Israelite law developed in its early days along lines familiar from other cultures of the area, with similarities to the law codes of ancient Mesopotamia, such as the famous Code of Hammurabi (Greengus 1992). The early law codes in the Hebrew Bible may have been taken over from the indigenous Canaanite population of Palestine. The earliest, the 'Book of the Covenant' (Exod. 21-4), concentrates on providing the rules needed for life in a fairly simple society, regulating tenure of land and ownership of property, and seeking to maintain the peace through rules for dealing with murder, theft, and personal injury. 'Law' in this context means something similar to what it means today, and is not a religious term as it was to become later in Judaism.

However, even at this early stage (at the beginning of the monarchic period or even earlier) there were some distinctive features of Israelite law. It presupposed a less stratified society than did most Mesopotamian law, withfew laws differentiating between people of different social status—perhaps because Israelite society was as yet less 'advanced' than the city states of Mesopotamia. And it cast the law in forms less commonly found outside Israel, in particular the 'apodeictic' form, where the law is a simple imperative, either positive or (more often) negative, e.g. 'You shall not commit adultery'. (The theory of Alt (1967) that apodeictic law was actually unique to Israel cannot be sustained.) Most ancient Near Eastern law (including much in the Hebrew Bible) takes the form 'if x, then y': 'If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep' (Exod. 22:1; Hebrew 21:37) (Gilmer 1975; Sonsino 1992). Thus even at the earliest stages we can recognize a tendency to couch law in the form of teaching. It addresses the potential criminal, rather than simply providing a code to which judges can refer when sentencing, and accords protection to all human beings just because they are human, not because they have a particular status in society. But the codes still remain primarily legal documents in the normal sense.

Later legal texts, by contrast, developed some of these peculiar features to a point where the term 'law' becomes rather questionable. Deuteronomy, edited probably in the seventh century BCE from earlier materials (including the Book of the Covenant), envisages a society which is perhaps more ideal than real—with something approaching equality between the sexes, even in the case of slaves (Deut. 15:12-18), and even the king himself brought under the rule of law (Deut. 17:14-20). Deuteronomy also includes long sections of comment on the law and encouragement to keep it (e.g. Deut. 11:1-25)— hardly in place in an actual code, but fitting for a book which was meant to be read (probably aloud) in a religious setting, and to change society rather than merely regulating it.

Much the same is true of the (perhaps slightly later) 'Holiness Code' (Lev. 16-26). Both these works add a clear theological rationale to the more commonsensical approach of the Book of the Covenant, maintaining that the laws come from God and are the terms and conditions of his special relationship ('covenant') with his people (Lev. 26:3-20; Deut. 29:2-9 (Hebrew 29:1-8)). This laid the foundation for the fresh understanding of the law which developed in post-exilic times, in contents where Jews could no longer regulate their own affairs. In law as in historiography we can see a steady theologizing of originally pragmatic material. All commandments are attributed to God as their author—thus classically in the Ten Commandments or Decalogue (Exod. 20:1-17; Deut. 5:6-21), a digest of the essential core of the law which traces all legislation back to the God of the Exodus, Israel's covenant-lord.

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