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Cutting Off A Hand For Grabbing Testicles? A Look At Deuteronomy 25:11-12.

The Torah is full of all kinds of laws that Israel was to obey. That is why the first five books of The Old Testament are called “The Law”. However, some of these laws might not seem fair, or might seem bizarre and come out of nowhere (looking at you Baby Goat command). One such law is Deuteronomy 25:11-12 which says “If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.”

What is the deal with this verse? Cutting off a woman’s hand for grabbing a man’s private parts seems like a severe overreaction. What was God thinking? Before we conclude that God is not just, let’s try to understand this verse and why this law may have been given. So, clearly we have two men going at it in a fight, and the woman comes to help her husband. It seems to me like the seizing of the private parts is a deliberate act on the part of the woman. In the course of a fistfight, you’re not just going to accidentally grab a man’s junk. So, this would be a deliberate act on the part of the woman. So first of all, let’s not think that this law resulted in women accidentally breaking the law and having limbs removed unfairly. Secondly, it seems to me that the result of such seizing is more severe than mere groping. Remember, the context is a fight. One can easily infer that the woman here ripped the man’s testicles completely off or at least severely damaged them (crushing them in her hand?). And so, the hypothetical woman in this case deliberately grabbed her husband’s assailant’s testicles and damaged them in some way. Ok, but is cutting off her hand really a fair punishment for that?

Well, we’ve gleaned all we can from the text alone. Now we need to know a bit about the Ancient Near Eastern mindset towards childbearing. While childbearing is important even in this day and age, it was 10 times more important in that culture. As T. Rees writes in The International Bible Encyclopedia;

“In Israel and among oriental peoples generally barrenness was a woman’s and a family’s greatest misfortune. The highest sanctions of religion and patriotism blessed the fruitful woman, because children were necessary for the perpetuation of the tribe and its religion. It is significant that the mothers of the Heb race, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, were by nature sterile, and therefore God’s special intervention shows His particular favor to Israel. Fruitfulness was God’s special blessing to His people (Ex 23:26; Dt 7:14; Ps 113:9). A complete family is an emblem of beauty (Cant 4:2; 6:6). Metaphorically, Israel, in her days of adversity, when her children were exiled, was barren, but in her restoration she shall rejoice in many children (Isa 54:1; Gal 4:27). The utter despair and terror of the destruction of Jerus could go no farther than that the barren should be called blessed (Lk 23:29).'” [1]T. Rees, “Barren, Barrenness,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 406.

To not be able to sire children was considered a terrible thing. We can even see this in the stories of Abraham and Sarah in the book of Genesis. Sarah was desperate to have a son to the point that she gave her husband to her concubine Hagar (Genesis 16:2). Moreover, one punishment of God in the Old Testament on adulterous women was to prevent them from having children (Numbers 5:11-31).

In 21st-century Western societies, we may want to have children for the sake of having a parental bond or to please our spouse. But it isn’t the end of the world if we don’t. Many of us are waiting until later in life and some are choosing not to have kids at all. For those who really want kids, but can’t naturally procreate for whatever reason, they resort to adoption. Given how huge of a deal not being able to sire the next generation was in ancient Israel, for a woman to remove a man’s ability to do that was a horribly heinous act. Hence, even though this hypothetical man wasn’t completely innocent (i.e because he was beating up on the woman’s husband), what the woman did to him was far worse.

So while it may, at first glance, seem like a bizarre and unjust law, when you stop to think about the circumstances and the Ancient Near Eastern context, you can see that this is actually a just law. This woman permanently damaged the man’s reproductive organs, rendering him unable to sire offspring, which is a massive deal in the ANE. Moreover, she did this deliberately, as grabbing a man by that part of the body wouldn’t be something that just happens by accident. Grabbing an arm or a leg? Sure. But you don’t just accidentally grab a man’s family jewels. So for ripping off a body part, the woman herself has a body part removed. Lex Talionis (Deuteronomy 19:21).

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1 T. Rees, “Barren, Barrenness,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 406.

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