Mosaic and Ancient Near Eastern Laws

There has been considerable debate concerning the precise route of Israel after entering the wilderness, since Mt. Sinai or Horeb (both names are applied to it) has not been identified with certainty. The Sinai Peninsula is a huge triangle, 260 miles long and 150 miles wide at the north. At the apex of the peninsula there is a mass of granite mountains, some of which reach an elevation of 8000 feet above sea level. Among these mountains were the ancient copper and turquoise mines of the Egyptians, and here is the traditional location of Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the law and before which Israel camped. The chief peak is called Jebel Musa, Arabic for "Mountain of Moses."

Mosaic Laws and Other Codes

Archaeology has uncovered many ancient bodies of law and shed much light on Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite and Canaanite codes through the excavations of the past century. As a result, Mosaic legislation appears in a much clearer perspective than ever before. Since its discovery at Susa in 1901-02, the Code of Hammurappi (c. 1700 BC) has remained classic in illustrating and illuminating Mosaic laws. To this code, however, must be added the earlier laws of Lipit-Ishtar, king of Isin (in central Babylonia, c. 1875 BC), and even earlier laws of Eshnunna, an ancient city northeast of modern Baghdad.

Hammurappi's famous Code, accordingly, appears as a comparative late comer in Babylonia, where codes of law evidently had been published in succession for centuries. It is noteworthy, moreover, that the Eshnunna Code, which antedate Hammurappi's laws by almost two centuries, contains the first exact parallel to any early biblical law. This parallel concerns the division of oxen after a fatal combat between animals (Ex. 21:35). This parallel is of particular significance since the Code of Eshnunna is at least five centuries earlier than that section of the Mosaid legilation commonly known as the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 20:23-23:19).

Knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern jurisprudence has been greatly increased over the past century by the excavation and publication of Old Babylonian and Assyrian tablets from Kanish in Cappadocia belonging to the nineteenth century BC. Added to this is the wealth of legal material of the fifteenth century BC revoverd at Nuzu near modern Kirkuk since 1925. Assyrian legal practice has been illuminated by the publication of the cuneiform treasures excavated by the Germans at the city of Assur on the igris, including especially the laws from the period of Tiglath Pileser I (c. 1100 BC), which laws are likely based on earlier codes. They were first published in 1920. Hittite laws, which show interesting contrasts to early Babylonian jurisprudence, date a century or two earlier than the laws of Tiglath Pileser I. Compared with these various laws "the Book of the Covenant" (Ex. 20:23-23:19) exhibits a combination of simplicity in economic life and ethical humanitarianism in human relations which could have arisen only in early Israel.

Mosaic Laws and the Code of Hammurappi

This slab of black diorite over seven feet tall and some six feet wide contains engraved upon it almost three hundred paragraphs of legal provisions dealing with the commercial, social, domestic and moral life of the Babylonians of Hammurappi's time (c. 1792-1750 BC; keep in mind that the acutal date of Hammurappi is anything but certain. Moorey writes:

Before the fourteenth c. BC the margin of error in absolute chronology in Mesopotamia rises appreciably. One problem in particular is critical and must be mentioned here as it is very relevant to correlations with Palestine in the later Middle Bronze Age. The date of the First Dynasty of Babylon, to which the famous King Hammurappi belonged, still floats over a period of at least 120 years.

According to current understanding the end of this dynasty might be either in 1650, 1594, 1586 or 1530 BC. These intervals are governed by the primary surviving astronomical evidence. From the reign of King Ammisaduqa, the tenth and penultimate ruler of this dynasty, have survived records of the first and last visibility of Venus as morning and evening star for 21 years of his reign. This king began his reign 52 years before the end of the dynasty. The records only survive in late, corrpt copies, but astronomical calculations have corrected them wehre necessary. The dates of the first and last appearances of Venus in the intercalated Babylonian lunar calendar virtually repeat every 56 +/- 8 years. With the help of the venus observations, and supplementary archaeological and historical evidence from a wide variety of sources, the majority of scholars have increasingly come to accept the "Middle Chronology," ending the First Dynasty of Babylon about 1595 BC and thereby dating Hammurappi c. 1792-1750 BC. This is the system adopted for the revised Cambridge Ancient History.)

At the top of Hammurappi's round topped stele, the king is shown receiving the laws from the sun god, Shamash, the patron of law and justice. At some time when Babylon was weak, an Elamite conqueror carried away the monument to Susa. Its discovery there by Jacques de Morgan in the early twentieth century constitutes one of the most startling legal finds in history.

In comparing the Code of Hammurappi with the Pentateuchal laws the fact of the pirority of the Code (by well over 300 years) has dispoded of some untenable theories and given rise to others. For instance, the old critical view that detailed codes of laws like those found in the Pentateuch are anachronistic for so early a period has been exploded by the discovery. Again, higher critical views which have placed the origin of many of the laws ascribed to Moses in the ninth, eighth, or seventh century BC (or even later), have had to be drastically revised or entirely rejcted. On the other hand, the discovery of the early extra-biblical legal material has led many to adopt an equally faulty view that Hebrew legislation is merely a selection and adaptation of Babylonian law. The valid position, which a careful study of the two bodies of material will disclose, is that the Mosaic code is bneither borrowed from nor dependant upon the Babylonian, but is divinely given, as it claims to be, and unique in those features that met Israel's peculiar need as an elect, theocratic nation.

1. The resemblances between Mosaic Laws and the Code are clearly due to similarity of antecedents and general intellectual and cultural heritage:

It is only natural that in codes dealing with peoples in somewhat similar conditions, related racially and culturally, there should be some likeness in the incidents leading to litigation and likewise in the penalties imposed for infringement of common statutes. Striking differences, however, even in cases where there is similarity in the matter at issue, demonstrate that there is no direct borrowing and that the Mosaic is not dependent on the Babylonian. The biblical law of divorce (Deut. 24:1), for instance, permits the man to put away his wife, but does not extend the same right to the wife, as the Babylonian code does.

Early Israelite laws were quite clearly divided into two groups, civil laws of customary origin (Hebrew: mishpatim), which are mainly contained in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20:23-23:33), and moral and ethical injuncitions. As might naturally be expected, most of the former resemble similar laws in force among Israel's precursors and neighbors throughout the Near East, whereas the latter are a distinct product of the high moral and spiritual standards of Yahwism, which might be paralleled elsewhere singly but never in wholesale fashion.

Exodus 21:23-25 and Deuteronomy 19:21 state concisely the same principle of retaliation upon which a number of Hammurappi's laws are based: "Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." This, the Lex Talionis, is a Semitic custom that naturally would be expected to be reflected in various Semitic legal codes. A thing to bear in mind about the Lex Talionis is that it was not harsh by their standards (although at first reading it may seem so). Rather, it served as a limiting factor: a person could not be made to suffer any more harm than he had done. In otherwords, if you stole a loaf of bread, you were not to be drawn and quartered. You simply had to repay the bread!

2. The Mosaic and Hammurappi Codes are different in content:

The Hebrew code contains many purely religious injunctions and ritual regulations. The Code of Hammurappi is civil. However, the priestly laws of Leviticus contain many points of contact with corresponding priestly ritual and practice in Western Asia, whether in Canaan and Phoenicia or in Mesopotamia. But the divine instituion on Israelite ritual practice made direct borrowing unnecessary. In some cases similar cultic practice among surrounding people was divinely given to Israel and at the same time invested with special significance for the worship of Yahweh.

3. The two codes regulate different types of society:

Hammurappi's laws are adapted to the irrigation-culture and the higly commercialized urban societyof Mesopotamia. The Mosaic injunctions, on the other hand, suit an agricultural, pastoral people of a dry land like Palestine, much less advanced in social and commercial development, but keenly conscious in all phases of their living of their divine calling.

4. The two codes are different in their origin:

The Babylonian code is alleged to have been received by Hammurappi from the sun god Shamash. Moses is said to have received his laws directly from Yahweh. Hammurappi, despite his purported reception from Shamash, takes credit for the laws in both the prologue and epilogue of the Code. He, not Shamash, established order and equity throughout the land. Moses, in contrast, is only an instrument. The legislation is, "thus says the Lord."

5. The Two Codes differ in their morality:

From the ethical and spiritual standpoint the Mosaic legislation, as would be expected, offers a considerable advance over the Babylonian code. For instance, Hammurappi's laws name at least ten varieties of bodily mutilation for various offences. If a doctor performs an operation that is unsuccessful, his hand is to be cut off. There is, though, one instance of mutilation in the law of Moses: Deut. 25:11-12. In the Hebrew laws a greater value is generally placed on human life, and the place of women is much better tan in the rest of the ANE, or even the present Near East (under Islam). Slaves are treated amazingly better than in any other Near Eastern country. Moreover, the Babylonian code has nothng in it corresponding to the twofold golden thread running through the Mosaic legislation: love God and love your neighbor (Mat. 22:37-40).

It can be summarized this way (thanks to Alfred Jeremias):

a. There is no control of lust.

b. There is no limitation on selfishness.

3. There is nowhere to be found the postulate of charity.

d. There is nowhere to be found the religious motif which recognizes sin as the destruction of the people because it is in opposition to the fear of God. In the Hammurappi Code every trace of religious thought is absent; behind the Iraelite law stands everywhere the ruling will of God; the Mosaic legislation bears a religious character.

In fact, this last point differentiates everything in the OT from the rest of ANE literature and society: the monotheism and the stress on love for God and love for neighbors. This is absolutely unique in world history. (There is nothing outside the Bible like Deuteronomy 6:4-9, for instance).

Examples of Hammurrappi's laws:

21 If a man made a breach in a house, they shall put him to death in front of that breach and wall him in.

25 If a fire broke out in a man's house and a man, who went to extinguish it, cast his eye on the goods of the owner of the house and has appropriated the goods of the owner of the house, that man shall be thrown into the fire.

110 If a hierodule, a "lady of a god", who is not living in a temple, has opened the door of a wineshop or has entered a wineshop for a drink, they shall burn that woman.

127 If a man pointed the finger at a "lady of a god" or the wife of another man, but has proved nothing, they shall drag that man into the presence of the judges and also cut off half his hair.

129 If the wife of a man has been caught while lying with another man, they hsall bind them and throw them into the water. If the husband of the woman wishes to spare his wife, then the kig in turn may spare his subject.

132 (cf. Num. 5:11-31) If a finger was pointe at the wife of a man because of another man, but she has not been caught while lying with the other man, she shall throw herself into the river for the sake of the husband. (the word River has the determinitive for deity, indicating that the river -- the Euphrates-- was being called upon to act as a judge).

192 If the adopted son of a chamberlain or the adopted son of a votary has said to his foster father or his foster mother, "You are not my father," "You are not my mother", they shall cut out his tongue.

193 If the adopted son of a chamberlain or the adopted son of a votary found out his parentage and came to hate his foster father and his foster mother and so has gone off to his paternal home, they shall pluck out his eye.



Probably upon no other book of the Bible have the discoveries of archeology been so helpful. The recovery of certain texts of the ANE have helped us gain a full understanding of the book of Deuteronomy, an understanding which had been forgotten.

The traditional view concerning the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy had as a corollary the understanding that the book was a unified literary whole. In recent scholarship, however, it is commonly held that the unity of the book marks a late stage of its development and that it may be possible to discern the component parts that underlie the formal unity. In general terms, there are two reasons for this kind of approach to the study of the unity of the work:

1. If Deuteronomy, as a finished work, is believed to be essentially a product of the 7th century BC, then it is natural to attempt to discern older material which might have been incorporated in the work during the 7th century.

2. There are, in the view of most scholars, internal clues which might provide a means of discerning different strands in the composition of the book. The evidence employed might consist of data such as the following:

a. the duplication of headings or introductions (e.g. 1:1, 4:44ff, 6:1, and 12:1)

b. the alternation in the use of number (2nd sing/plur) in verbs and pronouns

c. various types of literary analysis (e.g., form-critical studies of particular passages within the book).

The first reason, above, is clearly the primary one in significance, for if an argument is made for the antiquity of the book, then the second reason (internal evidence) appears in a somewhat different perspective.

The analysis of the internal textual material has been undertaken in recent years (the last 100 or so) by means of form-criticism, with the current emphasis turning toward redaction-criticism. This last method, redaction-criticism, is in principle more positive, but it presupposes to a large extent the work of earlier analysis and reflects the view that Deuternomy is not a product of the period it describes.

There have continued to be a number of scholars who, for a variety of reasons, have argued for the essential unity of Detuernomy as a whole. They have been a minority, and the differences they have maintained against a growing consensus have been based, to a large extent, on a very positive assessment of the early (Mosaic) period of Israelite religion. Given a positive assessment of the early period of Israel's history, the radical doubt of the authenticity of Deuteronomy in its early setting is to a large extent removed

(current biblical scholarship, as one part of Western thought, has as its working principle radical doubt, which probably finds its roots in the epistemology of Descartes. Epsitemology deals with theories of knowledge -- how we know that we know -- examining the degrees of certainty and probability in knowledge and the difference between knowing with certainty and believing without being certain. In modern thought, the two main competing epistemological orientations are: rationalism (Descartes), which stresses the role of reason in providing certainty, and empiricism, which stresses the sense of perception. These two schools are not necessarily mutually exclusive) .

Treaty Format

In the last two or three decades, however, there has been an important new direction in OT research, which is of great significance for the study of Deuteronomy. A number of scholars have argued convincingly that there is a relationship in form between the Hebrew covenant and the ANE vassal treaty (see G.E. Mendenhall, K. Baltzer, and D.J. McCarthy, along with M.G. Kline, K.A. Kitchen, J.B. Payne and J.A. Thompson). The thesis was applied initially to tets describing the formation of the covenant at Sinai and also to various passages describing the renewal of the covenant (e.g. Josh. 24). Subsequently, the insights of this new thesis were applied to Deuteronomy, initially with reference to particular passages within the book (e.g., 4 and 28), but then on a larger scale which encompassed virtually the entire book. Among the first to apply this approach to all of Deuteronomy were M.G. Kline and K.A. Kitchen.

1. In its classical form, the ANE vassal treaty has the following component parts:

1. Preamble ("These are the words...")

2. Historical Prologue (antecendent history: events leading to and forming the basis of the treaty. Explains why we're here)

3. General Stipulations (statement of substance concerning the future relationship, which a) is intimately related to the antecedent history, and b) summarizes the purpose of the specific stipulations).

4. Specific Stipulations

5. Divine Witnesses (various deities are calle to witness the treaty)

6. Blessings and cursings (relating respectively to the maintenance or breach of the covenant).

There are, in addition, a number of otehr sections in certain texts which deal with the deposition of the treaty, its public reading, ceremonies of oath, and various formal procedures.

The vassal treaty was employed within the ANE when a great power (the suzerain king) imposed certain conditions of vassaldom on a smaller state (the vassal), which would normally have been conquered by the more powerful state in battle. The treaty explained the reasons for imposition and the nature of the conditions imposed on the smaller state, and made certain provisions relating to the maintenance of the treaty. The same basic type of treaty seems to have been employed throughout the Near East, and there is evidence of its use, in simpler form, in Mesopotamia as early as the 3rd millenium. In Egypt, there is some evidence to suggest that the treaty form was employed not only in relation to external vassal states, but also in relation to foreign labor groups within Egypt.

2. The Hebrews adapted the treaty form for their own use in order to express the nature of their relationship to God. For many years they were in effect vassals to Egypt, but that old bondage was brought to an nd in the Exodus from Egypt. Being liberated from bondage to an earthly power, they then submitted themselves in the Sinai Covenant to become vassals of God, the one who had liberated them from Egypt. The nature of this new submission, expressed in the covenant, finds its dramatic expression through the utilization and adaptation of the treaty form. While other small states might serve Egypt or the Hittite Empire as vassals, the Israelites owed tehir allegiance only to their suzerain God. This treaty form, in which their covenant was set, finds striking expression in the book of Deuteronomy as a whole: in brought outline, the treaty form of the book may be described as follows:

1. Preamble (1:1-5) "These are the words which Moses addressed to all Israel...)

2. Historical Prologue (1:6-4:49)

3. General Stipulations (5-11)

4. Specific Stipulations (12-26)

5. Blessings and Cursings (27-28)

6. Witnesses (see 30:19, 31:19, 32:1-43)

The last two points can be expressed more broadly to encompass the whole work:

5. Cursings and Blessings, with exhortation (27-30)

6. Provisions for the continuity of the covenant and a successor for Moses (31-32)

This overall structure of the book of Deuteronomy suggests that it can be regarded essentially as a unity. The book is thus a literary account of the renewal of the covenant with God on the plains of Moab. The literary (treaty) pattern may be more than merely a literary device; it is possible it reflects also the ceremony during which the covenant was renewed and a sucessor to Moses was appointed.

The covenant at Sinai was not a once-and-for-all event that had only historical significance. It inaugurated a continuing relationship (which had already been anticipated in the earlier covenants) between God and his people; because it was a continuing relationship, the covenant was to be renewed regularly, but in each renewal the event at Sinai was recalled. The renewal of the covenant was undertaken, not because God changed, but because each generation had to recommit itself regularly in love and obedience to the Lord of the covenant. In the address of Moses, the most powerful exhortation is used to move the people to new and wholehearted commitment to God. The tendency to view the covenant as a legal contract automatically binding man to God had to be countered; the nature of the covenant, as an expression of a living relationship, demanded of people not a legalistic acquienscence, but a loving commitment to God.

The treaty structure of the covenant was a reminder to the people of their liberty in this world and of their total commitment to God. They had been in bondage, vassals to the worldly power in Egypt, but God's intervention in history at the Exodus had freed the Israelites from that human vassaldom; in the encounter with God at Horeb, they had submitted to a new vassaldom under God. In the old servitude, Israel had served a worldly master and had no freedom to worship God (Ex. 8:1); in the new covenant, Israel had freedom to worship God and was servant to no worldly state. The domination of Egypt had been exchanged for the Kingdom of God (Exodus 15:18), who had broken the fetters of the old bondage.