The Mutilation of Women in the Hebrew Bible – Part 3

Read Part 1: The Mutilation of Women in the Hebrew Bible – Part 1

Read Part 2: The Mutilation of Women in the Hebrew Bible – Part 2

This is my third and last post on the Deuteronomic law that appears in Deuteronomy 25:11-12, the only Biblical law requiring the amputation of a woman’s hand for touching and seizing a man’s sexual organs.

In my first post I dealt with the Biblical law and its talionic principle and how the law is related to the Middle Assyrian Law § 8. The Assyrian law requires that a woman’s finger be cut off for crushing a man’s testicle during a quarrel.

In my second post I dealt with the woman’s action. According to the text, a woman intervened in a fight between her husband and another man. In order to give her husband an advantage in the struggle, the woman grabbed the private parts of her husband’s adversary, thus aiding her husband and probably saving his life.

In this final post I will focus on the severe punishment of the woman for what could be considered a justifiable intervention in the fight. The issue is whether the punishment was talionic and whether it involved the amputation of the woman’s hand.

1. Talionic

There are several ways of interpreting this difficult text. The traditional interpretation, which is accepted by most scholars, says that the woman intervened in a struggle between her husband and an assailant by assaulting the man and grabbing his genitals, thus causing irreparable damage to the man and rendering him incapable of siring children. As a punishment for her action, the woman’s hand was amputated for the physical damage she caused to the man. Her punishment is viewed as an application of the lex talionis.

If the Deuteronomic law is talionic, then the law implies that the woman injured her husband’s assailant and that she permanently damaged the man’s genitals and as punishment she received a permanent punishment. This form of punishment assumes a talionic punishment, that is, that the woman’s punishment mirrors the man’s injury.

Jeffrey Tigay said that the traditional Jewish interpretation of the text is that the law allowed the woman (or her husband) to pay a monetary fine equal to the value of the woman’s hand rather than to impose the amputation of her hand. It is possible that a monetary compensation developed in Israel where the payment of fines would compensate a person in cases involving physical injury and where the law demanded corporeal punishment or mutilation.

This is the view expressed by a reader who left a comment in Part 2. He wrote:

Important to note the Rabbinical explanation of וקצותה is in line with the punishment of other physical damages, and refers only to a monetary fine. This case deals specifically with a case where there was no physical damage, only emotional pain i.e. shame.

However, this view is not supported by the Biblical evidence. The word קַצֹּתָה appears several times in the Bible and in all occurrences it carries the meaning of “cutting”: “cutting hair” (Jeremiah 9:25; 25:23), “cut off hands and feet” (2 Samuel 4:12), and “cutting thumbs and big toes” (Judges 1:7). In none of these occurrences is monetary compensation implied or present in the text.

2. Shame

The Biblical text, however, does not say that the man suffered physical injury or that he suffered any harm. It only says that the woman interfered in a fight between her husband and another man in order to give her husband temporary advantage against his adversary. If it is true that no physical harm occurred, then the punishment of the woman was disproportionate to the harm caused to the man since she only disabled her husband’s attacker temporarily. Thus, while the man suffered no physical injury, the woman would be punished with an irreversible surgical procedure.

For this reason, several authors have argued against the talionic nature of this law based on the fact that since the law does not say that the man was injured, then the principle of retaliation does not apply to this case. Under this view, the woman’s punishment was that because she shamed the man by grabbing his private parts, the woman would bear a permanent shame by going through life with her hand amputated. Thus, the harshness of her punishment was because of the shameful action of grabbing a man’s genitals.

The severity of the punishment then must be understood in the context of shame. The woman’s action brought shame on the man whose genitals were touched, brought shame on her husband who won the fight with the help of a woman, and brought shame on herself for violating the sexual mores of Israelite society.

3. Genitals

Another interpretation of the woman’s punishment was proposed by Lyle Eslinger. His interpretation is based on the use of two different words for “hand.” The word used to identify the hand that grabbed the man’s genitals is yad (“hand” v. 11) while the word used to describe the woman’s punishment is kaph (“hand” v. 12). Comparing the word kaph in Deuteronomy 25:12 with the use of the word in Genesis 32:26, 33 and Song of Songs 5:5, Eslinger wrote that the word is used to describe a man’s or woman’s sexual organ. Thus, Eslinger concluded that the punishment inflicted on the woman was not the severing of her hand, but some form of genital mutilation. Thus, he concluded that the Deuteronomic law was talionic because the woman caused permanent damage to the man.

Eslinger’s interpretation has been rejected by scholars. He used the practice of female circumcision in Egypt and Africa as evidence for his views. However, there is no evidence that female circumcision occurred in Israel or in Mesopotamia.

4. Shaving

Another interpretation of the punishment in Deuteronomy 25: 12 was proposed by Jerome Walsh. Walsh contends that Deuteronomy 25:12 should be translated “you shall shave the hair of her groin.”

Walsh’s view argues that the woman’s punishment would be a public dishonoring of the woman for publicly shaming the man. Thus, in his view, the punishment would be an application of the lex talionis since she shamed the man by touching his genitals. The view that the woman’s punishment was public depilation reduces the severity of her punishment from mutilation, a punishment that is irreversible, to one of temporary shame.

In the Hebrew Bible, exposing the genitals was an act of humiliating prisoners of war. Exposing a person’s genitals appears in Isaiah 3:17; 20:4; and Ezekiel 16:37. In Isaiah 7:20 the King of Assyria will humiliate the people of Judah by shaving “the hair of the feet,” that is, the people’s pubic hair as a way of humiliating them. Although exposing the genitals was an act of humiliation, there is no evidence that the Deuteronomic legislation requires public shaving of the genitals.

5. Deterrence

My view of this Deuteronomic law is that this punishment was never applied in ancient Israel. I believe that the law was intended as a deterrent, that is, the law intended to prevent this kind of action on the part of an Israelite woman. This implies that the law proposes to impose a severe punishment on such a shameful behavior in case this occurred in Israel. Thus, the Deuteronomic legislators were writing a law whose purpose was to deter the shameful act of a married woman touching the genitals of a man other than her husband.

My view is similar to Wilson’s. Wilson wrote: “The law is written in the most extreme language possible to provide the greatest deterrent” (p. 234). By imposing a severe threat and subjecting a woman to a shameful existence, the law presupposes that such an act will never occur in Israel.

There is no evidence in the Hebrew Bible that mutilation was performed in compliance with this law. The view that the law was written as a deterrence may explain the reason no mutilation of women is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. This means that this problem probably never arose in Israel and that the punishment was never inflicted on a woman. So, it is probable that a woman, aware of the legal consequences of grabbing a man’s genital, would avoid such an act. Wilson wrote: “If a law could be formulated in such a way that contemplation of the consequences of violating the law was sufficiently dreadful, then there would be no occasion to enforce the law” (p. 234).

My view of this Deuteroniomic law may not solve all the problems related to the proper interpretation of the text, but it probably may explain why a book that was so concerned with improving the status of women in Israelite society enacted such a severe punishment on a woman whose intention was not so evil.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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Marc Cortez , ” The Law on Violent Intervention: Deuteronomy 25.11-12 Revisited,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30 (2006): 431-447.

G.R. Driver and John C. Miles (eds ), The Assyrian Laws. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935.

John H. Elliott, “Deuteronomy- Shameful Encroachment on Shameful Parts: Deuteronomy 25:11-12 and Biblical Euphemism,” in Ancient Israel: The Old Testament in Its Social Context. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006.

Lyle Eslinger, “The Case of an Immodest Lady Wrestler in Deuteronomy XXV 11-12,” Vetus Testamentum 31 (1981): 269-281.

Theophile J. Meek, “Middle Assyrian Law,’ in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, ed. James B. Pritchard Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Jeffrey Tigay, The JPS Torah Commentary: Deuteronomy. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1996.

Jerome T. Walsh, “‘You Shall Cut Off Her.. . Palm’? A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25:11-12,” Journal of Semitic Studies 49 (2004): 47-58.

P. Eddy Wilson, Deuteronomy XXV 11-12—One for the Books,” Vetus Testamentum 47 (1997): 220-235.

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