Unique Aspects of Biblical Law

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

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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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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.