The Point of My Exodus 21/ Deuteronomy 15 Illustration

Posted By on December 24, 2008

A little while back a commenter to the discussion of inspiration and inerrancy wanted me to put forth examples where something written in Scripture was later changed in Scripture. I provided two examples off the top of my head since I’ve thought about both again recently: the case of Exodus 21/Deut 15, and the change in Passover laws from Exodus to the time of Deuteronomy. I’ll explain the first here. Remember how they apply to our discussion, though. I’m arguing that if God “gave” the words of Exodus to the writers, it makes little sense that he would late change them for any reason – any such reason should have been anticipated by God who gave them. My view of inspiration would handle the change differently.

Here’s Exodus 21:1-6 and Deut. 15:12-18 side-by-side (both ESV). While there are several differences, I’ve highlighted only one of them.

Exodus 21:1-6

Deut 15:12-18

“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God(Hebrew: elohim) , and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever. 12 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. ?As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. 16 But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same. 18 It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired servant he has served you six years. So the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.

Note that the phrase in Exodus 21:6 “his master shall bring him to God” that is part of the ceremony is missing in Deut. 15. It’s been deleted. So what? You might ask.

There are two ways to translate the Hebrew word “elohim” in this passage: “God” (as in the ESV) and the plural “gods”. Over sixty years ago, the great semiticist Cyrus Gordon wrote an article on this passage where he argued that the translation should be plural, suggesting that the gods to whom the slave was brought before, were “household gods” – i.e., one’s dead family ancestors, whose memory was commemorated by the presence of teraphim (figurines, at times only of the head and torso). Teraphim, of course, show up in the OT in several places. David had them in his house, for his wife Michal used one (put it in his bed under the sheets as it were) to fool Saul’s men into thinking it was David in the bed (1 Samuel 19:11-17; esp. v. 13).

Gordon was guessing here, since the word teraphim isn’t present in Exodus 21. His guess was prompted by the deletion in this ceremony of the word elohim in Deuteronomy 15. I think he was right. Let’s look at the alternatives. If the family was to present the slave before “God” (the God of Israel) for approval, why remove God from the ceremony in Deuteronomy? It makes no sense. If elohim in Exodus 21 refers to the elders of Israel (there’s no evidence for that, but commentaries mention it), the same question arises: why the deletion? The elders aren’t bad guys, and they are still around in the time of Deuteronomy. What was it about presenting the slave before elohim that would have prompted the change in the text? The only coherent answer is that elohim was to be taken as a plural, and Gordon is right. This ought NOT be understood as idolatry, either. Teraphim *could* be wrongly worshipped, but in this context, they are the ancient equivalent of pictures of dead loved ones – and I’m guessing each of our houses have those, to keep their memory alive. In Israel (as today), the belief was that, even though dead, dead loved ones were still living, somewhere else (the spiritual realm, in most general terms). As we take flowers to a grave, or poems, or other paraphernalia because our dead loved one “would like that,” so in Israel family households would have meals with the departed loved ones on special days, and give them libations and food, to keep them a part of the family. Adding a foreign member to the family (the slave) was a serious thing, and so EVERYONE had to approve – even the departed.

But by the time Deuteronomy was written, circumstances had changed. Here one is faced with the issue of Mosaic authorship *of this portion of Deuteronomy* as well. For the record, I do not adhere to JEDP. I think it is based on circular reasoning. I also do not think Moses wrote every word of the Pentateuch. This instance (the deletion of plural elohim) is EASILY explained by accepting the plurality noted above, and also realizing that this “new” command – this changed command/ceremony about inducting slaves as family members – came after long battles with idolatry. If, as the critics argue, Deuteronomy (or at least parts of it) were written in Josiah’s day, this makes perfect sense. Josiah was the one who re-instituted the law and got rid of idolatry. Having the teraphim as part of this ceremony created the *possibility* that some would abuse the practice and the idea, and descend into idolatry once again, a path that had led to God’s judgment. And so that part of the ceremony was deleted after the time of Moses (which also means Moses could have written Deut 15 with the same elements of Exodus 21, but someone came along later and removed it for theological reasons – to its use as a rationale for idolatry).

And so, what we have here is an alteration of one biblical text by a later hand, and for theologically understandable reasons. So my question stands: if we have to have God giving the words to Moses in Exodus 21, why didn’t God anticipate, through his foreknowledge, the problem that would occur later?

My view is that God prompted and oversaw (without “giving” the words) Moses and whoever else to write what they did, when they wrote it. It was subject to change and that was fine with God. It was what he wanted written at the times the texts were written. We don’t have an omniscience problem because we don’t have a dictation problem. And yet God approved of both.

The next example, the changes in Passover laws, are even starker – since, if they were written by Moses, and if they were “given” by God, believers are left with a tough choice of how to obey Passover – since the laws CONFLICT. Again, they reflect divergent historical circumstances, so this is no problem for my view of inspiration (or for inerrancy, I might add). It’s a problem for more traditional views, though. We’ll get to that one in a bit.

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6 Responses to “The Point of My Exodus 21/ Deuteronomy 15 Illustration”

  1. cwmyers007 says:

    Mike,

    This post is not a good one to use against my view because it requires one to accept Gordon’s thesis, against almost every good English translation that exists, in order to make a valid argument. However, Gordon’s thesis has not gained any ground in the scholarly world for good reasons—I would like to lay out a couple of them here:

    1. Why not just say Teraphim! I think you are OK in saying that elohim could equal teraphim because it seems that Laban does just this in Genesis 31 (and probably also this occurs in Judges 17:5); he calls his teraphim his elohim, however, is not using the term elohim for teraphim alone a sign that these things are being unjustly elevated to an idolatrous level.

    2. LOOK AT THE CONTEXT. It is clear from the Bible alone that teraphim were images made in the likeness of men ….Is not Exodus 20 (just a chapter before) relevant to this discussion! It says, “thou shalt not have any elohim (if elohim can equal Teraphim why do you not consider them here?) besides me,” and “make not any graven image (pecel) …of anything in the heaven above or the earth below.” Why would the same author of Exodus ignore what he just wrote a chapter before?

    3. Disdain for Teraphim is recognized MUCH EARLIER than Josiah. Did not Jacob in Genesis 35 call Teraphim “strange (foreign) gods” (nakar) and have them buried? Furthermore, in I Sam. 15:23, did not Samuel in his rebuke to Saul classify teraphim with iniquity (aven) and rebellion (meriy).

    4. Furthermore, why bring someone to your dead teraphim for approval, when dead things can’t either approve or disapprove anything!

    5. Also, you assume that teraphim is an ancestor revering practice, but this is not at all clear. This is actually unlikely. Because e the evidence seems to point that the teraphim is somehow connected to divination: Zech. 10:2 “for the teraphim have spoken vanity, and the diviners have seen a lie; and they have told false dreams” and In Ezek. 21:21 it is recorded that the King of Babylon consulted teraphim, and “looked in the liver.” And also the fact that teraphim is connected with that of an ephod in Judges 17:5, 18:20 could also point to this fact of teraphim and divinization. Notice especially that Judges 17:5 connects teraphim to being a ‘house of gods’ all in a negative fashion.

    6. Last one, slaves were already under the umbrella headship of the head of the household and therefore had to be circumcised (Gen. 17), so in essence he was already part of the family. This “ceremony” in Ex. 21 is not one of becoming part of the family…he already was! Instead, it was a ceremony of permanent possession within the family. A son grows up and leaves the headship of his father and establishes his own. But to stay under the headship of the head of household (when you are expected to go free in seven years) a ceremony is appropriate for solidifying that relationship not only before the parties involved, but also before GOD himself who you are covenanting by.

    So you pose the question to me: “If we have God giving the words to Moses in Exodus 21, why didn’t God anticipate, through his foreknowledge, the problem that would occur later?”

    My answer is that there was never a problem—you have read into the text a problem that does not exist. I agree with the ESV and the rest of the world that has rejected Gordon’s thesis that elohim here means what it usually means, God, the being whom you USUALLY make a covenant before, not teraphim. So with my rejection of Gordon’s thesis, there is no problem in this text for me.

    However, you still may ask, “Well you still have not answered the question of why Deuteronomy leaves out the “bring him to elohim.” Well my answer would be that there are many explanations that could be adopted without adopting an obscure reason like you have. Such reasons I purport to be:

    1. It could have been assumed in Deuteronomy; it is only emphasized in Exodus because of their Egyptian idolatry that they were still practicing, but by Deuteronomy that generation had passed and the new one has already been well established in the true religion of yahweh and no emphasis is needed.

    2. The direct verse context of Deuteronomy 15: 16-17 has already incorporated this aspect of coming before God by the unique mention of “As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” and “the Lord your God redeemed you” and “So the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.” It would be mere repetition to repeat that which is in Exodus. Indeed Moses puts this command directly within the scope of their relationship with their God the Lord in 15:15. And this is equivalent to what he did in Exodus 21.

    3. Thirdly, I could accept a plural translation also as long as you allow Scripture to interpret Scripture and let Psalm 82:6, John 10:34-35 to interpret this rightly. Here the elohim would be the rulers over Israel at that time, namely, Moses, Aaron, and those who he appointed under him. This is totally legitimate and makes sense. Don’t we also have to go before the courts to make someone part of our family in this day—do not think that a nomadic-tribal culture would be any different. It is likely that this would occur also so that this law was made unlikely to be abused by involving a third party. Assuming a plural view–why would it be left out in Deuteronomy? This I do not know. And that is why, for now, I assume that Elohim is singular because it has the greatest explanatory power and makes the most sense according to the context, the text, and the overall systematic theology of a verbal plenary inspiration.

    I think your teraphim interpretation is not only the most obscure, but probably you may be the only conservative evangelical I know to hold it.

    Grace be with you,

    Chris

  2. oecolampadius says:

    I do not think Moses wrote all of Deuteronomy. I think that the Canon probably did go through some updating through time. I also think that your suggestion that the text may have ben updated in the reign of Josiah as reasonable. I can envison a scenario where after the Deut was found in the temple, it was subsequently edited by the priesthood to correct any misunderstandings.

    But is it not possible to account for the differences between Exodus and Deuteronomy based on their narrative context? Isn’t Deuteronomy thought to be sermonic, and Exodus to be a narrative account? Wouldn’t we expect differences here? Would the preparation to enter the promised land affect Moses’ wording when he gave his speech to the people?

    Blake

  3. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: teraphim are considered gods across the ancient world, including the OT, so I fail to see your point. There are no exegetical defenses for saying the plural elohim ever refers to people (as in zero – and I’ve basically spent most of the last ten years on that subject/problem and have everything there is to read on it; it’s completely arbitrary). It doesn’t work in any passage; it has to be imported. Seeing that in Jesus’ use of John 10 undermines his argument for his own deity status (it doesn’t deny, it just makes it go away). You still haven’t explained why a singular elohim would be removed. There is no covenant cutting language (the typical verbiage) in the passage, so it’s pointless to appeal to covenant creation to get a single elohim (and so, in Deut, why is God excluded from the covenant?). And there was no idolatry problem in the days of Deuteronomy? Moses brings up the problem several times (e.g., Deut 17:3; 29:25). This is crazy – when didn’t Israel have a problem with idolatry?

  4. MSH says:

    @oecolampadius: The issue with the chronological distance is the linkage of the passover with phrases like “the place where the Lord would set his name.” This is stock vocabulary for the temple (search for the phrase). One cannot coherently say it refers to only the tabernacle since that would mean Moses was telling them to offer the passover at the tabernacle — but that would make no sense since in Exodus, when the tabernacle gets built, the law of moses says they are to offer it in their homes. The “set his name” phasing is classic Deuteronomic language for the temple. I agree with you that editing (updating to a later time and audience) makes the best sense here, rather than standard JEDP ideas here, especially since we know that the text was updated for later audiences in other passages. It’s natural. And editing (as opposed to wholesale creation of Deuteronomy) still allows it to be Mosaic at its core.

  5. cwmyers007 says:

    Mike,

    Then what do you make of Ps. 82:6? Do you think Jesus took it out of context?

    And if you say that teraphim are considered gods throughout the ANE then doesn’t Gordon’s thesis become very harmful. If we adopt Gordon’s thesis, then we have to admit that Exodus 21 commands a ceremony to occur before false gods! This is ludicrous in light of the context (Exodus 20).

    And I did give two possible reasons why a singular elohim was removed and I think they are plausible reasons. I said:

    “1. It could have been assumed in Deuteronomy; it is only emphasized in Exodus because of their Egyptian idolatry that they were still practicing, but by Deuteronomy that generation had passed and the new one has already been well established in the true religion of yahweh and no emphasis is needed. (I mean here that it is plausible that Old-Egypt Hebrews needed to be reminded of these things because of their relatively new understanding of who God is, while the Deuteronomic Hebrews were already a generation into understanding who this YHWH deity is.)

    2. The direct verse context of Deuteronomy 15: 16-17 has already incorporated this aspect of coming before God by the unique mention of “As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” and “the Lord your God redeemed you” and “So the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.” It would be mere repetition to repeat that which is in Exodus. Indeed Moses puts this command directly within the scope of their relationship with their God the Lord in 15:15. And this is equivalent to what he did in Exodus 21.”

  6. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: No – Jesus was in fact keeping it in its original context. I can send you an excerpt of an article on this if you remind me.

    No, this isn’t dangerous – teraphim were essentially the polaroids of the ancient world – images of loved ones. In the same way that we have pictures of our dead loved ones in the house, and take flowers (and lots of other things) to graves with the thought that this somehow pleases the dead, so an Israelite would bring food and drink to a grave. Yes, it could devolve into some sort of practice where the dead were “solicited,” but it need not. Since the spirits of human dead were called elohim (1 Sam 28 – and this shows everywhere else in the ANE), teraphim could be and were considered as such. An elohim is simply a being whose “proper estate” is disembodiment. That’s why 4-5 different beings are called elohim in the OT (God, demons, spirits of the dead, other evil entities [Baal e.g.], and angels [that one involves triangulation of a couple passages], and the God of Israel).

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