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

Types of Law

Laws are formulated in different ways. The commonest type begins with a conditional clause, ‘if a man steals an ox’, and continues with a main clause stating the consequences, ‘he shall repay five oxen’ (Exod. 22: 2). These are often called casuistic or case laws. Other laws are formulated unconditionally: e.g. ‘Remember the Sabbath day’, or ‘You shall not steal’ (Exod. 20: 8, 15). Alt (1966) termed this type of law apodictic, and his nomenclature has been widely followed. But there is a variety of ways in which to express the law conditionally and unconditionally, which has led to much debate as to how to classify some formulations.

Alt argued that biblical casuistic law was probably borrowed from the Canaanites, whereas the apodictic law was original to Israel and was probably developed in covenant renewal ceremonies. However, modern scholars are not so sure. We do not have any Canaanite laws to compare the biblical texts with, and apodictic formulations are found in extra-biblical treaties and are very similar to proverbs in their formulation. Proverbs may well have been passed on in a family or tribal setting, so unconditional laws could have a similar context. Thus, while it may be helpful to note the syntactic form of each law, it is risky to draw too many conclusions about its origin on the basis of its form.

More pertinent to an understanding of the laws is their use of motive clauses and their setting within the Pentateuch. Many laws have clauses inserted into them to encourage compliance with them. ‘You shall not wrong a sojourner … for you were sojourners' (Exod. 22: 21), or ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev. 11: 45). These motive clauses are rarely found in non-biblical law, but are common in the Bible. They give an insight into the fundamental values that the law is trying to protect and also into the attitudes of the implied hearers of the law, for there would be no reason to include motive clauses unless the arguments they deploy resonated with the hearers.

The biblical codes of law, whatever their earlier settings, are now part of a narrative telling of Israel's journey from Egypt to the borders of Canaan. More exactly, Exodus to Deuteronomy could be defined as a biography of Moses (N.B. his birth Exodus 1, death Deuteronomy 34). This narrative setting is often emphasized by narrative interruptions to the collections, such as Leviticus 8–10, 24, and by the repeated phrase ‘the LORD spoke to Moses’. This narrative essentially has two aims: first, to encourage submission to and compliance with the law. The stories of deliverance from Egyptian tyranny and the Sinai law giving demonstrate God's power and the danger of opposing him. The stories of the golden calf and the spies show the dire consequences of breaking the law (Exodus 32–4; Numbers 13–14). Ordinary Levites, priests, and even Aaron and Moses may face the death sentence for disobedience (Lev. 10: 1–3; Num. 16; 20: 10–12; 27: 12–23). The second purpose of the narrative is to celebrate the life of Moses and the part he played in creating the nation of Israel. Despite his own lapses, he was uniquely privileged in his access to God: no one else in Israel's history was so privy to the mind of God (Deut. 34: 10–12). Thus all later Israelites should follow his teaching loyally.

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