The Dependence of Biblical Law Codes on Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes (II)

The Dependence of Biblical Law Codes on Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes (II) July 30, 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. I previously posted 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. The section set out the importance of legal codes and what examples there are in the Bible. However, as is always the case with the early writing process and drafts, I added a whole bunch yesterday in the middle of the section I posted. It’s interesting stuff (I think!), so here it is:

Indeed, the laws are often divided up in JE, P and D laws, and it seems like redactors didn’t so much favour “copy and paste” approaches to delivering legal codes that are found internally and previously, but preferred to modify them. The Decalogue, for example, has three differing iterations, all influenced by the redactor who was weaving them in. For instance, after Moses received the original stone tablets with the commandments etched on (as supposedly the unmediated word of God) in Exodus 20, he eventually smashed them in anger. But, in Exodus 34, Moses received the commandments again on some further tablets, with the author telling us that God said, “I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you smashed” (Exodus 34:1b).

We would expect a copy and paste verbatim rendition of the original rules. However, this second Decalogue only overlaps in two places, and even they vary in the wording used. This second author, using the Golden Calf mechanism, is able to introduce their own version of the Decalogue to supersede the original one, illustrating their own agenda and biases that we can then try and decipher from inference and deduction.

For the secularist historian reading the texts, this is all fascinating stuff. It’s a puzzle to be unlocked in the same way that we try to decipher and understand every other ancient document and its writers. But for the literalist, this is yet another headache, and yet another sticking plaster. Of course, the treatment package is simple: multiple sources, multiple authors, multiple redactors, multiple time periods.

Another example of the variance of legal outlooks in the Bible, illustrating the divergent agendas of the redactors and authors, concerns views on social welfare, for want of a better term. Here, Leviticus 19:9-10 is clear about who “gleanings” should benefit (my emphases):

‘Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 And you shall not glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy [poor] and for the stranger. I am the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 24:20-22 sees a change in the wording to fit the agenda of the authors of that particular instantiation of the law:

20 When you beat the olives off your olive tree, you are not to search through the branches again; that shall be left for the stranger, the orphan, and for the widow.

21 “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you are not to go over it again; that shall be left for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow22 And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.

There is an interesting ideological shift here from providing for a generalised “poor” in society, to narrowing it down by removing the “work-shy” element (as they might well see it) so that we are left with “the orphan and the widow” instead.

The devil is in the detail, and the details speak volumes for how the Bible, how the Torah, was constructed. The same law, but not the same. Again, the Torah tells us more about the writers than the subjects of the writing.

Variety and multiplicity, agendas and ideologies.

[Of course, I would advise you to read the previous piece to understand the full context.]


Stay in touch! Like A Tippling Philosopher on Facebook:

A Tippling Philosopher

You can also buy me a cuppa. Or buy some of my awesome ATP merchandise! Please… It justifies me continuing to do this!

Browse Our Archives