Now that we've seen the strawman criticism of it, let's look at the actual passage in question, Deuteronomy 25:12, in three popular English translations:
When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets:Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her. (KJV)
If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, you shall cut off her hand; show no pity. (NRSV)
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. (NIV)
In attempting to answer this reader's question I want to emphasize that the Bible is, first and foremost, an ancient literature library spanning nearly two millennia of writings by over 40 different authors on three different continents in three different languages throughout the rise and fall of many civilizations and kingdoms.
This is CRUCIAL for anyone, Christian or otherwise, to understand. Despite well-meaning claims we may have heard that since it's God's word, Scripture must be plain, clear, and easy for anyone to understand, that's simply NOT true. In fact, I'm constantly amazed at the lack of humility that is shown to the Biblical texts...and not by dismissive skeptics or antagonistic atheists; but rather, by Christians who are the most adamant about the Bible's divine Inspiration. Now don't get me wrong; I DO believe all Scripture is "God-breathed" (2Timothy 3:16-17) and thus divinely Inspired. I am thoroughly evangelical in this regard (though I believe any discussion of the Bible's authority and Inspiration MUST be nuanced carefully). But this does NOT mean that I believe all Scripture to be fully-understandable in all its detail and without legitimate difficulty or ambiguity in interpretation.
An honest apologist is one that admits the degree of difficulty some passages of Scripture impose upon modern readers who are FAR removed from the cultural and historical context in which they were given. And I believe this passage in Deuteronomy is a good example of the degree of caution needed when seeking to interpret the Bible. So, that being said, here is how I answered this reader's question "What do you do with Deuteronomy 25:11-12?"
The question is indeed a good one. However, there are a few things worth noting about that particular passage (and Torah law in general):
1. Torah law consisted primarily of "case law", rather than exhaustive legislation (this is a big difference between modern and ancient Near East laws). Judges were given an example and then expected to extrapolate wisely from them when rendering judgment.
2. Torah law, within the patriarchal society of the ancient Near East, was astonishingly protective of women, children and immigrants. (For a fuller exploration of this than can be covered in a blog post, see Christopher Wright's phenomenal work "Old Testament Ethics for the People of God")
and most importantly...
3. This passage in particular is not nearly as clear as some translations lead people to believe.
The Hebrew literally reads as follows:
כִּי־יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים יַחְדָּו אִישׁ וְאָחִיו
וְקָרְבָה אֵשֶׁת הָאֶחָד לְהַצִּיל אֶת־אִישָׁהּ מִיַּד מַכֵּהוּ
וְשָׁלְחָה יָדָהּ וְהֶחֱזִיקָה בִּמְבֻשָׁיו׃
וְקַצֹּתָה אֶת־כַּפָּהּ לֹא תָחוֹס עֵינֶךָ׃
"If (men/husbands) are (quarreling/striving) together a man and his brother
and the (woman/wife) of one draws near to (snatch/deliver) her (man/husband) from the hand of the one (beating/smiting/striking down) him
and she stretches out her hand and (seizes/makes firm/strengthens) his genitals
then you will (cut off/trim) her (palm/hollow/basin).
She will not be pitied in your eyes."
[The various Hebrew terms in used in this passage can have different meanings. I’ve provide some of them in parentheses above just to show the degree of ambiguity and interpretive decision translators must make when rendering this passage into English.]
Firstly, given the material that comes just before this passage (see below), it is worth noting that the quarrel or fight being discussed is between brothers, rather than random strangers. Whatever is going on here, it is most likely a family affair.
Also, even more importantly, the word translated "hand" (kaph) in v.12 is not the normal word used for "hand" (yad) in v.11. It's the word for "palm" or "hollow space" that's used to denote a number of things ranging from the hollow of a sling to a wash basin to a door handle (which also functions euphemistically in the Song of Songs).
In short, the translation of this passage is unclear and there is much conjecture about its exact meaning, even among Biblical Hebrew scholars. So whatever you hear someone teach regarding this passage, you must always hold with loose hands. The more knowledgeable they are about Hebrew translation, the more tentative they should be when declaring any particular interpretation as the correct one. Conversely, the more dogmatic they are in teaching on this passage, the less likely it is that they have a firm grasp of the original language and ancient Near East laws in general.
However, I think we can note a few points that help us make some sense of what's going on in Deuteronomy 25:11-12.
For starters, right before this passage we find a discussion of the concept of Levirate Marriage, whereby the family line of a childless man who dies is carried on by his brother. The emphasis is on the priority and utter importance of bearing children to continue one’s family name and thus their continuation of enjoyment of the blessing promise God made to Abraham of many offspring, which was ratified Mt. Sinai. Bearing a child to carry on the family name was of the utmost importance in ancient Israel. This is a major cultural difference between modern Western culture and that of the ancient Hebrews, but it cannot be emphasized enough.
Therefore it is very likely (I would say almost certain) that the law regarding a wife grabbing the manhood of her brother-in-law during a fight has to do with a potential threat to his ability to father children, as well as his ability to fully participate in Israel’s Covenant worship. You see, Torah specifically prohibited a man with a ‘damaged package’ from not only serving as a Priest (if he was from the tribe of Levi; Lev. 17:17-20), but also from entering into the assembly of the Lord (regardless of what tribe he was from; Deut. 23:1) due to ceremonial uncleanness. And the fact that this command is accompanied by the “show no pity” phrase—which is normally elsewhere reserved for the most severe attacks on Covenant faithfulness among the Israelites (i.e. murder, idolatry, etc.)—tells us that whatever is going on in this case law, it is more than just a woman trying to prevent violence or simply acting in a crass or distasteful manner.
One view that I've found intriguing is that of scholar Lyle Eslinger. He contends that "kaph" in this passage is a euphemism for female genitalia, and the law therefore involves a bit of a wordplay on the concept of "hand." It is an example of the concept of Lex Talionis (law of retaliation) which refers to the "eye for an eye" practice in Torah, whereby the punishment is to match--but not exceed!--the crime. If this is indeed the case, then this passage is stating that if a woman intentionally tries to damage a man's genitals with her hand (which would not only risk making him sterile and unable to produce offspring to carry on the family name, but would also risk rendering him unable to enter the Assembly of the Lord due to Deut. 23:1's prohibition), then the punishment is that her "hand" will suffer the result that she intended to inflict upon him--that is, the cutting off or disfiguring of her labia as punishment for attempted disfigurement of his penis/scrotum. (Depending on your mindset, I'm guessing some of you are either cringing or giggling...or both...as you read the words "labia", "penis" and "scrotum" in a blog on the Bible!) For more on this proposal, see: L. Eslinger, “The Case of the Immodest Lady Wrestler in Deuteronomy XXV 11-12”, Vetum Testamentum 31/3, 1981, pp.269-281.
Similar, but less cringe-worthy than the above interpretation, is that of Jerome Walsh who suggests that “kaph” refers euphemistically, not to the actual female genitalia, but to the groin area as a whole and the verb for “cut off” is to be translated as “trimmed/shaved.” If this is the case, it would be suggesting that the punishment for publicly shaming a man by attempting to damage his reproductive organ (upon which the very sign of the Covenant, circumcision, was borne) would be the public shaming of the offending wife of his opponent by symbolically desecrating her reproductive organ. This is due to the fact that the shaving of hair in Israel was most often a sign of mourning, humiliation or punishment. Ancient Hebrews were about as far from metrosexual as one can get, and grooming of body hair was not a mark of beauty as it was in surrounding cultures like Egypt. Thus, the punishment would be a court-ordered Brazilian wax! For Walsh’s argument, see: J. Walsh, “You Shall Cut Off Her ... Palm? A Re-Examination of Deuteronomy 25:11-12”, Journal of Semitic Studies 49/1, 2004, pp. 47-58.
Personally, I'm not entirely convinced that either of these is what's going on in the passage. There are challenges to both views which raise some questions about their validity. But they are somewhat plausible and would fit into the category of Lex Talionis laws found elsewhere in Torah--and the purpose of Lex Talionis laws again was, ironically, to LIMIT the potential retributive violence against the accused. And in an honor-and-shame culture, attacking a man's genitals was symbolically (and literally, I guess!) an attack on his very manhood--and perhaps on his entire family's well-being.
Thus, even if it is the woman’s actual palm that was to be cut off (or perhaps cut/scarred), then it would still be an example of the Lex Talionis. In this case, as OT scholar Sandra Jacobs argues, it is a Talionis of Instrument—whereby the offending limb is what receives the punishment. Similar Middle Assyrian laws and have been documented and would provide a cultural legal analogue to Biblical law. [S. Jacobs, “Instrumental Talion in Deuteronomic Law”, Journal for Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Law, 16, 2010, pp.263-278]
If attacking the genitals of a man in the ancient world represented an assault on his procreative abilities, his standing in the community, his family name and his very manhood, then it is not hard to imagine that such an action would be met with vindictive violence by the man, his wife, or other family members in such an honor-and-shame culture...which would then potentially ignite a long-lasting blood-feud. This sounds very foreign to us, but in the world of the ancient Near East it would be unimaginable NOT to react in such a manner. Thus, by giving this example of case law in Deuteronomy, Moses is intending to LIMIT the retribution that can be enacted upon the woman, while at the same time recognizing and upholding the high value of sexuality, family, and Covenant which are all symbolized in various ways in the reproductive organs of men and women.
Of course we may find this utterly bizarre and even giggle-inducing (if you don’t believe me, try teaching it to a group of middle schoolers!) ...but this is a big reason why things like circumcision were established the way they were in the ancient world, and subsequently redefined and reinvested with new meaning by God among His Covenant People.
At the end of the day, this passage is admittedly unclear and perhaps bizarre to Christian readers two millennia removed from its original audience. And in modern societies where corporal punishment is a forgotten relic of the judicial past, it can indeed strike us as "cruel and unusual punishment." But it was one of the ways in which God entered into the culture of His people in their historical setting and chose to deal with them as a theocratic Covenant nation. Their purpose was to live among the pagan cultures surrounding them in such a way that God's distinctive relationship with them would draw watching gentiles back to Him. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise (or be seen as an obstacle to faith) that God would utilize certain forms of social and legal practices, albeit in a transformed or significantly-altered manner, in order to communicate to humanity throughout various stages of history. As for how Christians are to apply this passage today, that is a question that would be beyond the scope of this blog (though I discuss a basic approach in my video "Do Christians Keep the Ten Commandments??").
However, it is important for those of us who claim to be Jesus' Disciples to remember that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is part of Torah, and according to Jesus and Paul and the author of Hebrews--despite taking into account the shift from Sinai to Golgotha; from Mosaic Covenant to Messianic Covenant--it remains God's Inspired Scripture for His people. We cannot "cut it off" from the pages of the Bible.
Blessings from the Dojo,