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Don’t Grab Me There! A response to Paul Copan

I will probably regret this, but I’m going to weigh in on a debate that broke out while I was on vacation. As a warning to those of you with sensitive souls, I’m going to take umbrage in this post. I’m rather excited about that. I don’t get to take umbrage very often. (I’m actually not sure what “umbrage” is. But, whatever it is, I intend to take it and take it good.)

The debate has to do with the proper understanding of Deuteronomy 25:11-12:

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)

Hector Avalos started things off with a critique of Paul Copan’s interpretation of Deut. 25:11-12. (Actually, things started earlier with an exchange between and Avalos and Matthew Flanagan. See Flanagan’s Hector Avalos and Careful, Non-Selective Citation of Sources for links and comments on that part of the discussion.)  Specifically, Avalos argued that in Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? ((Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2011), 121-122) Copan sets aside the obvious meaning of the text (i.e. that the woman’s hand should be cut off for grabbing a man’s genitals during a fight) in favor of a non-literal meaning of the text (i.e. that the woman’s pubic hair should be shaved as a humiliating punishment for the action), and that he does so with little or no exegetical support. Avalos apparently sees Copan’s interpretation as an attempt to soften the text and avoid its obvious (and brutal) meaning.

Paul Copan responded earlier today with Deuteronomy 25:11-12, An Eye for an Eye, and Raymond Westbrook: A Reply to Hector Avalos. He explained why he thinks his reading of the text is the most obvious and natural. Rather than setting aside the “literal” meaning in favor of some “non-literal” and softer reading, he contends that he is simply reading the text the way that it was meant to be read.

In the process of making his argument, Copan offered some rather strong criticisms of my article “The Law on Violent Intervention: Deuteronomy 25.11-12 Revisited,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30:3 (2006), 431-47. Avalos had cited my article in support of his argument, so Copan felt it necessary to explain why he found my argument unconvincing.

You should, of course, read Copan’s post for yourself, but here is a quick summary of his criticisms:

  1. I failed to engage Jerome Walsh’s article “You Shall Cut Off Her…Palm? A Reexamination of Deuteronomy 25:11-12,” Journal of Semitic Studies (2004): 47-58, in which Walsh argues that kaph refers to the woman’s groin, rather than her hand, and that qatsats in the qal means “to shave” rather than “to cut off.”
  2. I failed to provide any real reason for the shift from the yad (hand) that grasped the man’s genitals to the kaph that gets cut off. If this is an example of the lex talionis such a shift seems odd.
  3. I failed to deal with the semantic distinction between the qal and piel forms of the key verb. Copan follows Walsh in arguing that although the piel form refers to “cutting off”, the qal means “to shave.” By not recognizing this difference I missed the meaning of the text entirely.
  4. Basically, Copan summarizes his critique by saying that I have not “looked at the words” (emphasis his).

Before I respond, I should point out that Copan also quotes Walsh on some very nice things that Walsh says about my article. So, apparently if you can set aside the fact that I was completely wrong about the text at almost every point, it was still a good article. That’s nice to hear.

And, I should also say that I find the Copan/Walsh argument very interesting. I’m still not convinced that they’re right. But I do think that they offer a legitimate exegetical option that is worth considering. So, my responses to Copan below will be more points of clarification than any attempt at refutation.

I’ll deal with Copan’s criticisms in order:

  1. He’s right. I did not interact at all with Walsh’s article. Of course, that’s because I wrote my article before Walsh’s was published. Although my article wasn’t published until 2006 (two years after Walsh’s), I wrote it in 03/04 during the last year of my Th.M. program at Western Seminary. For a variety of reasons, it took a while for the paper to get published and I wasn’t able to keep an eye out for articles published in the meantime. If I had it to over again, I would love to have engaged Walsh’s argument, but such is life. Nonetheless, it’s not as though I completely ignore other possible meanings of kaph. Indeed, I explicitly dealt with Eslinger’s argument that kaph refers to female genitalia at some length.  The fact that I did not find any convincing reason for understanding kaph as referring to the groin was not because I didn’t bother to look. I simply wasn’t convinced by the arguments that I found.
  2. I have to object here. Copan makes it sound like I explain the shift from yad to kaph by saying “why not?”, as though I completely ignored the problem. Yet, I clearly state in the paper that I think this is an important issue that is often ignored by exegetes and has not yet received satisfactory explanation. I then argue that because the author is drawing on the talionic principle rather than quoting a talionic formula, some verbal flexibility is not surprising. (Interestingly enough, it might be possible to cite Copan’s own post in support of my interpretation. If kaph refers to the hand “as an instrument of…hitting,” as he states, it would be seem quite appropriate to focus on the instrument of offense in the punishment as the text does.) So, rather than just dismissing the question, I offered what I thought was a reasonable explanation. Anyone can certainly disagree with my explanation, but I would prefer that they at least acknowledge that one exists.
  3. Again, he’s right. I did fail to notice that the qal form of the verb in this passage is exegetically significant. As penance, I will step on my wife’s cat when I get home.  I thought this was the most interesting contribution of Walsh’s article. But, Avalos argues in his post that the qal/piel distinction is rather different that Walsh suggests. According to Avalos, the distinction is one of singularity vs. 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.” Thus, the use of the qal here is explained by the fact that a grammatically singular object is being cut off (hand). Given that the qal/piel distinction is quite significant for Copan’s argument, I find it surprising that he has not responded to this particular. (Granted, I haven’t read all of the comments involved in this discussion, so it’s possible that Copan has responded and I just haven’t seen it yet. If so, I hope someone will point it out.) If someone has a convincing reason that Avalos’ argument on this point is wrong, I’d love to hear it.
  4. Now I really have to take exception. (This is where the “umbrage” totally kicks in.) I have not “looked at the words”? Really? May I inquire, then, precisely what I was looking at? Other than not engaging the qal/piel question (an unfortunate omission), I believe that I engaged the most significant exegetical issues in the text. I understand and appreciate the fact that Copan and I disagree. That’s fine. I enjoy a good disagreement. And, I look forward to having someone correct me and offer a better understanding of some issue. That’s a good thing. But, I don’t appreciate someone suggesting that I’m simply ignoring the text. Feel free to disagree with me, but please don’t insult me.

Finally, I’m also not excited about some of Copan’s rhetoric. Looking at uses of kaph in Genesis and Song of Solomon, Copan claims that these parallels are “very clear” and that they “make it clear” that such is the meaning in Deuteronomy, suggesting that anyone who does not agree is simply ignoring the obvious. Even if groin is a legitimate possibility in those contexts, it’s hard to see how either of them are “very clear.” (That, by the way, is exactly the rhetorical ploy that Copan finds objectionable when Avalos refers to his positions as “literal” and dismisses Copan’s as “non-literal.” I don’t like it any more than he did.) At best, Copan draws on two other difficult passages to explain a third. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but let’s acknowledge the challenges involved and not imply that other people are simply blind to the obvious.

However, now that I’ve taken umbrage (it’s fun; you should try it), I’d like to return to what I said at the beginning. Walsh/Copan have offered an interesting argument worth considering. But, at this point, I’m still not convinced. I don’t find the parallel uses of kaph sufficiently clear to warrant seeing kaph as ”groin.” So, unless someone can convince me that Walsh’s qal/piel distinction is definitive, I don’t see enough reason to understand the text as Walsh and Copan suggest. I’d like to, but I can’t.