Unique Aspects of Biblical Law

What's so special about the law given in the Bible?

Reprinted with permission from JPS Guide: The Jewish Bible.

In light of the basic difference between biblical law (divine authorship) and Mesopotamian law (human authorship), and the expressed goal of biblical law: “But you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6), it is possible to single out several of its distinctive traits:

Distinctive Traits

1. Since law is an expression of divine will, all crimes are considered sins and certain offenses become absolute wrongs in capable of human forgiveness. This applies, for example, to the case of adultery: “If a man commits adultery with a married woman . . . the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev. 20:10; compare with Deut. 22:22). Unlike the Mesopotamian laws that permit the husband or the king to decide either to punish the wife and adulterer or to grant them pardon, adultery in the Bible is not merely an offense against the husband but also a sin against God that cannot be pardoned by a human

2. The whole of one’s life is directly related to the will of God. Only in Israel are all civil, moral-ethical, and religious obligations interwoven in to a single body of legislation. In Mesopotamia, these three realms would be incorporated, respectively, in legal collections, wisdom compilations, and priestly handbooks, all composed by different human authors. Since God is Israel’s sole legislator, the people are ultimately held solely responsible to God for all aspects of their existence.

God Loves Israel

3. Unlike in Mesopotamia, where the king alone was chosen by the gods to write the law, the God of Israel selects all the Children of Israel to be the recipients of the divine law. God’s care and concern extend to all members of this community, not to one chosen individual. Thus everyone is held personally responsible for the observance of the law. This, in turn, leads to the concept of individual and joint responsibility. No longer is it the sole concern of the leader of the community (as was for the king in Mesopotamia) to maintain justice and to protect the rights of the community; it is now the responsibility of every member of the society. Since the law was communicated to all, the obligation for its observance rests on the entire people. Each member of the community, then, has the dual responsibility to observe the law personally and collectively, as a group. Each must see that justice is executed and that all crimes are punished; otherwise the community and its members are threatened with dire consequences. Faithful observance of the law grants divine protection and reward to both the individual and the group. Law becomes the single most important factor in the life and destiny of Israel.

4. The law is proclaimed openly to the entire society and is not restricted to any professional class of jurists, lawyers, or judges. Exodus 21:1 makes this patently clear; “These are the rules that you shall set before them.” Biblical law, publicly promulgated in advance, is to be contrasted with the epilogue of one of the Mesopotamian law collections (the laws of Hammurabi), where the offended party learns of the condition of the law pertaining to his case only after the crime has been committed. Though Mesopotamian law collections were copied in scribal circles, there is no mention in them of making the law public knowledge. In Israelite society, on the other hand, the law was proclaimed publicly a t the very outset, at Mount Sinai. And Ezra, in a public ceremony that took place on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) read the Torah aloud before the entire population in Jerusalem (Neh. 8:1- 12), and a public reading was held during the reign of King Josiah (2 Chron. 34:30- 32)
5. Biblical law, then, was a body of teaching that served as an educational tool. Unlike the Mesopotamian collections (with very few exceptions), motive clauses, which gave reasons for observing the law, are occasionally appended to the biblical laws. See, for example, Exodus 22:2, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”; and Exodus 22:25-26, “If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; it is his only clothing… In what else shall he sleep?” Such explanatory, ethical, religious, and historical additions were intended to appeal to the people’s conscience and motivate them to observe the law.

6. Since all human beings are conceived as being created in the divine image, the sanctity of human life is a primary concern of the law. Thus who ever destroys a human life must give a reckoning for it: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. For in His image did God make man” (Gen. 9:6). The uniqueness of human life in the Bible does not allow it to be measured in terms of monetary or property compensation, as it does in Mesopotamian law; see Numbers 35;31, ”You may not accept a ransom for the life o f a murderer who is guilty of a capital crime; he must be put to death.”

A Life For A Life

7. Whereas biblical legislation demands “a life for a life,” in Mesopotamia, the law of talion (the law of retaliation, wherein the punishment corresponds in kind and degree to the injury) pertaining to physical offenses committed by one person against a member of the same class or status was extended by analogy to all members of society (except for slaves; see point 8), thus applying the principle of equal justice for all. The punishment is limited to the exact measure of the injury and is restricted to the offender himself, thereby restricting the light of revenge.

8. The sole exception to the principle of equal justice is the slave. Nevertheless, all the laws pertaining to slaves are concerned with protecting them and preserving their human dignity. Their status is intended to be temporary and their physical being must be guarded against abuse.

9. Brutal punishments (primarily the mutilation of body limbs) and multiple punishments (monetary, mutilation, and bodily blows with a rod), though prevalent in Mesopotamian laws, are all but absent from Israelite law.

10. The principle of individual guilt predominates in biblical law. Punishment for secular offenses is meted out to the actual offender and not to someone who acts or serves as one’s proxy (“vicarious punishment”), as, for example, when a son or a daughter is punished for the father, or when the wife of one who raped another woman is handed over to be a rape victim, as in Mesopotamian law.

11. Biblical legislation is primarily drawn up in a cause-and-effect (“casuistic”) style. This legal formulation begins with an “if” clause (the statement of the case) and concludes with an implied “then” clause (the solution; that is, the penalty). This style of law, which is part and parcel of Israel’s Mesopotamian legal heritage, is pragmatic and does not appeal to any religious postulates.

However, biblical law contains another type of legal formulation that is imperative, obligatory, and nonconditional (“apodictic”): ”You shall (not),” which commands what one must (or must not) do, prescribing rather than describing. No time limit is placed on its demands since it is always intended to be in force and there are no attached sanctions.

This direct-address formulation, unique to biblical law, is absent from Mesopotamian legal collections. Here, again, a unique aspect of a society can be clarified in terms of its basic constitution. T he Israelite community was founded on a covenantal treaty agreement between God and God’s Chosen People. Only in Israel is there a binding relationship between this covenant and the law, which combines impersonal legislation (casuistic law) and personal obligation and commandment (apodictic law). The future of the nation rests entirely on the observance of covenantal law.

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