In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, that great wisdom book found in the body of literature known as the Apocrypha, Ben Sirach said: “A scholar’s wisdom comes of ample leisure; if a man is to be wise, he must be relieved of other tasks” (Sirach 38:24). These wise words reflect the thinking of a great scholar who had ample time to study, to meditate, and to write. If it were not for sabbaticals, seminary professors would never have the time to write.
This paper comes from the results of my work on a commentary on Deuteronomy. I would like to express my gratitude to the Trustees and to the administration of the seminary for allowing me the opportunity to take a sabbatical to do research and write. I also would like to thank Silvia Larrondo, Assistant Librarian at Northern Baptist Seminary, who served as my editor. She read the draft of the commentary and offered many suggestions to improve my Spanish. I owe a debt of gratitude to Silvia.
The purpose of this paper is to study some of the laws in the book of Deuteronomy that reflect the social concern of the Deuteronomist for the poor and needy in Israel.
The Deuteronomic Reform
The Book of Deuteronomy served as the theological foundation for the reforms of Josiah in the 7th century B.C. When Josiah came to the throne of Judah in 640 B.C., at the age of eight, the country had come out of a great time of spiritual darkness that was the legacy left by Manasseh and his son Amon.
The long reign of Manasseh was marked by religious syncretism and a complete abandonment of the ancient traditions of Israel. With the death of Manasseh, his son Amon became king of Judah. Within two years, Amon was assassinated by some of his own officers who desired a change in the political direction of the country. It seems that those who had assassinated the king also desired to remove the family of David in order to establish a new dynasty on the throne of Judah.
Out of a concern for the future of the nation and for the preservation of the Davidic line on the throne of Judah, the am haarets killed the assassins of Amon and placed Josiah, Amon’s son, upon the throne. The am haarets were “the people of the land,” a group of free citizens who were also landowners, people who had a vested interest in the preservation of the ancient social and religious traditions of the nation.
During the years of Manasseh and Amon, Judah served as a vassal of Assyria. The many years of vassalage to Assyria served to introduce many religious practices into the religion of Israel that were contrary to the Yahwistic faith that the am haarets espoused. During this time Israel had to pay a yearly tribute to Assyria.
The economic drain on the kingdom and on the population forced many people to sell their possessions and go into debt. This situation created in Judah a group of landless people who were forced to sell their lands, their families, and even themselves in order to pay the debt they had incurred.
The aim of Josiah’s reform was to free Judah from its vassalage to the Assyrian empire. At the end of the seventh century, the mighty Assyrian empire was disintegrating because of external pressures and internal politics. With the withdrawal of the Assyrian army from Palestine in 626 B.C., Josiah saw the opportunity to establish social and religious reforms to counteract the detrimental changes Manasseh had imposed upon the social and religious life of the nation.
The discovery of the book of the law during the renovation of the temple gave a new impetus to the reforms that Josiah had begun to implement and served to correct some of the religious and social abuses that were prevalent in Israelite society.
The book found in the temple was an early edition of the book of Deuteronomy. The way it is written, the Book of Deuteronomy is a reformulation of the ancient traditions of Israel. About half of the laws that appear in the book of Exodus, especially in the Book of the Covenant, also appear in Deuteronomy.
However, the book of Deuteronomy presupposes a different social situation. Deuteronomy revised and expanded the laws dealing with the protection of the socially and legally impoverished Israelites. This humanitarian concern of Deuteronomy reflects the socioeconomic conditions of the seventh century B.C.
The purpose of the Deuteronomic reforms of the seventh century was to establish a just society, an alternative community governed by the laws of the God who had brought Israel from the harsh slavery imposed upon the people by their Egyptian overlords. The fall of Samaria in 722 B.C. had brought many dispossessed Israelites to live in Judah.
In addition, over the years, Judah had incorporated into its community many individuals who had fled the oppressive policies and the inhumane conditions present in the many Canaanite city-states. Many of these people were devoid of legal protection and in need of safeguards against some of the abuses that landless people suffer at the hands of the more prosperous citizens.
The laws of Deuteronomy were special. Moses said to Israel: “And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Deut. 4: 8). According to this statement, the intent of the Deuteronomic laws was to provide a respite for those who were economically weak and to develop an egalitarian sentiment among those who were bound by the laws of God. 
To Be Continued.
Next: The Social Concern of Deuteronomy – Part 2
 The study of these laws is based upon the work done for my commentary of the book of Deuteronomy: Claude Mariottini, “Deuteronomio,” Comentario Biblico Mundo Hispano (El Paso: Editorial Mundo Hispano, 1998), 317-558.
 F. M. Cross, “Josiah’s Revolt against Assyria, JNES 14 (1955): 56-58.
 Moshe Weinfeld, “The Origin of Humanism in Deuteronomy,” JBL 80 (1961): 241-47; ibid., Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 282-297.