2017 Annual Meeting

OTB / ANE Invited Session

Ancient Near Eastern Law and the Book of the Covenant

  • J. Caleb Howard (Johns Hopkins University)
    “The Sumerian Law Codes and the Old Testament”

    Abstract: Comparison between biblical laws and cuneiform law codes has a long history in the study of the Bible and the ancient Near East. This scholarly effort has involved not only studies of particular parallels (legal, literary, linguistic, etc.), but also studies with broader significance, dealing with comparative method, as well as causes and implications of parallels between these corpuses. The Sumerian law codes - the Laws of Ur-Namma and the Laws of Lipit-Eštar - do not figure as centrally in these studies as the law codes in Akkadian: the Laws of Ešnunna, the Laws of Hammurabi, the Middle Assyrian Laws, and the Neo- Babylonian Laws. This state of affairs is understandable, given the greater linguistic and chronological distance between the biblical laws and the Sumerian law codes, as well as the smaller size of the corpus of Sumerian laws. Nonetheless, the Sumerian law codes and the Akkadian law codes form one strand of a continuous tradition of scholarly textual production in Mesopotamia, a tradition which spread westward during the second half of the second millennium B.C., and an understanding of this tradition is essential to conducting sound comparative research.
    This paper will 1) discuss some of the most recent developments in the study of the Sumerian law codes; 2) briefly trace the development of the tradition of Mesopotamian law codes through time, space, and scribal activity; and 3) outline some of the most significant methodological issues involved in comparison between Mesopotamian law codes and biblical law.

  • Dr. Bruce Wells, Professor of Theology and Religious Studies (Saint Joseph's University)
    “The Symbolic Function of Law Codes”

    Abstract: As many scholars have pointed out, there is no clear-cut evidence that any of the law codes from the ancient Near East, whether biblical or cuneiform, functioned as actual codes of law. Assyriologists have increasingly argued that the law codes resemble other lists compiled by scribes, such as omen lists, medical lists, and astronomical lists. In other words, they were a type of academic endeavor. What is interesting, though, is that we know of several of these law codes because they were put to use for purposes other than compiling knowledge. For example, the Laws of Hammurabi help to ground and substantiate the king’s claim of having established justice throughout the land. The biblical codes occur within the formation of the covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel. This paper will argue that, when law codes are removed from an academic context and deployed for other purposes (apologetic, covenantal, etc.), they take on symbolic value. The provisions in Hammurabi’s code are meant to symbolize the sense of order and justice that Hammurabi claims he brought to Babylonian society. A similar notion can be applied to the Covenant Code. Several of its provisions, especially those involving fields and houses, appear ill- suited to the narrative context of a temporary encampment at Mt. Sinai. Readers are not to understand these provisions, however, as intended for direct application to that context but as part of a package of ideas that communicate and symbolize the kind of social justice and equity by which covenant-keeping should be characterized.

  • Prof. Ada Taggar-Cohen, (Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan)
    “Divine Law: The Hittite collection of laws in light of the Hebrew Bible legal collections”

    Abstract: The Hittite collection of laws, which was published for the first time as part of the decipherment of the Hittite language by F. Hrozny in 1922, and received its first edition in 1959 by J. Friedrich, with a final new edition in 1997 by H. Hoffner, represents the civil legal thought of the Hittites. Written on two clay tablets are about two hundred laws representing rulings, from homicide to theft, from wages and prices to marriage laws and sexual assaults. On the whole, it presents us with a social picture of the Hittite society.
    The long process of studying the text, and especially the latest work by Hoffner, shows how these two tablets were copied and re-copied through several hundred years. On the one hand, they were kept at the same format and contents, but on the other they went through modifications, having been updated to correspond with the changing times. Comparing this collection with Mesopotamian and biblical collections reveals a decisive difference: the Hittite laws are not a royal decreed text per se, and are not described as delivered under a divine authority. However, its resemblance, as a collection, to the other ANE legal collections and especially to the biblical one, requires a consideration of its divine status.

  • Professor Alan Millard, (The University of Liverpool)
    “The Book of the Covenant: Considerations on its Origins and its Age”

    Abstract: God gave the ‘Laws of Moses’ to Israel at Mount Sinai, according to the Book of Exodus, with the Ten Commandments, at least, written on stone tablets, then other laws were added, often known as ‘The Covenant Code’ (hereafter CC; Ex. 20: 1-17; 21: 1 - 23: 19). Biblical chronology places Moses in the Late Bronze Age, but the oldest copies of Exodus show only that it existed at least 2,000 years ago. There are several law collections from the ancient Near East, including Hammurabi’s, but their purpose is debated: are they actual regulations, or, rather, scribal constructs or exercises, as often supposed nowadays? If the Israelites borrowed from these laws, how and when did they do so? In his detailed 2009 study, Inventing God’s Law, David Wright argues that Hammurabi’s Laws were being copied extensively at the time when Assyria dominated Judah in the 7th century B.C., so it was then the CC was created, adapting many of Hammurabi’s laws. Instead, it will be posited, the CC can be understood in its biblical context, the Late Bronze Age. That raises questions of how the laws were transmitted from Babylonia to Canaan and translated from Babylonian to Hebrew and the uses of different writing systems, cuneiform and alphabetic.