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The Nomadic Nature of Faithfulness

The book of Deuteronomy begins with the transition of Moses' and his summation of God's acts on behalf of the people of Israel. He gives a recap of the Covenant Code from Sinai. A close reading of the text demonstrates that Deuteronomy has more humanitarian concerns that does that which was given to Moses on the mountain. What Deuteronomy is trying to do in light of a new epoch of time and a new generation is to use what happened at Sinai as a motivator for reimagining the law in light of what has been experienced.

A comparison of the text reveals that Deuteronomy omits many civil matters related to the law and emphasizes the moral and liturgical aspects. Doing so brings to the forefront the selectivity, deliberateness, and determination the writer has with expanding and expounding upon what has previously been written to include and dignify members of the yet overlooked society. In this way, Deuteronomy is more concerned with the humanitarian aspects of the law than was the Covenant Code.

An examination of such literary choices betrays the intent of the entirety of the Pentateuch's final book. The prominent examples of the more human tendencies revolve around the overlapping laws regarding slaves, strangers, women, and festivals. Reading the texts side by side provides the reader with ample evidence of authorial intent to admonish Israel toward increasing inclusivity and progressive liberation. Deuteronomy certainly overshadows the Covenant Code, and one could argue that Deuteronomy completely replaces it. The most salient examples of this, as mentioned above, are laws concerning the seventh-year requirements regarding the poor. In Deuteronomy, Israel is called upon to cancel the debts of everyone who owes money and a way to diminish poverty in their midst[1]. Whereas in Exodus, though there is some overlap in terms of the uniqueness of what takes place during the year, Israel gives the land reprieve and leaves food for the poor[2]. The long-term effects are quite different.

The Exodus command provides temporary relief while the Deuteronomic command resets the system itself. Additionally, Deuteronomy treats male and female slaves equally, where Exodus, in contrast, does not even mention women. The inclusion of the female slave at the beginning of the stipulations[3] and reaffirmation of this aspect in instructions toward the end demonstrate Deuteronomy's insistence that the woman should be treated like the man.

Deuteronomy also stipulates that the slaves should not be released empty-handed but should have gifts given to them, a throwback to how the previous generation was freed from their own captivity in Egypt. Perhaps the most satisfying difference between the Covenant Code and the Deuteronomic command is removing the statutes that force a former slave to choose between freedom or family. Equally, gratifying is the disentanglement of that slave's decision from that which is divine or sacred. Demonstrated in the fact that the procedural requirement has changed locations[4].

Concerning procedural differences in Exodus and Deuteronomy, another stark contrast presents itself when it comes to the nature of the release. In Exodus, it seems like the slave's release depends on the time from the master, whereas in Deuteronomy, it seems more ceremonial. During the seventh year, all slaves are released simultaneously. While discussing the ceremonial aspects of the differences, it is essential to note some of the contrasts in the presentation and preservation of specific festivals and feasts. Deuteronomy stipulates that the Passover feast and the feast of unleavened bread must occur in the place the Lord God would reveal[5]. The reader is clued into the fact that the scriptures were written later, thus indicating that festivals were to be celebrated in Jerusalem. Exodus does communicate with this amount of specificity.

Another nod toward a more humanitarian expression of the law concerning the feast is who is invited to them. In Exodus, the feasts were to be celebrated with one's immediate family, including those who were members of that household. In Deuteronomy, slaves, widows, orphans, and Levites are included in the list of those with whom they should celebrate.

These deliberate changes in the law not only reveal the nomadic nature of the people with whom God has made a covenant, but they show the process of contextualization that seems to characterize the people of Israel. This is undoubtedly due to the authors' hindsight and present circumstances; it also shows that the scriptures for Israel were not always set in stone. With the changes to the law in view, Israel's necessity to make a name for herself and document the oral history that unified a people becomes quite clear.


[1] Deuteronomy 15:1-11

[2] Exodus 23:10-11

[3] Deut. 15:12

[4] Deut. 15:16-17

[5] Deut. 16:5-6


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