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Grasping Rules in Ancient Hebrew Society

(Deut 25:11-12) Tony Magana(REL 315) Instructions on Sexual Assault in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 21: 11-12) teaches if two men are fighting and the wife of one of the men intervenes by reaching out and grabbing the genitals of her husbands opponent she is to have her hand cut off. The instructions also say this is to be done without pity. What can be learned about how the powerful who wrote the book of Deuteronomy viewed women? The objective of the woman is to save her husbands life and yet the result of her endeavor is to have her hand amputated. It seems this instruction is unfair to women and was written by those in power to oppress the wives who were viewed as inferior. On the one hand powerful Hebrews wanted to prove that women had no place in fighting by whatever means necessary. This interpretation would have a positive impact on US culture where men are prone to fighting this might ensure they think twice before a skirmish begins. Americans especially in less well-to-do areas are typically more likely to fight. However, if the consequences of such actions inevitably lead to a loved ones loss of a limb it could potentially lead to less physical altercations. A women walking down the street with her hand amputated would surely make everyone think about the consequences of mutual combat. On the other hand this instruction shows that the powerful male elite who wrote Deuteronomy viewed women as shaming their husbands by rescuing them from another man. If a man needs a woman to rescue him from another man then he is not truly a man. This interpretation would have a negative impact on American society which does not view women as powerless objects that should just sit by and let their husbands handle everything this would create a society where only

half the population has any power. This view would cripple American society to only half its potential.

Don C. Benjamin, The Book of Deuteronomy, A feminist Commentary (forthcoming) According to Don C. Benjamin, The Book of Deuteronomy, A feminist Commentary (forthcoming) women and men in the world of the Bible had specific social roles. The powerful people who wrote the Bible did not believe women had a place in fighting. By grabbing the genitals of her husbands opponent the women is not only denying her social role she is also shaming the role of her husband. The woman who grabs her husbands opponents testicles is showing that her husband cannot defend himself. But to make matters even more shameful to the husband she is herself acting like a man. The two shameful acts mentioned above dealt an unfair hand to the wife who grabbed her husbands opponent by the genitals. As a result of her actions she had her assailing hand amputated without pity. 1 Even if we Assume damage was done to her husbands opponent the instructions make sure a merciless overtone is ascribed to her sentence. Wrestling was practiced as a mode of legitimate fighting in ancient Hebrew communities. The idea of grabbing an opponents testicles can be interpreted as rabbit punches2. There are various instances mentioned throughout the bible in which wrestling took place. As a result we know the practice of grabbing an opponents genitalia was common enough to be mentioned in the Bible and other Ancient Near Eastern texts.3

Don C. Benjamin, The Book of Deuteronomy A Feminist Commentary (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, forthcoming). 2 Ibid 3 Ibid

In fact in A Labor of Jacob Against Yahweh mentioned in the Bible, an opponent of Jacob grabs Jacobs testicles and this action permanently disables Jacob4. Jacobs injury by such a technique witnessed in the Bible further illustrates that grabbing an opponent by the testicles was an acceptable method of combat in the world of the Bible. This further shows the availability of such fighting techniques to the people of ancient Hebrew society since it was mentioned directly in the Bible. However in A Labor of Jacob Against Yahweh the attack Jacob suffered occurs during a male to male conflict. This shows the social roles for male during mutual combat which women in the Bible had no socially administered part. The ancient Assyrian people also have similar instruction written in Mid-Assyrian Code. A woman who grabbed the genitals of a lead household member and shattered a testicle would have a finger amputated as a result. The rules become even more severe if both genitals are crushed at which point the assailing women would possibly lose both of her eyes5 This code shows that testicle grabbing was publicized to be shameful cross-culturally in the world of the Bible. The Assyrians must have viewed the art of combat as a masculine effort since they had specific punishment for women engaging in the act. It could even be inferred that this form of punishment was adapted from one culture to the other given the Assyrian and Hebrew people had continuous interaction with one another in the time of the Bible. In the world of the Bible there appears to be well-defined societal roles for men and women. The male head of household is to provide for the family and insure the households safety. The roles females play in the Bible covered many different tasks however it is the male responsibility

Don C. Benjamin, The Book of Deuteronomy A Feminist Commentary (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, forthcoming). 5 Ibid

to fight and provide. Women were supposed to nurture and take care of the family offspring and land in the time of the Bible.6 If a women grabs her husbands opponent by the testicles and as a result ruptures the genitals both males are shamed. The male who lost his testicles is shamed by becoming an incomplete man who was bested by a woman. The disabled man may not be able to participate in all necessary patriarchal duties. The male of the intervening spouse is shamed by his inability to defend himself and needing the support of a woman whose role was that of nurturer. Both men receive a form of emasculation and thus the powerful males who wrote the Bible face the prospect of weakness and shame in their community without any gain from the assailing wifes well intended gesture.7 In the Bible there are numerous texts concerning Lex Taliones but this the only time such a disproportionate punishment is mercilessly instructed. The loss of the womens hand as a result of helping her husband greatly hinders her ability to do any of her duties as a wife. She is given such a harsh punishment for simply trying to help her spouse when he needs assistance. This further emphasizes that the males of a household do not want women to take on male roles and that such actions by a women shame the household.8 The powerful elite males who wrote the Bible do not want women to enact the societal parts of men. The males do not want to bring the household shame and the corresponding social stigmas associated with the notion of a household with men unable to protect themselves or their family to such an extent that the wife of the house had to intervene in mutual combat. Thus the husband feels like an impotent and effeminate shell of a man. The shame he feels from his inability to
6 7

Ibid Don C. Benjamin, The Book of Deuteronomy A Feminist Commentary (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, forthcoming). 8 Ibid

protect and his wifes ability to serve the role of nurturer and protector must be the reason the instruction was extolled without any pity for the assailing wife9. A woman who grabs her husbands opponents genitals does not help her husband. She actually in turn shames him. The shame both men suffer as a result creates conflict to the social order in the world of the bible. The conflict is against the communal male driven structure and social power. Since the powerful male writers of the bible viewed this as dually shameful to both male parties involved harsh instructions needed to be written in Deuteronomy in order to make women think twice before intervening in the affairs of their husbands.


Bibliography Benjamin, Don C. The Book of Deuteronomy A Feminist Commentary. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, forthcoming.