors.html

    But I encourage you to post your comments here, rather than on my blog, unless your comment does not particularly add the discussion here as a whole.

  24. Let me point everyone to David Gregg's response to this post. It is very much worth your time. (In my email I see David has tried to post a link to his post but I can't find it here. Not sure why. But the post is too good to delay so let me try to get the link up ASAP.)

    http://www.thegoodquestion.com/2011/09/of-eunuchs-and-social-non-contributors.html

  25. An absolutely burning issue.
    It is funny though that the bible asks us to pluck out our eye if it be the source of our temptation but not our privy members. Apart from the fact that blind people do indeed have sex, not to mention one-eyed creatures such as pirates and Cyclops (indeed I imagine Polyphemos to be a rather voracious fornicator, both pre and post Odysseus), it seems unfair that I am not at liberty to tear off my prick  if I feel that it will save my soul.Charles

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