Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Old Testament Law and the World of the Near East by Dr. David Q. Santos
Old Testament Law and the World of the Near East
David Q. Santos
The God of the Bible is a God of order. He is a righteous God and demands that His followers maintain a walk of purity. While His true expectation is perfection He is aware of mankind’s inability to reach that level of sanctified living. Ephesians 5:1 tells Christians to be imitators of God while other passages demonstrate the necessity of a life of being like Christ. However, anyone who has read the Old Testament knows of the failures of attempting to live up to God’s standards. Yet, it is this standard that man was given to observe and use as a measurement for purity. Israel was not the only nation that held to a standard set of codes in the ancient near east. These other codes have both similarities and differences to the Biblical law. These similarities have stirred up debate that primarily seeks to critically examine the origin of Biblical law.
One cultural aspect of ancient Israel that extended to much of the near east is the location of doing public and private business where legal matters were involved. It was common “throughout the Near East, law cases and official matters were handled near the gate area.” At the gate, elders were able to examine the details of a matter and make judgments based on the statutes that were related to the matter. For ancient Israel these statutes were found in the Tanakh; or more specifically the first part of the Tanakh called the Torah.
The Torah is the first division of the Hebrew Bible and is made up of the first five books, also called the books of Moses. The word Torah is used over two-hundred and twenty times in the Old Testament. These uses can be broken into three categories. “It involves (1) teaching or instruction to be learned, (2) commands to be obeyed and (3) guidance about how to live in specific situations.” These divisions help to provide a guideline for observing details of Biblical law and compare it to the law codes of other cultures surrounding ancient Israel. It should be noted here that the concept of law in English is not identical to that of the Hebrew word Torah. The Hebrew view of law is broader than in English and offers a broader more robust, even somewhat theological, meaning rather than only a list of legal regulations.
Near East Similarities to Biblical Law
While the Old Testament has sections devoted to laws and regulations, it is primarily a theological history of a specific people. Elwell and Beitzel rightly observed that the Old Testament does not have a single law section and that it was given to people with a specific world view and cultural context. They wrote, “The legal corpus of the OT is not given in one book or in one section. Moreover, the laws reflect the development from the desert context (Exodus) to the context of the land (Deuteronomy). The OT legal material is complex, full of variations and duplications. It is found in Exodus (chs 20–23; 25–31), Leviticus, Numbers (chs 3–6; 8–10; 15; 18; 19; 28–30), and Deuteronomy (chs 5–26).” This is an important observation as it provides context for the similarities of the laws of other people in the ancient near east. Another author, writing in the Lexham Bible dictionary described this phenomena as similar subject matter due to historical and cultural context; describing Israel as being a neighbor to these other nations. Johnson wrote, “The Old Testament law is similar in subject matter and formulation to the laws of its historical and cultural neighbors because Israel lived in a similar cultural, political, and economic context.” There are several examples of Israel’s neighbors having law codes. Perhaps the most famous is the Code of Hammurabi.
The Code of Hammurabi is an ancient Babylonian document that details the law code reported to have been established by Amraphel of Genesis chapter 14 who was a contemporary of Abraham. “The Code of Hammurabi is a product of Mesopotamian scribal schools, where scribes learned vocabulary and forms in order to produce various types of written texts.” The code was found by a French Assyriologist in 1901 and was translated shortly after that. Hammurabi represents the oldest law code know giving it a very high academic significance. Having this code puts light on what Israel’s neighbors were capable of in the days of Abraham and perhaps even earlier. Additionally, laws from other cultures have been established. For example, the Hittites had laws about returning lost or stolen property that were very strict.
Following the discovery of Hammurabi’s codes scholars began to make comparisons to Biblical law. Some of these comparisons found similarities such as “both codes are written in the third person; both are based in casuistic law—a legal code based in legal precedent using the language and the two codes cover many of the same classes of offense with similar judgments.” Bryan Johnson added that Hammurabi’s code and Biblical law deal with problems that are common to ancient Israel as well as the rest of the Near East. Since they certainly must have experienced common “crises” they must have found similar solutions and recorded them.
An example of this is how the ancient world should deal with widows which is possibly an underdeveloped topic of study. One author described the Akkadian term almattu as a term that goes beyond the English translation of widow. It is more specific to a woman who has no financial support from a family member after her husband has died and is in need of support or protection. This definition of a widow may have been maintained in the memory of ancient Near Eastern cultures. However, the Apostle Paul had to tell Timothy (1 Tim. 5) that not all widows should be given support, but only the real or true widows. This is an area where ancient Near East regulations and Hebrew Scriptures agree.
Scholars have made many observations of similarities between ancient Near Eastern laws and Biblical laws, but there are also many differences. For example, in the Torah an ox goring a slave differs from an ox goring an ox (Exod 21:28–31; 35–36). In other ancient Near Eastern law codes (LE 53–55), both oxen and slaves are simply property.” Other differences include “Biblical law imposes limitations on kings (Deut 17:14–20), the laws of the surrounding nations do not—they foster support for the unlimited authority of their kings; Biblical laws value human life over property. While surrounding nations might require restitution of thirtyfold for theft (and even execution), biblical law limits restitution to fivefold and spares the thief (Exod 22:1–4); and Biblical law places a much higher value on women. For example, an unloved wife (even a slave) still had to be given the full rights of a wife.” Biblical law uniquely provided for the well being of Israel by instituting a Sabbath or rest day.
The Mosaic covenant stipulated a number of practices that seem to promote not only spiritual health but also physical and emotional well being (Adolph 1976, 3:56). For instance, the observance of the Sabbath—which occurred every seven days—was based on the divine rest from creative activity on the seventh day (Gen. 2:3). The Lord commanded His people to keep the Sabbath holy by worshiping Him and ceasing from all normal work (Exod. 20:8). Modern medical science has shown that “the ideal rest period for the healthy operation of the human body and mind is that of one day in seven” (Harrison 1982, 2:642).
Biblical law reinforced the concept of responsibility of the individual. Hammurabi allowed the legal sentence of one person to be paid by another. For example, a son could be put to death for his father’s crime. This was not allowed in the Biblical model. Biblical law also placed limits on the function and power of kingship while Israel’s neighbors did not. Ancient Near Easter kings had “absolute power. He is above the law; he makes it and changes it as he pleases since he gets direct orders from heaven.”
Purpose of the Law
Biblical law also has the purpose of pointing a people to a holy life while following their God. “The main aspects of biblical law that is absent from the laws of other ancient Near Eastern communities are the two underlying themes: 1. Loving God (Deut 6:5) and 2. Loving neighbor (Lev 19:18).” The law for Israel was a set of guidelines that gave instruction on how to behave like people that were chosen by God. “God used the Law as his righteous instrument to teach, in a very specific way, what sin is (cf. Rom 5:20; 7:7, 8b) and how they should walk on a path which kept them undefiled by sin and holy to the Lord. The Law was the teacher and the keeper of Israel (Gal 3:24).”
Hammurabi’s code had a basic purpose. It was there to solve disputes and legal matters by providing a framework for making those legal decisions. The Lexham Bible Dictionary summarized it by writing,
The law codes compiled in scribal schools were not intended to be used in everyday legal decisions. As Otto explains, “Legal sentences were not the sources of court decisions but reflected them” (Otto, “Aspects,” 161–62). At times the laws were meant to represent the righteousness and justice with which the king who promulgated the code was said to rule.
The contrast with God’s law should be obvious. “The Law of God is his means of sanctification. He consecrated Israel by an act of grace, and he required Israel to remain holy.” “The laws in the ancient Near East dealt with the ordering of society. But Israel’s laws were given to regulate every aspect of life: personal, familial, social, and cultic. The laws were to teach Israel to distinguish between holy and profane, between clean and unclean, and between just and unjust.”
Origin of Law
The similarities of all of the ancient law code is used by some Biblical skeptics to argue against Mosaic authorship. Ironically, prior to the discovery of Hammurabi’s code, some skeptics argued against Mosaic authorship based on the supposed inability of ancient people to write such a complicated system of regulations. The discovery of Hammurabi’s code dispelled that argument. “… new studies in ancient Near Eastern law have discredited the 19th century critical view that codes of laws like the Pentateuch must be anachronistic. Since other nations had advanced legal and ethical law codes like these, it is reasonable to assume that Israel might have as well.”
With that argument’s death the skeptics developed a new approach. “Some argue that these similarities indicate that Moses was not inspired—just well read. Others argue that it is fitting that the laws given to Moses would be culturally relevant to his setting (and therefore similar, but not identical, to the laws of the neighboring nations).” Gleason Archer Jr. pointed out that based on the Biblical record of Moses he would have been qualified to be the author of the Pentateuch. He wrote,
From all that has been recorded concerning Moses himself, it is evident that he had every qualification to be the author of just such a work as the Pentateuch. He had the education and background for authorship, since he received from his ancestors that wealth of oral law which originated from the Mesopotamian cultures back in the time of Abraham (hence the remarkable resemblances to the eighteenth century Code of Hammurabi), and from his tutors in the Egyptian court he received training in those branches of learning in which Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt excelled the rest of the ancient world
These critics discount the supernatural means of inspiration of Scripture and disregard the origin of the Bible being from God. Moses was the mediator of the law and not the one that originated the law. The origin of Biblical law is God.
Forms of Law
The Decalogue or Ten Commandments provide a summary framework of much or all of Biblical law and are found in Exodus 20:1-17 and in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. “It is possible to identify in Deuteronomy four major issues which the decalogue addresses and around which the laws seem to be organized. They are: authority, dignity, commitment, and rights and privileges.”
Albrecht Alt articulated that there were apodictic laws that were without dispute and were probably found to be essential to life apart from a nomadic existence. Some found this work incomplete though. Greengus divided these apodictic laws into three forms; 1) unconditional imperatives which included the Ten Commandments. 2) Curses, Deuteronomy 27:15-26 for example. 3) participial sentences which concerned criminal infractions as in Exodus 21:17. He also observed that there is a distinction between laws that are expressed in a positive or negative fashion. He further noted that “The laws in the book of the covenant are mainly of the casuistic type.” These basic forms help to provide divisions of examination.
Categories of Biblical Law
There have been many schemes suggested for dividing Biblical law presented. However, perhaps the most simplistic is just to observe the Biblical “collections” of laws. There are four such collections found in the Torah. “(1) the Ten Commandments and the book of the covenant (Ex 20—23), (2) the tabernacle laws (Ex 25—40), (3) the laws of Leviticus (Lev 1—27) and (4) the laws of Deuteronomy (Deut 12—26).” Each of these collections address various concerns of behavior. They give instruction and correction for holy living. These collections can be broken into topical concerns as well.
Two basic categories of Biblical law can be seen in the divisions of prohibitions and commands. The commands are meant to promote godliness including holiness, justice, and love within the Hebrew community. The prohibitive laws restrict the community from activity that would discourage sanctified living of God’s standards. These include eating unclean meat or blood or fornication. From that foundation additional divisions can be made to advance the study of Biblical law.
One prominent division used in Biblical criticism is the holiness code. This division identifies a specific portion of Leviticus. “Here Moses addressed all of Israel (cf. 17:2; 18:2; 19:2; 20:2; 21:24; 23:2; 24:2; 25:2; 26:46; 27:2).” The priestly laws provide an additional division. These are found in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers defining holy days and offerings related to priestly duties. Elwell and Beitzel add the covenant code stating that the “purpose of the covenant code was to exemplify and to set into motion the legal machinery by which Israel as a nation could reflect God’s concern for justice, love, peace, and the value of life.” Deuteronomy adds to the list of divisions as it draws on the former books and summarizes the laws into a series of speeches given by Moses. In this fashion Moses gives the laws “new applications of the book of the covenant in view of Israel’s new historical situation. Israel was about to enter the Promised Land when Moses outlined to them the Law of God (Dt 1:5).”
Biblical law was given to Israel to prepare the nation to be a holy people and to keep them away from living like the pagan nations that surrounded them. It should not be surprising that other nations found themselves with similar issues of the Hebrew people and thus, developed similar solutions. What was surprising to some is that these people also recorded their laws. This gives rise to the notion that law may be much older than scholars believe. Ultimately, this is a recognition of a God of order. By doing synthetic study on the ancient Near East knowledge of the background to the world of the Old Testament is gained. This knowledge provides context for Old Testament study. As Greengus noted, “It is impossible to study biblical law without recognizing that a substantial number of Pentateuchal laws, especially in the book of the covenant, have recognizable parallels in either form or content with other ancient Near Eastern laws, particularly from Mesopotamia.” There is still work to be done in Old Testament studies that archaeology and ancient history can help with bridging the gap of culture and time to gain greater understanding of the Old Testament. Ultimately, this work helps to understand who God is and what He requires of His holy people.
Alt, Albrecht. Essays on Old Tesament History and Religion. Translated by R. A. Wilson. Garden City, NY: Anchor Book, 1968.
Archer, Gleason. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. 3rd. Chicago: Moody Press, 1994.
Baker, David L. "Finders Keepers? Lost Property in Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Law." Bulletin for Biblical Research 17 (2007).
Deere, Jack S. "Deuteronomy." In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.
Elwell, Walter A, and Barry J Beitzel. "Biblical Concepts of Law." In Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
Greengus, Samuel. "Law." In Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, 497-515. New York, NY: Yale University Press, 1992.
Hamme, Joel, Bryan C. Babcock, and Justin David Strong. "Code of Hammuraby." In The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.
Johnson, Brian. "Law in the Hebrew Bible." In The Lexham Bible Dictionary, edited by John D. Barry et al. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016.
Roth, Martha T. "The Neo-Babylonian Wido." Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 1991-1993.
Selman, M. J. "Law." In Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, by David W Baker, & Desmond T Alexander, 497-515. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
Walton, John H. "Deuteronomy: An Exposition of the Spirit of the Law." Grace Theological journal 8 (1987).
 Mervin Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, electronic ed., vol. 10, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 321.
 M. J. Selman, "Law." In Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, by David W Baker, & Desmond T Alexander, edited by T.D. Alexander and David W. Baker, 497-515. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003.
 Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Law, Biblical Concept Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1315.
 Brian Johnson, “Law in the Hebrew Bible,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
 G. Frederick Wright, “Review of BIBLISCHE UND BABYLONISCHE URGESCHICHTE Von Heinrich Zimmern,” Bibliotheca Sacra 61, no. 241 (1904): 189.
 Joel Hamme Bryan C. Babcock and Justin David Strong, “Hammurabi, Code of,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
 Wright, 189.
 David L. Baker, “Finders Keepers? Lost Property in Ancient near Eastern and Biblical Law,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, Vol. 17 (2007): 208.
 Brian Johnson, “Law in the Hebrew Bible,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
 Martha T. Roth, “The Neo-Babylonian Widow,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 43–45 (1991–1993): 1.
 Ibid, 2.
 Johnson, Law in the Hebrew Bible.
 Dan Lioy, “Spiritual Care in a Medical Setting: Do We Really Need it?,” Global Journal of Classical Theology 3 (2002).
 Jack S. Deere, “Deuteronomy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 306.
 Bible and Spade 3, no. 1 (1990): 15.
 Johnson, Law.
 Elwell, 1316.
 Hamme , Hammurabi.
 Elwell, 1316.
 Ibid, 1314.
 Johnson, Law.
 John H. Walton, “Deuteronomy: An Exposition of the Spirit of the Law,” Grace Theological Journal 8 (1987): 214.
 Albrecht Alt, Essays on Old Testament History and Religion, Translated by R. A. Wilson (Garden City, NY. 1968). 133.
 Elwell, 1315.
 Elwell, 1315.
 Ibid, 1316.
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