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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 Old Testament

Gordon Wenham

Definition

The English term ‘law’ covers a much narrower range of literature than the Hebrew term torah, or the Greek nomos, which are conventionally translated ‘law’. Hebrew torah would be better translated ‘instruction’, and the torah comprises the whole of the Pentateuch, Genesis to Deuteronomy, despite the fact that these books contain a fair amount of narrative. Psalm 1: 2, inviting the reader to meditate on the torah day and night, seems to envisage the book of Psalms as well as the Pentateuch being the torah.

By ‘law’ the English Bible reader understands the legal rulings and moral injunctions found within the Pentateuch, such as the Ten Commandments, the farming regulations of Exodus 22, the laws on sacrifice and purity in Leviticus, and the sermons of Deuteronomy. It is ‘law’ in this sense that is the focus of this essay, though it could be argued that only a broader definition that understands law as torah does full justice to the biblical understanding of the term. This essay also considers the administration of the law, whether by king, priest, or village elders. Throughout our discussion it will be advisable to pay attention to comparable legal texts and customs from elsewhere in the ancient Near East, for in the judicial sphere Israel shared many ideas with her neighbours.

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