Were Daniel and his friends eunuchs?

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.

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.

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.”

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 namebetter 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.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

19 thoughts on “Were Daniel and his friends eunuchs?”

  1. I think there is another reason to see Daniel as a eunuch and that is because of the book’s placement in the Tanakh. As it contains prophecy, one might at first expect it to be in second section of the Tanakh called The Prophets, but it is placed in the third section called the Writings. This is because this scroll was not kept in the temple with the other prophets, as Daniel was in some sense seen as being with his scroll when it was read, so it was kept outside the temple with others books in the Writings and read there. So 2nd temple Jews saw Daniel as being an actual eunuch.

    1. Don,
      Thanks as always for another valuable contribution to the discussions on this blog. In response I’d say:
      (1) I’m not sure what conclusions we can draw from what works may or may not have been kept in the Temple, as it seems difficult to determine today what books were actually held there. Dr. Ed Gallagher, a scholar of textual and canonical issues relating to the Hebrew Bible, writes in this post, “The evidence makes it probable that the temple housed a collection of scripture, but it is hard (impossible) to know the exact contents of this collection, and it seems unlikely that it contained precisely the Jewish canonical books, no more and no less.” So I would not press the inclusion or exclusion of the book of Daniel from a presumed temple collection as evidence that Daniel was or was not a eunuch.
      (2) Even if Second Temple Judaism did exclude the book from its temple collection, this would go contrary to Isaiah’s insistence that eunuchs who kept the covenant faithfully, as Daniel certainly did, should be welcomed into the community. So if the book was excluded, it should not have been. Nor should we today, as I argue in the post, have a standard “script” for all followers of Jesus (marriage and children) and marginalize those who don’t fit this script.
      Thanks again for your contributions!

  2. They did not have families and as teens they would be distracted as hormones kicked in. To serve better and not deal with the sexual part of a man, and using KJV of the bible they were changed to serve totally the king. Kings did this all the time for others to serve them better. This is just common sense. It was a common practice. Jews did not believe in it but Babylon is pagan and certainly did do this practice. They would have no desire for women or men and what great servants they would be.

    1. I believe the kind of change you’re describing, resulting in single-minded and pure devotion to duty, needs to be the result of inner spiritual transformation and not outward physical measures.

      1. You are right to believe that, but I think that Sharon is describing the Babylonian practice rather than reality. In fact, we can see that Daniel indeed, though outwardly devoted to the king (ie. using his everyday energy for the betterment of Babylon), was fundamentally devoted to his God.

  3. i believed if Daniel and his friend were made eunuch, the bible would have stated that for our lessons we all as Christian have great Lesson to learn from Daniel and his friends.liking the experience to your today life ans how you have following God in the minst of challenges. hold your ground in christ and let heaven be proud of you. your faith can only be proven in face of challenges or difficultis. stand on christ.

  4. I have been listening to audio bible CDs. Geneologies are extensive and voluminous. Look at what is missing – the family heritage of all 4, and any mention of children or wives. Mr. Smith writes “But if it meant “eunuchs,” then it would be as dreaded an outcome as the plundering of the entire royal treasury” This might be the reason their family heritage is missing, becuase it would be shame to their parents who might be of royal descent.

    1. You’re right, biblical characters are typically introduced with some kind of genealogy to indicate their parentage and clan, even if they don’t appear in one of the more extensive genealogies. (For example, “The word of the Lord came to Zephaniah son of Cushi, the son of Gedaliah, the son of Amariah, the son of Hezekiah, during the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah.”) And sometimes a figure’s descendants are named, as in the ten-generation genealogy at the end of the book of Ruth. So I think the absence of genealogies tracing ancestors or descendants for Daniel and his friends provides one more suggestion that they may have been eunuchs. But in that light, I’d repeat what I say at the end of my post: “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.”

  5. If Daniel and his companions were castrated, then why a eunuch has to guard them, and take in charge of them. If Daniel and his companions were castrated what is that King has to fear of his harem?

    1. Eunuchs served in the royal courts of ancient empires in a far wider range of capacities than just as harem guards. The text in the book of Daniel makes clear that the Babylonians had these young Jewish captives in mind for roles such as scribes and royal advisors. That’s why it notes that “to these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning” and that “in every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” Future court servants were unfortunately made eunuchs so that they couldn’t do anything else, i.e. settle down into domestic life and start a family, whether or not they would ever be near the royal harem.

  6. Is it wrong in this present age if a man decides to just seperate Himself for the gospel sake and not marry?
    This is what have been on my mind lately.

    1. I believe that each follower of Jesus needs to consider seriously whether God is calling them to serve Him with the freedom and flexibility of singleness, rather than by getting married (which also provides marvelous opportunities to serve God, but of a different type). Paul commends the option of singleness in his teaching about marriage in 1 Corinthians. Jesus also spoke of those who “choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.” So I would say that it is not wrong to decide not to marry for the sake of the gospel, so long as this decision is the result of carefully seeking God’s guidance through prayer and counsel. God bless you as you reflect upon this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s