The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship

By Frederick E. Greenspahn | Go to book overview

Chapter 5

The Laws of Biblical Israel

Raymond Westbrook


Laws and Law Codes

The most famous law code associated with the Bible is the Ten Commandments, but the Torah (Pentateuch) contains many more commandments —613 in all, according to Rabbinic tradition. Like the Ten Commandments, most of them regulate relations between humans and God, for example dietary rules, rules of personal purity, sacrifices and dedications by individuals, or priestly duties and cultic rules regarding the community as a whole. Other rules in the Torah prescribe purely ethical behavior, like helping one's neighbor, providing charity, or not oppressing the poor. Only about 60 provisions are what we would regard nowadays as law. They are rules that establish rights and duties as between individuals, with regard to marriage, inheritance, property, contract, crime and tort, etc. They cover disputes that can be tried in a human court and give solutions that are enforceable by the normal machinery of justice.

These 60 laws are unevenly spread through the second to the fifth books of the Torah. They are embedded in three of the literary sources that scholars have identified in that segment of the Bible, which are thought to have been written at different times during the first millennium B.C.E. (although their exact dating is a matter of great dispute). Nearly half of the 60 laws are to be found in chapters 21 and 22 of Exodus, in a context usually associated with the Elohist (E) source. An equal number are found in the book of Deuteronomy, mostly concentrated in chapters 21 and 22, but with scattered examples from chapter 15 to chapter 25. Deuteronomy is considered to be an independent source. For the rest, a smattering of laws are found at various points in Leviticus, mostly

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