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The Distinctiveness of Biblical Law in the Ancient Near East

Ultimately, the one thing which distinguishes Biblical laws from other laws is the fact that they are commanded by God, not by man. This transcendence is the only characteristic that ultimately matters when it comes to law. Laws made by mere men are, by definition, not transcendent.

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However, you will find some people claiming that Biblical law is not transcendent. They will speculate that Old Testament civil laws were derived from pre-existing laws, which existed in the heathen cultures surrounding the Israelite nation. Fortunately, these claims are easy to disprove, simply by comparing the laws themselves. It should not surprise us that God's laws will have characteristics which make them stand out from pagan laws. Moses spoke on God's behalf:

6 "... this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who shall hear all these statutes, and say, 'Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' ... 8 What great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day?" (Deut. 4:6,8)

The following eleven points distinguish Biblical law from other contemporary (ancient Near East) law systems, such as the Code of Hammurabi. In fact, many of them still distinguish Biblical law from modern law systems. There are more distinctives than these, but these are the most interesting for the purpose of this survey. These are also essentially unchallengeable when you examine the comparative evidence.

1. Creates the strongest possible formulation of the 'rule of law': Deut. 4:2. No law system, ancient or modern, can match the strength of Biblical rule of law. In fact, man's desire to use changeable law as an instrument for his own ends is one reason why Biblical law is rejected, even by Christians.

2. Subordinates the human king to the law (Deut. 17:18-20). The king was no longer the source of law, because God was the only true king. [This was "unique in the ancient Near East." (Ska, Biblical Law and the Origins of Democracy' in The Ten Commandments: The Reciprocity of Faithfulness, 148)]

3. Uses motive clauses to teach the intent and presuppositions behind the law.

4. Opposes social class distinctions, which are integral to ancient pagan law systems. ["The concern manifest in cuneiform law is on the fixing of the status of the victim in certain categories and how that status affects the punishment. .... Lex talionis in biblical law restricts the punishment to the offender himself. Lex talonis makes rich and poor equal in biblical law. More than that, status, with the exception of the slave, is simply not a factor in biblical law." (Barmash, Homicide in the Biblical World, p. 175)]

5. Protects slaves against injury by their masters (Exod. 21:20-21). Requires the manumission of all debt-slaves (Exod. 21:2), and the harbouring/protection of runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16). ["No other ancient Near Eastern law has been found that holds a master to account for the treatment of his own slaves (as distinct from injury done to the slave of another master), and the otherwise universal law regarding runaway slaves was that they must be sent back, with severe penalties for those who failed to comply." (Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, p. 292)]

6. Disallows vicarious punishments (Deut. 24:16), which is common in ancient pagan law. [Vicarious punishments are punishments of one person for the crimes of another.]

7. No use of the judicial "ordeal", which is characteristic of many other contemporary legal systems. [A judicial ordeal is an attempt to force a judgement by God (or gods, in the case of polytheists), usually requiring a person to do something that would normally injure them.]

8. Disallows the death penalty and bodily mutilation for mere property crimes. Biblical law recognises that the dignity of life far surpasses any considerations of property. ["In Babylonian law, offenses against property were often punished by death.... In Biblical law, however, an offense against property is never punished by death." (Sonsino, "Characteristics of Biblical Law", p. 206)]

9. Publicises the law, keeping it simple, so that every person can know it and follow it. ["In ancient Mesopotamia, the law was directed primarily to the intelligentsia, that is, to priests, scribes, students....For Biblical law, however, publicity was central. The teaching was revealed, not to a few individuals alone but to the entire people of Israel." (Sonsino, "Characteristics of Biblical Law", p. 206)]

10. Prohibits civil government interference (such as price-fixing) with voluntary economic exchange. ["The contrast between biblical and Mesopotamian legal corpora is underscored even further by the almost total absence in the former of normative rules, that is, formulations of the proper procedures governing commerce and economic life in general." (Finkelstein, "The Ox that Gored", p. 42)]

11. Establishes Cities of Refuge to eliminate blood-feuds and personal vengeance: Num. 35:6-34; Deut. 19:1-13. These were havens of protection, established to protect innocent people from being killed by people acting outside the judicial procedures required by Biblical law. ["[Cities of refuge] are a unique institution, not found anywhere in ancient sources outside of the Bible." (Westbrook, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel, p. 75)]

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