We are told in this verse about the case in which a wife who, in helping her husband fend off an attacker, seizes the attacker by the genitals. The verse tells the husband that he must cut off her hand. Is this some kind of bizarre ancient joke or parody? Was this actually done?
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The issue described is not a joke. I believe when properly understood, this passage should be seen as one of the most significant in the Old Testament.
There is no written record of what is described ever being done. That is one of the reasons it is difficult to determine the meaning. Lacking a real event to demonstrate how this should be applied, we are left with hypothetical discussions.
In this passage of Scripture the first verse describes a situation:
The next verse describes the response:
What is described seems to be straight forward. There is a cause: she used her hand. There is a consequence: she loses her hand.
Except the translation from the Hebrew into English is not correct. The word translated as "hand" in verse 12 is not the same word in verse 11:
The more accurate translation of kaph when used in conjunction with hand is "palm." While the translation is inaccurate it makes sense. One way to cut off the palm is to remove the hand.
Since it is clear the author purposely chose kaph (v12) after using yad (v11), then it follows that a different meaning should be sought.
Suppose the woman in verse 11 kicked the man with her foot instead of grabbing with her hands. Would she violate The Law? Common sense says if using the hands is wrong, so is kicking (which is likely to do greater harm). This is not stated in verse 11; it is a logical conclusion. If the Law prohibits an action, then a similar more serious action is also prohibited.
Another meaning of kaph is sole (of the foot):
What is inferred by logic and reason is made clear by the choice of kaph. Using traditional rabbinic midrash, an Old Testament judge would recognize the author purposely used a word kaph which expands the application of the actions described in v11.
Now should a judge cut off the palm or the sole? One way to approach this decision is seen in all translations of this verse into another language. The Septuagint and all subsequent English translations read "cut off the hand."
Except the Biblical principle is "eye for eye" and the translations make no allowance for consideration of whether the woman's action caused any lasting damage. Why should a woman permanently lose a part of her body if her action did not result in any permanent damage to the man? Moreover there is no logical solution to this issue since there is no way to determine if the man suffered permanent damage. Even if he did not produce a child (the real potential harm), it could be a result from his wife (who is barren - a common theme in Scripture).
It is at this point that discussions usually devolve into doctrinal debates for which there is no clear resolution.
An answer can be found by applying the traditional midrash methods in use before the Christian Era. First, this passage immediately follows one which deals with the Law of levirate marriage. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 is a modification of the principal (described in Genesis 38). If a man dies without producing an heir his brother is supposed to marry the wife and have children to carry on his brother's name. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 reduces the requirement from marriage to producing a single child. It also deals with the situation where the brother refuses to perform this duty.
The passage addresses a reality that some men will fail to comply with the Law (like Onan in Genesis 38). This possibility raises a question: how far can a woman go to preserve her husband's life and avoid the issue/problems of levirate marriage? Deuteronomy 25:11-12 immediately follows and can be seen as addressing that question.
What penalty should be imposed if a woman tries to save her husband's life by injuring a man (who is not her husband) in the genitals? A thoughtful judge will also recognize the author purposely failed to directly connect kaph either to the hand or the foot. This would give them the right to choose what to "cut off." While logic and reason suggests the palm if the hand was used or the sole if the foot was used, a judge who searched the Scripture would recognize there is a third meaning for the word kaph:
A judge could "cut off" a woman's kaph as in her hip or pelvic area. He could do this by removing her right to the levirate marriage. Since she attempted to preserve her husband's life by improperly touching another man, she forfeits (or terminates) her right to have another man touch her hip/pelvic area to give her husband an heir. Thus "eye for eye" is upheld as both the man who was injured and the woman only lose the future possibility of having a child.
The word kaph is the key to understanding Deuteronomy 25:11-12. It also brings to light some significant facts:
We can also consider why God would see the need to have a word such as kaph and look for a real event which would serve as the origin of this word. This can be found in the Garden of Eden on the day they ate from the tree. First they used their hands to pick/receive the fruit. Next they made aprons of figs leaves to cover their body. (The hip is used to keep the apron on the body.) Finally they were driven out of the garden and the soles of their feet would touch the ground to be tilled (until foot coverings were used).
God, the True Source of all Scripture, created the Hebrew language with a word that encompasses all three part of the human body involved in the rebellion of mankind in the Garden of Eden.
Jewish law interprets this as an enjoineder against using undue force in a confrontation. If the action were justified, there'd be no punishment.
In addition, the Talmud considers 'cutting off the hand' as indicating the payment of a fine--one's hand seen as figuratively as the recipient of (financial) gain.
In Jewish penal law there may be a death penalty but there is no mutilation of bodies/ hacking off limbs etc