Eunuchs and Transgenderism in the Bible and America


For all the pearl-clutching, gasping, self-righteous fear-mongering related to the specter of an ascendant Christian Nationalism, the side that most-often interjects religion into contemporary political debates is the one that is least religious (in the traditional sense) and most vocal about the benefits of irreligious secularism. That is, the progressive left.

It should be clear by now that I’m no fan of Christian Nationalism, and I am seriously courting the hypothesis that the recent rise in talk about Christian Nationalism is itself a kind of psy-op that will be used to justify cracking down on religious Americans. But that’s not what caught my attention yesterday. Instead, I came across an example of an apologist for the reigning secular paradigm trying to use Scripture to justify his position.

My reply, limited as it is by the character limit, tried to push back on this take from two angles:
In case those two angles are not entirely clear, I thought I’d write a quick blog post explaining them.

The first angle is simple enough. Trying to find support for transgender ideology in Old Testament texts is blatant eisegesis. No Bronze Age or Iron Age writer responsible for the stories, prophecies, and poems of the Hebrew Scriptures could have possibly conceived of transgenderism as we conceive of it today. So, clearly, when those writers mentioned anything we think resembles transgenderism, it isn’t actually transgenderism. Eunuchs, to say the least, weren’t ancient transgender people cast aside by their society who saw God’s acceptance as a blessing in spite of their social outcast status.

To fully understand what I’m talking about, you need to have a basic grasp on three terms: (1) exegesis; (2) eisegesis; and (3) hermeneutics.

Exegesis, put in its simplest terms, is the art and science of textual interpretation. It’s most basic question is: What does this text mean? (Kaiser and Silva 2007, 21). It implies that understanding the meaning of any text involves “careful, detailed analysis” of things like the original language the text was written in, the cultural and historical contexts that it was written to, and the meaning it would have had in that original language in its original contexts (ibid.; Duvall and Hays 2012, 42-47). All of these things must be understood before answering the question of what the text means to us today and how we should apply a text in our contemporary world (c.f., Duvall and Hays 2012, 45-46).

The term exegesis is a Greek term derived from another Greek word: exēgeisthai, which means “to explain.” Key is the prefix ex-, which indicates “from” something. That is, exegesis is finding the meaning of a text from the text itself. It is this prefix and its meaning that distinguishes it from eisegesis, which begins with the prefix eis-, which means “into.” Exegeting a text means to gain an understanding of the text from the text itself, to include its original cultural and historical settings. Eisegeting a text means to give the text a meaning by reading that meaning into it. Exegesis is objective, eisegesis is subjective.

Hermeneutics, while having a range of nuanced meanings in various disciplines, is basically the methods and techniques that exegetes or interpreters use to interpret a text. In traditional, orthodox biblical interpretation, hermeneutics is the art and science of doing exegesis and avoiding eisegesis (Kaiser and Silva 2007, 17). Having a method helps the interpreter avoid making a text mean whatever it is the interpreter wants it to mean. If you ever wondered why pastors spend so much time and effort in seminary, it is because they’re learning how to be good exegetes and avoid being eisegetes.

In their basic and approachable hermeneutics textbook, Duvall and Hays (2012, 42-46) provide a simple hermeneutic method that is expressed in five simple questions:

  1. What did the text mean to the biblical audience?
  2. What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
  3. What is the theological principle in this text?
  4. How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
  5. How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?

The author of the tweet that sparked this post wants his audience to believe that eunuchs occupy the same social and ethical space as transgendered people in today’s society. Thus, because the Bible speaks of eunuchs being accepted favorably in God’s kingdom (e.g., Isaiah 56:4-5), Christians today should accept transgenderism favorably in the church and society. The question is, is this application exegetically sound?

The answer, as you may have already guessed, is that it is not.

The first basic hermeneutic question asks, what did the text mean to the biblical audience? Applied more specifically, what would the biblical audience of Isaiah in the above referenced text have understood when they heard of eunuchs being accepted in God’s kingdom?

Up until very recently, it was not in dispute that a eunuch in the ancient Near East was a male who had been castrated as part of the requirements for occupying certain socio-political roles connected to the royal household (N’Shea 2016). The practice varied across cultures and times, and also included those who were voluntarily castrated for religious reasons (Ringrose 2007). What’s undisputed is that castration of male servants in the royal household was done mainly because of their access to the women of the court, but this in turn allowed them access to the royal house in ways that gave them political influence unavailable to other males (El-Cheikh 2005). It is for this reason that eunuchs are mentioned, particularly in the Bible, as politically important people.

All of this is reflected in John Davis’ 1903 edition of his Dictionary of the Bible, which unlike much of the literature available today is untainted by current political fashions. His entry on the term eunuch says this:

Properly a chamberlain; but in the East persons who had been renedered impotent were employed for this office, hence an impotent man. There is scarcely a doubt that the word is used in this sense throughout Scripture, even when it is rendered into English by some other term. There have been, and still are, married eunuchs. Eunuchs often obtained high position and great authority. The captain of the guard of Pharoah and his chief butler and his chief baker were eunuchs. Eunuchs ministered at the court of Babylon. They served in the presence of the Persian king, and acted as doorkeepers of his palace; a eunuch was over his harem, and a eunuch was deputed to attend his queen. They served also at the court of Ahab and his son Jehoram, and they waited upon Jezebel. Even in Judah, although eunuchs were legally excluded from the congregation of the Lord, they were employed at David’s court, and, in the last days of the monarchy, at the degenerate court of the successors of Josiah. The eunuchs in Judah were probably in most, if not all, cases foreigners. The cupbearer of Herod the Great was a eunuch, as were also the official who brought him his food and the one who assisted him to bed; and his favorite wife Mariamne was served by a eunuch. A eunuch was over the treasure of queen Candace of Ethiopia, and he was admitted to baptism.

Davis, A Dictionary of the Bible, page 211 — References removed.

The next question in Duvall and Hays’ hermeneutic method tells us to ask, What are the differences between the biblical audience and us? Of course, in answering this question we need to narrowly tailor it to the subject under examination. So in terms of thinking about eunuchs, what made the biblical audience different from us?

One important way in which the biblical audience was different from us is the views it had on the meaning of family and having children. The role of human beings as the image-bearers of God is directly linked to their ability to have children, to “[b]e fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (c.f., Genesis 1:27-28). The covenant between God and Abraham is given in the explicit context of having descendants and legitimate heirs (c.f., Genesis 15). In the New Testament, this covenant is interpreted as applying specifically to Christ as the heir of Abraham’s covenant, and the offspring of the covenant being those who believe in Christ (Galatians 3). This is why Isaiah could write about a future kingdom in which God would give to eunuchs “a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters [. . .] an everlasting name that will never be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5). Isaiah is using a blatant play on words by speaking of being “cut off.” Eunuchs were excluded from being full members of the Israelite nation because they had cut off a part of their body that marred the image of God. Thus, they were cut off from the congregation of the Lord (in Davis’ explanation above). But in the Kingdom of Heaven of the New Covenant, they would not be cut off but given a place, with a legacy greater than that which could be provided by biological offspring.

At this point, I’ve started to delve into answering questions 3 and 4: What is the theological principle? and How does our theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?

Eunuchs in the Old Testament context indicated a class of people who, either by force or voluntarily, had mutilated their sexual organs so as to render them incapable of having children and, thus, incapable of fulfilling a divine commandment linked to their status as human image bearers of God. This mutilation, whether forced or voluntary, was in service to social, cultural, and political forces. If one was a eunuch, their importance was ultimately determined by how well they could navigate the halls of social and political power. Once their service to the royal household–or in cases where the royal household was displaced by war or otherwise–their usefulness ceased. They could not find satisfaction in the normal pursuits of family life. They had to either accept their lot or seek out usefulness in some other political regime (such as those eunuchs who served at David’s court).

In the eschatological kingdom of God, even the eunuch can be included because the inheritance in that future kingdom is based in Christ as the offspring of God and his covenant, not in literal, biological children. But this participation is predicated on belief. This is why God, in Isaiah, points out, importantly, that he’s speaking about “eunuchs who keep My sabbaths and choose what pleases Me, and hold firmly to My covenant” (Isaiah 56:4).

The final question is: How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?

To the point made in the tweet that I’m reacting to, yes, God practices a radical inclusivity but that inclusivity comes with a price: belief and obedience. Inclusivity is for those who turn away from the expectations of their previous masters in the culture, society, and politics and instead choose to observe God’s commandments and “choose what pleases [God].”

What does this mean for how Christians ought to treat those caught up in contemporary transgender ideology?

It means forgiving those who recognize the mistake of what they’ve done to their bodies. It means including those who are willing and desirous of turning away from the social, cultural, and political pressures to, instead, follow God’s plans and expectations. It also means discouraging those who are travelling down that path from going any farther, before it’s too late. It also means actively practicing the church’s prophetic office to condemn those who are perpetrating this evil, especially when it comes to teens and children.

Like the eunuchs, today’s transgender people are merely useful to the reigning social, cultural, and political regime. When they are no longer useful to that regime, they will be cast aside or left to drift. Transgender people in today’s culture are merely tools that some use for their own social and political gain. They’re convenient, just as eunuchs were convenient because they couldn’t impregnate the king’s wives. For some, the transgender activists, this means playing dirty hard-ball politics to gain advantage and power. For most, it means permanently damaging their bodies, their spirits, and their futures for the sake of temporary acceptance based on pragmatic usefulness to elites.

That is why I said in my response to that tweet that the truth is the inverse of the author’s point. He wants you to believe that the biblical treatment of eunuchs means an unquestioning and–in contemporary newspeak, affirming–acceptance of transgender people. The truth is the opposite of that. Yes, Christians should seek to treat transgender people inclusively, but inclusive in the sense that Isaiah means it: by questioning the narratives that led them down an evil, destructive path and disaffirming that path by affirming the path of Christ, the path of renewal, and the path of regeneration.

And contra the tweet’s author’s point, that means firmly exegeting, not eisegeting Scripture. It means not bearing false witness about the nature and meaning of the gospel. It means, in the end, merely telling transgender people, and those who encourage this evil, the truth.

I realize this is not a full exposition of the problems in that tweet and the false ideas it advocates, but I wanted to get something out quickly before the tweet gets stale. I hope this helps anyone coming across this post to do their own research and discover the truth of what God wants Christians to do. Key to doing this is, at least when it comes to Christians, adhering to established, reliable methods of exegesis and hermeneutics. What the author of that tweet is advocating is inserting one’s own preconceived opinions into the Bible’s text and then trying to claim biblical support for an opinion that is the opposite of what the Bible actually teaches. The Christian’s only true foundation is to adhere to Scripture in its true meaning and then applying that consistently and faithfully. Dr. Young encourages the opposite. Like the eunuchs, he is dedicated to mutilation in service to the regime, except what he’s mutilating is not his body but God’s Word and, consequently, his own soul.

References

Davis, John D. 1903. A Dictionary of the Bible, Second Edition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays. 2012. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic.

El-Cheikh, Nadia Maria. 2005. “Servants at the Gate: Eunuchs at the Court of Al-Muqtadir.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 48 (2): 234-252. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25165091.

Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. and Moisés Silva. 2007. Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, Revised and Expanded Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

N’Shea, Omar. 2016. “Royal Eunuchs and Elite Masculinity in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.” Near Eastern Archaeology 79, no. 3 (September): 214-221. https://doi.org/10.5615/neareastarch.79.3.0214.

Ringrose, Kathryn M. 2007. “Eunuchs in Historical Perspective.” History Compass 5, no. 2 (March): 495-506. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1478-0542.2006.00379.x.

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