The Old Testament has many passages which are difficult for many in contemporary congregations to understand. Many do not go much into the Old Testament in their personal reading, and thus do not get the wealth of what the Old Testament, the Bible of Jesus and the apostles, has to say about the God of the Bible and his ways.
Some of the most difficult passages may take place in the civil regulations of the Pentateuch. Here is one such passage: “If two men are fighting and the wife of 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” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12).
This passage may seem to be senseless for someone reading it now, but through the Holy Spirit God inspired these passages as much as the passages that someone may gush over in public in the currently fashionable cliché, “I LOVE this verse.” This passage might have offended Victorian modesty if it had been preached over a hundred years ago, but that’s hardly a problem for congregations nowadays. It seems harsh by modern standards of justice, and it might play into some false idea, played upon both in liberal churches and by Gnostics in the past, that the God of the Old Testament was somehow harsher, more unreasonable and somehow different than the way that God was revealed to be in the New Testament by Jesus Christ.
There are some guidelines from scripture itself on how to look at these passages. First, much of the civil law of Israel was in fact an expansion on the Ten Commandments, as some modern preachers and teachers do recognize. This passage, though, does not seem to be one of these. Second, the comparison of the civil law of Israel with the laws of other nations shows that pretty much always the civil penalties are not nearly as harsh and often the civil regulations command compassion. Moreover, it’s reasonable to understand, as many rabbis claimed, that the penalties which seemed to prescribe mutilation were in fact civil fines of a set value, such as a set value for loss of an eye. In this way the penalties would resemble modern tort law, with a certain set financial liability for harming another person. It’s reasonable to see the penalty in this passage in this manner, although the way in which it was worded would have a strong deterrent effect. The complete absence of known mutilations for crimes in the Old Testament does seem to point to these laws not having been enforced with actual mutilation and perhaps not having had to have been enforced much at all.
This law is an example of what appears to be ‘case law,’ and God seems to use these to teach wider principles than the exact circumstances of the particular statutes. There is in fact scriptural guidance for this, in scripture interpreting scripture, in the path of progressive revelation. The apostle Paul, in I Corinthians 9:9, takes the law about not muzzling the threshing ox as meaning much more, as pointing to a greater principle, which he applied to a New Testament apostle having the privilege of being supported by churches for full time ministry. Moreover, in I Timothy 1:8-11 he cites the civil penalties of the Old Testament Law as demonstrating what punishments are due to different kinds of sinful acts. So, the principle that this passage seems to point to seems to be to some lines that are not to be crossed in personal disputes, and that God takes a personal interest when these lines are crossed.
The first thing to consider is the situation which gives rise to the regulation. Two men have come to a fist fight over something. This could have been over possession of a lamb or a goat, a boundary stone, an agreement or even an insult or remark which was taken the wrong way. It’s much likely not to be a fight to injury or to the death; Exodus 21:18-19 prescribed that the one who dealt a disabling blow to the other would have to pay a penalty, and a fight to the death could have come under murder law, and the best result for the one who survived would have been to spend years in an Israelite city of refuge far from his home and family. It might even have been a sanctioned physical contest to decide the winner in a dispute, since these were not unknown in the ancient world, just as they are not unknown in the modern world. It may in fact be referring to a fight under definite rules, such as the staged fight between John Wayne and Victor McLaghlen in the movie The Quiet Man, which was characterized as a private fight under the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Many times these kinds of fights led to the participants settling their differences and becoming fast friends, as happened in the movie. The setting would have been the multitude of Israelites in the Exodus, or in their villages and farms after they had settled in the Promised Land.
So, in the midst of this physical contest, the wife of one of the men attempts to intervene. This does not look from the passage to be a blow intended to incapacitate but to hold or even to mutilate the man fighting against her husband. It would be considered to be dirty and unfair fighting even today. If the fight were over property or the wife feared the defeat of her husband, she might have been tempted to some kind of intervention like this. But I don’t think that we’ve come yet as to why God put this incident under a severe civil penalty. Again, it’s hard to say whether this law ever had to be enforced, and the most likely case would have been a wife intervening for her husband, but this statute would have sufficed as precedent to decide the penalty if there was ever an intervention in the same way against a fight which involved a woman’s father, uncle, or brother. It may even have been a known tactic in ancient disputes settled by fighting that some women would attempt to have the contest decided in favor of their husbands. This passage would then be not a sanction of violence but a restraint upon something particularly offensive to God that may have been taking place already. And this is also how many of the case laws in the Old Testament do apply and how they may serve as a guide to what God finds offensive.
The tactic that this wife would have chosen struck directly at the manhood of the other man. It could have led to his being unable to father children or a physical defect sufficient for exclusion from the assembly of the Lord, as in Deuteronomy 23:1 (although that may rather refer to deliberate emasculation or castration of an Israelite for pagan cultic reasons). It would have represented an attempt to win at an expense to the other person which God would not allow to go uncorrected and unpunished. In the civil laws God allowed physical punishment but not humiliation to the point of utter degradation of the other person (Deuteronomy 25:3), and took murder personally as an attack against the image of God which was in mankind by creation (Genesis 9:5-6). Here, by analogy, it could also be taken as an attack of female against male and against the created order of male and female (Genesis 1:27).
So then, what’s the significance of this? Well, to dispose of the most obvious understanding, I don’t think that it would forbid a temporarily disabling blow against the crotch in self defense if a man or woman’s life is in danger, since these disable by pain and are not aimed to mutilate or permanently harm the assailant. I have some memories of several such blows delivered against myself by sneaky and unscrupulous fighters in junior high, and the blows temporarily disable by the pain but normally do not cause long term disability – but I would still counsel parents and teachers to deal strong discipline against any child or teenager that would ever try to deal such a blow, which is, in legal terms, assault, against another person in the course of teasing, taunting or any other kind of childish interaction. But even more, I think that this sets a principle that is well to repeat, that God has and will pronounce his judgments against those who use any and every tactic to win, and who would strike against the humanity, manhood, or womanhood, in an effort to gain an unfair advantage and to win a disagreement, an argument or a dispute. This would put this passage clearly in the context of creation, of progressive revelation and under the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, and it would furnish an illustration of the kinds of things that we human beings might do that offend God deeply. So, does this passage speak more clearly now?
So, does this happen nowadays? I don’t think that it’s impossible that the literal event might happen nowadays if there was to be a fight in the parking lot of a restaurant or bar nowadays, but I don’t think that that the civil law of Israel would apply in that case, but rather, the civil law of the locality. Rather, the application of this passage to present conduct would be to examine our ways and understand the ways in which those in our culture and we who claim to be followers of Christ and who regularly attend our churches might attack the manhood or womanhood of others and use underhanded tactics to win disputes, fights and disagreements which may well be petty and superficial. It would be to understand that God understands our humanity and that we will disagree and fight with each other, maybe not physically, and that there are tactics in personal disputes which God finds most offensive and worthy of his special mention and harsh penalty.
So, in the course of personal disputes, do men and women in our culture try to strike out at the manhood or womanhood of another man or woman in an attempt to cripple or incapacitate that person and get an unfair advantage to win in a situation? Definitely – but they use words rather than physical blows. That is actually the point of many of the insinuations of homosexuality or lesbianism that some people in our culture dish out against others – sometimes against single or divorced men and women who love Christ with all their hearts and who are seeking to follow him in all that they do. The rapper Eminem, who actually dishes out a lot of the anti-gay rhetoric nowadays, admitted as much in an interview with MTV once that that was his tactic to attack the manhood of another man whom he saw himself in some sort of conflict. It is also what happens when someone insinuates against another person that he or she isn’t a ‘real’ man or woman – a demanding parent or coach, for example. So, I think that we may look at this Old Testament regulation and easily see ourselves there, as saying and doing the same kind of things that God finds reprehensible.
I don’t think that we can see it in the light of the justice and compassion of the God of scripture that he takes it in any other way than extremely seriously when one of the men or women he has created attacks the humanity, manhood or womanhood of another man or woman not only with acts of physical violence but also with malicious words. Could such words crush and humiliate a person? Definitely. Could such words form a barrier to a person’s finding love and marriage in the will of God? Possibly. But these kinds of insinuations do happen in Christian circles and break hearts unnecessarily in many cases – because someone thought that he or she could use this tactic to try to enhance his or her reputation at someone else’s expense or to undermine, incapacitate or destroy a perceived rival.
But even more, I think that this passage demonstrates an underlying principle that warns against a win-at-all-costs (to another person) or a protect-what’s-mine-at-all-costs (to another person) mentality. Is that around today? Definitely! How many proud, stubborn and self sufficient people are there who approach personal relationships with a ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’ mentality, and will say or do anything to ‘win’ and not to ‘lose’ in a situation’? It would be extremely naive and dismissive to deny that there are those around like that today, and some of them call themselves Christians, and may even be in positions within churches and denominations.
That there are some things a person simply does not do in a disagreement, dispute or conflict to gain an unfair advantage without coming under the extreme displeasure of God would seem obvious to anyone who has come to know the God of the Bible, but, with the Biblical illiteracy and superficial discipleship of many in our churches, many never seem to have looked at their personal conduct and relationships with others very deeply in the light of scripture, and the ways of the God of the Bible. Even more, it’s hard to say if there has been a time than now since before the Reformation when evangelicals have been so unaware of their personal responsibility before Jesus Christ and the fact that they will face him one day in person to give account for their lives, for everything that they have ever thought, said and done. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10). So then, what someone says or does now to ‘win’ in a situation may in fact be something for which Jesus Christ will call that person to account before the whole universe, and for which that person may suffer loss in eternity.