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gay-friendly texts: Daniel and Ashpenaz

August 2, 2015

BabylonDaniel 1:9 refers to Ashpenaz, the chief of the court officials of Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon.

Various English translations differ greatly:

“Now God had caused the official to show favor and sympathy to Daniel” (NIV)

“Now God had brought Daniel into favor and tender love with the prince of the eunuchs” (KJV)

“Now God made Daniel to find favor, compassion and loving-kindness with the chief of the eunuchs” (Amplified Bible)

“Now, as it happens, God had given the superintendent a special appreciation for Daniel and sympathy for his predicament” (Living Bible)

“Then God granted Daniel favor and sympathy from the chief of the eunuchs” (Modern Language)

“Though God had given Daniel the favor and sympathy of the chief chamberlain…” (New American Bible)

“God made Ashpenaz want to be kind and merciful to Daniel” (New Century Version)

“And God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs” (Revised Standard Version)

“God caused the master to look on Daniel with kindness and goodwill” (Revised English Version)


conservatives generally view the friendship of Daniel and Ashpenaz as totally non-sexual. It is inconceivable that God would allow a famous prophet of Israel to engage in a same-gender sexual relationship.

liberals detect the possibility of a homosexual relationship here. The Hebrew words which describe the relationship between Daniel and Ashpenaz are chesed v’rachamim The most common translation of chesed is “mercy”. V’rachamim is in a plural form which is used to emphasize its relative importance. It has multiple meanings: “mercy” and “physical love”. It is unreasonable that the original Hebrew would read that Ashpenaz “showed mercy and mercy.” A more reasonable translation would thus be that Ashpenaz “showed mercy and engaged in physical love” with Daniel.

Of course, this would be unacceptable to later translators, so they substitute more innocuous terms. The KJV reference to “tender love” would appear to be the closest to the truth. One might question whether Daniel and Ashpenaz could sexually consummate their relationship. They were both eunuchs. Apparently, when males are castrated after puberty, they still retain sexual drive. It is interesting to note that no other romantic interest or sexual partner of Daniel was mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

Verses that may imply Daniel was a eunuch:

The divine judgement spoken by Isaiah to Hezekiah may have included Daniel and his friends.

(2 Kings 20:18) ‘And they shall take away some of your sons who will descend from you, whom you will beget; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’

Daniel was under the charge to the chief of eunuchs and given a new name by the eunuch.

(Daniel 1:3) Then the king instructed Ashpenaz, the master of his eunuchs, to bring some of the children of Israel

(Daniel 1:7) To them the chief of the eunuchs gave names

IshtarVerses that may imply Daniel was not a eunuch:

Ezekiel, a contemporary of Daniel, implied that Daniel would not be able to save neither son nor daughter.

(Ezekiel 14:20) Even though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither son nor daughter; they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.”

Daniel and his friends’ well-being were very important to the king, even given a portion of the king’s delicacies. If they languished in health, the king would have the chief eunuch’s head. These circumstances imply a status that is different than an eunuch.

(Daniel 1:5) And the king appointed for them a daily provision of the king’s delicacies and of the wine which he drank, and three years of training for them, so that at the end of that time they might serve before the king.

(Daniel 1:10) For why should he see your faces looking worse than the young men who are your age? Then you would endanger my head before the king.”

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: 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 honoured 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 honoured 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.”

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From → Biblical, Sexuality

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