The book of Deuteronomy has been seen by many scholars as a reform document. This understanding of Deuteronomy is based on the view that the book found in the temple and gave impetus to the reforms of Josiah was an early edition of the book of Deuteronomy. In previous studies, I have discussed King Josiah and his religious reforms.
The reforms of Josiah came to be known as the Deuteronomic reform since it was based on the theology found in the book of Deuteronomy. This early edition of the book of Deuteronomy was the lawbook found by workers who were repairing the temple during the reign of King Josiah, who ruled from 640-609 B.C. One aim of Josiah’s reform was to address the religious and social problems found in Judean society in the seventh century B.C. As such, Josiah’s reform sought to eliminate the syncretistic practices that had been introduced into the religious life of the people of Judah by some of his predecessors. It also sought to address the plight of orphans, widows, sojourners, and poor people who were being oppressed by other Israelites.
One issue of great concern in the Deuteronomic reform was the status of women in Judean society. In order to address some of the problems women faced in Israel in the seventh century B.C., some of the laws found in the book of Exodus were revised in order to close “loopholes” that affected the treatment of women. Deuteronomy is, in many ways, a reformulation of several laws found in the Covenant Code, a set of laws found in Exodus 20:19–23:33. Other laws were introduced by the Deuteronomic reformers in order improve or change the way women were treated in Israel.
These laws in Deuteronomy dealing with the plight of women should not be interpreted in light of social customs prevalent in our society today. Rather, the laws in Deuteronomy should be understood in their socio-historical context.
The laws found in the book of Deuteronomy should be understood, first of all, in the context in which they were written. It is almost impossible to compare the way women are treated in twenty-first century America with the way women were treated in seventh century Israel. These laws were enacted to deal with problems in the lives of people who lived in a vastly different socio-cultural context in which we live today.
However, the laws of Deuteronomy emphasize the value of human life and human dignity. In an article dealing with the humanitarian concern of the laws in Deuteronomy, Moshe Weinfeld wrote that the book of Deuteronomy “strives to reveal the moral and humanist aspect of Hebrew law” (1961:242).
According to Weinfeld, the primary concern of the author of Deuteronomy was the protection of individuals, primarily of individuals whose means of protection were limited. This is the reason biblical scholars have written many books and articles on the moral and humanist laws which are characteristics of the book of Deuteronomy.
Many of the ethical and social laws found in the book of Deuteronomy are not found in other law books in the Pentateuch. Some of the laws in Deuteronomy that appear in the book of Exodus are revised in order to reflect the humanitarian concern of the Deuteronomic reform.
Several years ago I began a series of studies on the Deuteronomic concern for women. For some reason, that series of studies was never completed. The three studies listed below were my initial effort to study the humanitarian concern of Deuteronomy. It is my goal to complete this series of studies in the months to come. Until then, I hope you will enjoy these studies on the Deuteronomic concern for women.
A good way to study the Deuteronomic concern for women is to gain a better understanding of the book of Deuteronomy. A good commentary on the book of Deuteronomy is Richard D. Nelson’s, Deuteronomy, The Old Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002). Nelson’s commentary on Deuteronomy was designed to replace the commentary written by Gerhard von Rad, a work that has become a classic in its field. Nelson has written an excellent commentary which is a worthy successor of the original in this series.
Studies on the Deuteronomic Concern for Women
Nelson, Richard D. Deuteronomy. The Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Weinfeld, Moshe. “The Origin of the Humanism in Deuteronomy.” Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961): 241-47.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary