What Is a Eunuch in the Bible? Definition and Examples

Eunuchs in the Bible are typically defined as castrated men placed in charge over a king’s harem of wives and concubines. But this lifestyle isn’t the only representation of a eunuch. In the Bible, the Hebrew word saris (eunuch), refers to a man in some sort of service to a ruler, but castration isn’t always a part of the story.
Emily Hall
What Is a Eunuch in the Bible? Definition and Examples

Eunuchs in the Bible are typically defined as castrated men placed in charge over a king’s harem of wives and concubines. But this lifestyle isn’t the only representation of a eunuch. In the Bible, the Hebrew word saris (eunuch), refers to a man in some sort of service to a ruler, but castration isn’t always a part of the story.

Eunuch Definition in Hebrew and Greek

Saris (or cariyc) is the Hebrew word for eunuch, occurring 45 times in the Old Testament (OT). Of those 45 occurrences, the Greek Septuagint translates it as eunouchos 31 times in the OT. Eunouchos is also used four times in the New Testament.

  • The Greek translation, eunouchos, means (1) chamberlain, keeper of the bed-chamber of an eastern ruler, (2) a castrated person, or one who voluntarily abstains from marriage.
  • But in Hebrew, wherever saris is used, the word refers to an important person who is not necessarily castrated.

When deciphering the root words and original meaning of saris, it’s uncertain if the word originally meant “unable to procreate” or “castrated.” It’s possible the role of the saris may have influenced this meaning later to include impotent or castrated.

United Bible Societies explains:

“Since some of these important officials, in certain cultures, were castrated because of their occupations (such as guarding the harem), it is not surprising that, by a quite normal process of semantic change, the expression came to denote a castrated man.”

Eunuch Meaning: Four Possibilities

As a eunuch was someone in charge of the bed chamber(s) in a palace or large home, “jealous” Eastern rulers often required the eunuch to be one “deprived of their virility,” as Smith’s Bible Dictionary expresses.

Smith’s goes on to explain that because this practice was the norm, the word eunuch became saddled with the connotation of castration. “But as some of these [eunuchs] rose to be confidential advisers of their royal master or mistresses, the word was occasionally employed to denote persons in such a position, without indicating anything of their proper manhood.”

1. Eunuch Meaning: Only a Title

The word eunuch can refer only to the title of a court officer or important official to a ruler. For example, Potiphar was an officer (saris) to Pharaoh (Genesis 37:36). But no physical condition of castration or impotence is mentioned, nor is it likely because Potiphar had a wife (Genesis 39).

In 2 Kings 18:17, more literal translations like the ESV, KJV, NASB, and CSB use the term “the Rab-saris” instead of “chief officer,” used in the NIV, or “field commander,” which is used in the NLT.

Rab-saris means “chief eunuch,” specifically to an Assyrian or Babylonian king. This term is used as an official title also in Jeremiah 39:3 and Jeremiah 39:13.

2. Eunuch Meaning: Castrated

Some biblical accounts imply a eunuch’s castration such as in Isaiah 39:7 and 2 Kings 20:18. The prophesies in these two (identical) verses likely refer to castration.

  • “And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” (Isaiah 39:7)
  • “And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.” (2 Kings 20:18)

“Isaiah tells Hezekiah, king of Judah, that his sons will be taken away captive to Babylon and made eunuchs in the service of the king of Babylon,” according to United Bible Societies. “This would then be the case of castration of prisoners of war, as a punishment, and certainly also to put an end to a royal dynasty.”

3. Eunuch Meaning: Unable to Procreate or Choosing a Life of Celibacy

Castrated eunuchs were obviously unable to procreate, but the eunuchs mentioned in Isaiah 56:3-5 and Matthew 19:12 were not necessarily castrated, although they are recorded as living in chastity or unable to procreate for one reason or another.

While Jesus taught on marriage in Matthew 19:1-12, he mentioned eunuchs living lives of singleness in verse 12:

“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

John Gill’s commentary provides a thorough explanation of the three kinds of eunuchs in this verse, defining them as either impotent from birth, castrated by men, or one who voluntarily chose a life of celibacy in order to be freer to serve God’s kingdom.

4. Eunuch Meaning: Physical Condition Is Unclear

The other 39 mentions of eunuchs in the Old Testament focus on the social status and roles of the eunuch rather than his physical condition.  

“In the story of Esther, it is even rather probably that the saris mentioned in Esther 1:10, 12; 2:3, 14-15; 4:4-5, being attached to the service of the royal harem, had been castrated, through this cannot be stated with certainty,” according to this United Bible Societies article.

Other Eunuchs in the Bible

Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Karkas are named as the seven eunuchs who served King Xerxes. They were the ones the king told “to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at. But when the attendants delivered the king’s command, Queen Vashti refused to come” (Esther 1:10-12).

Harbona is mentioned again in Esther 7:9 as the eunuch who informed King Xerxes about “the gallows that Haman prepared for Mordecai” (ESV).

Hegai is mentioned a couple times in the book of Esther as “the king’s eunuch, who [was] in charge of the women” (Esther 2:3). After the Babylonian king Xerxes removed Queen Vashti from her royal position, the king called for select young women to be brought into his harem, under the care of Hegai. Whichever of the young women who pleased the king got to be queen. Esther was one of the women taken into the king’s harem, and Hegai is a key player in her story. In Esther 2:15, Hegai is reported to have given her advice, which helped Esther succeed in becoming the queen.

Shaashgaz was another eunuch of King Xerxes who was “in charge of the concubines” (Esther 2:14).

Hathak was one of Queen Esther’s eunuchs who informed her about Haman’s plan to annihilate the Jews in area (Esther 4:1-9).

An Ethiopian eunuch is unnamed but Acts 8:26-39 says he was “an important official in charge of all the treasury” of the Queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch was traveling back home from worshipping in Jerusalem. He was reading from the book of Isaiah but didn’t understand the messianic prophecy until “an angel of the Lord” (vs. 26) instructed Philip to “go over and join this chariot” (vs. 29). “Then Philip opened his mouth and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (vs. 35) and baptized the eunuch in some nearby water.

This conversion story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-39 shows that eunuchs are welcome in God’s kingdom through faith in Jesus Christ.

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Photo Credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden


Originally published May 13, 2019.