In my previous post I introduced the Deuteronomic law that requires the amputation of a woman’s hand for touching the private parts of a man. Scholars agree that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is the only law in the Hebrew Bible that specifically requires mutilation as a punishment.
In part 1 of my study, I dealt with the Biblical law, how it relates to the lex talionis, and how it parallels Assyrian Middle Law § 8. In part 2 of the study I will focus on the action of the woman. What did the woman do to deserve such a harsh punishment from the society in which she lived? In part 3 of the study, I will focus on the punishment she received.
Deuteronomy 25:11-12 reads: “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.”
The first step in understanding the action of the woman is to examine the meaning of the Hebrew word מְבֻשִׁ֤ים. The word mebušîm is a hapax legomenon, that is, the word appears only here in the Hebrew Bible.
The word mebušîm derives from a Hebrew word meaning “shame,” or “be ashamed.” The word is generally translated as “private parts” or “genitals” but it also could be translated as “shameful things” or “shameful parts.” However, the word מְבֻשִׁ֤ים itself does not indicate which part of the body causes shame. Commentators generally understand the word to be a euphemism for the male genitals.
The Septuagint seems to indicate that the woman’s attack was against the man’s testicles. The Septuagint translates the word מְבֻשִׁ֤ים as των διδὑμων, “the twins.” This expression is also a euphemism for the man’s two testicles.
The Deuteronomic law deals with a woman who became involved in a conflict between her husband and another man. She became involved in order to prevent injury to her husband, or possibly even his death at the hands of his adversary. Thus, in order to save her husband from his assailant, the woman grabbed the assailant’s genitals while the man’s back was turned.
What was the intension of the woman by grabbing the genitals of her husband’s opponent? Was her action an intentional act of momentarily disabling him in order to give an advantage to her husband? Or was the action aimed at maiming the assailant by damaging his testicles or permanently emasculating him? Or was she simply trying to disable the assailant and free her husband from the hold of his opponent?
One could argue that the woman intervened in the struggle because her husband was losing the fight or because he was in danger of losing his life and she made an attempt at saving her husband’s life by grabbing the assailant’s genitals. If the woman was trying to save her husband’s life or help him avoid serious bodily harm, it is difficult to understand the reason for the severe punishment inflicted on the woman. So, the question becomes: “Was her action justified?”
There are different ways of understanding what the woman did and the consequences of her action. One possible consequence of her action was that by grabbing the private parts of the assailant, the woman severely injured the man and damaged his testicles, and as a result, the man became unable to sire children.
The Deuteronomic law then presupposes that the damage was irreversible, thus the decree that the woman’s hand be cut off to mirror the irreversibility of the man’s injury. This interpretation asserts that the lex talionis applies in this situation.
The talionic principle requires a mirroring of the offense. Thus, if the law is taken at face value, then the law assumes that the woman damaged the assailant’s genitals causing permanent injury. However, the law does not give any indication that the man was hurt and that his private parts suffered any damage. What the text says is that the woman tried to defend her husband against his attacker and that she tried to help her husband who presumably was losing the fight. Thus, by her action, the woman was able to incapacitate the assailant and help her husband overcome the attacker and give her husband an advantage in the struggle.
Another way of understanding the woman’s action is to affirm that the woman grabbed the man’s genitals but that there was no physical damage to the man. If there was no physical injury to the attacker, then the talionic principle would not apply to this situation. If this is the case, then there would not be a parallel between the Deuteronomic formulation and the Assyrian law, since the Assyrian law explicitly says that the victim was injured and that there was damage caused by the attack.
Therefore, if there was no injury to the victim and no harm came out of the incident, the severe punishment of the woman reflects not a talionic principle, but a rejection of the woman’s sexual aggression and the offensive nature of the attack as a violation of social sexual mores present in the Israelite society.
Mores are social norms that when violated, result in extreme punishment. Negative mores are taboos which are generally supported by religious or legal sanctions. Most mores or social norms are related to behavior related to sex, the family, or religion.
The sexual norms in Israelite society declared that sexual contact between a married woman and a man other than her husband was absolutely forbidden. Thus, the punishment required by the violation of these sexual norms emphasizes the gravity of the offense of a married woman initiating sexual contact with another man.
Another way of understanding this law is that the language of the law should be taken literally, that is, the woman intervened in a fight between her husband and an assailant in order to assist her husband in a struggle by grabbing the private parts of her husband’s opponent. The punishment for the offense was amputation of the woman’s hand. This view then recognizes that the action of the woman was very offensive and deserved a severe punishment.
However, if the woman’s action did not cause permanent injury to the man struggling with her husband, then it becomes difficult to understand the disproportionate severity of the punishment of the Deuteronomic law. If by her action the woman helped her husband by briefly disabling the man attacking her husband, why then was the woman subject to an irreversible procedure of mutilation of her hand? If there was no injury to the man, then the man would recover from the woman’s attack but the woman would not be able to recover from the severe punishment imposed by the law.
It is possible then to understand that the action of the woman violated a culture of shame and that the law was designed to deter women from touching a man’s genitals and forbidding women from doing such a shameful thing. The law then was aimed at detering this kind of shameful action. The law implies that even at a time when her husband needs help, a wife was not allowed to grab the genitals of another man. The woman’s action was a violation of the man’s honor since a man’s genitals were a sign of his honor and masculinity.
If the Deuteronomic law deals with the issue of shame, then this law is addressing an act that brings shame on the man who was attacked by a woman. The woman’s action would also bring shame on her husband and on her as a woman.
To be the loser in a fight was shameful in itself, but to lose a fight because a woman interfered by grabbing his genitals was a shame that a man could not bear. Such an act would bring intense shame for that man in a patriarchal community.
The woman’s act would bring shame on the husband because he won the fight because his wife grabbed his opponent’s genitals. The action would bring shame on the woman because she violated the sexual norms of her society by touching the genitals of a man who was not her husband.
In my next post I will deal with the nature of the woman’s punishment.
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Note: Full bibliographical information will be provided in the last post on this series.
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Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary