Moses' eighth speech, Part 13 Law of covering
May 17, 2013
In the flow of Moses’ speech, after speaking of the law of sonship, he gives another law that relates to sonship from the negative side. It is a law that has presented controversy among scholars for a long time. Deuteronomy 25:11 and 12,
11 If two men, a man and his countrymen, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand [Heb., yad] of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand [yad] and seizes his genitals, 12 then you shall cut off [qatsats] her hand [Heb., kaph]; you shall not show pity.
It is understandable that this passage is not the main text of church sermons these days. Yet it is part of Scripture, and so in a complete commentary on Deuteronomy, we must shed light on its meaning, even if it might make some people uncomfortable.
To understand it properly, we must first understand the wording. Once we know how the text should read, then we can discuss its meaning. This postulates two men fighting, and the wife of one man helps her husband by taking hold of his adversary’s genitals. God’s law forbids this type of help.
The problem comes with the divine judgment upon the woman for her violation of the law. Should her hand be cut off, as the text seems to say?
First of all, we should keep in mind that regardless of our interpretation of the law’s judgment, the statement, “you shall not show pity” is a duty placed upon the judge, not upon the victim. Victims always have the right to forgive a sin against them. It is only incumbent upon the judge to dispense the precise judgment of the law, which establishes the parameters of the victim’s rights.
Secondly, are we to relate this to the so-called lex talionis (“eye for an eye”) law that is written earlier in Deuteronomy 19:21? It reads,
21 Thus you shall not show pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
The woman who seizes the genitals of her husband’s adversary with her hand might then be judged by cutting off her hand. Is this really what the text says? The translation makes it appear so, but is this really an appropriate punishment? If the improper use of one’s hand justifies cutting it off in a literal sense, then why not do this in other cases as well? Why is this example different from other sins that people do with their hands? After all, there is no indication that the woman in question cut off the hand of her adversary. Should not her genitals be judged instead?
So we must search the mind of God to see what He had in mind when He inspired Moses to speak this law to us.
In order to answer this, we must first figure out why two different Hebrew words are used to describe the woman’s “hand.” Verse 11 says that the woman extended her yad to seize his genitals. But in the judgment in verse 12, her kaph was to be “cut off.” This change is curious. The Hebrew words both mean “hand,” but in different ways.
The yad is a closed hand, an extended hand that is being used to grasp something. It is the hand as an instrument of control, either a closed fist used to punch, or to make something by skill or power, or to do some deed. Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies defines the word as “the hand, properly, as extended; metaphorically, power, strength, might.”
This is also the meaning of the yod, which is the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The number ten signifies the full law, and so Paul speaks of “the works of the law” (Romans 9:32). It is a play on the Hebrew words yad and yod, relating to the number ten and the law. In other words, we are not justified by the works of our hands, nor are we in control of our salvation, as some think, for it is the gift of God.
The kaph, on the other hand, is an open hand, specifically the curved palm of one’s hand (or foot). Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies defines it as “the palm, the hollow or curvature of the hand.” Strong’s Concordance defines it as “the hollow hand or palm (so of the paw of an animal, of the sole, and even of the bowl of a dish or sling.)”
Using these definitions, we can easily picture the woman’s hand being extended to grasp her adversary’s genitals in order to control the situation. As a consequence, we see the judgment of the law calls for her open hand, palm, or hollow to be “cut off.”
But the question yet remains: Why not cut off her yad, which was the instrument of control in the offense against the law? If the judgment always fits the crime, it seems strange that the law would judge her kaph.
Paul Copan comments on this law, writing,
“I first came across Wash’s perspective by way of Richard Davidson’s book on sexuality in the Old Testament, Flame of Yahweh (Hendrickson)—a book I highly recommend. I follow both Walsh and Davidson on the view that this text is not referring to amputating the hand, but rather depilation. This was a punishment of humiliation involving shaving a woman’s pubic hair in the kaph—the curved region below the waist.”
Copan arrives at this conclusion by interpreting the word kaph in the broader sense. Kaph is not just the open palm of a hand, but virtually anything that has curvature. Even Strong’s Concordance tells us (see above) that it can refer to the curved sole of one’s foot. Hence, the meaning can include anything that has curvature.
Secondly, the interpretation of this law also depends upon the way we render the verb qatsats, “cut off.” Certainly, it can refer to cutting off a body part, but this also includes cutting hair. We see this in three places in the book of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah 9:26 says,
26 Egypt, and Judah, and Edom, and the sons of Moab, and all those inhabiting the desert who clip [qatsats] the hair on their temples…
Jeremiah 25:23 says,
23 and Dedan, Tema, Buz, and all who cut [qatsats] the corners of their hair…
Jeremiah 49:32 says,
32 … And I shall scatter to all the winds those who cut [qatsats] the corners of their hair…
In light of this, Paul Copan makes the case that the judgment upon the woman in Deuteronomy 25:12 should read, “you shall shave her genital area.” In other words, it was to be punishment by humiliation, rather than by mutilation, something which is more in accord with the idea of judgment matching the crime.
This is supported by the fact that kaph not only means an open, curved part of the hand, but it is closely related to kaphar, “to cover,” and kippur, “covering, or atonement.” The significance of shaving in general, as done in the cleansing of lepers (Leviticus 14:8), or at the end of a Nazarite vow (Numbers 6:5-9), was symbolic of removing one’s covering. The reasons for this are varied, depending on the circumstances, but they all have this one thing in common.
The apostle Paul mentions this as well in 1 Corinthians 11:15, “her hair is given to her for a covering.” Further, verse 6 says, “it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved.” Paul tells us that hair is a covering, which, in Hebrew, is the word kippur, or kaphar, “to cover.” The word picture of the Hebrew letter kaph is about using the curved palm of one’s hand to “cover” or protect.
Finally, we may point to the tabernacle of Moses to illustrate this once again. The tabernacle was to be covered with goat’s hair (skins). Exodus 26:7 says, “Then you shall make curtains of goats’ hair for a tent over the tabernacle.” They did so in 36:14, “Then he made curtains of goats’ hair for a tent over the tabernacle.”
The tabernacle itself represented a woman’s body, for it was meant to portray spiritually the conception and birthing of the sons of God in her. Her womb is the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant, with its two cherubim in an arc over the mercy seat, pictured a woman’s fallopian tubes. The Ark itself contained the two “stones” of the law, the pot of manna, which was like coriander “seed,” and the rod of Aaron.
All of these picture a relationship that begets the sons of God in a spiritual manner using earthly language. Essentially, it is the intimate language of divine marriage. For example, the veil between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place represents the hymen. It was torn when Jesus died on the cross as part of the Passover theme, whereby we are “begotten.” The “sides” of the tabernacle are called “ribs” in Exodus 26:7, while the far end (western side) is called “thighs” (Exodus 26:22). With the “thighs” of the tabernacle located on the far end of the Most Holy Place, we can see what direction this “woman” is lying. She is positioned with her head in the outer court and the womb in the Most Holy Place. Her ribs are the sides of the tabernacle.
The point is that this “woman” is also covered by goats’ hair. This is the part of the picture that is relevant to our current study, for it shows that hair, regardless of its location, is her covering. The hair on her head is her covering in one sense, but genital hair is also her covering in another sense. When we study Deuteronomy 25:11 and 12, these things are important to know, for otherwise we may think that God condones cutting of a woman’s hand as judgment for this particular sin.
God’s intent was not to mutilate as a judgment, except in cases where a “hand for hand” judgment cannot be resolved by negotiating a monetary settlement, and where the victim refuses to forgive.
The spiritual side of this law is to show that sonship cannot be obtained in an unlawful manner. If the bride of Christ attempts to defend her Husband (Jesus) in an unlawful way, even if she means well, she becomes uncovered and disqualified. She is “shaved” in the sense that she is brought to shame, and she loses her spiritual covering.
Perhaps the most striking illustration of such a violation of law is seen in the so-called Christian Crusades, where “Christian” armies marched to the Holy Land to take back the land from the Islamic invaders. The two “men” (Jesus and Allah) were fighting, and the Church attempted to intervene to help her Husband win the battle. Not understanding the law of God, the Church thought that such carnal methods were helping to ensure victory for Jesus Christ, but in fact she was violating the divine law.
The result was that the Church was shaved, and so she could conceive only in shame. She could not bring forth the sons of God in that manner. If we may switch to a related metaphor that Paul uses, the Church could only bring forth an Ishmael, not an Isaac, for Ishmael is called a child of the flesh (Galatians 4:29). Ishmael was a man of fleshly violence and pictured as a wild-ass man (Genesis 16:12), rather than as a sheep or lamb.
The removal of the woman’s covering also signifies the removal of her Husband’s presence and of His defense. In other words, a woman who is guilty of violating this law cannot be defended by her husband. Her covering was to be removed in order to prepare her for judgment. So also with the Church. The Crusades caused God to remove His covering in order to allow the Church to be judged by the law.
This principle is similar to that which we find in the law of the census (Exodus 30:12-16). The half-shekel that was given at each census covered the nation until the next census was taken. In the time of King David, when Israel’s sin was about to bring divine judgment upon the nation, God first caused David to number the people (2 Samuel 24:1). Why? Because God knew that David would do so without collecting the half-shekel that would protect Israel. Since the half-shekel collected by Moses in his census still served to protect the nation, God had to inspire David to do another census in order to remove Israel’s covering before judging them in this way.
So also we see that the law in Deuteronomy 25:12 removed the wife’s covering as part of the judgment of God.
We see then that this law comes as a natural follow-up to the previous law of sonship. It is a different law, but it also gives another side to the sonship law as it relates to God’s covering over His bride. It shows how she may lose her covering—and with it, her ability to beget the sons of God—by engaging in violence to defend her Husband, Jesus Christ.
This is the thirteenth part of a series titled "Moses' Eighth Speech." To view all parts, click the link below.