Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Toes & Thumbs

There are two interesting verses in Judges 1:6-7:
    וַיָּנָס אֲדֹנִי בֶזֶק, וַיִּרְדְּפוּ אַחֲרָיו; וַיֹּאחֲזוּ אוֹתוֹ--וַיְקַצְּצוּ, אֶת-בְּהֹנוֹת יָדָיו וְרַגְלָיו.

    6 But Adoni-bezek fled; and they pursued after him, and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and his great toes.

    ז וַיֹּאמֶר אֲדֹנִי-בֶזֶק, שִׁבְעִים מְלָכִים בְּהֹנוֹת יְדֵיהֶם וְרַגְלֵיהֶם מְקֻצָּצִים הָיוּ מְלַקְּטִים תַּחַת שֻׁלְחָנִי--כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי, כֵּן שִׁלַּם-לִי אֱלֹהִים; וַיְבִיאֻהוּ יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וַיָּמָת שָׁם. {פ}

    7 And Adoni-bezek said: 'Threescore and ten kings, having their thumbs and their great toes cut off, gathered food under my table; as I have done, so God hath requited me.' And they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there. {P}
Of all the forms of torture that Adoni-bezek could employ, why did he choose to cut off his captives' thumbs and great toes? For that matter, why these digits and not others? Why not act like Hanun and shave off half his victims' beards, or use other ways to degrade his captives? (And yes, I know Adoni-bezek lived before Hanun, but still, why not use other methods of inflicting pain?)

I believe the answer lies in the following verses:
    1) כ וְשָׁחַטְתָּ אֶת-הָאַיִל, וְלָקַחְתָּ מִדָּמוֹ וְנָתַתָּה עַל-תְּנוּךְ אֹזֶן אַהֲרֹן וְעַל-תְּנוּךְ אֹזֶן בָּנָיו הַיְמָנִית, וְעַל-בֹּהֶן יָדָם הַיְמָנִית, וְעַל-בֹּהֶן רַגְלָם הַיְמָנִית; וְזָרַקְתָּ אֶת-הַדָּם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, סָבִיב.

    20 Then shalt thou kill the ram, and take of its blood, and put it upon the tip of the right ear of Aaron, and upon the tip of the right ear of his sons, and upon the thumb of their right hand, and upon the great toe of their right foot, and dash the blood against the altar round about. (Exodus 29:20)

    2) יז וּמִיֶּתֶר הַשֶּׁמֶן אֲשֶׁר עַל-כַּפּוֹ, יִתֵּן הַכֹּהֵן עַל-תְּנוּךְ אֹזֶן הַמִּטַּהֵר הַיְמָנִית, וְעַל-בֹּהֶן יָדוֹ הַיְמָנִית, וְעַל-בֹּהֶן רַגְלוֹ הַיְמָנִית--עַל, דַּם הָאָשָׁם.

    17 And of the rest of the oil that is in his hand shall the priest put upon the tip of the right ear of him that is to be cleansed, and upon the thumb of his right hand, and upon the great toe of his right foot, upon the blood of the guilt-offering. (Leviticus 14:17)
See Leviticus 14:14, 14:25 and 14:28 for other mentions of the blood being placed upon the thumbs and toes of people.

The question becomes: what exactly is happening here, when either one is annointed with oil placed upon one's thumb and toe, or has the blood of one's offering placed upon these digits?

In the case of Aaron and his sons, this marks their inauguration into the priesthood. Placing the blood upon their thumb and toe is part of dedicating them to serve as priests to God and setting them aside as holy.

Similarly, in the case of the leper who has come to bring an offering, placing the oil upon his thumb and toe is part of the cleansing process utilized in making him pure again, and allowing him to rejoin the congregation of God in its full capacity.

In both cases, therefore, placing blood or oil upon one's thumbs and toes is part of the process used in making oneself holy or pure, and setting oneself aside to serve God, whether it be in a special capacity such as that utilized by the priest, or simply as a full devotee, having repented of sin, such as the leper.

What, then, was it, that Adoni-Bezek was doing when he chose to torture his captives by cutting off their thumbs and toes? Why, it was simply another form of what occurs by the Eved-Ivri, the Hebrew slave who chooses to serve his master for an additional period of time. An Eved-Ivri has a hole bored into his ear as though to say: "The ear which heard at Sinai that he was to serve God, who is his Master, chose a human master for himself instead!" Similarly, by cutting off his captives' thumbs and toes, Adoni-Bezek proclaimed himself mightier than God. "You desired to set yourselves aside for God, to make yourselves pure and holy? Observe how you have been set aside for me instead, your human master!" While the captives upon whom he inflicted these tortures were not necessarily the Israelites or Jews themselves, the imagery holds fast nonetheless. Doubtless, the other Kings from the various kingdoms had imagined themselves as ruling by the strength of their god or gods; in cutting off their toes and thumbs, Adoni-Bezek divested them of this symbolic power.

It is in this way that we can understand Adoni-Bezek's words, "As I have done, so God has requited me." On the simple level, he means that in the same way that he had dismembered his captives, so too has he now been dismembered. But on a deeper level, Adoni-Bezek refers to his intent. "As I have done," i.e. in declaring myself to be master over those who truly belong to God, "so God has requited me," i.e. He has let me fall into the hands of the Jews, in order to prove to me that they are indeed set aside for Him, and I cannot make them mine. Thus it is with perfect and dramatic irony that the Jews cut off Adoni-Bezek's thumbs and great toes, as they assert the supremacy of God, and their devotion to Him.


Anonymous said...

You can't run without a big toe, you can't hold a sword without a thumb.

Ezzie said...

Have to agree with anon - in literature (fiction and non) you'll hear about people using this kind of punishment. It removed the threat the person posed almost entirely.

Chana said...

Peshat and drash...hello?

Ezzie said...

Didn't say the drash was bad. :) Just giving pshat, too!

Tobie said...

I think that the parallel is strong, but I would differ with the conclusion. I think that rather than arguing causation, both practices stem from the same idea that the thumb and the big toe symbolize strength and all that jazz, which is why they are what we dedicate to Hashem as a symbol for giving the whole body. Your drash assumes that the sanctification process is the starting point and it itself is the association that people had with those organs, rather than assuming that the sanctification process is building off of pre-existing symbolism.