We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

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

Some Principles of OT Law

1. Covenant

We have noted that the laws are set within the context of the exodus from Egypt and the experience of the Sinai wilderness. Closer reading shows that the laws form part of a covenant made at Sinai, whereby YHWH took Israel to be his people and Israel pledged herself to be devoted to him (Exod. 19: 4–6). ‘I will be your God, and you shall be my people’ (Lev. 26: 12) sums up the essence of the covenant relationship. It has been noted that this covenant is analogous to the vassal treaties of the ancient world, in which a victorious king imposed a treaty on his conquered vassals. This treaty making was viewed, at least by the suzerain, as an act of grace, which should prompt grateful loyalty on the part of the vassal. The stipulations of the treaty express what this loyalty should mean in practice. A similar ethos pervades the biblical laws. Loving God with all one's heart should be Israel's response to their liberation from slavery and the gift of the land (cf. Exod. 20: 2). Similarly, the command to have no other gods is an expression of covenant loyalty. We have already noted the similarity in structure of biblical and extra-biblical law codes. As ancient treaties had a similar structure (historical prologue, stipulations, curses, and blessings) to law codes, this same pattern can be traced in the biblical texts, especially the Decalogue and the book of Deuteronomy.

2. Loyalty to God

Central to the covenant was the requirement of total loyalty to YHWH. This demand heads the Decalogue (Exod. 20: 3). So important is it, that worship of other gods warrants the death penalty (Exod. 22: 20; Lev. 20: 1–5; Num. 25; Deut. 13). All the biblical codes express the anxiety that when the Israelites enter Canaan, they will be tempted to follow local worship practices and desert YHWH. Intermarriage with Canaanites is feared as most likely to lead in this direction. This is why the Canaanites are to be driven out of Canaan, and no treaties are to be made with them (Exod. 23: 23–33). The story of Israel's seduction by the wily Moabites and Midianites illustrates the problem (Numbers 25), so that Deuteronomy envisages the wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites, at least if they do not surrender (Deuteronomy 7, 20).

3. Family Solidarity

The Ten Commandments divide into two tables: the first four set out duties toward God, and the last six duties towards one's fellow man. Strikingly, the first command of the second table is ‘Honour your father and mother’ (Exod. 20: 12). The importance of this command is shown not simply by its position, but by the severe penalties for its breach (Exod. 21: 15, 17; Deut. 21: 18–21). Laws banning sexual relations with close relatives seem also designed to promote family solidarity and harmony (Lev. 18: 6–18; 20: 10–21). On the other hand, the parents' duty to instruct their children is also stressed (Deut. 6: 7; 11: 19),

4. Protection of the Poor

The prominence of the slavery laws in Exod. 21: 1–11 has already been noted. Though moderns view slavery as entirely negative, this was not the ancient perspective. It was a way of providing a livelihood for bankrupt peasant farmers and their families (Gen. 47: 23–6). But the law is designed to give the slave an escape into freedom if he prefers it, either in the seventh year (Exod. 21: 2–6) or in the year of Jubilee. In that year mortgaged land and property were also returned to their owner without charge (Lev. 25: 8–55). Deuteronomy also contains various regulations to help the poor, including the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan, notably a special tithe for them every third year (Deut. 14: 28–9).

5. Principles of Punishment

Deut. 19: 19–20 concisely sums up some of the key principles of biblical penal theory. ‘You shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. And the rest shall hear and fear and never again commit such an evil.’ Three principles are mentioned here. First, the offender must receive his legal desert, a punishment that fits the crime. This is summed up in the talion formula, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’ ((Exod. 21: 23–5; Lev. 24: 18–22; Deut. 19: 21). This did not mean that if someone knocked someone else's tooth out, he would lose his own, but rather that the injured person would be compensated appropriately for the lost tooth (Exod. 21: 26–7). Second, punishment purges the land of evil, especially blood guilt (Gen. 4: 10; Lev. 18: 24–8). Third, punishment acts as a deterrent, ‘and the rest shall hear and fear’. A fourth principle is that of restitution: a thief must return the stolen property and some more. A farmer who lets his cattle graze his neighbour's land must make the loss good from his own field or vineyard (Exod. 22: 1–6).

6. Law and Ethics

Limiting our discussion to conditional or case law, as in the previous paragraph, may easily obscure an important fact. These case laws only regulate situations where things have gone wrong; they do not define the ethical ideals of the draftsmen. These ethical principles emerge in many of the positive unconditional laws, such as ‘Be holy’, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, ‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart’ (Lev. 11: 45; 19: 18; Deut. 6: 5). If these principles were always practised, there would be no call for the case law and the negative prohibitions. The case law and the prohibitions define minimum standards of behaviour: if these are transgressed, punishment must follow to prevent society from disintegrating into blood feuds. But it is the positive, unconditional precepts that define the Old Testament's ethical ideals.

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2021. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice