The Dependence of Biblical Law Codes on Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes

The Dependence of Biblical Law Codes on Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes July 27, 2021

I am writing a book on the Exodus to build on both my previous two books (The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK] and is The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK]).  The working title is The Exodus: A Critical Examination of the Moses Story, and here is the introduction to my chapter on the law codes of the Bible and how they depend on previously existing law codes from the surrounding cultures and history. This section sets out the importance of legal codes and what examples there are in the Bible.

Nothing in life is devoid of context, and every piece of human history sits in a wider context of history – people, events, and ideas – that cradle and nurture, mould and develop (though often smash and batter, for humans are violent things) that which we eventually come to analyse with a magnifying glass.

The objective for this chapter is to do two things:

  • Establish the importance of legal codes in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Show that the basis for large, important parts of the legal codes is rooted outside of historical Israel and in the surrounding socio-religious contexts and cultures.

In doing this, we see the true context for the genesis of what is arguably the core content of the Hebrew Bible and find that the seed isn’t Yahweh, and Moses wasn’t the intermediary, but these ideas were appropriated (understandably, and in the way they so often are) from surrounding cultures and existing socio-religious frameworks.

The Importance of the Legal Codes

If we remember back towards the beginning of the book and the overview chapter dealing with the formation of the Pentateuch, or Torah, we noted that “Torah” means “the Law”.

Law is important in the Hebrew Bible – perhaps an understatement.

[T]his law collection, the pinnacle of the revelation at Mount Sinai according to the story of Exodus 19–24, is directly, primarily, and throughout dependent upon the Laws of Hammurabi.[1]

Law in terms of the Book of Exodus (and beyond), and in the context of Moses, is a hugely important component. In fact, one could argue that the narrative of the early Exodus chapters is merely the prelude for the main events of lawgiving. These events that take place at Sinai (or Horeb, depending on what part of the text you are reading) takes up the most space in the Pentateuch and, indeed, the whole Bible: fifty-eight chapters from Exodus 19 to Numbers 10!

It seems that Genesis through to the Exodus story we have been analysing is about setting up the identity of the Israelite people, the identity of their god, and why the people need to obey the god, before the laws can be communicated. Context first, content later.

As rabbinic scholar Ephraim Urbach stated:[2]

All that preceded – the history of the patriarchs, the bondage of Egypt, and the Exodus – is not of primary importance. All these are to be understood as preparatory events.

What we have throughout the Pentateuch is a series of different law codes from different times, places, and social settings (communities) throughout historical Israel (and further afield, as we shall see). As a rough summation, we have the following:

The Covenant Code (CC) in Exodus 21-23, containing laws stemming from a rural economy.

The Deuteronomic Code (DC) in Deuteronomy 12-26, reflecting an urban-based monarchy (such as laws for king and how to conduct war or deciding a true prophet).

The Holiness Code (HC) in Leviticus 17-26, probably a priestly law code in its original form (they are incomplete and out of order), though it is presented a more universal (utopian) code. God reveals these laws to Israel.

The Ten Commandments or Decalogue appear, as mentioned, in several sources – Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21 – and are often seen as ten short legal principles, though this is problematic (as discussed already). They were inscribed by God onto two stone tablets and then given to Moses on Mount Sinai, twice, and take up far less space in the Pentateuch than other law codes.

The Pentateuch sees laws being reused and reinterpreted within its own pages. For example, the Deuteronomic authors borrowed from and revised the laws of the Covenant Code to some important degree.[3] There is also evidence that the Decalogue is drawn primarily from the Covenant Code, as well, as German biblical scholar, theologian and historian Reinhard G. Kratz points out:[4]

There are several indications that the Decalogue is derived from the Covenant Code in Exod 21–23 and was created specifically for its present context in the book of Exodus (Kratz 1994). This, along with a synoptic comparison, leads to the conclusion that Exod 20 formed the Vorlage for the text in Deut 5 (Kratz 2005). Once these two versions were included in the Pentateuch, a process of harmonization started, which operated in both directions…

The pattern developing here, then, is not only that laws were important – central, even – to the Pentateuch, but that the Covenant Code was the most pivotal code of them all. This is the keystone to the legal bridge across which early Jews travelled out of Sinai and into more modern times.

The various laws are often split into two categories:

Casuistic laws: If you do this, then this will happen. If…then laws.

Apodictic laws: Do this, don’t do that.

We will be dealing predominantly with the Covenant Code (henceforth referred to as CC) and, to a lesser extent, the Decalogue for the purposes of this chapter. Much of the work done on the connections of the CC to the Code of Hammurabi has recently been undertaken by Ancient Near East scholar and theologian David P. Wright, as seen in his excellent book Inventing God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi.

Before we analyse the connections between the two in more detail, let us just look at the contexts of other ANE codes, with some particular focus on the Code of Hammurabi.

I will do this in a future post.


[1] Wright (2009), p. 3.

Wright, David P. (2009), Inventing God’s Law: How the Covenant Code of the Bible Used and Revised the Laws of Hammurabi, New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Urbach (1987), p. 317.

Urbach, Ephraim E. (1987), The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, Jerusalem: Magnes.

[3] See Baden and Stackert’s own introductory chapter in Baden & Stackert (2021).

Baden, Joel & Stackert, Jeffrey (2021), Epub Version, The Oxford Handbook of the Pentateuch, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[4] From Kratz’s chapter “Defining and Identifying Secondary Layers” in Baden & Stackert (2021), 21.14 (Epub).

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