Most scholars believe that Deuteronomy was the book of the law found during the reparations of the temple at the time Josiah was king of Judah (2 Kings 22).
When the prophetess, Huldah, confirmed the book’s authenticity, Josiah enacted reforms to address the religious and social problems in the Judean society.
He sought to ameliorate the plight of orphans, widows, sojourners and poor people.
One of the problems addressed was the status of women. In addressing problems women faced, some of Exodus’ laws were revised to change and improve the way women were treated.
Deuteronomy’s laws emphasize human dignity and the value of human life. Their concern is the protection of individuals, primarily those whose means of subsistence were limited.
Many of the ethical and social laws are unique, reflecting the humanitarian concern of the Deuteronomic reform.
In some Old Testament texts, women are presented as property of their fathers and husbands. The husband was a woman’s “baal,” translated as “husband,” “owner” or “master.”
Few women were independent, for they needed their fathers and husbands to provide for them.
Women are also portrayed as victims of men’s brutality and inhumanity: Women were bought and sold, raped, enslaved, murdered and abandoned. Daughters were sold as slaves by their fathers (Exodus 21:7-11), indicating that some had no reservations when forced by poverty or compelled by greed.
Elsewhere women are portrayed as persons with dignity.
In Genesis 1:26-27, the woman was created in the image of God, which reflects a mature theology with women equal to men that developed gradually in Israel and finds full expression in the post-exilic time.
In Genesis 2:18, the woman is a companion to her husband, a helper to the man. The Hebrew word does not carry the connotation of inferiority or subordination.
The creation of the woman is the climax of the creation story in Genesis 2, who is a companion to a lonely man, giving both the possibility of community, commonality and wholeness.
These theological views of women as persons of worth and dignity are betrayed by the social realities present in Israelite society.
The status of women probably became more difficult as a result of a misinterpretation of Genesis 3:16, a text in which God says that the man is to rule over his wife as a consequence of her disobedience.
Because of the social limitations imposed upon women, most women in Israel found their sense of worth, fulfillment and personhood in being a mother and a wife.
In spite of the limitations imposed upon them, women forged important places in society.
Deborah served as a judge, and Huldah as a prophetess. Others served as queens and queen-mothers, thus exercising much power and authority.
Centralization of wealth in the hands of some families elevated the status of a few women and enabled them to exert power over men.
Over the centuries, Israelite society suffered many transformations. From a tribal community in which few inequalities existed, Israel became a state with a monarchy and a royal family.
These social, economic and political changes served as a catalyst to impact the status of women and greatly affect their lives.
Israelite laws provided relief to the plight of women and developed a special sense of social responsibility for the poor and underprivileged. The book of Deuteronomy reflects the rise of humanism in Israel.
Deuteronomy contains new laws and revisions of old ones dealing with the oppressed.
Several aspects of Josiah’s reform affected women for the better. These laws became necessary because of the changes brought by the monarchy and the deterioration of the social structures in Israelite society.
The demands of the covenant required personal integrity and social justice for each Israelite.
The poor, slaves, orphans, widows and other destitute persons in Israel became the beneficiaries of the changes introduced by the laws of Deuteronomy.
The reform made a real effort to improve the status of women by making them an equal partner in the covenant.
This is seen in the statement of Deuteronomy 10:16: “Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer.”
The rite of circumcision was performed upon every male child, giving them the right of full membership in the covenant community.
Deuteronomy transformed the physical act of circumcision, available only to males, into a spiritual right, available to all individuals.
Deuteronomy changed the sign of the covenant partnership from one in which only men could participate to one open to both men and women.
Participation in the covenant community was not dependent on a physical act or on the gender of an individual because the inward attitude of a person toward God determined that person’s relationship with God.
In Israel, men and women are commanded to learn to fear the Lord and faithfully follow his law (Deuteronomy 31:12).
Claude Mariottini is professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, Illinois. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and book reviews. His writings can be found on his website and you can follow him on Twitter: @DrMariottini.