The eunuch (Isaiah 56)

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Illustration: A group of royal eunuch servants with swords approaching the king of Assyria 

The compassion of God is poignantly illustrated in the reference to the eunuch in Isaiah 56:3-5, an allusion that must be understood in light of Deuteronomy 23:1, a text forbidding eunuchs from entering the assembly of the Lord. The word translated “eunuch” in Isaiah is saris, which is most likely a loanword from an Akkadian phrase meaning “one at the head of (the king)”. As id probably true in Hebrew, the Akkadian meaning evolved from the more general sense of “officer, official” to “castrated official”. Potiphar, in Genesis 39:1, was a saris, but this early use of the word meant only “official”, not “eunuch”. However, the time frame and context of Isaiah 56:3-4 require that the reader understand saris as “a castrated person”.

Although some have attempted to relate this reference to some kind of historical reality, specifically to a return of exiles who had served as castrated officials in foreign courts (perhaps including Nehemiah), the primary focus should remain on the message: What defiles a person before God is not physical deformity but an unrepentant heart (cf. Matthew 15:10-20).

The divine promise to give a “memorial” and a name to the faithful eunuch is quite profound. A eunuch could never have attained a memorial or passed along his name by means of having children. Also, the deliberate choice of the Hebrew noun “hand” (translated “memorial”) and the verb “cut off” in Isaiah 56:5 is remarkable. In the ancient Near East the word hand was often used euphemistically for the male genitals. God will provide a symbolic overturning in eternity of what has been taken away from the eunuch in the present. The prophetic foreshadowing, possibly of Nehemiah and certainly of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, is striking.


 

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