Law

The original setting for Hebrew law is not mysterious. Legal disputes were decided and criminals sentenced by the council of elders who met just inside the gate of Israelite cities: such a system is still implied in the story of Naboth's vineyard (1 Kgs. 21), in the ninth century BCE. It is in that context that we must look for the first codifications of the principles of criminal and civil law in Israel. With the advent of the monarchy there seems to have developed a system of higher courts, perhaps with royal judges travelling on circuit. But the stories of Samuel may suggest that such an institution, serviced by a religious 'judge', pre-existed the monarchy (1 Sam. 7:15-8:3), and this may mean that here, too, the distinction between sacred and secular is hard to maintain. Even within the Hebrew Bible's legal sections the interplay of sacred and secular jurisdiction can be observed. In the Book of the Covenant, difficult cases, which the elders cannot settle, have to be taken to the local sanctuary for resolution (Exod. 22:8, 10-11).

It is hard to know how far later law codes were rooted in forensic reality at all. Certainly the whole Torah functioned as a code of practical law in

Jewish communities both in Palestine and elsewhere in the late post-exilic age; but much of the material in them is quite ill-fitted to be used as a code, as can be seen from the very complex interpretative frameworks that had to be provided in the course of time, if the material was to be legally 'workable'. (The Mishnah, from c.200 CE, is a first codification of these.) Deuteronomy in particular seems much more an ideal blueprint for an imaginary Israel than a real code of law. The social function of much of the material in the Priestly Code, in Exodus 25-30 and Leviticus, is also unclear. Detailed as it seems to the average modern reader, it would nevertheless not be sufficient if it were used to instruct temple personnel in carrying out the rituals it describes. It seems more probable that it is a digest of the rituals, written with the layman in mind, and serving the purpose more of admonition than of legislation.

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