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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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Summary
It's possible to presume the man suffered the serious injury of being unable to father children and so the woman should be punished severely. However, even in the event of serious injury (which is not explicit), there is a significant legal conflict if the punishment is to "cut off her hand" as it is nearly universally translated:

As is widely recognized, this is the only specific law in the Hebrew Bible that apparently imposes a punishment of physical mutilation on the offender.1

There is no record of this law being enforced and historically it may be rationalized as an improvement over similar laws of other cultures. For example, Middle Assyrian (1100 BC) law states a woman's finger is to be amputated if she injures a man's testicle during a quarrel and if she injures both they are to gouge out both of her [...]2 (likely "eyes"). However, where the Assyrian law specifies the man was injured, Deuteronomy is silent. It is possible to assume permanent damage, but the text states the offense is simply "seizing the genitals." As it is reads, the issue is straightforward, the woman's punishment is for improperly touching a man who was not her husband. This has always been problematic:

There seems to be no question in the Talmudic and medieval Jewish tradition that the law imposes amputation of the women's hand, and the extreme severity of that sanction seems to have troubled the ancients no less than it does moderns.3

In his paper, You Shall Cut Off Her...Palm? A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25:11-12, Jerome T. Walsh resolves the difficulties by examining the phrase וְקַצֹּתָ֖ה אֶת־ כַּפָּ֑הּ and concludes:

...the most likely translation for Deut. 25:12a is, 'you shall shave [the hair of] her groin.' This is philologically and lexically superior to the standard translations, in that it interprets the verb in an acceptation that is attested for the qal, makes sense of the shift from the יָד of the crime to the כַּף of the punishment, and obviates the odd image of trying to amputate the palm of someone's hand.4

Shaving the pubic hair resolves the issue of amputation, but raises a different legal issue (see below). So as an alternative, I believe a judge could rule the punishment would be to terminate the woman's right a child through levirate marriage.

The Law
A judge must rule in accordance with the entire Law. If the punishment is amputation, as it is traditionally understood, the principle of talion, "an eye for an eye" is violated:

This law, like the preceding one, deals with threats to reproduction; it provides a corollary to Exod. 21.22-25, where a case involving a pregnant woman is used to develop the law of talion. The rationale for the punishment is difficult. 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 can be no symmetry between injury and punishment. Since no physical injury to the male is actually specified, the issue may rather be the perceived insult to dignity or to decency (compare Laws of Hammurabi §195)5

Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is a corollary to Exodus 21:22-25, where talion is first recorded:

If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22-25) [NKJV]

As the principle of talion is first given in this related passage, "cut off her hand" becomes more untenable. If a man can make financial restitution for the more serious offense of injuring a pregnant woman, how can what is likely a less serious offense, result in amputation?

The Orthodox Jewish Bible correctly recognizes the part of the woman's body to be "cut off" is different from the part she used to commit the offense:

When anashim strive together one with another, and the eshet (wife) of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that striketh him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the private parts, Then thou shalt cut off her kaf (palm, hollow or flat of the hand), thine eye shall not pity her.

As the hand יָדָ֔הּ (yad) was used in the offense, the principle of talion directs the punishment to the hand. Yet the כַּפָּ֑הּ (kaph) is to be cut off. At face value this law calls a judge to "cut off" a different part of the body than was used to commit the offense.

In addition, if injury to the man is at the heart of the issue, then a prohibition of grabbing with the hand implies a prohibition of kicking, something which is likely to cause greater injury. What is logically implied is actually explicit in this case:

Every place on which the sole (kaph) of your foot treads shall be yours... (Deuteronomy 11:24)

In this particular law, the implied prohibition of the more serious action is made explicit by the use of kaph to describe the consequence: an offense could cost the woman either her palm or her sole.

Thus the flexibility in the meaning of kaph allows a judge a choice: cut off the palm of the hand or the sole of the foot. Nevertheless, either violates the principle of talion, and no judge should rule to amputate either body part.

The Proper Part of the Body
In finding an appropriate response, the flexibility of meaning for the word kaph is key as it may also be used to refer to the general location of the injury to the man:

Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket (בְּכַף) of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. (Genesis 32:25)

I arose to open for my beloved, And my hands dripped with myrrh, My fingers with liquid myrrh, On the handles (כַּפּ֥וֹת) of the lock. (Song of Solomon 5:5)

Walsh concludes kaph is used to describe the woman's pelvic area:

In these two passages then, the כַּף and כַּפּ֥וֹת would be the open concave curves of the pelvic region, and would more correspond most closely to the English word 'groin' or perhaps 'crotch'.6

The Proper Response
"Cut off" is קָצַץ (qatsats), a word used 14 times. The translation of "cut off" as to "amputate" is questionable since the verb is in the qal form, not the intensive piel. The three other qal uses are in Jeremiah and are seen by most as referring to cutting hair. Walsh says:

It seems reasonable, then, to infer that כַּפָּ֑הּ (qal) means not to 'amputate', but 'to cut or shave [hair]', particularly when it is used in conjunction with a term that can refer to a part of the body where hair grows...The phrase וְקַצֹּתָ֖ה אֶת־ כַּפָּ֑הּ, then, may well mean, 'you shall shave [the hair of] her groin'...Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, shaving, include genital shaving, occurs in contexts of humiliation.7

Thus, the shaving of her pubic hair subjects the woman to public humiliation, a punishment which may have some correspondence with how the offense affected the man.

Shaving the pubic hair is better than amputation, but brings new difficulties: exposing a woman's "nakedness" violates the law (Leviticus 18:6-19, 20:11, and 20:17-21).

The best solution is found by considering the context of the overall passage. As Levinson (above) and Keil and Delitzsch note, this passage has a logical connection to Deuteronomy 25:5-10:

"But in order that the great independence which is here accorded to a childless widow in relation to her brother-in-law, might not be interpreted as a false freedom granted to the female sex" (Baumgarten), the law is added immediately afterwards, that a woman whose husband was quarrelling with another, and who should come to his assistance by laying hold of the secret parts of the man who was striking her husband, should have her hand cut off.8

The passage immediately follows the codification of levirate marriage, which says if a man dies childless, his brother is to carry on his brother's name by having a child with the widowed wife. It also addresses the situation where the brother refuses to perform this duty, a reality that some men will fail to comply with the Law (see 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 in levirate marriage? Immediately following is the passage which describes a woman trying to save her husband's life.

The Law requires "cutting off" a woman's hip or pelvic area. So rather than shave her pubic hair, a judge could rule 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. In this way the principle of talion is upheld as both the man and the woman only lose the potential of a future child.

In addition, there is a precedent within the law in support of this punishment:

If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless. (Leviticus 20:21)

The woman's action had the potential to prevent the man from having children; therefore a judge may rule the woman's punishment is legal "childlessness" and in this way conforms to "an eye for an eye" while also meeting the literal reading of the text.

Conclusion: The Significance of kaph
This passage brings to light some interesting points:

  • There is no reason to explain why a language would have a single word for 3 separate parts of the human body. So this problematic passage is compelling evidence the language is not the product of the human mind.
  • kaph has been designed for use in this specific passage. In all other places of Scripture, "palm" or "sole" or "hip/socket/groin" could be substituted without changing the meaning of the passage. Only in Deuteronomy 25:12 are 3 parts of the body present and needed. This demonstrates a single author was responsible for both the word and its use throughout the first five books of the Bible.
  • kaph is a key word in God's plan of redemption. It appears in the ark returning to dry land; Jacob's name being changed to Israel, and the nation of Israel taking possession of the land.

Often, the approach to a Hebrew text is to examine it in the light of an earlier Ancient Near Eastern texts. However, in this case all three meanings of kaph are implied in a single historical event: man's rebellion in the Garden of Eden.

  • The palm picked and held the fruit
  • The hips held the aprons of figs leaves to cover their nakedness
  • The sole of the foot was on the ground the entire time and as they left

Arguably, the origin of kaph is in man's initial rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Regardless, it now serves as a written reminder of God's different works to redeem man from the consequences of the initial event in the Garden of Eden.


Notes:
1 Jerome T. Walsh, "You Shall Cut Off Her...Palm? A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25:11-12," Journal of Semitic Studies 49 (2004), p. 47
2 Marten Stol, Women in the Ancient Near East, Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 2016, pp 667-668
3 Walsh, p. 50
4 Walsh, pp. 57-58
5 Bernard M. Levinson, The Jewish Study Bible, Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 423
6 Walsh, p. 55
7 Walsh, pp. 56-57
8 Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary

| improve this answer | |
  • I +1'ed this as you raise several good points. I don't understand why you bring up/contrast "western" ideas and midrash though. It doesn't seem to be relevant to your (otherwise very good) interpretation, and you seems to imply that each approaches is wrong at points in your argument, while at other places you seem to say each is right. Could you maybe try to tighten up your argument to the most relevant points? – ThaddeusB Aug 9 '15 at 17:20
  • @ThaddeusB. Thanks for the feedback. I was trying to address some issues unrelated to the question and have edited accordingly. – Revelation Lad Aug 10 '15 at 3:29
  • Thanks, much better now. Hopefully whoever gave it a -1 will reconsider. – ThaddeusB Aug 10 '15 at 3:51
  • (-1) partly because of the unwarranted hype and partly because "connect the dots" is not a sound hermeneutic as you can use it to prove just about anything whatsoever. – user10231 Jun 25 '16 at 12:08
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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

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  • 2
    Welcome to the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. If you haven't done so already, check out the site tour. In particular, be sure to read the section on what constitutes a good answer. In short, don't tell what you know, tell us how you know it - either by interacting with the text or by citing sources for the information. Please note that "showing your work" is required on this Stack Exchange. – ThaddeusB Jul 31 '15 at 19:52
  • (-1) for not providing any sources. – user10231 Jun 25 '16 at 10:29
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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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eye_for_an_eye

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...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taboo

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    Not sure how you got sexism from this. As you pointed out the Talion principle, the only reason women are mentioned is because they have no testicles as you said to be exchanged. The husband does though... – Tyler Jul 22 '18 at 13:24