Laws in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
- Samuel GreengusSamuel GreengusHebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Biblical laws are found mainly in the Pentateuch (i.e., the first five books of the Hebrew Bible). The laws are linked to the figure of Moses, who is depicted as having received them directly from God in order to transmit them to the people of Israel during the years in the Wilderness after being released from slavery in Egypt. Biblical laws are thus presented as being of divine origin. Their authority was further bolstered by a tradition that they were included in covenants (i.e., formal agreements made between God and the people as recorded in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy). Similar claims of divine origin were not made for other ancient Near Eastern laws; their authority flowed from kings, who issued the laws, although these kings might also be seen as having been placed on their thrones through the favor of the gods. The biblical law collections are unlike other ancient Near Eastern “codes” in that they include sacral laws (i.e., governing cult, worship, and ritual, as well as secular laws: namely, governing civil, and criminal behaviors). This mingling of sacral and secular categories is the likely reason both for the many terms used to denote the laws, as well as for the unexpected number of formulations in which they are presented. The formulations used in biblical law can be classified as “casuistic” or “non-casuistic.” They are not equally distributed in the books of the Pentateuch nor are they equally used with secular and sacral laws. While there are similarities in content between secular laws found in the Hebrew Bible and laws found in the ancient Near Eastern law “codes,” the latter do not exhibit a comparable variety in the numbers of law terms and formulations. The Hebrew Bible tended to “blur” the differences between the law terms and their formulations, ultimately to the point of subsuming them all under the law term torah (“teaching”) to describe the totality of the divinely given laws in the Pentateuch. Biblical studies in general and Pentateuchal studies in particular are challenged by the fact that manuscripts contemporary with the events described have not survived the ravages the time. Scholars must therefore rely on looking for “clues” within the texts themselves (e.g., the laws cited by the prophets, the reform of Josiah, the teaching of torah by Ezra, and evidence for customs and customary laws found in books of the Hebrew Bible outside of the Pentateuch).