The Social Concern of Deuteronomy – Part 2

In my previous post, The Social Concern of Deuteronomy – Part 1, I wrote that many laws in the book of Deuteronomy reflect a social concern for the poor and the needy in Israel. This concern comes out of the humanitarian sentiments of the leaders of the Deuteronomic reforms that took place in Judah during the reign of Josiah in the seventh century B.C.

The laws of Deuteronomy articulate a basic concept of human rights that declares that the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger are persons who are under the protection of YHWH.  For this reason they deserve to be treated with dignity by the members of the covenant community.  Today’s post will briefly study one of the laws that reflects this social concern for the poor and needy in Israel.

The Law of the Sabbath, Deut. 5:12-15

“Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you.  [13] Six days you shall labor and do all your work,  [14] but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do.  [15] Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

In order to gain a better understanding of the humanitarianism and the social concern present in the book of Deuteronomy, it is necessary to understand the prologue to the Ten Commandments.  The Decalogue begins with an introduction of the redeeming God: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deut. 5:6).

It is the redeeming work of Yahweh that gives meaning to the Decalogue and to the many social laws present in the book of Deuteronomy.  The humanitarian concern of Deuteronomy is grounded on the liberating act of God on behalf of his people.

In Deuteronomy, this call to remember the oppression in Egypt and the harsh suffering of Israel under the oppressive hands of Pharaoh is used for the first time to undergird social and charitable laws whose main concern was the welfare of those living in the periphery of Israelite society.

The call to remember the house of bondage is the basis for three laws dealing with slaves in Deut. 5:15, 15:15, and 16:12.  The same remembrance of Egypt serves as the basis for three laws providing for the basic needs of the orphans, the widows, and the aliens in 24:18, 22, and 23:8.

The best place to see the social concern of Deuteronomy is in the commandment dealing with the Sabbath.[1]  In Deuteronomy the formulation of the fourth commandment differs from the formulation in Exodus.  In addition, the motive for the observation of the Sabbath is also different.  The revisions introduced by the Deuteronomist demand a new understanding for the observance of the Sabbath.

In Exodus, the motive for the observation of the Sabbath is “thoroughly theological.”[2]  People should rest on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day of creation: “For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (Exod. 20:11).

In Deuteronomy, the motive for the observation of the Sabbath is social.  The recollection of Israel’s slavery in Egypt is the basis for resting on the seventh day: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15).

In the book of Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is “fundamentally an egalitarian institution.”[3] On the seventh day everyone should rest: men and women, young and old, free people and slaves,  rich and poor, human beings and animals.  According to Deuteronomy, the Sabbath was created so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do (v.14).

This statement does not appear in the Exodus version of the Decalogue, but in Deuteronomy the statement is used to demonstrate that neither origin, social position, sex, nor even religion should prevent observance of the law.  In Israel, every individual was equal before the law.[4]

The change in verbs is also significant.  In Exodus, Remember (Hebrew zakar) is generally used for historical remembrance while Observe (Hebrew shamar) involves a more active participation in observing the law.[5] This change of emphasis by the Deuteronomist reflects an implied criticism on the mere formality by which the people of Israel observed the requirements of the Sabbath and the indifference of many who were oblivious to the plight of those less fortunate in Israel.

To those who were in the forefront of the Josianic reform, Sabbath observance was much more that a mere remembrance that God had created the world in seven days.  To them, Sabbath observance was based on the fact that each Israelite had been a slave in Egypt and that the proper way to celebrate their deliverance from their oppressive situation was by abstaining from work for one day.  For many years Israel had suffered as slaves in Egypt and knew full well the unfortunate plight of the slave.  For this reason, slave owners in Israel should allow their own slaves to rest one day a week.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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[1]  Patrick D. Miller, Jr., “The Human Sabbath: A Study in Deuteronomic Theology,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 6 (1985): 81-97.

[2] Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy (OTL; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 58.

[3] Terence Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 230.

[4] George Braulik, “Deuteronomy and Human Rights,” The Theology of Deuteronomy (N. Richland Hill, TX: Bibal Press, 1994), 145.

[5] Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11 (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1991), 303.

This entry was posted in Book of Deuteronomy, Deuteronomy, Exodus, Hebrew Bible, Israelite Laws, Oppression, Poor, Slavery, Slaves, Women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Social Concern of Deuteronomy – Part 2

  1. Anna Knafo says:

    Until today every Shabbat Eve each Jewish woman lights two candels – one for Shmor another for Z’chor (observe & remember)…


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