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.