Summary: The gruesome practice of using body parts as proof-of-death of enemies in battle is seen in ancient depictions and in the Bible.
…Give up him alone, and I will withdraw from the city.” And the woman said to Joab, “Behold, his head shall be thrown to you over the wall.” – 2 Samuel 20:21 (ESV)
The Ancient Practice of Using Body Parts for Body Counts
With the surge of chicken sandwiches and chicken morsels several years ago, one fast-food chain began to market their chicken entrée as superior to their main competition. In their television advertisements, a customer would ask the competitor from what part of the chicken did the chicken come. The response was that it was processed chicken and that “Parts is parts,” hence the superiority of their all chicken breast choice!
Well, occasionally it is helpful to know the part—or perhaps “why” the part.
When Gideon pursued Zebah and Zalmunna, having routed their army from the Valley of Jezreel (Jdg. 7:22-8:5), he arrived at the town of Succoth across the Jordan River. He petitioned them for food so his small band could regain their strength to continue their pursuit. The people of Succoth refused to render aid, apparently fearing possible reprisals from the Midianite army if Gideon failed to conquer them. Their response is strangely phrased in the Hebrew and it is generally well-preserved in the King James, American Standard, New International Versions, and English Standard Version: “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?” (Jdg. 8:6; ESV).
Most people simply read the passage as asking if Gideon had captured Zebah and Zalmunna—were they already in Gideon’s custody?1 The cultural background of the question, however, is much richer!
The question the people of Succoth asked may very literally be translated: “Are the palm(s) [Heb. cph] of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand [Heb. yd]?” An ancient custom of some people was to amputate body parts of the enemy. In this case, the intent seems not to be to degrade or intimidate, but to serve as a “body count” or proof-of-death.2 Several examples of this form of “body count” appear both in narrative form as well as graphically (most of the extant examples tend to come from Egypt).
An early literary example is that of Ahmose who participated to expel the Hyksos from northern Egypt (ca. 1550 BC). He notes an engagement in which he captured an individual and he “carried off a hand which was reported to the Royal Herald.”3
The hand apparently was “proof” of victory, but it raises an interesting question. Was there something intrinsic about the hand that would give evidence of the position or office of the person to whom the hand had belonged (i.e., was there a tattoo or some other identifying characteristic that would demonstrate the person’s position thus warranting a reward)? We may infer that not just any old hand would do.
Somewhat later, when Thutmose III fought against the Canaanite coalition at Megiddo (ca. 1468 BC) he commemorated his victory recording that the…
…whole army was shouting, giving praise to [Amun for the victor]ies which he gave to his son [today, and they gave thanks] to his majesty, extolling his victory. They presented the plunder which they had carried off, hands, prisoners of war, horses, gold and silver chariots and pla[in ones].4
The collection of hands served as a means to count the dead.
Body Counts Depicted on the Walls of Temples
Ramses III preserves several representations of counting body parts on the walls of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu (ca. 1180 BC). At least four representations appear in which the Egyptians are counting hands. Some of the examples depict the counting event with apparently someone to record the tally behind the one making the pile (see photo at top).
Another representation shows someone counting tongues (above). Yet another depiction (below) from Medinet Habu is of the Egyptians counting phalluses. (Also see news of severed hands uncovered at the city of Avaris.)
Not all such evidence, however, comes from Egypt. From the region north of southern Canaan (i.e., modern Syria) comes a narrative example from the site of Ugarit. Ugarit preserved a collection of tablets that essentially end ca. 1200 BC with the destruction of the town. The mythical narrative describes an outburst of Anat (Anatu in the quotation below) who was the goddess of fertility and war. This section focuses on how she tends to relish occasions of violence.
Thereupon Anatu’s [sic] begins to smite (her adversaries) in the valley, to attack (them) between the two cities.
She smites the peoples (dwelling) on the seashore, wreaks destruction on the humans (dwelling) to the east.
Under her are heads like balls, above her are hands like locusts, heaps of fighters’ hands are like (heaps of) grasshoppers.
She attaches heads around her neck, ties hands at her waist.
Up to her knees she wades in the blood of soldiers, to her neck in the gore of fighters.5
Mutilation in the Bible
All of these examples date roughly within the chronological context of the Gideon episode. There is little evidence of mutilation activity among the Israelites (of course, that might be just a lack of evidence itself). It is at least possible that the phrase “do you have the palm of xx in your hand” may be a synecdoche for the capture of the person in general,6 drawing from a “tradition” that prevailed in the cultural sphere of Canaan and Egypt which essentially surrounded ancient Israel. Language often morphs from literal remarks to use those statements later to refer to associated actions (e.g., “watching the tube” for watching television; no one watches a “tube” any more, they are all digital in some form).
The Bible, however, describes a few examples of mutilation by the Israelites. One is in Judges 1:6 in which the Israelites amputate Adoni-bezek’s thumbs and big toes. Their purpose, however, appears to have been retribution since Adoni-bezek had done the same to other kings (cf. Jdg. 1:7). Their treatment probably intended not only to punish him, but also to incapacitate him from further military activity.
Another example is the bizarre episode in which Saul, thinking to guarantee David’s death, demanded that David deliver one hundred foreskins of the Philistines as the bride price for him to marry Saul’s daughter, Michal (1 Sam. 18:21-25). According to the Hebrew narrative, David doubles the bride price.7 Not only did this provide the “bride price,” but it also served as a body count against the Philistines, who were often referred to disparagingly as “uncircumcised” (Jdg. 14:3; 15:18; 1 Sam. 14:6; etc.)8 and who were proverbially Israel’s arch-enemies.9
Post-mortem desecration, however, appears generally to have been frowned on in the Bible. Amos conveys the LORD’s displeasure at the Moabites who burned the bones of the king of Edom to lime (Amos 2:1). God’s revelation that the tombs of the Valley of Hinnom would be emptied of their occupants (Jer. 8:1-3) should not be interpreted as a reflection of what he wanted to happen, but a description of what would happen because of Judah’s unfaithfulness. Even situations of execution in the Hebrew Bible demanded that the victims be removed from the tree before sunset (Deut. 21:22-23; cf. Josh. 10:26-27). Keep Thinking!
1 One may assume the possibility that if Zeba and Zalmunna had already been captured, Gideon’s pursuit of the remnant army was to eliminate the risk that it might rally and retaliate. There was, however, a tendency in armies that if the leader(s) were captured the army would scatter (cf. Syrian instruction in the episode with Ahab; 1 Kgs. 22:29-36).
2 There is no question that some peoples mutilated their enemy to humiliate and degrade them and intimidate the survivors. Such clearly is the point of the Assyrians to boast about their victories by amputating arms, hands, noses, ears, gouging out eyes, making piles of heads, hanging heads in trees, and flaying people, etc. (see for instance Daniel David Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, Pt. 1 [London: Histories & Mysteries of Man, 1989 reprint from 1926], repeatedly in pp. 138-69).
3 James K. Hoffmeier, “Eighteenth Dynasty Inscriptions: The Tomb Biography of Ahmose of Nekheb (2.1).” Pp. 5-7 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 2. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 5. In the autobiography he refers to several captures that culminated with the delivery of a “hand” to his superiors.
4 James K. Hoffmeier, “Thutmose III (2.2); The Annals of Thutmose III (2.2A).” Pp. 7-13 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 2. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 11-12.
5 Dennis Pardee, “Ugaritic Myths: The Balu Myth (1.86).” Pp. 241-74 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 1. Ed. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 250.
6 Interestingly, a dual synecdoche may be involved, with “palm” being the synecdoche to refer to the body part of the defeated enemy and the reference to “hand” as a synecdoche for person of the victor.
7 The Greek Old Testament (i.e., LXX) records that David delivered one hundred foreskins. Another variation appears in Josephus (Ant. 6.197) who narrates that Saul demanded 600 “heads” (kephalas) as the bride price and indicates that David thus decapitated the Philistines.
8 This emphasis on Philistines might have been important to demonstrate that the “victims” were Philistines against whom Saul was primarily engaged at the time as opposed to other nationalities. There is Egyptian pictorial evidence of circumcision (from ca. 2350 BC [see conveniently Pritchard, image 629] as well as ca. 1360 BC) as part of their culture as well as literary remarks by Jeremiah (ca. 600 BC) that circumcision was part of the cultures of Egypt, Edom, Ammon, Moab, and desert dwellers (cf. Jer. 9:25-26). These examples, however, are separated from the time of David by several hundred years.
9 Other examples of mutilation by Israelites are the offer of the wise woman at Abel Beth-Ma’acah to deliver the head of Sheba son of Bichri who initiated a rebellion against David (2 Sam. 20:14-22). Another is Jehu’s demand to behead the seventy sons of Ahab (2 Kgs 10:1-8).
Hoffmeier, James K. “Eighteenth Dynasty Inscriptions: The Tomb Biography of Ahmose of Nekheb (2.1).” Pp. 5-7 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 2. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
__________. “Thutmose III (2.2): The Annals of Thutmose III (2.2A).” Pp. 7-13 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 2. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
Luckenbill, Daniel David. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia, Pt. 1. London: Histories & Mysteries of Man, 1989 reprint from 1926.
Pardee, Dennis. “Ugaritic Myths: The Balu Myth (1.86).” Pp. 241-74 in The Context of Scripture, vol. 1. Eds. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. Leiden: Brill, 1997.
Pritchard, James B. ed. The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament. 2d ed. with Supplement. Princeton: Princeton, 1969.
TOP PHOTO: A representation in which three registers depict Egyptians counting hands on the walls of Medinet Habu in Luxor, Egypt. (© Dale Manor)