In Part 1 of my study on the plight of women in Israelite society, I wrote that “the status of women as persons of worth and dignity at times [is] betrayed by the social realities present in Israelite society.” In Part 2 of my study, I want to introduce how the reforms of Josiah and the book of Deuteronomy made an attempt at improving the status of women in Israelite society during the seventh century B.C.E.
The best effort to deal with the religious and social problems confronting Israelite society in the late monarchic period is found in the book of Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy was an attempt at developing a special sense of social responsibility in the life of every Israelite for the poor, slaves, women, and for those in society who were underprivileged and did not enjoy the whole benefit of the law.
The book of Deuteronomy is considered by the majority of scholars to be a revision of the Book of the Covenant. The book of Deuteronomy revises old laws and introduces new ones in order to meet the needs of Israelite society in the latter half of the seventh century B.C.E.
The book of Deuteronomy is presented as an exposition of the Mosaic law revealed by Yahweh at Mount Sinai. According to the book, Moses introduced the laws of God to the new generation of Israelites in preparation for their entrance into the Promised Land. This exposition of the law was also an invitation to the people of Israel to dedicate themselves to the demands of the covenant Yahweh had established with them.
The degeneration of the religious and social life in the Northern Kingdom in the days of Amos and Hosea and the religious syncretism in Judah in the days of Manasseh promoted an abandonment of moral values and a neglect of the demands of the covenant and the ancient traditions of the nation.
In 622 B.C.E., during the renovation of the temple in the days of Josiah, king of Judah (640-609), the book of the law was found by the workers in the temple. The book found in the temple probably was an earlier version of Deuteronomy. The reading of the book affected Josiah immensely.
In a ceremony in the temple, the king invited the people to renew the covenant and to abide by the demands of the Torah of Moses. In addition to the religious reforms of the Israelite cult, there was also a reformulation of several laws to improve the plight of the destitute and the oppressed in Israelite society.
The book of Deuteronomy reflects the rise of humanism in Israel. Deuteronomy contains several new laws and many revisions of old ones dealing with the oppressed in Israel. These laws became necessary because of the changes brought by the monarchy and by the deterioration of the social structures in Israelite society.
Several aspects of the Deuteronomic reform affected women for the better. The reformulation of Mosaic laws in the days of Josiah also served to call the people who lived in the seventh century B.C.E. to hear the words of Yahweh again and to renew their commitment to the God of Israel.
The book of Deuteronomy emphasizes Israel’s experience in Egypt. Deuteronomy reintroduces the laws and demands of the God who had redeemed a people from the house of servitude in Egypt to make them a special people with a universal mission. Israel was called to be a religious community where the justice of God would be manifested to the whole world.
Among the many theological emphases of the book, three deserve attention. The first was that Yahweh, the God of Israel, loved Israel with a special love, even when the nation did not deserve his love. Now Israel had to love God with their whole being (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Second, Israel had served other gods, but now Israel had to serve Yahweh exclusively (Deuteronomy 6:4). Deuteronomy emphasizes the singularity of Yahweh in the life of Israel. Finally, the book of Deuteronomy relates obedience to God to the daily life of each member of the community. Because Israel was united to God by the demands of the covenant, each member of the community had to treat another Israelite with justice.
Israel, as God’s people, was a special people, a people separated from the other nations and as such, the daily life and the moral conduct among the members of the community had to reflect this relationship with God.
The demands of the covenant required personal integrity and social justice of each Israelite. The poor, the slaves, the orphans, the widows, and the other destitute persons in Israel became the beneficiaries of the changes introduced by the social reforms of Deuteronomy. In addition, there was a real effort to improve the status of women in Israelite society by emphasizing the dignity of women and by bringing them relief from some of the injustices allowed by older laws. This improvement of the status of Israelite women came by revision of older laws found in the Book of the Covenant and by the enactment of new laws directly affecting the lives of women in Israelite society.
In upcoming posts, I will demonstrate how the book of Deuteronomy is concerned with the oppressive situation of women in Israelite society. I will examine several laws and study how Deuteronomic laws revise and improve the laws in the book of Exodus to address some social injustices in Israelite society, especially injustices against women.
To be continued.
Studies on the Deuteronomic Concern for Women
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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