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Could you please explain Deuteronomy 25:11-12? Was the woman to be maimed, by cutting off her hand?

In certain Islamic countries, thieves and others are maimed, by cutting off their hand. Was such a procedure ever condoned or even enjoined in the Bible, under any circumstances? The passage in Deuteronomy 25:11-12 states:

“If two men fight together, and the wife of one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of the one attacking him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; your eye shall not pity her.”

Was this command to be applied literally?

In a previous Q&A, we explained the meaning of the “lex talionis” in the Old Testament—the “eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” principle.

We pointed out the following:

“The ‘an eye for an eye’ principle is commonly known as the ‘lex talionis,’ which is Latin for the ‘law of retaliation.’ It is mentioned in the Old Testament in Exodus 21:23-27; Leviticus 24:18-20; and Deuteronomy 19:21. Rather than requiring the literal maiming of a guilty person, this law has been correctly understood as requiring equivalent monetary compensation. The law made it also clear that victims were to be compensated fairly, as determined by judges and magistrates. Victims were not to resort to ‘self-help.’

“… the Church of God has taught consistently that the ‘an eye for an eye principle’ was not meant to be applied literally in the sense of maiming a person…”

In that Q&A, we cited numerous commentaries and Scriptural evidence for this conclusion. In addition, Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, explains on pages 400-401 (in discussing Leviticus 24:20): “… the earliest postbiblical Jewish sources already understood ‘an eye for an eye’ to mean monetary, and not literal, compensation.”

To include another statement, which we did not quote in the above-mentioned Q&A, Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible explains, in discussing Leviticus 24:19:

“‘And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour’…. Does him any hurt or mischief, causes any mutilation or deformity in him by striking him: ‘as he hath done, so shall it be done unto him’: not that a like damage or hurt should be done to him, but that he should make satisfaction for it in a pecuniary way; pay for the cure of him, and for loss of time, and in consideration of the pain he has endured, and the shame or disgrace brought on him by the deformity or mutilation, or for whatever loss he may sustain thereby…”

With this background, let us review the passage in Deuteronomy 25:11-12. Was this command of cutting off the woman’s hand to be carried out literally?

Some commentaries think so.

For instance, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible writes:

“This is the only mutilation prescribed by the Law of Moses, unless we except the retaliation prescribed as a punishment for the infliction on another of bodily injuries (Leviticus 24:19-20). The act in question was probably not rare in the times and countries for which the Law of Moses was designed. It is of course to be understood that the act was willful, and that the prescribed punishment would be inflicted according to the sentence of the judges.”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible also allows for the literal application of this command, stating:

“‘Then thou shall cut off her hand’… Which was to be done not by the man that strove with her husband, or by any bystander, but by the civil magistrate or his order. This severity was used to deter women from such an immodest as well as injurious action… though the Jewish writers interpret this not of actual cutting off the hand, but of paying a valuable consideration, a price put upon it… and Aben Ezra compares it with the law of retaliation, ‘eye for eye’, Exodus 21:24… and who adds, if she does not redeem her hand (i.e. by a price) it must be cut off:

“‘thine eye shall not pity her’; on account of the tenderness of her sex, or because of the plausible excuse that might be made for her action, being done hastily and in a passion, and out of affection to her husband; but these considerations were to have no place with the magistrate, who was to order the punishment inflicted, either in the strict literal sense, or by paying a sum of money.”

Other commentaries reject the view of requiring or even allowing a literal application of this command. The Soncino commentary states:

“The interpretation is that she has to pay monetary compensation for the shame she caused the man…Even if she be poor she must pay the fine.”

This has to be the right view. Since the “an eye for an eye” principle has been correctly understood as referring to monetary compensation, it would make little sense to inflict the punishment of maiming a woman for her immodest conduct in the heat of passion, while coming to the defense of her husband. This conclusion is even more compelling when considering the fact that Jesus used similar wording in the New Testament. He spoke of cutting off our hand which tempts us to sin, but He never meant this to be understood literally.

In the afore-mentioned Q&A, we explained this as follows:

“In the New Testament, Jesus Christ sometimes used figures of speech to stress a point, but He did not mean a literal application in those cases. For instance, He said in Matthew 5:29-30: ‘If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you… And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you…’ Christ did not mean, of course, to apply this literally; rather, as the Lamsa Bible explains, these are Aramaic idioms, meaning that we are to stop envying [with our eyes] or stealing [with our hands]…

“Jamieson, Fausset and Brown clarify in their Commentary on the Whole Bible, that Jesus was not stating, in any way, that under Old Testament Law, offenders had to be maimed. Christ was addressing quite a different issue: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ i.e., whatever penalty was regarded as a proper equivalent for these. This law of retribution–designed to take vengeance out of the hands of a private person, and commit it to the magistrate–was abused in the opposite way… [justifying in the minds of the people] a warrant for taking redress into their own hands, contrary to the injunctions of the Old Testament… (Prov. 20:22).’”

Jesus used similar wording in Matthew 18:6-9 and in Mark 9:42-48. In each case, He insists that we must refrain from using our hands for the purpose of sinning. Rather, we are told in James 4:8 that sinners must cleanse their hands. Paul explains in Romans 6:13: “And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”

In Old Testament times, when dealing with carnal and unconverted people, a woman, seizing another man with her hand by his private parts (Living Bible: “grabbing the testicles of the other man”; New Revised Standard Version and Revised English Bible: “seizing his genitals”), had to be fined to impress on her the need to refrain from using her hand in such an inappropriate way. Her hand was to be “cut off” figuratively, not literally; and compensation had to be paid for the misuse of her hand towards a member of the other man’s body which was to be treated with respect (compare the principle in 1 Corinthians 12:23).

Lead Writer: Norbert Link