Why does God make eunuchs? (Matthew 19:12)

As I was standing in the checkout line at the grocery store this week, I saw a news story about a five year old transgender child. It elicited a mixture of reactions inside of me. I get angry at the way that our scientistic world so ruthlessly diagnoses and categorizes everything. How many 13 year old kids today do not have some variation of attention deficit disorder? How many young children today are not in some form of occupational therapy for developmental delays and sensory disorders? (My older son does OT and my younger son is being evaluated for it.) Part of me is tempted to categorize this kid’s transgender identity with all the other diagnoses of the parenting expert industrial complex that has overtaken our society like kudzu. At the same time, I’ve met people who were clearly anatomically female and hormonally male and vice-versa. I’ve seen boys who acted completely like girls at too young an age for it to be a product of socialization. Many social conservatives assume transgender identity was invented in the sexual revolution. But what if it’s always been around among people who have lived in the shadows? What if God has created some people not male or female, but male-and-female? Jesus says that He can.

In Matthew 19, Jesus is responding to a question about divorce. In verses 4-6, he lays out the traditional understanding of gender presented by the Torah. God created people male and female. Men leave their fathers and mothers in order to become one flesh with a woman, the implication being that their genders perfectly complement one another in a way that they can be united. Several NC preachers used Matthew 19 as a text last month to preach in defense of traditional marriage, which works as long as you stop before verse 10, because that’s where Jesus’ disciples say, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Then Jesus says that his disciples should emulate eunuchs, whom he categorizes into three types: “There are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

Eunuchs in the ancient world were men who were castrated so that they could guard the king’s wives and concubines without being tempted to have sex with them. They were thus men who lacked the one definitive aspect of manhood. A eunuch who is “born that way” is definitively neither male nor female, whether it’s a hardware or software question. The use of the term signifies simply one who is incapable of impregnating a woman. Why would God create someone like that if His entire purpose in creating men and women is to marry them off and make babies with them? The problem is that Jesus’ words don’t always fit very neatly into the agenda of the Young Reformed and Restless movement to restore the “traditional”  gender roles of the (Eisenhower-era middle-upper-class) family.

In Matthew 19:11-12, Jesus effectively makes eunuchs the vanguard of His movement, whether they are non-gendered because of God’s choice, somebody else’s choice, or their own choice. Jesus says that “not everyone can accept” the calling to be a eunuch, but “the one who can accept this should accept it.” Of course, the implication is that eunuchs are celibate, but it’s significant that Jesus elevates to elite status a category of people who were explicitly prohibited from entering the temple in Deuteronomy 23:1 (“No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord”). Jesus could have honored celibacy without equating it with a ritually unclean category of person. Instead he chooses to champion non-gendered people.

I don’t know why God creates people who fall outside of gender normality. I do sense from other stories in the Bible that God actively resists our tendency to moralize normality. When we try to say it’s a sin for someone to be born with hormones or organs that are not normal, that’s what we’re doing. The problem with moralizing normality is not only that it results in the persecution of those who are born different, but it cheapens morality as well since what we’re usually doing is designing our moral system around the purpose of validating our own default “normal” behavior. Perhaps God puts people in our lives who fall outside the norms of identity to force us to refine our moral imagination.

In any case, I don’t think that transgender identity can be reduced to a social fad. Maybe some hippie parents out there want to give their children names like Moonbeam and raise them in a “post-gender” kind of way. I’m not comfortable with that because that seems to go beyond accepting those who fall outside the norm and fetishizing difference as an ideal. If you have a boy who can’t imagine being anything other than a boy, isn’t it going to mess him up for you to try and make him into Ziggy Stardust just as badly as if he were hormonally female and you tried to beat him into being manly? Bottom line is we don’t know where other people are coming from or what’s going on inside their bodies. What we do know if we take Jesus at His word is that “there are eunuchs who were born that way.”

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8 thoughts on “Why does God make eunuchs? (Matthew 19:12)

  1. Pingback: Transgender Body Politics vs. the Facts of Life | Darrow Miller and Friends

  2. “Then Jesus says that his disciples should emulate eunuchs,” – Believe this is a fundamental interpretation mistake, for the verse begins saying this teaching is not for everybody.
    Charles Darwin noted in his research ‘Origin of Species’ that every species portray samples with rudimentary defects. If a woman is born with a few rudimentary sexual organs she too is sometimes classified as a eunuch.(eg.mayer rokitansky kuster hauser syndrome ). However these cases do not come to light and what is assumed is that eunuchs were males who underwent castration. Further, the interpretation of the ‘calling’ is also out of context for elsewhere Jesus says of ‘eunuchs’ if you observe the sabbath 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… But, the question that intrigues me most is why Jesus speaks of divorce and eunuchs in the same verse?

  3. Good post.

    I think the flip-side of the coin to people who declare “abnormal” = “sinful” is when people appeal to Jesus’ eunuch saying to argue for acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships…when the entire point is that eunuchs–regardless of how they became eunuchs–were characterized by their inability to have sex. As you point out above, they were celibate (though some in the Greco-Roman and ANE worlds were likely victims of forced sexual abuse). It’s unfortunate that many of the people who DO focus on this passage (rather than ignoring it) read into it FAR more than is actually there.

    • Fair enough but the idea that God has created a strictly binary gendered order takes a hit from Matthew 19:12. Many arguments for a decontextualized, universal condemnation of same-gender relationships in the Bible ultimately appeal to an inherently binary gendered order to creation. I’m just glad that my two boys are pretty unequivocally male for the sake of struggles they won’t have to go through.

      • No not at all. XX and XY are binary. Certainly because of our fallen world and therefore our fallen genetics some people are born with chromosomal abnormalities but that’s not because God choose them to be that way but that our genetics are affected by sin. Gods created genders are male and female.

        • I disagree based on what I’ve seen. And I don’t think people who are different than the “norm” in terms of their hormones are that way because of sin. That is entirely extra-Biblical speculation on your part, though I’m sure you have proof-texts which you’ve twisted to back it up.

  4. The only children free from the influences of socialization are newborns, and I don’t think that newborns exhibit gendered behavior.

    My five year old thinks that he’s a muppet. I’m not going to dramatically alter our lives and embrace felt rights unless that self-selfidentification survives adolescence.

    • Like I said, I do think that the parenting expert industrial complex can influence parents of a five year old boy say oh, he’s really a girl, instead of oh, he likes to dance and carry around dolls. At the same time, there are kids who really are born with a mismatch between the hormone and organ or even have a combination/mix of organs. We don’t have to deny their existence on the basis of defending our abstract doctrines.

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