A thick darkness engulfed the mountain where Moses stood. Thunder clapped and lightening flashed. In a dramatic scene that rivaled Hollywood’s most impressive special effects, Jehovah presented to the descendants of Jacob their very own body of law by which they would be governed as a new nation. Those laws, now contained in the Pentateuch, have regulated human behavior—in differing degrees among various populations—for almost 3,500 years.
Archaeological excavations in the Near East have demonstrated time and again that this legislative corpus was not the earliest legal code, nor were its laws entirely unique. Instead, the Akkadians, Babylonians, Hittites, and Assyrians all possessed legal codes that either predated, or were contemporaneous with, the laws delivered at Mt. Sinai in the fifteenth century B.C. (see Pritchard, 1958). Similarity among these various codes is at times striking. Generally, they follow the casuistic form (e.g., if x happens, y shall be the punishment), and deal with topics such as marriage, adultery, sexual offenses, theft, and the treatment of slaves.
George Mendenhall analyzed the covenant forms of the ancient Near East and distinguished specific elements that characterized vassal treaties (i.e., contracts in which powerful nations provided protection for weaker states in exchange for loyalty). Most of these elements are present in the legal material issued at Sinai. This analysis not only helps to explain the nature of the covenant Jehovah established with Israel, but also supports the antiquity of the Sinai encounter. According to Mendenhall, this particular form of covenant was solely a second millennium B.C. legal convention that did not continue into the first millennium (1955, pp. 32-35). This harmonizes with biblical chronology.
Beyond the apologetic benefit, the study of these ancient legal codes also has provided insights into the value systems of past civilizations. The laws of a nation reveal much about that nation’s priorities and ethical concerns. Consistently, Israel’s laws reflected a higher view of life than did the laws of other nations. Consider two examples. First, the possibility that one’s ox might gore a neighbor was a genuine concern among ancient people. So their laws specified the penalty to be levied against the ox’s owner should that happen. According to the Code of Hammurabi (king of Babylon, 1728-1686 B.C.), if an ox gores a man while walking down the street, no penalty shall be assessed (perhaps it was counted as accidental). But, if the ox was known to have a propensity for goring, and the owner did not tie up the ox or pad its horns, the owner would be fined if it killed a man. The fine was lower if the victim was a slave.
The Code of Eshnunna (Amorite laws dated 1925 B.C.) apparently required the owner of an ox that habitually gored to dehorn his animal. If the owner refused, and the ox killed again, the owner was fined. Again, the fine was less if the victim was a slave.
A very different view of life was reflected in the Mosaic system:
If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, then the ox shall surely be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be acquitted. But if the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and it has been made known to his owner, and he has not kept it confined, so that it has killed a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death (Exodus 21:28-29).
Although the Mosaic code recognized and regulated the social convention of slavery (e.g., Exodus 21:1-11), it did not suggest a distinction among social classes regarding those gored by an ox.
Second, legislation governing the premature birth of a child that resulted from two men fighting was also common in ancient legal codes. In the Code of Hammurabi, if a man caused another man’s daughter to miscarry, the penalty was five shekels; if the woman was a slave, only two shekels were required. In the Hittite laws, the penalty was ten shekels for a free woman, and five shekels for a slave. In the Middle Assyrian laws, if a man caused another man’s daughter to miscarry, he was fined, beaten, and forced to work for a month. If he caused a man’s wife to miscarry, he had to repay life for life. However, in the Mosaic law it did not matter who was caused to miscarry. If the unborn child was injured or killed, the offending party was charged the same as if he had injured or killed an adult (Exodus 21:22-25).
In both of these examples, Jehovah acknowledged the concerns of the prevailing culture, but did not endorse the value systems of that era. A higher view of human life was enjoyed upon the Israelites. For their community, regardless of the opinions of others, all life was counted as sacred. This applied to slaves as well as to free men and women; it applied to unborn children as well as to adults. This serves as an important reminder that we must resist the temptation to domesticate the Scriptures and assume that they exist to legitimize the values of our culture. The Word of the Lord transcends culture, and those who live by it likewise transform their culture.
Pritchard, James B. (1958), The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press), Volume 1.
Mendenhall, George E. (1955), Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh, PA: The Presbyterian Board of Colportage of Western Pennsylvania).