The Euthyphro Strikes Back

The Euthyphro Strikes Back March 6, 2011

This week, The King and I blog (which is doing a guided reading through the whole King James Bible in a year) finished the Pentateuch. I’ve been keeping up with the readings, and I’m often struck by the strong contrasts between the passages in the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels and epistles I hear weekly at Sunday Masses.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks in parables, using specific examples to teach higher, more abstract lessons.  Most of the parables end using more general and universal language, which makes it clear the story is not about proper agricultural practice, but about the disposition of your soul.

As far as I can tell (from my amateurs grasp of bible history) the laws set down in the Torah are narrowly tailored and do not teach moral lessons.  Laws are bizarrely specific or seem ungrounded (see almost all of Jewish dietary law) and there’s little in the text that suggests that they should be taken as metaphor.

If you’ve ever read Socrates’s dialogue with Euthyphro, you may be familiar with Socrates’s famous question to Euthyphro.  After Euthyphro defines piety as ‘that which is pleasing to the gods,’ Socrates asks whether the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious or whether is it pious because it is loved by the gods.  Reading the Hebrew Bible, it frequently seems like the Good is Good only because God says so.  There is nothing good in it for its own sake.

The best example of this phenomenon so far comes from Deuteronomy 25:11-12:

When men strive together one with another, and the wife of the one draweth near for to deliver her husband out of the hand of him that smiteth him, and putteth forth her hand, and taketh him by the secrets: Then thou shalt cut off her hand, thine eye shall not pity her.

In case you’re baffled by the language, these two verses explain that if a woman is caught helping her husband win a fight by grabbing his opponent’s genital, her hand should be cut off without remorse.

Why is this law included in the part of the Hebrew scripture allegedly written by Moses himself?  It seems unlikely that wives were interfering in fights by groping their husbands assailants so frequently that this prohibition and its consequences deserved a spot in the last book of the Pentateuch.

But if the law is meant to have a broader application, is it at all conceivable that it can be extracted from the text?  I’ve written enough literary papers in college to know that, although it’s possible to use a text as a springboard to many interesting ideas (talk to me about Sweeney Todd and the range of responses to living in a Fallen world sometime), there’s no guarantee your discovery bears any relation to authorial intent.

I could read Talmudic discussion on the passage, but I’d have no heuristic to tell truth from falsehood.  In fact, I did a little googling, and found two sources that claimed this passage is one of only two laws in the Torah that requires the wrongdoer be maimed.  That’s interesting and points to some kind of significance, but I have no idea what it could be.

I’d be interested in exegesis from anyone who knows the Torah well, but I’d also be interested in Christian perspectives on this kind of biblical mystery.  Reading through the Bible has tended to decrease the probability I assign to the the likelihood the Christianity is true.  The Old Testament frequently seems picayune, disjointed, or just plain amoral.  It’s extremely hard for me to reconcile that with any idea of revelation.

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