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?
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
This passage can be seen as one of the most significant in the Old Testament.
Since there is no record of what is described ever being done, it is more difficult to determine the meaning. Yet one could consider how the law should be applied in a given situation and seek understanding from the plain sense of the passage. That is, apply sound exegesis.
The passage describes a situation and response:
If two men fight together, and the wife of one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand (מִיַּ֣ד) of the one attacking him, and puts out her hand (יָדָ֔הּ) and seizes him by the genitals, (25:11) 1
then you shall cut off her hand (כַּפָּ֑הּ); your eye shall not pity her. (25:12)
What is described seems to be straight forward cause and effect: she used her hand so she loses her hand. That presents a problem:
While physical mutilation is characteristic in the Middle Assyrian Laws, it is nowhere else prescribed in the Bible, except in the formula for talion (19.21, Exod. 21.23-24; Lev. 24.19-20). That formula does not apply here, however, since there is can be no symmetry between injury and punishment. 2
[Talion], "an eye for an eye," seemingly would be violated by the punishment given to the woman.
However, a close examination shows the translation into English is not precise: "hand" in the punishment is not the same "hand" in the offense:
- Verse 11: Hand = יָדָ֔הּ (yad)
- Verse 12: Hand = כַּפָּ֑הּ (kaph)
The precise translation of kaph when used in conjunction with hand is "palm." While the translation is not precise, it makes sense. One way to cut off the palm is to remove the hand. Yet, since it is obvious the Law reads kaph (v12) after using yad (v11), then it follows a different meaning should be considered and invites further study for the correct response when the Law is violated.
Consider a second case where the woman kicked a man with her foot. Does this action violate the Law? Logic says if using the hand is wrong, so is using the foot (which would likely cause more serious injury). Inherent in any Law that prohibits an action is the implication that a similar more serious action is prohibited by the same Law. A woman who kicked a man would not be considered as innocent on the basis that the Law specified the use of the hand. Rather, sound application of the Law would dictate both the use of the hand or the foot were prohibited.
What is logical in application is inherent in punishment: another meaning of kaph is sole (of the foot):
But the dove found no resting place for the sole (kaph) of her foot, and she returned into the ark to him... (Genesis 8:9)
Every place on which the sole (kaph) of your foot treads shall be yours... (Deuteronomy 11:24)
What is logical and reasonable from the nature of the offense is made clear by the use of kaph as the punishment. Sound exegesis of the passage demonstrates the Law prohibits the use of the foot since the required punishment is the removal of the kaph.
However, the ambiguity of kaph presents a valid choice: cut off the palm or the sole? The obvious answer, palm if hand and sole if foot, is not that simple because of the talion which requires "punishment that fits the crime." What damage did the woman do? Was there permanent damage done to the man? If not why should a woman permanently lose a part of her body? There is no logical solution to this issue since there is no way to determine if the man suffered permanent damage, which is the inability to produce a child. Also, even if the man could not produce a child, it could be due to a barren wife (a common theme in Scripture).
A suitable solution begins by expanding the context of the passage. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 is a codification of the levirate marriage (described in Genesis 38). If a man dies without producing an heir his brother is required to to produce a child with the widowed wife to carry on his brother's name. It also addresses 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 (just as Onan in Genesis 38). This fact of life raises a question: how far can a woman go to preserve her husband's life to avoid the potential problems of levirate marriage? Immediately following is the passage which describes a woman trying to save her husband's life.
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? The Law purposely fails to directly connect kaph either to the hand or the foot, in effect giving a choice of punishment. While logic and reason leads to the palm if the hand was used or the sole if the foot was used, the use of kaph within Scripture allows another possibility:
Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket (kaph) of his hip; and the socket (kaph) of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. (Genesis 32:25)
The Law permits "cutting off" a woman's kaph, her hip or pelvic area. That is, she forfeits her right to the levirate marriage. Since she attempted to preserve her husband's life by improperly touching another man, her right to levirate marriage under the Law must be cut off and she shall not be pitied. So the principle of talion is in fact at work here as both the man who was injured and the woman only lose the potential of having a child in the future.
The word kaph is the key to understanding Deuteronomy 25:11-12. It also brings to light some significant facts:
This passage is objective evidence the original language is from God. There is no logical reason why any language would have a single word for 3 separate and unrelated parts of the human body. Yet, such a word is found in Hebrew (and no other language).
The word kaph has been specifically designed for use in this text. In all other places of Scripture, "palm" or "sole" or "socket" could be substituted without changing the meaning of the passage. Only in Deuteronomy 25:12 are all 3 meanings needed. This is objective against the theory of multiple sources for the Torah. It demonstrates a single author was responsible for both the word and its use throughout Genesis to Deuteronomy.
The word kaph is one of the most important words used in Scripture to describe God's plan of redemption of mankind. It is found in the key events of the ark returning to dry land; Jacob's name being changed to Israel; the nation of Israel taking possession of the land.
We should also consider why God would see the need to have a word such as kaph and look for a real event which serves as the origin of this word. This is found in the Garden of Eden on the day they ate from the tree. First they used their palms to pick/receive the fruit. Next they made aprons of figs leaves which the hip keep from falling to cover their body. Finally they were driven out of the garden where the soles of their feet touched the ground.
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.
1. All Scripture from the New King James Version
2. Bernard M. Levenson, The Jewish Study Bible. Jewish Publication Society, 2004, p. 423
Jus Talionis aka Lex Talionis aka "an eye for an eye" is a stated principle of Mosaic/divine juris prudence:
YLT Deu 19:21 and thine eye doth not pity--life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
Since women have no testicles it would be physically impossible to destroy her testicles for having destroyed the man's testicles so the hand is considered commensurate and taken in retribution.
This precept is clearly gender-specific in that it makes no mention of the husband defending himself by crushing his attacker's family jewels and so is a reflection of Moses'/God's sexism. The precept is a reminder that a woman, even if trying to save her husband's life must never treat a man's genitalia without great reverence. The pragmatism of such and act is overshadowed by the societal order. This is what today is called a taboo:
A taboo is a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake, under threat of supernatural punishment...