My contribution to the 2013 Queer Theology Synchroblog looks at the creation of queer theology, and how one of the best starting points is to see and name who is clearly queer in the text.
If you go to almighty Google and type in a search List of Men in the Bible, you will find loads of sites that give you an exhaustive outline of all the biblical men. Similarly a search for Women in the Bible will cough up hefty results. But try googling List of Eunuchs in the Bible. You will get web results, no doubt, but no simple listing of the names of the many biblical eunuchs and where they appear in the text. For that list you will have to do more digging and likely compile your own.
Consider virtually every sermon you have heard about the Book of Esther or any Purim celebration you attended, even in super queer-friendly churches and synagogues. Off the top of your head name the characters speakers highlight related to this story. Esther/Hadassah. Mordecai. Haman. These are the big three people can name from memory. Then there is some king, a deposed queen, oh, and a eunuch.
The king, (known as Xerxes, Ahashuerus, or Khshayarshan depending on the Greek, Hebrew, or Persian form of the name) plays a key role in the story as the easily offended ruler waiting for things to happen. Vashti, the queen, who refuses to parade around in front of the king’s male guests, sometimes gets a shoutout for being a strong woman in a man’s world. Then there is the eunuch in charge of the royal harem.
Actually there are a dozen eunuchs in the Book of Esther each with a delicious name that fills the mouth. I like to read their names out loud.
Eunuchs appear in every chapter of the Book of Esther and take on many different roles. Sure Hegai oversees the women’s quarters and puts Hadassah/Esther through a rigorous beauty and diet regime. Hegai even tells Esther what to bring into the bedroom chamber when it is time for her to perform for the king as part of the Persia’s Next Top Queen competition. But the eunuchs have much more latitude, roles, and responsibilities in the text than most retellings of the story reveal.
Eunuchs serve as messengers, advisors, guards, assassins, and soldiers. In fact, on the chess board of the Persian court, all non-eunuchs are mostly stuck in place. The king stays in his section of the palace, Esther in hers, and her kinsman, Mordecai, has to sit outside until escorted in. The only people who get to move freely from place to place, in and out of the palace and into every palatial space are the eunuchs.
In the ancient world a eunuch was a non-procreative male, usually castrated, and often castrated before puberty. This means they typically did not experience puberty with the rush of testosterone bringing about the lowering of the voice, the development of body hair, facial hair, muscles, and over time, a prominent brow. They looked and sounded different from the men and women around them. They would have stood out in Persia. In some places of the ancient world others considered them, and perhaps they considered themselves, another sex or a third gender. In the olden times there were men, women, and eunuchs, not a simple binary. In scripture eunuchs pop up throughout the Hebrew Bible and make brief but important appearances in the Christian Bible.
Most people in the ancient world likely did not willingly choose to become a eunuch, even if being one meant service in a royal court with access to powerful people and information. This is likely true for many of the eunuchs in Bible stories. Perhaps because of painful experiences in life, they empathize with “the other” alongside them in the text; they relate to the vulnerable. Jeremiah is rescued by Ebed Melech, an Ethiopian eunuch (Jeremiah 38.) Daniel, like Esther is parented and trained by a royal eunuch, Ashpenaz. Some scholars say there is evidence that Daniel and his friends serve as eunuchs in the Babylonian court. These are a handful of the dozens of eunuchs in the Bible.
But back to Esther. I recently heard a sermon at an LGBTQ religious gathering where the minister spoke about Esther, who “for such a time as this” is made queen of Persia so that she can save her people against the evil plot of the very evil Haman. It is a good story, and we can make lots of modern applications for how we too can take a stand today and put our lives on the line for justice. It is also a story about a woman with power (even if it is limited power that comes with great risks) within ancient texts where women typically do not have much power. BUT (yes I have a big BUT) once again, in a queer-friendly sermon, the gender variant, sexual minorities in the text were completely overlooked, much like they are in our modern society and our LGBTQ-friendly religious spaces.
Yes, Esther saves the people by appearing before the king pleading her case, but without the eunuchs she would have been far from the court, an unknown orphaned Jewish young woman. Even in the palace she cannot speak directly with her kinsman, Mordecai, who urges her to act. She needs eunuchs to ferry messages back and forth, to set up the lunches for the king, to help her save her people.
In queering a text, one of the first steps may simply be to acknowledge those individuals already in that text who are presented as sexual minorities. It is not terribly radical actually, but it can go a long way to open up a discussion about otherness in the Bible and the essential roles that non-gender normative people play in it and in the world today. If you see yourself as an LGBTQ ally, the next time you talk give a sermon or perform a skit about the Book of Esther, go out of your way to include the eunuchs. Do not overlook the gender-variant, sexual minorities all over the page.
Special thanks to Janet Everhart and her excellent dissertation, The Hidden Eunuchs of the Hebrew Bible–Uncovering an Alternative Gender
and to Jane Brazell for her editorial help, inspiration, and feedback.
Check out the other synchroblog entries:
Queering Our Reading of the Bible by Chris Henrichsen
Queer Creation in art: Who says God didn’t create Adam and Steve? by Kittrdge Cherry
Of The Creation of Identity (Also the Creation of Religion) by Colin & Terri
God, the Garden, & Gays: Homosexuality in Genesis by Brian G. Murphy, for Queer Theology
Created Queerly–Living My Truth by Casey O’Leary
Creating Theology by Fr. Shannon Kearns
Initiation by Blessed Harlot
B’reishit: The Divine Act of Self-Creation by Emily
Queer Creation: Queering the Image of God by Alan Hooker
Queer Creation by Ric Stott
Eunuch-Inclusive Esther–Queer Theology 101 by Peterson Toscano
Valley of Dry Bones by Jane Brazelle
Queer Creation: Queer Angel by Tony Street
The Great Welcoming by Anna Spencer