Emasculating daniel

Q. Were Daniel and his friends (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) eunuchs?

This is an important question because the answer helps inform how the community of Jesus’ followers should relate to those who are not able to have children.

The book of Daniel tells us that these young exiles were taken to Babylon and placed in the care of the “chief of the eunuchs” (ESV). The Hebrew word is saris, the specific word that was used to describe a man in the ancient world who had been emasculated in order to fill a religious or governmental role.

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However, saris also came to have a more general meaning, “government official,” not implying emasculation, because those who were actually eunuchs eventually filled a variety of important positions, after first being used to guard royal harems. Potiphar in Genesis, for example, is called a saris even though he is married (the ESV calls him an “officer”). And according to Jeremiah, the Judean kings had officials known as sarisim (the plural) in their courts, even though emasculation was strictly forbidden in the law of Moses and, to discourage the practice, eunuchs were excluded from religious and civic life in ancient Israel. So these Judean officials were likely not emasculated, either.

So we see that the Hebrew word saris, used to describe Daniel and his friends, can mean either a literal eunuch, or more generally a government official. For this reason the NASB calls the Babylonian officer in charge of Daniel and his friends the “commander of the officials,” the NLT calls him the “chief of staff,” and the NIV the “chief official.”

So how can we tell whether saris in the story of Daniel and his friends is being used in the literal sense, meaning “eunuch,” or in the more general sense, simply meaning “government official”? We have two clues elsewhere in the Bible that suggest the literal meaning is actually in view.

After Hezekiah shows the Babylonian envoys all the treasures of the kingdom of Judea, the prophet Isaiah warns him, “All that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. . . . And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs [sarisim] in the palace of the king of Babylon.” If this simply meant “leading officials,” it would not be an ominous warning of judgment. But if it meant “eunuchs,” then it would be as dreaded an outcome as the plundering of the entire royal treasury, because (in addition to the dishonor already associated with being a eunuch) it would represent the destruction of the kingdom’s future hope in addition to its past heritage. So this is likely a prediction that some Judean exiles of royal blood, such as Daniel and his friends, would be made eunuchs by the Babylonians.

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The other clue comes after the time of exile. The book of Isaiah addresses two groups of people who would have come back to Judea with the returning exiles but who would have wondered whether they had any place in the restored community. The response to them is a splendid passage that is worth quoting in its entirety:

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

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The basis of inclusion in the community is now simply faithful covenant-keeping. The former restrictions against eunuchs and foreigners, which had the original important intention of protecting the community from pagan religious influences and practices, are now superseded by a more vital consideration in these post-exilic circumstances.

But more specifically to our point here, it appears that some Judeans had indeed been made eunuchs in the exile, and that is why they were wondering what their place was in the restored community. In light of these two clues it does seem likely, although not altogether certain, that Daniel and his friends were made eunuchs by the Babylonians.

And yet Daniel is one of the most honored and respected figures in the rest of the Bible. God tells Ezekiel, for example, “When a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it . . .even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness.” That’s pretty good company for Daniel to be in. And Jesus himself honored Daniel as a prophet and spoke of his visions being fulfilled.

So while we should grieve at the cruelty that Daniel and his friends suffered at the hands of the Babylonians, we should also recognize that if a person is not able to have children, for whatever reason, this does not mean that they should be treated as a second-class citizen (or even worse, as unwelcome) in the community of Jesus’ followers. Instead, they should be seen as someone potentially with faith and gifts as great as Daniel’s. The community should provide encouragement and opportunities for every such person to serve and share fully in its life, so that they may have “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters in God’s house and within His walls.”

Briton Rivere, “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1890). One of several incidents in Daniel’s life that expressed his great faith and courage.

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