Who is “the Eunuch” in Isaiah 56?
When reading Isaiah 56:3-7, the reader is left with the impression that the righteous gentiles who keep the Sabbath of YHVH, would have doubts that the Lord would accept them. This article will challenge the translation of the Hebrew word saris commonly translated as “eunuch” and will bring the reader to the true message of YHVH.
And let not the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to Yehovah speak, saying, ‘Yehovah has certainly separated me from His people,’ nor let the eunuch say, ‘Look I am a dry tree.’ For thus said Yehovah, To the eunuchs who guard My Shabbats, and have chosen what pleases Me, and are holding onto My covenant: to them I shall give in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters – I give them an everlasting name that is not cut off. Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to Yehovah, to serve Him, and to love the Name of Yehovah, to be His servants, all who guard the Shabbat, and not profane it, and are holding onto My covenant – them I shall bring to My set-apart mountain, and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their ascending offerings and their slaughtering are accepted on My slaughter-place, for My house is called a house of prayer for all the peoples. (Isaiah 56:3-7)
First, let us consider the Hebrew word for “foreigner” or “stranger” as it is commonly translated in Isaiah 56. When a reader encounters the words “foreigner” or “stranger” the first perception that comes to mind is that a gentile of a non-Jewish descent is meant in the text. And in some cases it is so.
However, there are three Hebrew words that are commonly translated as “foreigner” or “stranger” and they are ger, toshav, and neikar. Ger is a gentile who has accepted the faith in the God of Avraham, Yitschak, and Ya’akov, and has become part of the nation of Israel; in other words, a ger is a convert.
Another word for foreigner is toshav and as seen in Gen 23:4, where Avraham called himself a ger and toshav. And indeed he was a ger, a convert, because YHVH took him out of the Babylon, but he was also a toshav, because he was travelling in the land of Kana’an from place to place, and was considered by the locals as such: a traveler. So, toshav means a traveler.
In our prophecy in Isaiah 56, however, a different Hebrew word is used behind “stranger” and that is נֵכָר neikar. This word can be found in Gen 35:2, Gen 35:4, Deu 32:12, Jos 24:20, etc., where it is always associated with paganism. But probably the best place to find its true and literal meaning is in Mal 2:11, as we read,
Yehudah has acted treacherously, and an abomination has been done in Israel and in Yerushalayim, for Yehudah has profaned what is set-apart to Yehovah – which He had loved – and has married the daughter of a foreign god. (Mal 2:11)
So, how do we translate the Hebrew word נֵכָר neikar? The medieval Tanak commentator Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040 – 1105) translates neikar as “estranged one” whose deeds have become estranged from his Father in heaven. According to Rashi, both a gentile and an Israelite apostate are meant in the Hebrew word neikar — [this we find in Mechilta]. Therefore, we can translate neikar as an estranged or alienated one; and a native Israelite, who was once in the faith but is no longer, is also a neikar.
In Isaiah 56, however, we find the word neikar in an entirely different context. We read, the sons of the neikars who join themselves to Yehovah, to serve Him, and to love the Name of Yehovah. “Who” here can only possibly refer to the sons of the neikars, not to the neikars (heathens) themselves, who have chosen to leave their pagan culture and joined themselves to YHVH to serve Him together with His people.
The classical example of such a choice of faith is the former Moabite Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David and Yeshua the Messiah. We read,
Do not urge me to leave you, or to go back from following after you. For wherever you go, I go; and wherever you stop over, I stop over. Your people is my people, and your Elohim is my Elohim. Where you die, I die, and there I shall be buried. Yehovah do so to me, and more also – for death itself parts you and me. (Rth 1:16-17)
The next word in question is “eunuch”, סָרִיס saris in Hebrew. If saris means “eunuch” (as commonly translated), it seems that the anxiety of the saris is that as a dry tree is unable to bring forth fruits, so is he unable to bring forth fruits. And since he cannot bring forth offspring, the Lord will certainly separate him from His people. That makes a little sense. Such a loose interpretation based on a poor translation of the word סָרִיס saris in Isaiah 56 distorts the true meaning of YHVH’s message to the converts.
Furthermore, if סָרִיס saris means “eunuch”, where can we find it in the Hebrew Scripture with the meaning of “one who is castrated”? Actually, nowhere. None of the occurrences of the Hebrew word saris can even be remotely related to “eunuch”, one who is castrated or mutilated.
Wherever the word סָרִיס saris is translated as “eunuch” is nothing less than an assumption on the part of the translators influenced by the practice in the pagan cultures to castrate the officers in charge of harems, the women’s headquarters. However, no such a practice can be found in Israel, nor is it found anywhere in the Torah. Nor should we translate the word סָרִיס saris in Isaiah 56 as “eunuch”.
There are only two occurrences in Deu 23:1 and Lev 21:17-20 in which the Hebrew text indeed speaks of castrated males, but no particular Hebrew word is used, let alone סָרִיס saris.
However, we can see how the translators have rendered סָרִיס saris (in places other than Isaiah 56:3-7) with its literal and correct meaning, as follows:
chamberlains: Est 1:10, Est 1:12, Est 1:15, Est 2:21, Est 4:4-5, Est 6:2, Est 6:14, Est 7:9;
officers: Gen 40:2, Gen 40:7, 1Sa 8:15, 2Ki 24:12, 2Ki 24:15, 1Ch 28:1, 2Ch 18:8;
officer: Gen 37:36, Gen 39:1, 1Ki 22:9, 2Ki 8:6, 2Ki 25:19;
chamberlain: 2Ki 23:11, Est 2:3, Est 2:14-15.
We should notice how the word סָרִיס saris is used in the context of the passages above in order to understand its literal meaning: an official loyal and trusted one in the inner circle of a king. And so should we translate saris in Isaiah 56.
Or, for instance in Jer 34:18-20, where the plain context is the heads of Yehudah: the “saris”, the priests and others who transgressed the Covenant by having profaned the commandment of YHVH.
Let us consider also the tradition of the rabbis who say that Pharaoh married Yoseph to Potiphar’s daughter (Gen 41:45). But in Gen 39:1 Potiphar is called saris. How could a saris have a daughter, if he was “eunuch”, a castrate? Whether this Potiphar was Yoseph’s master or a priest of On, is not that important. What is more important is that the sages did not consider saris a castrate, but one loyal to Pharaoh, a high-ranking officer.
How about the Apostolic Scripture? Can we see סָרִיס saris (eunuch) anywhere in it? We read thus,
And he arose and went, and saw, a man of Kush, a eunuch of great authority under Kandake the queen of the Kushites, who was in charge of all her treasury, and had come to Yerushalayim to worship, (Act 8:27)
The man in Act 8:27 appears to be a proselyte, since he seems to be making the Torah-required pilgrimage to Jerusalem, according to Deu 16:16. The Torah, however, forbids any eunuch (not saris) both from becoming a proselyte (Deu 23:1) and from worshipping at the Temple (Lev 21:17-20).
Also, consider Yeshua’s teaching in the Hebrew text of Mat 19:12, Hebrew Gospel of Matthew by George Howard, Mercer University Press, 1995. Here the Messiah gives an explanation of what saris means in the context:
Because there are “saris”, from their birth; these are those who have not sinned. There are “saris” made by man and there are self-made “saris” who subdue their desire for the sake of the kingdom in heaven; these are those who enter into great prominence. Whoever is able to understand let him understand.
“Self-made eunuch” could hardly mean that someone has cut his member to enter the kingdom in heaven, or that there are “eunuchs from their birth” meaning they have been castrated while still in his mother’s womb. What could saris possibly mean in the context of Mat 19:12, but one who is faithful and loyal? And this is the true meaning of the Hebrew word סָרִיס saris.
Therefore, we can translate Mat 19:12 thus,
Because there are believers from their birth; these are those who have not sinned. There are believers made by man and there are self-made believers who subdue their desire for the sake of the kingdom in heaven; these are those who enter into great prominence. Whoever is able to understand let him understand.
Also, consider the Apocrypha of Wis 3:14, in order to understand the Hebraic meaning of saris. We read,
And blessed is the “saris”, which with his hands hath wrought no iniquity, nor imagined wicked things against Elohim: for unto him shall be given the special gift of faith, and an inheritance in the temple of the Lord more acceptable to his mind.
Per Dr. Uri Gabbay who teaches Sumerian, Akkadian, and the history and cultures of ancient Mesopotamia in Hebrew University in Jerusalem, saris is actually an Akkadian word, not Hebrew (Akkadian is a cousin language to Hebrew). Saris in Akkadian means “he of the head” or “he of the king“, or in other words, saris is a high rank official in Assyria and Babylon.
The meaning of the Hebrew word סָרִיס saris seems to be derived from an Assyrian term: ‘He who is head (to the king)’ (New Bible Dictionary, Jensen (ZA 7, 1892, 174A.1) and Zimmern (ZDMG 53, 1899, 116 A2). The Akkadian title ša rěši (šarri) means “the one of the (king’s) head.”
How saris has made its entry into the translations to mean “eunuch” we cannot tell for sure, but it is obvious that this word, as used in Genesis in a word-play, is an old Hebrew word meaning one of loyalty and faith. We read,
And Yoseph had been taken down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer (סְרִיס saris) of Pharaoh, captain (שַׂר sar) of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelite’ who had taken him down there. (Gen 39:1)
As we have studied Isaiah 56 diligently, we read the prophecy anew,
And let not the son of the foreigner who has joined himself to Yehovah speak, saying, ‘Yehovah has certainly separated me from His people,’ nor let the faithful say, ‘Look I am a dry tree.’ For thus said Yehovah, To the faithful who guard My Shabbats, and have chosen what pleases Me, and are holding onto My covenant: to them I shall give in My house and within My walls a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters – I give them an everlasting name that is not cut off. Also the sons of the foreigner who join themselves to Yehovah, to serve Him, and to love the Name of Yehovah, to be His servants, all who guard the Shabbat, and not profane it, and are holding onto My covenant – them I shall bring to My set-apart mountain, and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their ascending offerings and their slaughtering are accepted on My slaughter-place, for My house is called a house of prayer for all the peoples. (Isaiah 56:3-7)
So, why would the faithful say, “Look I am a dry tree”? Probably, because he thinks he has not brought forth enough fruits before YHVH. But, YHVH says, “Do not say that! You have kept My Sabbaths.”
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.