Biblical and ancient Near Eastern law
Washington University in St. Louis
Pamela Barmash, Washington University in St.
Louis, St. Louis, MO, USA.
Biblical law has had a profound influence on Western
culture, but it must be understood in its historical context.
It arose in the context of the tradition of Mesopotamian
law, where scribes exhibited their flair for justice by writing
statutes on a repertoire of traditional cases, of which the
most outstanding example is the Laws of Hammurabi.
Rarely did legal texts explicitly discuss legal principles. Three
collections of formal legal statutes are found in the Hebrew
Bible. The Book of the Covenant is most like Mesopotamian
law in dealing with disputes arising in an agrarian society.
The priestly law consists of two sources, the priestly source
that aims at protecting the welfare of the people by the
performance of sacred rituals and the Holiness source that
seeks to sanctify the everyday activities of the people.
Deuteronomy aims at ritual and social reforms. Among the
most debated issues in scholarship today is biblical law's
view of women.
Every society must find a way to resolve disputes. This was true long before writing was invented, and among the
first sets of written documents extant are texts that settle disputes. Royal inscriptions and hymns recounting social
reforms and legal records of court cases from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) demonstrate that a sophisticated and
reflective legal culture was already in operation in the earliest human history recorded. Ancient Israel arose in the
midst of this long‐standing legal culture, and biblical law cannot be understood without a comparison to the law of
the ancient Near East.
We must be careful to distinguish between law as practiced in a society and the written documents that address
legal matters. While the earliest written documents from the ancient Near East touching on legal matters already
address socio‐economic inequality, it is not clear whether those reforms were actually promulgated. Those declara-
tions might be no more than royal rhetoric. Furthermore, whether the law collections, which are composed largely
of lists of formal statements prescribing how specific offenses were to be remedied, were applied in the actual
practice of law has been hotly debated (Wells, 2008). A similar question arises regarding the biblical legal texts:
Religion Compass. 2018;12:e12262.
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