The laws in the book of Deuteronomy reflect the social and religious concerns present in Judean society in the seventh century B. C. These laws also reflect the rise of humanism in Israel. As I have written in previous posts (here and here), “Deuteronomy contains several new laws and many revisions of old ones dealing with the oppressed in Israel. These laws became necessary because of the changes brought by the monarchy and by the deterioration of the social structures in Israelite society.”
Several aspects of the Josianic reform affected women for the better. With the reformulation of Mosaic laws in the days of Josiah, women became the beneficiaries of the changes introduced by the social reforms of Deuteronomy. Several new laws were enacted in order to improve the social and religious status of women in Israelite society. These new laws promoted the dignity of women and brought them relief from some of the injustices allowed by older laws.
However, one law that seems to betray the humanistic effort of the Deuteronomic reform is the law dealing with the punishment of a woman who touches the private parts of a man. The law states:
“When men fight with one another, and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand; your eye shall have no pity” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).
The law requiring the mutilation of a woman’s hand in Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is one of the most unique laws in the Hebrew Bible. This law is unique among the legal texts of the Hebrew Bible because, outside of the lex talionis, it is the only law that explicitly requires mutilation as a punishment for a crime committed by an Israelite.
Although this is the only law requiring mutilation in ancient Israel, mutilation was frequently prescribed in other Ancient Near Eastern laws such as the Code of Hammurabi and in Assyrian laws. The Code of Hammurabi prescribes amputation for a son who strikes his father: “If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand” (ΑΝΈΤ, p. 175).
The harsh punishment required by the Deuteronomic law raises many questions about the action of the woman and the nature of the injury the man suffered. Among the many questions raised in the interpretation of the text is the nature of the offense. What did the woman do that required such a severe punishment? If the wife was forced to intervene to save her husband’s life, should she in turn be punished by losing her hand? Does the law require that the punishment be literally applied or could the punishment be mitigated by the payment of a penalty?
The harshness of the punishment is heightened by the exhortation that in carrying out the punishment, the executioner should show no pity. This exhortation may signify that the sentencing of the woman could not be mitigated by the payment of a fine.
The punishment demanded by this law is similar to punishments prescribed in the lex talionis, the law of retaliation. The lex talionis formula appears in three places in the Hebrew Bible:
“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 21:23-25).
“When a man causes a disfigurement in his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has disfigured a man, he shall be disfigured” (Leviticus 24:19-20).
“Your eye shall not pity; it shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21).
The law dealing with a woman who grabs a man’s private parts has been considered talionic by some scholars because the punishment is consistent with the requirements of the law of retaliation since the woman’s action caused physical damage to the man’s genitals.
Other scholars reject the view that the Deuteronomic law reflects the talionic principle because there is no reference to injury in the text. The lex talionis can only be invoked when there is physical injury. The person inflicting the injury is punished with the same injury as the injured person received.
Another issue of debate among scholars is the reason for the harsh punishment for the infraction. It is possible that the writer of Deuteronomy, faced with a unique situation in Israelite society, used an Assyrian law that was probably known in the seventh century, at the time the Deuteronomic law was enacted, a law that dealt with a similar case.
Many scholars agree that the Deuteronomic law has a parallel with an Assyrian law that addresses the case of a woman grabbing a man’s testicles. The law available to the Deuterononomist was a law found in Middle Assyrian Law. The Middle Assyrian Law § 8 (ANET, p. 181) says:
“If a woman has crushed a seignior’s testicles in a brawl, they shall cut off one finger of hers, and if the other testicle has become affected along with it by catching the infection even though a physician has bound (it) up, or she has crushed the other testicle in the brawl, they shall tear out both her [. . . ].”
Since the Deuteronomic law requires the mutilation of the woman’s hand, some scholars believe that there was some kind of physical injury to the man. Thus, the primary reason for the severe punishment required by the law was because, by grabbing the man’s private parts, the woman caused physical injury to the man, thus preventing the injured man from siring children.
The problem of associating the Deuteronomic legislation with the Assyrian law is that if the man lost one or both testicles in the fight and became unable to sire children, then it is difficult to understand how the cutting of the woman’s hand would be comparable to the man’s loss of his testicles, since the talionic law requires the punishment to be comparable to the injury inflicted. The punishment inflicted upon the woman, the amputation of her hand, is not equal to the man’s injury, the loss of his testicles.
Although there are similarities between the Deuteronomic law and the Assyrian law, there are also many differences. One problem is that the law in Deuteronomy does not say that there was physical injury to the assailant’s sexual organ. Another problem is that the Assyrian law requires the loss of one finger if one testicle was damaged. However, the Assyrian law is not clear what the punishment will be when both testicles are damaged. The lacuna in the Assyrian law requires that two items from the woman be removed. Theophile Meeks (in ANET) says “both eyes.” Driver (in Assyrian Laws) suggests “both breasts.”
One benefit in comparing the two laws is the fact that the harsh punishment required by the Deuteronomic law was not unique in the Ancient Near East. The Deuteronomic law demonstrates that there was a common legal tradition in the Ancient Near East where similar punishments were required for similar crimes.
In my next post I will review the intent of the law. What did the woman do that caused her to be punished so severely? What action is this law in Deuteronomy seeking to address? And why the amputation of the woman’s hand, rather than the amputation of her fingers, as it was required in the Assyrian laws?
In part three of this series, I will study the lex talionis and how it is related to the punishment of the woman and whether the punishment was carried out literally.
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Note: Full bibliographical information will be provided in the last post on this series.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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