One of the harshest punishments found in the Torah is that prescribed by Deut 25:11-12, which says that a woman who grabs the gonads of her husband’s adversary should have her hand cut off. Here’s the text:
א כִּי-יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים יַחְדָּו, אִישׁ וְאָחִיו, וְקָרְבָה אֵשֶׁת הָאֶחָד, לְהַצִּיל אֶת-אִישָׁהּ מִיַּד מַכֵּהוּ; וְשָׁלְחָה יָדָהּ, וְהֶחֱזִיקָה בִּמְבֻשָׁיו. יב וְקַצֹּתָה, אֶת-כַּפָּהּ: לֹא תָחוֹס, עֵינֶךָ.
If two men fight with each other, a man with his brother, 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 [בִּמְבֻשָׁיו], then you shall cut off her hand; your eye shall have no pity.
In the entire Hebrew Bible the term [בִּמְבֻשָׁיו] is found only here, and its most literal translation would be “shameful things/parts” based on the paronyms of the verb equivalent. Almost all biblical translations render “genitals”, an obviously safe assumption.
The problem is that there is no biblical term for genitals, only euphemisms — such as “feet” (Ezek 16:25), “heel” (Hos 12:3), “thighs”, “loins”, “flesh”, “nakedness”, “vessel” (I Sam 21:5), “hand” (Isa 57:8). Jack Elliot notes that euphemisms act as “linguistic deodorant, verbal placebos, or conversational fig leaves” (or more negatively, mask/distort the truth in order to protect people’s sensibilities) (“Deuteronomy–Shameful Encroachment on Shameful Parts”, in Ancient Israel, edited by Philip Esler, p 164), and it says something about the amount of shame tied to people’s genitalia that they didn’t speak of them directly.
For that’s what’s at stake here: honor and shame. A woman who squeezed the balls of someone fighting with her husband brought down hordes of shame on all parties involved. Thus Elliott:
“As to the males, the mere fact of their fighting in public had already put the issue of honor and shame on the table. To the victor would go the plaudits of an admiring crowd. To the loser, only shame. The wife’s interfering crotch-grope would have brought profound shame on all concerned. Shame for the wife because she transgressed into male space and violated the physical boundary of a male not her husband or relative. Shame for the husband because he allowed his wife to ‘help out’, thereby showing that (1) he needed help and could not finish off his adversary by himself; (2) that he accepted help from a female in an exclusively male affair; and (3) that he allowed his woman to encroach on another male’s ‘holy of holies’. Shame for the husband’s adversary for allowing an ‘inferior’ female to get the better of him by grabbing his ‘family jewels’, knocking him to his knees with a nutcracker grip, and violating his sanctum sanctorum. Given the anxiety about such socially damaging shame, the formulation of this law becomes quite plausible.” (ibid, pp 172-173)
But Marc Cortez disputes the honor-shame reading of Deut 25:11-12, claiming that a threat to the husband’s well-being would override concerns for honor and shame, or at the very least not warrant the severe penalty of chopping the woman’s hand off. Howard Eilberg-Schwartz rightly refutes this: “her husband’s safety is less important than his opponent’s honor” (God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism, pp 156-157). And Robert Coote places this in the context of Deut 25:5-12 as a whole: while a widow should openly shame her brother-in-law if he refuses to marry her (by tearing off his sandal and spitting in his face) (verses 5-10), that’s no license for women to engage in outrageously shameful behavior like interfering in a fight and grabbing men’s gonads (verses 11-12).
Cortez remains adamant, however, that concern over a husband’s safety would trump honor-shame concerns. So why the harsh punishment for the woman? Out of concern, he claims, for the adversary’s reproductive capacity (i.e. if his balls were squeezed hard enough and permanently injured). Chopping off the woman’s hand would then be understood as an application of the lex talionis (“eye for an eye”) found in Exod 21:23-25, Lev 24:19-20, and Deut 19:21:
“The laws of talion do not seem to apply to an action that only involved shame or the violation of a tabu serious as those offenses might be. Rather, the limited range of application available for the lex talionis implicitly supports the presumption of injury to the man. Although such injury is not explicitly indicated in the law, it may be that the Deuteronomist felt that the punishment indicated and the semantic links to the lex talionis were sufficiently clear as to need no other indicators.” (“The Law on Violent Intervention”, p 12)
But not only is it unlikely that a woman would possess enough strength to permanently maim a man’s genitals to the extent of ruining his reproductive capacity (so Elliott, ibid, p 171), a “hand for a pair of balls” isn’t exactly the lex talionis principle at work — unless the woman’s “hand” is a euphemism for her genitals (as we see “hand” being used for male genitals in Isa 57:8 and Song of Songs 5:4). That would mean “a hand for a hand” (like a female circumcision, as cleverly proposed by Lyle Eslinger, “The Case of the Immodest Lady Wrestler in Deuteronomy 25:11-12”, VT 31, p 273). While that’s an ingenious reading, and one I confess that I like, it’s a bit strained. Elliott argues that not only does it require too much on top of the euphemism — a correspondence between “shameful parts” and “hand” as different euphemisms for the same object (genitals), but of different-gendered persons — the woman’s genitals are being permanently mutilated unlike the man’s (unless his gonads were indeed crushed so severely to be useless, which as mentioned, is the most unlikely scenario) (ibid, p 173).
The honor-shame reading of Deut 25:11-12 remains the most plausible. The severe punishment prescribed for a woman was more a sentence for shame than payment for injury.