by Josh Gould
Who exactly said homosexuality is a sin? We learned in Part 1 that Moses didn’t and we found out in Part 2 that Paul didn’t either. I think the big question on everybody’s mind is what did Jesus say about it? Well, if you were to read through the English Gospels it would appear that he said nothing about it. There are however, a couple passages I want to dig through a little more thoroughly and see what we can uncover. What better place to start then the Old Testament?
We’ll start in the Book of Ester chapter 2. We pick up in the story of King Xerses, the king of Persia (who is called Ahasuerus in Hebrew) Xerses has suffered two defeats against the Greek army and is returning home to continue the building of his palaces in the cities of Persepolis and Susa. While this was underway his servants noticed he was sad and lonely so they suggested a new queen, who would end up being Ester. His servants went through all the provinces to find young woman to be gathered to the king’s harem and placed under custody of the king’s eunuch, Hegai, who was in charge of the woman.
Here we find the word “eunuch.” The word in Hebrew is “cariyc.” In English we would say “saris,” and it will be spelled this way from here on out. Saris is an interesting word and is has caused quite a bit of confusion over the years. “Saris” is not a Hebrew original. In fact it comes from Assyria as what they call a “loan word” and has several different meanings. It is often used as a title for the king’s royal palace officials ranging from chamberlains all the way to governors of province. It also is a word used for men who have been castrated. It is true that most of the king’s servants were castrated men.
Castration in Assyria was almost certainly done by the crushing of a boy’s testicles before he reached puberty. While this seems barbaric, it was much less risky and painful than cutting off the testicles. The Assyrian word “marruru” (to castrate) is thought to relate to “maraqu” (to crush) and “marasu” (to squash.) An ancient historian documented that the tradition of using eunuchs for royal service passed down from Assyria to Babylon and to Persia. It’s likely that the majority of eunuchs were foreign captives but it is also possible that some of the high-ranking officers were from Assyrian families, who would have one of the younger boys castrated to serve the king for financial compensation. It is also important to note that eunuchs weren’t necessarily effeminate, as some would become military generals. Eunuchs were also social outcasts, and so their loyalty could easily be bought in exchange for food, shelter and the King’s protection. Eunuchs played many roles within the palace, one in particular we see illustrated in Ester chapter 2.
From the King’s perspective, a eunuch was ideal for the job since he was castrated and therefore could not impregnate the women he guarded and would be the least likely to engage in sexual activities at all. However, it is a mistake to think that eunuchs were without sexual drive. It was still quite possible for a castrated man to gain an erection and engage in intercourse with a woman, the same way a man who has had a vasectomy can still go to bat with the best of them. With that in mind, and considering what was at stake, kings imposed strict rules about other men touching, or even being in the same room as his concubines. The eunuchs weren’t even allowed to go into the harem without permission. There are stories that if a servant is caught listening to woman arguing or even singing then that servant would be severely beaten and have an ear cut off. In most extreme examples, if there were illicit meetings between a concubine and a servant then both would certainly be executed.
So how could a king fully trust a chamberlain? Indeed we have stories of eunuchs plotting to murder the King, and this is precisely what happens in the Book of Ester. We’ve also learned that a castrated man was not enough because he could still sexually violate the concubines. Furthermore, not all eunuchs are castrated. Maybe the chamberlain was not a castrated man, but a man that has no desire for woman? That would certainly make him trustworthier.
Fast forward to Jesus day and we find an intriguing conversation he has with his disciples. In Matthew chapter 19 we read:
For there are eunuchs because they were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. (NASV)
Some saris are born that way? What does this have to do with anything and why did Jesus even say it? In the verses previous to this one, Jesus is teaching about divorce and claims that only adultery is an acceptable reason for divorce. Now, we won’t begin to unpack all of the cultural nuances going on here, but essentially, he’s stepping into an on-going debate and is picking a side. Jesus explains that adultery is the only acceptable reason for divorce. His disciples respond by saying, “if this is the case, then it’s better not to marry.” The Greek here is “that’s not fair!” Jesus responds by saying essentially, “there are only certain men who aren’t to marry” followed by the above passage.
So according to Jesus some saris are born this way. Perhaps the chamberlains weren’t castrated men after all. Perhaps they were men who were non-marriage material. Taking into consideration that the typical marriage in those days was a social contract between a man and a woman, then a man who does not sexually desire woman would fit into the category of a man being born unable to wed. Perhaps 6th century Roman law can help illuminate this concept. In the Digest of Justinian Vol. 1, we read about law surrounding marriage to eunuchs.
Where a woman marries a eunuch, I think that a distinction must be drawn between a eunuch who has been castrated and a eunuch who has not, so that if he has been castrated, you may say there cannot be a dowry; but where a eunuch has not been castrated, there can be a dowry and an action for it, because a marriage can take place here.
In the 1st century, men did not marry men. It simply wasn’t culturally relevant and this could be another reason why we read of Jesus saying eunuchs aren’t to marry. There wasn’t any social reason for it. Even though eunuchs were legally permitted to marry woman, this does not mean that they sexually desired them. Such a man would therefore be ideal to a king who needs to hire a guard for his concubines; a trusted slave who has been loyal to his family for most likely many years, and who would not make sexual advances towards the mothers of his children.
How can we be sure this is what Jesus was talking about? To gain more insight we need to understand how other religious people in that culture viewed eunuchs. In a Jewish Talmud, which is essentially the writings of Jewish oral tradition and the vast interpretations of it, we find the writings of Rabbi Eliezar who discusses the differences between a “born” or “natural” eunuch and a man-made eunuch. It was his opinion that natural eunuchs could be “cured” which makes no sense if he was talking about men with physical defects like that of a castrated man.
In the same Talmud, other Rabbi’s talked about how natural eunuchs could be identified. Signs such as lateness of pubic hair, smoothness of skin, high voice, and odd things such as urine not forming an arch and how their bodies don’t steam when they bathe in winter. So as you can see, there were stereotypes for eunuchs 2000 years ago much like there are for gay men and woman today.
If the rabbi’s believed they could be cured, what was wrong that needed to be cured? An ancient Sumerian myth (Inanna’s Decent into the Underworld) talks about the creation of eunuchs as being unable to “satisfy the lap of a woman.” They myth goes on to say that they were created specifically to resist the lures of a woman. In the Book of Sirach, which is found in the Catholic Old Testament, describes “one who executes judgment with violence is like the eunuch who tries to deflower a virgin.” (Sir 20:4) In chapter 30 of the same book it describes an ill man with no appetite looking upon food and sighing “as a eunuch embracing a woman and sighs” (30:20) A Greek satirist named Lucian who lived during the second century compared a eunuch with a concubine to a deaf man with a flute, or a blind man with a mirror. (Lucian, Volume III)
In these examples it is clear that the eunuch is described as a man who has no lust or sexual desire for woman, but instead for men. This is evident in other literature particularly in the Kama Sutra. It devotes an entire chapter of eunuchs seducing men. (Part 2, chapter 9) And lastly, the Historian Quintus Curtius, who wrote about Alexander the Great, writes about how he fell in love with a eunuch and they developed a physical relationship of mutual love (History of Alexander, Volume II). This isn’t to say that all eunuchs are homosexuals. Jesus himself breaks the word down into 3 categories. Saris, was a broad term that has a wide semantic range. Homosexual is just one of the definitions.
So how are we to treat them? While it’s true that homosexuals were classified under the eunuch umbrella, that doesn’t mean they were without persecution. Indeed there was much hostility towards all eunuchs that stems from the Israelite law. Deut. 23:1 states, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (NRSV)
By the first century, this passage from Torah sort of evolved to mean anyone who cannot father children. This would include homosexuals. There is a story in the Book of Acts that illustrates the exclusion that eunuchs would have been subjected to. Chapter 8 tells us the story of an Ethiopian eunuch travelling home from Jerusalem where he went to worship. This is interesting because Ethiopia was just south of Egypt, so we can assume he was not an Israelite. However, since he travelled all the way to Jerusalem to worship we can assume that he finds the Hebrew God/religion appealing and could be considered a “God-fearer.”
When we meet the eunuch in the story he is on his way back from Jerusalem. We aren’t told how long he was there or even if he was successful in his worship. Based on Torah Law found in Deut. 23, it’s likely that the Pharisee’s and teachers of the Law made it abundantly clear he was not allowed anywhere near the Temple. At this time the eunuch is reading from the scroll of Isaiah, specifically what we now know as chapter 53: 7-8, beginning half way through verse 7. The beginning of verse 7 is left out in Acts and is where any educated Jewish reader would instantly look to for context, as was the common rabbinic method of teaching. Verse 7 starts off by saying, “He was oppressed and afflicted and he did not open his mouth.” It’s also important to notice verse 3 where it says, “he was despised and rejected.” What a strange passage to be reading after worshipping. Not exactly uplifting material. Why would he be reading such a prophecy?
Perhaps this passage resonated with him and what he just experienced. Remember the Torah Law? There was no way the religious leaders would have allowed the eunuch in the Temple courts and probably assured him that he was outside of God’s grace. This would have left him feeling despised and rejected by God’s people. Is it any wonder why a man who had come to worship is found shortly after reading a scroll such as this? Would not such a passage provide him with solace?
At this point in the story the eunuch asks who the prophecy is referring to and Phillip explains to him that it is about Jesus. Shortly afterwards the eunuch asks to be baptized and Phillip, knowing full well of Torah Law, does so with absolutely no prejudice to any of his attributes nor does he place any sort of conditions on him. Regardless of whether this Ethiopian was castrated or not, Torah Law strictly forbade eunuchs into the congregation of God. But the Holy Spirit guided and directed Phillip to this confrontation with the Ethiopian that ultimately led to his baptism and inclusion with God’s people.
Have you been despising and/or rejecting anybody because of his or her sexuality? Do you use the Bible to set up barriers for people to come to God making a list of do’s and don’ts? Do you say, “because you are this, you aren’t welcome”? Or “unless you do this, you can’t come in”? Have you been oppressing and afflicting gay men and woman? Maybe this story is for you. Maybe this story is here to rescue you from being deaf to the cry of persecution.
Some of you reading this might find yourselves in the shoes of the Ethiopian, despised and rejected. If any of you have been pushed back, rejected, harassed, afflicted because of your sexuality, the good news that the gospel brings is that in the midst of your affliction there is this Jesus who says, “I know how you feel. I know how you feel. And you know what? The way you are, the way you were born…I love it and you are welcome here!”