The Feminist Message of Parshat Va’etchanan The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments appear in two different sections of the Torah, first, in the Book of Exodus in Parashat Yitro, and then again in Deuteronomy in Parshat Va’etchanan. There are differences between the two versions, some small, others quite significant. Scholars have come to the conclusion that the version in Exodus appears to [have been written down] earlier than the version in Deuteronomy.

The Ten Commandments:
1. “You shall have no other gods before me.
2. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above.
3. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
4. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
5. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
6. “You shall not murder.
7. “You shall not commit adultery.
8. “You shall not steal.
9. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
10. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

The prohibition “Thou shalt not covet” (number 10) in the Exodus version says “Do not covet the household of your neighbor” and provides a list of what the household contains: “your neighbor’s wife, his servants, his ox and his donkey.” Significantly, in Deuteronomy, the text which scholars consider to [have been written down] later, the version is somewhat different. Here, we read, first and foremost, “Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife”, and only after that “thou shalt not covet the household of your neighbor,” and in the detail, we find the servants, the animals, the possessions.

What is the significance of the difference between these two versions of text? Most scholars see a reflection of a heightened new sense of the special, independent status of women in the later version. The Deuteronomic text reflects an appreciation of the fact that a woman is not a possession of her husband.

What we see, then, is how the sacred text, while being preserved, also goes through changes. It is amended in order to express an evolving sense of new morality, a new appreciation for the sacredness and independent worth of the woman.