Are there women in the book of Deuteronomy?
At first glance, they don’t seem to exist, but if we look closely we realize that they appear in unexpected contexts.
The first reference to women appears at the end of chapter 3 (verse 19), when the inheritance of land given to the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menasheh is explained. These tribes have been given a portion of land on the east of the Jordan, but before they are allowed to settle it they are commanded to help the rest of the tribes conquer the land on the western side of the Jordan. Their wives, young children, and livestock, however, can settle into the cities while the men go to war. This command explains why women don’t appear frequently in the first few chapters of Deuteronomy: it’s not that there weren’t women among the Israelites, it’s that the beginning of the book is directed at Israelite men, outlining their roles as judges, scouts, and soldiers.
There is a shift in the narrative at the beginning of chapter 5. Suddenly, Moses turns to “all of Israel” (5:1). Moses shares the ten commandments with all members of the nation, including the women. They are commanded to listen to them (shema yisrael), to learn them, to keep them, and to fulfill them (5:2). They are all identified as those with whom God seals the covenant, “we who are here, all of us alive today” (5:3). The text concludes: “These are the words that God spoke to your entire congregation at the mountain” (5:19). Here, again, the biblical language is inclusive, it emphasizes that God’s laws are for the entire congregation, not only the men to whom the first chapters of Deuteronomy were addressed.
The opening passage of the next chapter retains this inclusive voice: “This is the commandment, the decrees, and the ordinances that God commands you (plural) to teach you (plural)…” (6:1). The same phrase, shema yisrael, appears again a few verses later (6:4). The phrase shema yisrael, which appears in 5:2 and 6:4, is a call to “all of Israel,” the “entire congregation.” Read in the context of the previous chapter, the command in 6:4-9 can be understood as addressed to all of Israel, including women. Each individual must love God with all their heart, soul, and means; teach them to one’s children; recite them at all times and places; wrap themselves and their homes in them.
This intertextual reading makes the exclusion of women, enslaved people, and children from the commands of Deuteronomy 6:7 all the more scandalous. When we read Deuteronomy 6 in light of Deuteronomy 5, we see that there is a possibility for understanding the commandment more inclusively. All of Israel, the entire congregation, ought to participate in this all-encompassing worship.
The women in the text aren’t named, but they are there if we choose to see them.
Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an assistant professor in the Theology Department at Fordham University and a core faculty member for the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education.
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