Underhanded Biblical Interpretation: Deuteronomy 25:11-12 in Context

How Dr. Copan Explains Away Biblical Violence

There has been a shift in conservative biblical apologetics recently that attempts to de-literalize the Bible’s objectionable passages. In the past, conservative biblical apologetics was noted for its defense of the literal meaning of the Bible even when it seemingly endorsed violence or punishments we would call cruel.

Dr. Paul Copan follows this de-literalization campaign by claiming that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 should not be taken literally. He discusses this passage in Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2011), 121-122.

He also has comments about the passage here.

Here is what Deuteronomy 25:11-12 says in the Revised Standard Version:

"[11] When men fight with one another, and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, [12] then you shall cut off her hand; your eye shall have no pity.”

Most scholars accept a literal interpretation. For example, Tikva Frymer-Kensky stated the following on p. 1033 of A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (2 vols.; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2003), which Dr. Matt Flannagan had cited before:

“The penalty for injury is talionic retribution (Lev.24:19-20). The exception is the woman who protects her brawling husband by grabbing the other man’s testicles with force...Her hand is to be cut off (Deut. 25:11-12). Intention does not count, even though she tried to save her husband rather than injure the victim.”

But, according to Copan, “cut off her hand” (וְקַצֹּתָ֖ה אֶת־ כַּפָּ֑הּ) really means shaving her pubic hair. As Copan phrases it:

“At first blush, this passage apparently requires that a woman’s hand be cut off if she seizes the genitals of a man fighting with her husband. Now if this were the case, it would be the only biblical instance of punishment by mutilation; beyond this, where ancient Near Eastern laws call for bodily mutilation for various offenses, the Mosaic law did not...A more plausible interpretation of the passage is the punishment by depilation (‘you shall shave [the hair of] her groin’), not mutilation.”

For his conclusion, Copan is principally relying on an article written by Jerome T. Walsh, “‘You shall Cut off her...Palm?’ A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25:11-12,” Journal of Semitic Studies 49, no. 1 (2004):47-58.

In this essay, I will first critique, in Part I, Dr. Copan’s main reasons for interpreting that text non-literally. In Part II, I will give my reasons for accepting a literal interpretation of that text.

So, let’s go through the main reasons given by Copan and evaluate each one, which are given in my own order rather than the order in which they might appear in the work of Copan (or Walsh).

REASON 1: “The word commonly translated ‘hand’ (kaph) can refer to the ‘palm’ of the hand or some rounded concave object like a dish or a bowl, or spoon, or even the arch of a foot. The commonly used word for ‘hand’ (yad) isn’t used here. It would be strange to cut off the palm of a hand!” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p. 121).

While it is true that Hebrew YAD is the normal word for hand, we also know that KAPH could mean the same thing. For example, D. J. A. Clines’ Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (4.450), defines KAPH as follows, referring specifically to Deuteronomy 25:12: “1a. usu[ally] hand, palm (entire hand in e.g., Dt 25:12...”

Walsh also acknowledges this: “[kaph] is used interchangeably with [yad]” (“A Reexamination," p. 53).

Minimizing the fact that KAPH could mean the entire hand, and then giving the impression that it is a problem not to include the regular word for hand, is what leads Copan to manufacture a problem of saying that the “palm of her hand,” not the whole hand, was cut off.

There are plenty of other cases where KAPH does not refer just to the palm of a hand, but the whole hand: For example, note Psalm 63:4 (verse 5 in Hebrew): “So I will bless thee as long as I live; I will lift up my hands [KAPHAY] and call on thy name.”
Note Hebrew: כֵּ֣ן אֲבָרֶכְךָ֣ בְחַיָּ֑י בְּ֝שִׁמְךָ אֶשָּׂ֥א כַפָּֽי׃

The words “hands” here renders the plural (or dual) of Hebrew KAPH. If we accepted Copan’s pseudo-problem, then this text might be saying that ONLY THE PALMS of the hand were lifted, and not the whole hands. This would be anatomically absurd.

Obviously KAPH means the whole hand is lifted, not just the palm. Thus, there is no problem in saying KAPH in Deuteronomy 25:12 simply means the whole hand, not just the palm of her hand. Copan is manufacturing a problem that needs no solution.

We also should clarify that YAD, the regular Hebrew word for hand, in Hebrew IS USED in Deut. 25:11. Accordingly some may wonder why this was not just repeated in verse 12.

The best explanation is that this is an instance of the well-known phenomenon in ancient Hebrew of word-pairs—closely related words that are used together in Hebrew expressions. For example, “hands" can be coupled with “fingers” to form such a word-pair.

A. “Isaiah 2:8: Their land is filled with idols;
they bow down to the work of their hands,to what their own fingers have made.”

B. Isaiah 17:8: “they will not have regard for the altars, the work of their hands,
and they will not look to what their own fingers have made, either the Ashe'rim or the altars of incense.”

While such coupled words are normally found in poetry, there is no logical reason that legal materials cannot employ such coupled words. In Deuteronomy 25:11-12, we may have a similar phenomenon with the words YAD and KAPH being coupled.

REASON 2: “Furthermore, in certain places in the Old Testament the word kaph is clearly used for the pelvic area—either the concave hip socket (Gen. 32:26, 32) or the curve of the woman’s groin area: ‘I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles [plural: kaphot] of the lock’ (Song of Songs 5:5 NIV). This language alludes back to the ‘locked garden’ in 4:12: ‘You are a locked garden, my sister, my bride, you are an enclosed spring, a sealed-up fountain’ (NET). Scholars generally agree that the garden language is a metaphor for a woman’s sexual organs, and its being ‘locked’ implies her purity/virginity” (Is God a Moral Monster? p. 121)

Here, Copan, is simply relying on Walsh, with no critical evaluation of the evidence that Walsh presents. The fact is that things are not clear at all.

There are two biblical passages used by Walsh to argue that KAPH “is used in a sexual context” (“A Reexamination,” p. 54):

A. Genesis 32:25, 32 (verses 26 and 33 in Hebrew)
B. Song of Songs 5:4-5

The instances in Genesis 32:25, 32 are highly disputed and hardly constitute a reason to substitute “hair of the groin” for the more obvious “hand” in Deut. 25:12.

Both of these instances are also grammatically different from that in Deuteronomy 25:12 in that they are in the construct state, meaning that the word KAPH is bound in a possessive expression: “KAPH of his thigh” as opposed to a simple use of KAPH we find in Deuteronomy 25:12. The RSV translates as “hollow of this thigh,” but that would not necessarily mean “pubic/groin.”

In the Song of Songs 5:4-5, the sexual imagery is more apparent, but there is no agreement on what these verses mean. Here is the relevant passage:

[4] My beloved put his hand to the latch,
and my heart was thrilled within me.
[5] I arose to open to my beloved,
and my hands dripped with myrrh,
my fingers with liquid myrrh,
upon the handles [KAPHOT] of the bolt.

Again, we have a construct expression (“KAPHOT of the bolt”) and so it is not the same as a simple KAPH. Second, there is no reason that KAPHOT has to refer to the groin area just because the rest of the context is erotic or speaks of a locked garden. It is perfectly reasonable, in such an erotic context, to understand that she was opening the door for her lover instead of understanding that the liquid myrrh referred to vaginal secretions or the like.

As Marvin Pope notes in his commentary (Song of Songs, [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977] p. 522), we do have erotic poetry in which anointing the door jambs are mentioned. Here is an example from Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (4.1175-79; 1st c. BCE; Loeb Classical Series):

“But the lover shut out, weeping, often covers, the threshold with flowers and wreaths, anoints the proud doorpost with oil of marjoram.”

There are other examples of anointing doors with oil in the Near East and so there is no reason to think that Song 5:4-5 is speaking of the groin here.

REASON 3: “Also in the Deuteronomy 25 text, there is no indication of physical harm to the man (as some commentators commonly assume). For those who assume a literal ‘hand for hand’ punishment, remember that the man’s hand hasn’t been injured or cut off (if so, then the idea of cutting off her hand would make slightly more sense)” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p. 122).

The lack of physical harm to the man is not sufficient reason to deny that the text referred to a literal hand severing. A punishment may differ according to the status of the offender and the person offended. Thus, a son need only be rebellious, not necessarily cause physical harm, in order to be stoned to death in Deuteronomy 21:18-21.

[18] "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, [19] then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, [20] and they shall say to the elders of his city, `This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.' [21] Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

REASON 4: “In addition, shaving her hair—including pubic hair—as a humiliating punishment was practiced in Babylon and Sumer...”

This is irrelevant because it is cancelled out by the fact that cutting off limbs was also practiced in Mesopotamian cultures. So, why not appeal to those parallels instead? Below we discuss how arbitrarily he dismisses the closest Mesopotamian parallel to Deuteronomy 25.

REASON 5: “In addition, the specific Hebrew qal verb form (in Deut. 25:12) has a milder connotation than the stronger, intensified piel verb form, meaning ‘cut off’ or ‘(physically sever (qatsats).’ Whenever it appears in this milder form (Jer. 9:26, 25:23, 49:32), it means ‘clip/cut/shave [hair].’ There’s just no linguistic reason to translate the weaker verb form (“shave”) as a stronger form (i.e., amputation)” (Is God a Moral Monster?, p. 122).

Copan seems very confused about the meaning of the so-called piel and qal verb forms in Hebrew. He uses words like “milder” for the qal form and “stronger” for the piel form as though those forms necessarily are meant to express differential levels of severity or brutality.

However, one main difference in the qal and piel of the verb QATSATS is not brutality but plurality. That is to say the qal is found primarily with singular objects, while the piel is most often found with plural objects or where objects are cut into many pieces.

This could be an instance of what is called the “frequentative” use of the piel in Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990), pp. 414-415, where it is stated that “the Piel reflects a multiplicity of actions or objects.”

In the examples Copan cites (Jeremiah 9:26, 25:23, and 49:32) all the objects of the qal passive participle (nominal form) of QATSATS are grammatically SINGULAR, and may be literally translated “ones cut of forehead” as in Clines’ Dictionary of Classical Hebrew. The qal is fine there.

And if you cut off ONE hand, then the qal is perfectly fine. Note that Clines’ Dictionary of Classical Hebrew includes “cut off, cut away” for the qal meaning, and mentions Deuteronomy 25:12 specifically.

Consider another verb, KARAT, meaning “to cut.” It is used in the qal form when clear cutting of the flesh is indicated by circumcision in Exodus 4:25: “Then Zippo'rah took a flint and cut off [qal form of KARAT] her son's foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, ‘Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’” ---Note Hebrew וַתִּכְרֹת֙ אֶת־ עָרְלַ֣ת בְּנָ֔הּ.

So there is nothing linguistically that prevents a qal verbal form from expressing a brutal action like cutting a hand in Deuteronomy 25:12.

REASON 6: “In this particular case, we’re talking about the open concave region of the groin, and thus a shaving of pubic hair. In short, the woman’s punishment is public humiliation for publicly humiliating a man.”

This is a manufactured inference because Copan has not shown that KAPH means the groin region (see Reason 2). Copan makes much of the fact that KAPH can carry the idea of concave features, which would apply to the groin. However, the same may be said of the palms of the hand, and so that ends up being no reason to dismiss the plain meaning of Deut. 25:12.

In attempting to understand what words meant in an ancient culture, I usually begin with these sources:

A. Translations of those words by Hebrew speakers closest to the time of the earliest biblical texts, though caution must also be applied, of course;
B. Comparative Examples;
C. Context.

Applying these methods, they all lead to the conclusion that a literal understanding is the most reasonable.

First, Copan completely ignored the Septuagint, the complex of Greek translations made by those who understood Hebrew in the pre-Christian era. They understood Deut. 25:11-12 to mean “cut off her hand” not shaving of the groin. Note the passage:

11 ἐὰν δὲ μάχωνται ἄνθρωποι ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό ἄνθρωπος μετὰ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ καὶ προσέλθῃ γυνὴ ἑνὸς αὐτῶν ἐξελέσθαι τὸν ἄνδρα αὐτῆς ἐκ χειρὸς τοῦ τύπτοντος αὐτὸν καὶ ἐκτείνασα τὴν χεῖρα ἐπιλάβηται τῶν διδύμων αὐτοῦ 12 ἀποκόψεις τὴν χεῖρα αὐτῆς οὐ φείσεται ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ἐπ' αὐτῇ

Note that the passage translates KAPH with the Greek CHEIRA (χεῖρα), which is the normal word for hand. It uses ἀποκόψεις, a form of APOKOPTO, which is not normally used for cutting pubic hair, but is used for chopping and mutilating. Liddell and Scott (Greek-English Lexicon, p. 100), render it “to cut off, hew off, of men’s limbs.”

There is no indication of shaving hair or groin areas, for which there were different Greek words.

The Aramaic translators of Deuteronomy 25:12 use the words “ydh” (“her hand”) and so also understand that a hand is being cut, not hair on a groin.

See: A. Sperber, The Bible in Aramaic according to the Targum Onkelos (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992), vol. 1, p. 332.

Comparisons are important in legal materials because we have close verbal or situational parallels to the Bible in Near Eastern law codes.

We have a very close parallel, even by Copan’s admission, in the Middle Assyrian Laws A 8 (aka MAL A 8). Here is the passage (Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997] pp. 156-7):

“If a woman should crush a man’s testicle during a quarrel, they shall cut off one of her fingers...or if she should crush the second testicle during the quarrel—they shall gouge out both her [...]-s.”

Presumably, the end of the incomplete text can be reconstructed as “they shall gouge out both her eyes.”

Since both Matthew Flannagan and Copan have appealed before to Raymond Westbrook for supposed support perhaps they should also acknowledge what the latter says about Deuteronomy 25:12 in Everyday Law in Biblical Israel (p. 80):

“Deuteronomy 25:11-12 punishes a woman who seizes a man’s genitals with the loss of her hand, even though it was done to defend her husband in a fight. It is not stated whether she caused the injury or not. The law evidently derives from a case also found in MAL A 8, where the injury inflicted is the main issue.”

Copan says that this Middle Assyrian law “presents a similar scenario (in the case of injury to the man)...” to that of Deuteronomy 25. But for Copan, Deuteronomy 25, still stands “out in marked contrast to the severe and excessive mutilation punishments common in the Near East” (Is God A Moral Monster? p. 122).

At once, one sees Copan’s double standards in both moral evaluation and interpretation. One could just as easily use similar linguistic gymnastics to argue that the woman of the Middle Assyrian Laws only suffered a shaved groin.

But he evaluates Middle Assyrian laws as more brutal only because he takes them literally. On the other hand, he evaluates Deuteronomy 25 as less brutal because he takes similar words and scenarios non-literally.

Notice also that his Reason 4 used the existence of a shaving ritual in Mesopotamia to support his interpretation of Deuteronomy 25, but he won’t use a closer Middle Assyrian law to explain Deuteronomy 25.

Yet, as Westbrook notes, one can see that Deuteronomy 25 is simply a variant of that Middle Assyrian Laws. Specifically both laws:
A. Have a woman, who
B. helps her husband in a quarrel with another man
C. by injuring or seizing the testicles of her husband’s opponent,
D. and the penalty for which is mutilation of all or part of her hand.

Thus, it is unreasonable to go to texts in which the meaning of KAPH may or may not be the groin, or the hollow of the thigh, etc. when there is a text with much closer situational and legal expressions.

A good old fashioned rule in hermeneutics is to explain the more obscure text by the clearer text. The Middle Assyrian laws are much clearer in their legal parallel to Deut. 25 than Genesis 32 or Songs 5.

Repeatedly, both Copan and Walsh tell us that one reason for a non-literal interpretation is to resolve the seeming brutality of the law in Deuteronomy 25. Jerome T. Walsh, says that his non-literal understanding “resolves the anomaly of one and only one law in the entire Israelite corpus that imposes physical mutilation as a punishment” (A Reexamination,” p. 47).

Copan says:
“Again even if Deuteronomy were dealing with an actual mutilation punishment, this would be (1) the only such mutilation punishment in the Mosaic Law and (2) a dramatic contrast to the frequent mutilation punishments in the rest of the ancient Near East.”

The first problem is philosophical. There seems to be a premise that a law that occurs only once cannot be meant literally or needs to be explained alternatively. The problem is that this is not being done consistently. There are many laws stated only once or which may have something unique, and I see no similar efforts to explain them non-literally.

For example, the only one of the Ten Commandments to have a promise is the one about honoring father and mother (Exodus 20:12). So would that mean that we should try to explain that commandment non-literally because it has some unique feature (cf. Ephesians 6:2)?

Furthermore if eliminating the only instance of X is the motive, then they only created another problem—A unique instance of Y. That is to say, Copan and Walsh now created the only instance where the verb QATSATS + the noun KAPH = “shaving pubic hair” in the Bible. Thus, they are just substituting one unique feature for another.

The second problem is that it is not quite true that Deut. 25:11-12 would be the ONLY mutilation punishment in the Mosaic Law. For that to be true, we would have to not count all the “eye-for-eye” laws in Leviticus 24:17-22 as not consisting of “mutilation.” Stoning, burning, hacking are all methods of punishing found in Pentateuchal laws and narratives, and so why should cutting off a hand be so different?

We also know that mutilation was routinely used, without censure from the narrators, in many instances. For example:
2 Samuel 4:12: “And David commanded his young men, and they killed them, and cut off their hands and feet, and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron.”

Judges 1:5-7: “They came upon Ado'ni-be'zek at Bezek, and fought against him, and defeated the Canaanites and the Per'izzites. Ado'ni-be'zek fled; but they pursued him, and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and his great toes. And Ado'ni-be'zek said, ‘Seventy kings with their thumbs and their great toes cut off used to pick up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has requited me.’ And they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.”

There seems to have been no compunction about mutilating people who are perceived as offensive, and so why should Deuteronomy 25 be different?

It is easy to see why the vast majority of scholars have rejected Copan’s reading of Deuteronomy 25. That in itself does not make Copan wrong.

But since he and Matt Flannagan have appealed to Raymond Westbrook and A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, it should be reiterated that both sources specifically reject Copan’s view of Deuteronomy 25:11-12.

Copan’s view of Deuteronomy 25 is wrong because it is clearly intended to whitewash biblical brutality on the basis of the flimsiest of comparative legal and linguistic evidence and because it relies on exegetical maneuvers that could be used to explain away brutality in other Near Eastern texts Copan says are worse.

It is philosophically flawed because it is premised on the idea that uniqueness should be explained non-literally, and because it is not really unique in the first place in terms of a cultural context where bodily mutilation was practiced by the most beloved and heroic of their figures.

In case Dr. Copan wishes to respond, here are a few questions for him:

A. Why did you ignore the evidence of the Septuagint in your attempt to understand the meaning of Deut. 25:11-12?
B. Can you show us another clear instance where QATSATS + KAPH means “shaving pubic hair”?
C. Do you regard uniqueness of law as a reason to interpret it non-literally?
D.Where else do you find the expression "your eye shall not have pity" when someone endures punitive shaving?
E. Would you accept non-literal interpretations of the Near Eastern texts you regard as more brutal than the Bible?

NOTE: All translation are from the Revised Standard Version unless noted otherwise.

Raymond Westbrook and Bruce Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel: An Introduction (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009).

Marc Cortez, “The Law of Violent Intervention: Deuteronomy 25:11-12,” Revisited,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30, no. 3 (2006):431-447. Dr. Copan hastily dismisses this article.

Saul Olyan, “What do Shaving Rites Accomplish and What do They Signal in Biblical Ritual Contexts?” Journal of Biblical Literature 117, no. 4 (1998):611-622.
Walsh cites Olyan, but Olyan does not include Deut. 25:12 as an instance of shaving, ritual or otherwise.