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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.


Law in the Ancient Near East

Several collections of law are found in the Pentateuch, and records of legal cases are scattered throughout the OT. These invite comparison with the collections of law, so-called codes, and the tens of thousands of legal texts from the ancient Near East. Records of legal cases from many different sites in Mesopotamia and Asia Minor tell of property transactions, loans, adoptions, marriages, and all sorts of disputes. These texts give a vivid picture of how law operated in practice in biblical times.

How far the ancient ‘codes’ of law reflect legal practice is less certain: some hold that these codes are collections of key decisions made by judges in court, others that these codes are more theoretical, reflecting the ideological concerns of the scribes who drafted them. The oldest of these ‘codes’ is that of Ur-Nammu from Ur (c.2100 BCE) written, like the laws of Lipit-Ishtar (c.1930 BCE), in the Sumerian language. The most famous collection of ancient law is that of Hammurabi of Babylon (c.1750 BCE). Other collections of Mesopotamian law in Akkadian include the laws of Eshnunna (c.1770 BCE) and the Middle Assyrian Laws (c.1076 BCE) and the neo-Babylonian laws (c.700 BCE). The Hittite Laws (c.1650–1500 BCE) are in Hittite, and come from their capital city Hattusha in what is modern Turkey (for translations of these texts see Roth 1995).

Analysis of these texts has shown that it is wrong to call them ‘codes’, for unlike later collections of law, such as the codes of Justinian or Napoleon, these ancient oriental texts do not attempt to be a complete or comprehensive statement of legal principles. Instead, we have a variety of topics addressed, but many areas are either unaddressed or mentioned only in passing. Thus in the Babylonian collections ‘one finds no cases directly dealing with arson, treason, theft of livestock, surety, barter, murder, manumission, or sale’ (Greengus 1992: 243). Similarly, the biblical collections of law are by no means comprehensive: various topics that are usually discussed in oriental collections, such as leasing, hiring of labour, sale, bride-price and dowry, are not explicitly discussed, but mentioned, if at all, only in passing.

So what are the principles underlying these collections of law? Why were they drawn up? And how do they relate to the day-to-day legal records of marriage, sale, conflict, and so on? One view of these collections is that they bring together traditional case law formulated in the courts in order to illustrate key legal principles that perhaps were being questioned at the time of composition. On the other hand, sometimes the collections are suggesting innovation or reform of traditional practice. More recent study of these collections has emphasized their similarity to other scholarly treatises of the scribal schools. These covered lists of gods, professions, omens, mathematics, and so forth. Law was another area of ancient scholarship, so scribes could take a topic—e.g. bodily injury—and show how the relevant judicial principle, talion, applied in a variety of situations and cases. This was a means of showing off the draftsman's skill and legal acumen. On this view of the collections, there could be a considerable gap between their view of the law and what was actually decided in the courts. If there is dispute about the processes of drafting these ‘codes’, their politico-religious function is much clearer, at least in the most fully preserved collections. Hammurabi, for example, set up his stela of law in the temple of Marduk in Babylon to commemorate all his pious deeds. He mentions his victories over Babylon's enemies, but particularly his rebuilding of various cities and the restoration of their temples, thus showing his religious devotion. At the top of the stela is a carving of Shamash, the god of justice, sitting on his throne, with Hammurabi standing in front of him. The god is giving Hammurabi the rod and the ring, symbols of sovereignty and justice. In the prologue Hammurabi declares, ‘I established truth and justice as the declaration of the land’, while the laws that follow, by their length and thoroughness, demonstrate just how seriously he took his duty to promote the rule of law.

In Israel, too, the kings were expected to fulfil similar roles: they were to bring peace by conquering their foes, they were responsible for building and maintaining the temple, and for administering justice. As Ps. 72: 1–2 puts it: ‘Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son! May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice!’ The story of Solomon and the prostitute's baby demonstrates the ideal of royal judicial wisdom (1 Kgs. 3: 16–28).

However, whereas the god Shamash gave Hammurabi the gift of insight into justice, and his formulation of the laws demonstrates his exploitation of that gift, in Israel the king was not seen as the source or conduit of the laws. Rather, he was to be subject to the law himself (Deut. 17: 18–20), and the collections of biblical law celebrate not the wisdom of a human lawgiver, but the wisdom of God, who entrusted these laws to Israel. ‘What great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law?’ (Deut. 4: 8).

In the epilogue to his laws, Hammurabi invites anyone who has a grievance to come to the temple and read his laws and then apply them to his problem (48: 3–19). This might be thought a little impractical, but the numerous copies of the laws that have been found suggest that it was a well-known scribal text. But in the tens of thousands of legal documents in Mesopotamia, there seems to be only one reference to the stela in connection with a dispute about rates of pay, a topic dealt with in Laws of Hammurabi 273–4. A similar phenomenon meets us in the Bible. The historical books make very few explicit references to the laws of the Pentateuch, and allusions to the laws in the prophets are hard to spot. But it seems likely that in both cultures the respective legal collections did exercise an important influence on legal and ethical practice, even though it may not always be obvious to the modern reader.

OT Collections of Law

Within the Pentateuch three major collections of law are distinguishable:

  • 1. The Code of the Covenant (Exod. 20: 22–23: 33)

  • 2. The Priestly Code (Leviticus + parts of Exodus and Numbers)

  • 3. The Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12–28)

Prefacing them all are the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue (Exod 20: 2–17//Deut 5: 6–21), which, though not exactly laws, give a profound glimpse of Israel's fundamental religious and ethical concerns. All these codes and the Decalogue are set in the context of the exodus and the ministry of Moses, which are often dated to the thirteenth century BCE. The Ten Commandments, Code of the Covenant, and Priestly Code are all said by the Bible to have been revealed by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, while the Deuteronomic Code is part of Moses' farewell speech to Israel just before he dies.

The attribution to Moses of these collections is viewed as highly problematic by historical scholarship: usually they are supposed to have originated after his days and to have been drafted later still. The Priestly Code, for example, is typically dated to the sixth/fifth century BCE. As the issues of the growth of the Pentateuch are discussed elsewhere in this volume (see pages 471–7), they are not taken up here. However, it should be said that for later readers of the Pentateuch, the association of the laws with Sinai and with Moses was of tremendous importance and underlined the authority of the laws emphatically. The biblical laws did not originate with an inspired king, but were the very words of God himself. The Ten Commandments' special status is brought out by saying that they were inscribed on the tablets of stone ‘with the finger of God’ (Exod. 31: 18). Conversely, the insistence that all the laws were given to Moses, who then passed them on to Israel, highlights his unique status as the archetypal prophet with whom God spoke face to face (Num. 12: 6–8; Deut. 34: 10–12).

The Code of the Covenant

The Code of the Covenant (Exod. 20: 22–23: 33), generally supposed to be the oldest biblical code, falls into three main sections (20: 22–6; 21: 1–22: 20; 22: 21–23: 19) and an epilogue (23: 20–33). The short introductory section (20: 22–6) bans the worship of idols and gives rules about worship. A long section of case law (21: 1–22: 20) provides some of the closest parallels to extra-biblical collections. The form of these laws (‘If a man does X, his punishment shall be Y’) and the topics (slavery, physical injury, goring oxen, theft, seduction) are characteristic of other law codes. However, it is notable that slaves are mentioned first (21: 1–11) in this biblical code, whereas in non-biblical law their treatment is typically dealt with towards the end. It seems likely that Exodus highlights the plight of slaves, because its story-line tells of the release of Israel from slavery in Egypt (20: 2; 21: 9–14). This very point is reiterated at the start of the third section (22: 21–23: 19), which is largely a set of injunctions about caring for the poor and fulfilling religious obligations, especially the celebration of the national festivals. Finally, the epilogue (23: 20–33) is a mixture of exhortations and threats to encourage obedience to the law: such themes are typical of Near Eastern legal documents, such as law codes and treaties, which typically close with a section of blessings and curses.

The Priestly Code

The Priestly Code in its widest sense consists of most of Exodus 25 to Numbers 36, but the main legal section is found in Leviticus 1–26. This is usually divided into two major sections: the ritual laws in 1–16, and the so-called Holiness Code in 17–26. Usually, the Holiness Code is considered to be earlier than the ritual law, but this has been contested in more recent work (Knohl 1995; Joosten 1996). Chapters 17 give rules on the conduct of sacrifice, 11–15 define uncleanness, and 16 specifies the Day of Atonement ceremonies. The Holiness Code (17–26) covers the ethics of good neighbourliness (19), sex (18, 20), sacrifice (17, 22), and festivals (23, 25), and concludes with a collection of blessings and curses.

The Deuteronomic Code

The Deuteronomic Code (Deuteronomy 12–28) forms part of the second farewell address of Moses to Israel. Deuteronomy depicts Israel on the verge of crossing the Jordan into the promised land of Canaan, which Moses himself has been forbidden to enter. So in these farewell speeches he lays down the rules which Israel must follow if they want to prosper in the land. The Deuteronomic Code often takes up rules given in the Book of the Covenant and reformulates them (e.g. Deut. 15: 1–18; cf. Exod. 21: 1–11; Deut. 24: 10–13; cf. Exod. 22: 25–7). However, the overall sequence of material within chapters 12–25 seems to follow the order of the Ten Commandments: each block of material discusses an issue raised by the Decalogue (e.g. Deut. 15–16 (Sabbath), Deut. 19–21 (murder), Deut. 22 (adultery); see Kaufman 1978–9). Like the Book of the Covenant and the Holiness Code, Deuteronomy concludes with a section of blessings and curses (Deut. 28).

However, in one important respect the Deuteronomic law is very different from other biblical collections. Whereas the latter are presented as the direct words of God to Moses, Deuteronomy is Moses preaching about the law in much the way a prophet or preacher might do. It is essentially exhorting Israel to keep the law, not just stating what the law is. Over against their Near Eastern counterparts, these biblical collections of law contain many religious regulations about worship and loyalty to YHWH. Evidently Israel made less of a distinction between the secular and religious spheres than the Babylonians: loving God with all your heart involved treating your neighbour properly just as much as offering the correct sacrifices.

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