Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

The Radical Feminism of Deuteronomy?

Posted by NT Wrong on October 23, 2008

Have a look at the two versions of the “Do Not Covet” Commandment, which Exodus and Deuteronomy claim Yahweh gave to Moses and all Israel, at Mt. Sinai:

Exodus 20.17:

לֹא-תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָלֹא-תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ
You shall not covet your friend’s house. You shall not covet your friend’s wife, or his slave, or his maidservant, his cattle, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your friend.”

Deuteronomy 5.21:

וְלֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ  {ס}  וְלֹא תִתְאַוֶּה בֵּית רֵעֶךָ שָׂדֵהוּ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ
“And you shall not covet your friend’s wife. And you shall not desire your friend’s house, his field, or his slave, or his maidservant, his cattle, or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your friend.”

In a recent blog post, Claude Mariottini makes much of the change in order of the first two coveted items. The result of the change is that women are separated out from the property of their husbands. He rightly notes that Deuteronomy uses a different verb to describe the proscribed desire of a woman (hāmad חמד; cf. for the following property: ’āwāh אוה). This, claims Mariottini, constitutes “an important change of attitude toward the status of women in Israelite society.” He explains:

“The book of Deuteronomy’s revision of the Tenth Commandment separates the woman from a man’s property in order to give proper attention to the rights of the woman.
… I believe that the Deuteronomic sequence of “wife” and “house” is a radical shift in the view of the status of women in Israelite society. The Deuteronomic change reflects the increased concern for the status of women in Israelite society in the seventh century BCE and the recognition that women had legal rights as members of the covenant community.”

I have a couple of concerns with these conclusions:

1. Even if we accept that the change in order in Deut 5.21 is a conscious separation of women from a man’s property, and that it reflects some historical reality from some point in the history of Judea, is this really evidence of a “radical” shift in women’s status? We still have to ask: who are these coveting commandments being addressed to? They are addressed to males. Men are the the assumed addressees of at least this part of the covenant, even if women, aliens, and slaves are also included in the covenant elsewhere. That is, the assumed audience still comprises males, who are also addressed in the following sentence (in their normal capacity as property-holders). Although the word can have emotive connotations, it pays to remember that ‘Property’ is no more than ‘a bundle of rights’ that one person has over an object. But the word “property” does not appear in the Tenth Commandment. Instead, the verses talk generally about that which is “to your friend”. Given that the possessive “your” also appears with “friend’s wife”, couldn’t this also still include everything just listed in the verse, including “your friend’s wife”? Sure, there are different governing verbs for the wife and the other things, but the verbs are close similes. Moveover, and as a matter of realpolitik rather than the questionable use of imposed terms like “property”, is there any real evidence in Deut 5.21 that the bundle of rights that a Judean man had over his wife has been altered at all?

2. If the Deuteronomist’s changes result in some moral improvement, doesn’t this mean that the law delivered to Moses by Yahweh on Mt. Sinai (as recorded in Exodus) was morally inferior? Isn’t it a bit odd that “the recognition that women had legal rights as members of the covenant community” involves changing those very legal rights in order to recognise them? What does this mean for making laws today, if you accept that Yahweh made laws that “were not good” in the Bible? Isn’t there a continuing obligation to morally improve on Yahweh’s morally inferior laws? One obvious example, reflected in the Tenth Commandment, is the biblical law concerning slavery. The Bible never seriously challenges the morality of enslavement, only providing some minimal protection, and differentiating on the basis of race as between ‘Israelite’ and ‘non-Israelite’ slaves. Obviously, many modern nations have seen grounds for moral improvement to Yahweh’s laws here. How about, as a random example, the laws against same-sex relations? Are these morally inferior laws which should also be changed?

Update: Charles Halton, of Awilum, makes some further objections to Claude Mariottini’s approach. See his fine comment, in which he draws attenton to the need to separate out the views of the narrator from those of the characters, questions whether any cessation of marriage gifts would have effected a change in status for women, and questions the assumption that women were seen as equivalent ‘property’ with donkeys.

2 Responses to “The Radical Feminism of Deuteronomy?”

  1. N. T. Wrong,

    Thank you for your reaction to my post. You wrote:

    “What does this mean for making laws today, if you accept that Yahweh made laws that “were not good” in the Bible?”

    The prophet Ezekiel quotes the words of Yahweh:

    “I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by” (Ezekiel 20:25).

    Although this verse is difficult, it contradicts your statement.

    What I am saying is that even biblical laws were not set in cement. There was a need in Israelite society to revise some old laws, as I will show in future posts.

    Claude Mariottini

  2. ntwrong said

    Thanks for your comments, Claude.

    Yes, I had deliberately quoted from Ezekiel 20.25, as I had it in mind as an example of laws of Torah that were changed within the canon. I quite agree that there’s a development in Judean lawmaking over time — that they were not “set in cement”, that they were constantly in revision — both before and after their inscripturalisation (by change to the text, and then by change in interpretation).

    I’m not quite sure how this “contradicts” anything I wrote, as we’re saying the same thing up to this point. That was the essence of my second “concern” in the post above.

    The context of Ezekiel 20.25-26 is, as you will know, the sacrifice of firstborn that Yahweh had previously commanded. As such, this verse is itself a revision of laws from Yahweh which were later thought to be immoral (Exod 22.29-30). This is not the only way in which later biblical writers dealt with an earlier god-given law now thought to be immoral. In other places they also denied that child-sacrifice was from Yahweh, and claimed that it was a ‘foreign practice’. And then again, they replaced the required sacrifice with a monetary redemption.

    Morality changes in response to changed contexts, even within the Bible. Interestingly, and I think this is implied in what you are saying: even the Ten Commandments written by the hand of God have an inferior morality to later laws.

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