The Connection Between Mesopotamian and Biblical Law
Biblical law was unique in the ancient Near East in several ways: first, it is contained within a "book" that was, and still is, considered to be holy scripture, and second, it is the only known example of ancient Near Eastern law collections that combines cultic and noncultic regulations.
Unlike law collections, such as the “Code of Hammurabi” (CH), which was written at one point in time, the laws contained in the Bible were written at different times for different reasons and were only put together into a "book" much later by various editors. For example, the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:22-23:33), which is considered to be the oldest collection of laws in the Bible, includes laws regulating both religious and moral behavior, as well as property rights, slavery, bodily injury, and murder. Most often in the Covenant Code and other collections of law in the Bible, the laws concerning cultic behavior are formulated in a style referred to as “apodictic.” In this formulation, the law is given as a commandment in the second person: “You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold” (Exod. 20:23). In the past, apodictic law was thought to be unique to Israel in the ancient Near East, but scholars have found examples of such formulations in Mesopotamian and Hittite texts. However, apodictic laws were not nearly as common outside Israel, and they were usually not constructed in the second person.
The more common form of law in the ancient Near East was casuistic: "If a citizen steals the property of the temple or of the court, he shall be put to death (CH §7).” Many of the laws dealing with non-cultic regulations in the Bible are casuistic. One of the most well-known of the casuistic type of biblical laws is the lex talionis, that is, "an eye for an eye." The biblical example is found in Exodus 21:23: " (When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman), if harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot..." Lex Talionis also appears in the code of Hammurabi: "If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out (CH §196).”
Since the Code of Hammurabi was written before the oldest laws in the Bible were written, and many similarities between the two exist, it is tempting to conclude that the writers of the biblical laws were directly influenced by the former. However, a much more likely reason for the similarities is that Israel and Mesopotamia shared some of the same traditions, both being members of the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu.
"Code of Hammurabi." Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
"Covenant Code." Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
"Lex Talionis." Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
"Torah." Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
Research Associate, University of Chicago
1. What makes biblical law unique?
2. What is the difference between apodictic and casuistic laws? Why is this difference important?
3. Why were there similarities between laws throughout the Near East?