Author Archives: Dr. Shalom Paul

About Dr. Shalom Paul

Dr. Shalom Paul is Chairperson of the Dead Sea Scrolls foundation and is a former chair of the Bible Department of Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He was editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica's Bible section and has written six books and over forty articles on nature and scientific exploration from a biblical perspective including The Bible & Archaeology.

Unique Aspects of Biblical Law

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.

Justice in the Bible

Reprinted with permission from JPS Guide: The Jewish Bible.

Basic justice was administered by the local court of elders sitting at the city gate, while more difficult cases came be fore the king (I Kings 3:16-28). Moses is said to have set up a hierarchical system of courts in the desert (Exod. 18:1 3- 26 ), and King Jehoshaphat is credited with appointing royal judges in the cities of Judah (2 Chron. 19:5).

o Property law deals with the ancestral estate. On the father’s death, his sons divided the land into equal shares, the firstborn taking a double share. If one of the sons died childless before there was a division of the estate, either because the father was still alive or because after the father’s death the brothers had continued to hold the land in a kind of partnership (“brothers dwelling together”), levirate law applied: the surviving brother had to marry the deceased’s widow, and their offspring would take the place of the deceased, thereby preserving his share of the inheritance (Deut. 25:5-10).
o If a man died leaving daughters but no sons, the daughters were allowed to inherit the family’s estate (Num. 27: 1-1I1, 36:1-12).

o Various laws protected the family’s ownership of their land. If poverty forced the owner to sell, he or a kinsman could redeem the land and thus bring it back into the family (Lev. 25:25-27). If redemption were not possible, the land would automatically return to its owner at the Jubilee, which occurred every 50 years (Lev. 25:28).

o A person cultivating land bore social responsibilities. He had to set aside part of his crop for the poor and needy (Lev. 19:9-10; Deut. 24:19-2 1) and every 7th and 50th year leave his land fallow so that its produce could feed those in need (Exod. 23:10-11; Lev. 25:3-7).

o The law made great efforts to alleviate debts. Interest was forbidden on loans to fellow-Israelites (Exod. 22:24). Although a creditor was entitled to foreclose a debtor’s possessions, or even his family (2 Kings 1:1), certain items (such as a millstone) could not be taken in payment of debts (Deut. 24:6). Impoverished kinsmen, like land, could be redeemed (Lev. 25:47-53) and slaves could be set free automatically after a number of years’ service (Exod. 21:1; Lev. 25 :54; Deut. 15:12). It has often been suggested that such laws were merely utopian. In fact, it was common practice for the kings of the ancient Near East to declare a cancellation of debts and consequently emancipate slaves and land. This was regarded as one of the king’s duties, although the timing was left to his discretion. The difference in the biblical law is its replacement of the king’s role by an automatic cycle of 7 or 50 years, which would ensure the enforcement of these reform measures. King Zedekiah actually declared a freeing of slaves, but subsequently the officials and the people forced them in to slavery again (Jer, 34:8-11).