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Women in the 10 Commandments

This week in my Pentateuch class, we looked at the 10 Commandments. They’re given twice in the Pentateuch: in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. They’re almost word for word the some, with only one or two differences. One of those differences concerns women.

Exodus 20:17 reads:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Deut 5:21 reads:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor’s house or land, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Did you spot the difference? In Exodus, the house gets its own sentence while your neighbor’s wife is grouped with slaves, animals and possessions. In Deuteronomy, the wife gets her own sentence and the house is grouped with slaves, animals and possessions.

So, what’s going on there? Is Deuteronomy more pro-women than Exodus?

My first instinct is to read both lists as value groupings. So in Exodus, the house is seen as the most valuable thing while the wife is simply lumped in as another possession. However, this presupposition may need to be questioned. Notice that in Exodus, the grouping of wife, slaves and animals puts alive things in one group in contrast to an inanimate object, the house.

However, the reason for the change is interesting to consider. While Exodus’ grouping may not say anything about the value of women, it’s entirely possible that in the intervening 40 years between Exodus and Deuteronomy, fallen people have read into it that the wife is only as valuable as a slave, animal or possession. If that’s the case, Deuteronomy puts that squarely to rest.

There’s no need to read the Exodus passage as necessarily negative towards women. But in case anyone was tempted to, the Deuteronomy passage constrains such an interpretation.

Categories: Bible Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

5 replies

  1. Does the Hebrew word mean “building”? Or “house” as in “household”, and all that entails? (Wife, children, status, influence, lineage, possessions, etc.)

    It occurs to me that the Exodus passage is set in the desert, where no one HAS a (stable) building or land.

  2. It’s just בית Andy, the normal word used for house which has both connotations of a built house and a household.

    One of the distinctives of at least Deuteronomy, set on the plains of Moab before the new generation enters the land, is the expectation that they will in fact settle down with both houses and land.

  3. A less likely reading is that this change promotes slaves to the level of wives giving more value to all things that are living rather than less value to one. I say this is “less likely” because I don’t think that is what is happening here but it is worth considering. It reminds me of Philemon where Paul implores Philemon to accept Onesimus as a brother – a radical suggestion meaning that either Philemon is to become less or that Onesimus is to become greater. Most probably, it meant both as we see later that Onesimus became the Bishop of the church in Ephesus.

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