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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.


1. What is law?

The most familiar, and most general Hebrew word for ‘law’, tôrâ, is not necessarily the best place to begin an answer to this question. The very fact that it has the wider meaning ‘instruction, teaching’ led to its use for the teaching given by parents (Prov 1:8; 4:2 ), by the wise (Prov 13:14 ), or by prophets (Isa 1:10; 8:16, 20 ), as well as for what is commonly meant by law. This is an important insight, but it does not help with the definition of law as distinct from these other kinds of instruction. For that a more general (though possibly anachronistic) account is needed, which would recognize that what holds together the different types of law (constitutional, civil, criminal, cultic) is their prescriptive character, the regulation of specific kinds of recurrent (inter-personal) behaviour between members of a community, their enactment (and modification) by a recognized authority, political or ecclesiastical, and the existence of sanctions or penalties and procedures for their determination.


Most biblical law is found in the Pentateuch (some cultic law is included in 1 Chr 23–7 ). The main collections of laws in the Pentateuch are (1) the Decalogue or Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1–17; Deut 5:6–21 ); (2) the Book of the Covenant (Ex 20:22–23:23 : for the title cf. 24:7 ); (3) the cultic commandments in Ex 34:10–27 ; (4) the Priestly laws about sacrifice, priesthood, and related matters, including land tenure (Ex 25–31 passim; Lev 1–7; 11–16; 27; Num 5–6; 8:1–10:10; 15; 18–19; 27:1–11; 28–30; 33:50–34:15; 35–6 ), among which (5) the Holiness Code (Lev 17–26 ) forms a distinct section; and (6) the law of Deuteronomy 4:1–30:20 ). All these collections are presented as having been revealed by God to Moses (and sometimes Aaron) for proclamation to the people at Mount Sinai/Horeb (or, in certain cases, most notably (6), elsewhere). There are, however, numerous instances where the same topic is dealt with more than once, often in different and even contradictory ways (cf. e.g. Ex 21:7 with Deut 15:17 ). From this, and from comparison with other biblical texts, scholars have concluded that the legal collections derive from very diverse times and situations, and that most probably none goes back to Moses himself. There is also reason to think that several of the collections at least have been revised since their original promulgation. In several cases the collections have an introductory or concluding exhortation or both, and much of the legal collection in Deuteronomy is interleaved with exhortations and ‘motive clauses’ (cf. G. von Rad's description ‘preached law’: on biblical law in general see further Patrick (1986) and art. ‘Law’ in ABD).


Within these collections it is possible to distinguish different styles or types of law. In an essay first published in 1934, A. Alt initiated a new phase in the study of biblical law. He began from the important axiom that ‘The making of law is basically not a literary process at all, but part of the life of a community’ (Alt 1966: 86). Using the form-critical method, mainly on the Book of the Covenant (as being the oldest collection), he distinguished two major types of law. One, which he called ‘casuistic’, was conditional and (originally) expressed in the third person: ‘If a man…then…’. This type was represented by most of Ex 21:2–22:17 , and was similar to the form of law found among other ancient Near-Eastern peoples (see below). Alt concluded that such laws provided the norms for the village courts ‘at the gate’ in early Israel and that they had probably been taken over from the Canaanite inhabitants of the land. By contrast there was another type of law which Alt called ‘apodictic’. Some examples of it express the same kind of case-law in a different way (e.g. Ex 21:13–14, 23–5; 21:12, 15–17; 22:19–20 ): most of these laws require the death penalty, and they are formulated in a simpler, more direct style than the laws referred to above. But generally laws of this type contain no explicit penalty at all: they are in many cases direct commands or prohibitions, like the Decalogue (cf. also Ex 22:18, 21–2, 28; 23:1–3, 6–9 ; and the ‘table of affinity’ in Lev 18:7–18 ), but they also appear as curses (Deut 27:15–26 ). Alt argued that these laws were of a distinctive Israelite form and origin, and that they originated not in the local courts but in a religious context, specifically in a festival for the renewal of the covenant celebrated at Shechem in the Judges period (cf. Deut 27; 31:10–13; Josh 24 ). Indeed the major impulse for such a formulation of law might well go back into the pre-settlement period, when the worship of YHWH began.


The key difference between apodictic and casuistic law as defined by Alt is that the former prescribes before the event what ought or ought not to be done, while the latter declares to a situation after the event what the appropriate penalty is. Thus the former belongs to a context of teaching or instruction, while the latter belongs to a judicial context. This distinction can be extended to cover the laws about worship to which Alt gave very little attention. Some of these lay down in the apodictic style what forms worship is or is not to take (e.g. the largely parallel series in Ex 23:10–19 and 34:11–26 , and the later Priestly ordinances of Ex 25–31 and Lev 23 ); others provide, in the casuistic style, guidance for the remedy for particular circumstances that may arise (e.g. Lev 4–5, 12–15 ). In the context of worship and ritual the apodictic laws may well have been intended for occasions of public instruction or modelled on them, but the casuistic cultic laws were presumably not administered by judges, but by the priests at the temples.


Some of Alt's conclusions, especially about apodictic law, have been rejected by more recent scholars. The ‘festival for the renewal of the covenant’ is no longer widely accepted as an ancient feature of the religion of Israel. It can be questioned whether all the subtypes of apodictic law have the same origin. Even Alt's more general claims that the apodictic laws are distinctively Israelite and come from a liturgical context have been challenged on the basis of parallels in non-Israelite, non-legal texts. Direct commands and prohibitions have been found in Egyptian wisdom literature, in Hittite and Assyrian treaties, and even occasionally in Mesopotamian law-codes. There is a growing consensus that much if not all apodictic law originated in a family or clan setting and that it originally had nothing to do with the cult or the covenant (Gerstenberger 1965 , summarized in Stamm and Andrew 1967; Otto 1994 ). It is striking that the cases where such a view is most difficult to accept are those where laws about worship are involved: the opening of the Decalogue and the cultic commandments in Ex 34 (cf. 23:10–19 ). It may be that initially it was only laws such as these which formed part of a cultic ceremony. On the other hand, if that much is accepted, one ought not perhaps to rule out the possibility that other commandments dealing with everyday life also had a place in such a ceremony. The fact that commands and prohibitions are found in a school or family or treaty context elsewhere does not mean that they may not have had a cultic context in Israel. Those who deny this have to see the literary formulation of the law-codes as commandments of God as a relatively late innovation. The alternative view is, with Alt, to see the literary formulation of all law as continuing what had been the basis for some law since its beginning.


Since the archaeological discoveries of the late nineteenth century it has become clear that Pentateuchal law has an important relationship with other ancient Near-Eastern law (cf. Boecker (1980 ) and, for specific parallels, IDBSup 533). Whether that relationship is one of dependence or just similarity is not the main issue here. Several collections of laws are now known from ancient Mesopotamia. The best known is the Code of Hammurabi of Babylon, from the eighteenth century BCE. The most fully preserved copy was taken in antiquity from Babylon to Susa in Elam, where it was found during excavations in 1901–2. It is now in the Louvre. Other copies of parts of the text are also known. The Code consisted of 282 laws and a prologue and epilogue (see ANET 164–80 for ET). The laws deal with such matters as the administration of justice, state and temple property, service to the king, private property, borrowing, family relationships, bodily injury, and agriculture. Earlier and later legal collections from Mesopotamia are also known: the Code of Ur-Nammu (21st cent.), the Code of Lipit-Ishtar (19th cent.), the Code of Eshnunna (18th cent.), the Middle Assyrian Laws (13th cent.), and the Neo-Babylonian Laws (?7th cent.). Another important collection is the Hittite Laws (14th cent.: the surviving parts of all these collections are translated in ANET 160–3, 180–8, 523–5). These collections are all apparently state law and they are predominantly in the ‘casuistic’ form, with a penalty or remedy specified for each particular set of circumstances. At present no comparable documents are known from ancient Egypt or Canaan.


The history of law in the OT, in the sense of the study of how and why the prescriptions about particular matters arose and developed through the OT period, is not straightforward. It requires that the relative ages of the different legal collections be determined and that, where appropriate, the inner growth of each individual collection be examined. Wellhausen's conclusions about the ages of the major Pentateuchal sources J, E, D, and P were largely based on such a history of law, specifically of the laws about worship. The source-critical approach held that the cultic laws in Ex 34 belonged to the J source and the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant to E. Both sources were dated to the early monarchy period and it was thought that the legal collections might be earlier still. Deuteronomy came from the seventh century and P (including the Holiness Code) from the fifth century. In the latter two cases a specific link could be made with official ratifications of law, by Josiah (2 Kgs 22–3 ) and Ezra (Neh 8–10 ), which gave the biblical laws a similar official status to that enjoyed by the Mesopotamian legal collections. It was not so clear what gave authority to the earlier legal collections, especially the Book of the Covenant. M. Noth made the important observation that both the content of these collections and the linking of their promulgation with Moses asserted their validity for ‘all Israel’, which he took to be based on the memory of the ‘amphictyony’ (sacred tribal league) of the Judges period. But the existence of such a union of the tribes is widely doubted today. Recently Albertz has suggested that the Book of the Covenant was in its original form the basis for reforms introduced by Hezekiah c.700 BCE, thus giving it too a royal stamp of approval. But there is little solid evidence for such an association with Hezekiah. Recent scholarship, much influenced by redaction criticism, has tended to doubt whether J or E originally contained any of the legal collections.


The distinctiveness of biblical law can be seen in its form, its ethics, and its theology. Attention has already been drawn to the hortatory element which is frequently present in the OT legal collections, and a specific feature of this is the numerous ‘motive clauses’, which ground the laws in the divine will, a historical event, or a promise of future well-being (Sonsino 1980 ). Close comparisons between the contents of biblical and non-biblical laws have shown that, despite many similarities, there are differences here too. The laws apply equally to all free-born Israelites, whereas in Mesopotamia the penalty imposed may vary according to the social status of the other party. Biblical law goes further in its provision for the disadvantaged in society, including the ‘resident alien’ (gēr) as well as widows and orphans. More generally, a higher value tends to be set on human life as opposed to property, as can be seen in the respective laws about the ‘goring ox’ (Ex 21:28–32 ) and theft (Ex 22:1–4 ). Finally, the mingling of laws on sacred and secular matters, found in the Decalogue, the Book of the Covenant, Deuteronomy, and the Holiness Code, reflects a sense of the unity of life and especially of the claim made by the religion of Israel on the secular as well as the sacred. This latter point is closely associated with the theological, and specifically covenantal, context in which all the laws now stand, as well as the motive clauses already mentioned. The historical fiction whereby the lawgiving of Moses occurs at the behest of YHWH in the period between the creative event of the Exodus from Egypt and the entry into the land of Canaan promised to Israel anchors the law in the fundamental structure of OT faith. This is explicitly brought out in such passages as Ex 20:1 and Deut 6:20–5 . Particularly in the later collections, Deuteronomy and the Holiness Code, the observance of the law is presented as a communal responsibility and failure to keep it as the cause of a national catastrophe, ultimately exile from the land. In several places this theology is specifically summed up by a reference to the establishment of a covenant between YHWH and his people (Ex 24:7–8; 34:10, 27; Lev 26:42, 44, 45; Deut 5:2–3, 29:1 ).

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