Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
LAW AND JUSTICE

1. Legislative codes
THE Law, Tôrah, means in the first place a teaching, a doctrine, a decision given for a particular case. Collectively, the word means the whole body of rules governing men's relations with God and with each other. Finally the word comes to mean the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, containing God's instructions to his people, the prescriptions which his people had to observe in their moral, social and religious life. All the legislative codes of the Old Testament are found in the Pentateuch.
A. The Decalogue contains the 'Ten Words' of Yahweh, the essential precepts of morality and religion. It is set out twice ( Ex 20: 2-17 and Dt 5: 6-21) with some significant variants, but the two texts stem from a shorter primitive form which may justifiably be assigned to the Mosaic Age.
B. The Code of the Covenant ( Ex 20: 22-23: 33) is a composite collection, in which one can easily distinguish a central portion ( Ex 21: 1-22: 16), where 'sentences' or 'judgments', mishpaṭîm, of civil and criminal law are grouped together: it is a law for a community of shepherds and peasants. The present context (cf. Ex 24: 3-8) connects it, like the Decalogue which precedes it, with the Sinaitic Covenant, but the directions about slaves, cattle, fields, vineyards and houses can only apply to an already settled population. This code has obvious connections with the curses of Dt 27: 15-26, the 'law' ( Dt 27: 26) which was to be proclaimed on Mount Ebal (or Garizim?) after the entry into Canaan ( Dr 27: 11-14). This command of Moses was carried out by Josue, according to Jos 8: 30-35, the opening words of which recall in turn the law of the altar with which the Code of the Covenant begins ( Ex 20: 24- 25). But this passage in Jos 8 does not fit in with its present context nearly so well as with the assembly at Shechem, where Joshua gave the people a law (mishpaṭ) written in a 'book of the law' ( Jos 24: 25-26). We cannot be certain that the Code of the Covenant, in the form in which it has come down to us, is the actual law promulgated by Josue at Shechem, but we can say that internal evidence and the witness of tradition agree in dating this Code from the early days of the settlement in Canaan, before the organization of the State. It is the law of the tribal federation.
C. Deuteronomy, in its legislative part ( Dt 12-26), forms another code

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