Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch: Changes in Law in Deuteronomy

Posted By on March 6, 2012

In my previous post on JEDP I said this post would be my last on that topic. In the intervening days I told someone in the comments page that I would add a post to the topic – the best example I can think of for changes made in OT law between Exodus and Deuteronomy. This post covers that example, and so the next post will be my last.

The commenter was curious about evidence for Deuteronomy re-purposing and adapting existing Torah laws for a later context. There are a number of examples of this, but in many cases someone could argue that Deuteronomy merely envisions being in the land and so the content of Deuteronomy at that point doesn’t actually reflect a later period, but looks forward to the conditions of a later period. I like the example that follows because there is no way to coherently make that explanation in this instance. The only way to explain the difference between the law of Exodus and that of Deuteronomy is that the latter law changed the former in response to later historical circumstances – circumstances that post-dated the Mosaic period.

Exodus 21:1-6 Deuteronomy 15:12-18
1 “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 (ha-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.


In the left column we find the law concerning what needs to be done when a slave desires to stay in his master’s household. It is a famous passage. Part of the procedure is that the master would impale the slave’s ear with an awl (Hebrew: martsea’) to the doorpost of his house, signifying his permanent membership. This Hebrew term is used only one other place in the OT, Deut 15:12-18, so there is no confusion that these two passages are certainly speaking of the same situation and law. There are some minor differences between the two passages, but one major one. In the Exodus passage, this symbolic act is to be done “before ha-elohim.” The translation below translates ha-elohim as “God.” As part of the rather poor argumentation against a divine council of divine elohim in Psa 82:1b, some apologists who want to argue that the elohim of Psa 82:1b are humans go to this Exodus passage. They argue that ha-elohim refers to Israelite judges or elders. This would mean that the master of the house pierces the slave’s ear “before the human elders” (i.e., local authorities in Israel). So who is right?  Is ha-elohim plural or singular, and does it refer to God or “gods” that are actually people?

Determining who is correct takes us into the parallel passage and its key change:  there is no ha-elohim in the Deut 15 passage! It has been deleted. Why that change was made is directly tied to which view of ha-elohim is correct. Let’s unpack things (what follows is taken from my ETS 2010 paper on Psalm 82, with minor editorial changes to make it readable).

First, ha-elohim could be semantically singular, referring to the God of Israel. The promise about the status of the slave is being made in truth before God.  This is the simplest reading. However, there is evidence that the redactor-scribes responsible for the final form of the text did not interpret ha-elohim here as singular but plural—but ALSO did NOT interpret a plurality as referring to human beings! The key is the parallel passage in Deuteronomy 15. Later redactors apparently saw ha-elohim as semantically plural since the parallel to it found in Deut 15:17 removes the word ha-elohim from the instruction. This omission is inexplicable if the term was taken as singular, referring to YHWH for a simple reason: Why would the God of Israel need to be removed from this text? Moreover, if ha-elohim had been construed as plural humans, Israel’s judges, the deletion is just as puzzling. What harm would there be if the point of the passage was that Israel’s judges needed to approve the status of the slave?

The deletion on the part of the writer of Deuteronomy is quite understandable, though, if ha-elohim was intended as a semantically plural word that referred to gods, not people. Seventy years ago Cyrus Gordon pointed out that the omission in Deuteronomy appears to have been theologically motivated.1 Gordon argued that ha-elohim in Exod 21:6 referred to “household gods” like the teraphim of other passages, which represented one’s deceased ancestors. Bringing a slave into one’s home in patriarchal culture required the consent and approval of one’s ancestors—departed human dead who were elohim (cp. 1 Sam 28:13, where the deceased Samuel is called elohim).  Under a later redaction after the time of Moses this phrase was omitted from the Exodus law. The context would logically have been the time of some reformer like Josiah or Hezekiah, who did much to eliminate idolatry in the wake of Israel’s struggle with idolatry during the Divided Monarchy under wicked kings. The fear prompting the editorial deletion was apparently that any reference to household elohim (teraphim figurines – sort of like our pictures of departed loved ones) might lead to a new spasm of idolatry.2 Only a plural referring to multiple divine beings can coherently explain the deletion. As a result, this passage is also no support for the plural human elohim view with respect to the argument over Psalm 82:1b. And it also shows a clear alteration of a law in Exodus at a later period in Deuteronomy, one that Moses could not have written. But, as I have noted in several posts in this series, calling the Torah “the law of Moses” is entirely appropriate and coherent in my view since its contents are overwhelmingly associated with the life and work of Moses irrespective of how much of its contents can be traced to his own hand.


  1. Cyrus H. Gordon, “ELOHIM in Its Reputed Meaning of Rulers, Judges,” Journal of Biblical Literature 54 (1935): 139-44.
  2. People did bring food offerings and libations to teraphim, but this should not be considered worship any more than our own practice of laying flowers, toys, photos, or other personal items at a gravesite. The purpose of such offerings was so that the deceased was not only honored, but also enabled to enjoy good things from the terrestrial world and to maintain a relational link to loved ones. We lay such items as a grave thinking it pleases our loved ones, or as a gesture of connection or remembrance. The same was true in ancient Israel.

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19 Responses to “Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch: Changes in Law in Deuteronomy”

  1. Josh says:

    Regarding the omission of taking the slave before “ha-elohim”. If this were understood to be grammatically singular, and thus a reference to the God of Israel, would it be seen as a requirement to take the slave to the tabernacle (in the Exodus passage) and have the slave make his declaration before God (and the priests) in the tabernacle?

    If that is the case, and we assume that the text in Deuteronomy was indeed written later, during the divided kingdom period, could the omission really be seen as omitting the requirement of taking the slave to the temple in Jerusalem which could have been an unnecessary hardship?

    In the context of the Exodus text, the tabernacle was always with the Israelites and always in close proximity thus it would be easy to take the slave to the tabernacle as part of the ritual for permanently binding him to the house hold. However, in the context of the later kingdom, many of the people lived far away from the temple, and it could have been a significant hardship to require them to bring the slave to the temple as part of the ritual.

    would you find that to be a possible or a reasonable argument to explain the omission from Deuteronomy?

    • MSH says:

      I think the point of “before God” would be “as God is my witness” — like taking an oath in God’s sight (which is everywhere).

      I don’t think so, but I appreciate your logic, since the logistical issue was part of the changes made in Passover laws.

  2. blop2008 says:

    Very good example, thanks for this. A good connective link to your dissertation, and ETS/SBL papers.

  3. kennethos says:

    Veerrrry interesting… I’d be curious about the views on this passage from serious commentators (those with a high view of Scripture), how they see it and how to communicate it to a congregation.
    Looking forward to the NT portion!

    • MSH says:

      I don’t think it’s on the radar of anyone preaching. You’ll find it in some commentaries, naturally, related to a concern over idolatry by the “Deuteronomist.”

  4. Patrick says:

    This type thing probably explains some apparent confusion over certain rules in the OT text. The things were adjusted for different eras.

    I just heard my preacher teach that Psalm 82 is about “elohim/Jews”. I sent him your book and expect he will give your view a serious hearing.

    Reading all of Psalm 82 instead of just Jesus’ mention in John 10 seems to strongly indicate elohims there does not mean humans.

    The reason my preacher sees it this way is the sentence Jesus added to His commentary, “to whom the Word of God came”. He assumes that mean ” to Jews”.

    I’m thinking He meant “Word of God” there as a euphemism for Son of God instead of the Scriptures. How do you see that nuance?

    • MSH says:

      Send him my SBL paper:

      Actually, he ought to read this one first:

      Also, there is my recent lecture (last week) at church on this:

      (Class #4 – it’s mostly about John 10 and Psa 82).

      But don’t expect a positive reception.

      I think “word of God” = the actual utterance of Yahweh in Psa 82 to the elohim (his word to them).

      • DT says:

        Tremendous stuff, here, Mike. I have enjoyed this branch and learned quite a bit.

        The idea of the teraphim is new to me. I don’t mean to open a can of worms, but is there evidence that shows the Israelites believed they were directly interacting with “elohim” (place of residence term) by leaving items/food for them, or was it more of an “In memoriam”? If so, is there any obvious cause of changed attitude that results in the later exhortation to not interact with mediums (which I took as, “Don’t play with the supernatural.”)?

        • MSH says:

          I think they thought the thoughts we think (!)

          That is, what’s going through our own minds when we visit graves, keep pictures and mementos of departed loved ones, put things on their grave, etc. We assume they are still alive, that their consciousness survives, and that they, if God wills, see and hear what we do and say. At times one might say we even experience fellowship in such instances. This isn’t contacting the dead as in necromancy (one needed a “mistress of the ‘ob” in biblical parlance (a medium) for that.

          • Mike this view of the Teraphim was entirely revealing to me. It really set me to thinking of the many ways that we, like those of so many other cultures and religions, “keep” the honored deceased among our “household treasures”. Pictures, trinkets they left behind to us, places, markers – all a mosaic not of the worship of false ‘divines’ but perhaps an elevated form of honoring – in some cases even dignifying – precious people.
            I don’t, and I hope most observant christians don’t, pray to them or depend on them as helpers of the supernatural kind. I know friends who have had “encounters” with departed loved ones, and thankfully realized later that such was a deception from the enemy of their soul.

            • MSH says:

              The teraphim was a cultural thing that *could* degenerate into idolatry, but need not. I don’t think that point of cultural expression warrants or demands imitation on our part any more than some other part of second millennium BC Israelite culture should, though we do the same kinds of things within our own cultures.

              I should add that visitation of loved ones is something I consider possible under divine sovereignty since the human dead (their spirits) are not equated with the disembodied non-human dead in Scripture. I leave those sorts of things for the mystery they are, but see no biblical reason to conflate the experience with the demonic, though holding the possibility of such a deception (i.e., that sort of deception is a possible explanation but not a necessary one). See the archive on this blog regarding Sheol and ghosts on this blog if interested.

      • Shaun Swanson says:

        I know I’ve bothered you about this before, but is there any chance of getting the classes at your church in audio-only format? mp3

        I think these classes you’re doing at your church broken down into 20-30 minute chunks would be ideal for podcasts.

        • MSH says:

          I’ll ask again. I supposed if I downloaded the videos (they’re huge) I could strip off the audio with some program (recommendations?). But I will ask again.

          • Shaun says:

            I can’t think of anything cheap unless you have a mac. Then you would have iMovie by default. It appears that these vids are edited before they’re uploaded to viemo. If that’s the case it would be easy for the editor to just run an audio file before the video is saved.

  5. Hanan says:

    So if I understand this correctly, (and correct me if I am wrong), neither of these laws are really Mosaic in a traditional sense. I mean, if the original Exodus version was Mosaic, you would think he would have enough sense to rid the custom of bringing the slave in front of their household seraphim! no?

    Also, in a nutshell, Ha-Elohim in this context is not Gods….but simply cultural representations of the dead?

    • MSH says:

      I don’t follow the last sentence at all, especially in the context of this post – you’ve lost me.

      I’m also not saying the former. These posts aren’t about trying to be omniscient (listing what’s Mosaic or not – and what is Mosaic anyway – the very hand of Moses? the era of Moses? Something Moses would have approved but didn’t write – can that be “Mosaic”?) The posts are about how at least some of the Torah is post-Mosaic. If one embraces Mosaic authorship, it doesn’t matter if Deut is later, since one could consider Exodus Mosaic and Deut adapted by later writers in the prophetic tradition during their own time period – since God did stay active and get them into the land.

      Here’s a question to consider: is what you want inspiration or Mosaic authorship? You can have the former without the latter – but which is more important to you?

      • Hanan says:

        Sorry I never answered this question. The answer to your question is that you posit a false dilemma. It’s not inspiration OR mosaic Authorship. Since Moses would be the greatest prophet, anything that he gave would be a direct command of God. His, is the ULTIMATE inspiration. And, that lends two things
        1. Authority 2. Reliability.

        I am sure you would agree with me, that a law given by Moses carries much more weight than something much later, right?

        But how about an actual example? Take the Hammurabi Code. Scholars point to many similarities. So did we really need inspiration to simply take the HC and tweak it? There doesn’t seem to be any inspiration OR mosaic authorship to it. A good modern parallel to that would be American law and and much of its origins with the British common law. Did the American founders need inspiration to copy + paste laws they knew about it and reuse it for their needs? I am sure you would agree the answer is no. If that is the case, then you we can safely assume not all the laws in the Torah are inspired. Therefore, what I WOULD prefer is a Mosaic hand in the enterprise for the reason I just highlighted in the first paragraph.

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