In This Article Biblical Law in the Hebrew Bible

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Legal Corpora within Exodus–Deuteronomy
  • Syntax of Biblical Law
  • Ancient Context of Biblical Law
  • Legacy of Biblical Law

Biblical Studies Biblical Law in the Hebrew Bible
by
Stephen C. Russell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0228

Introduction

By word count alone, biblical law comprises a vast proportion of the first five books of the Bible; a significant section of Exodus and much of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy contains some form of legal material. Jewish tradition designates these first five books as Torah, i.e., “instruction” or “teaching.” The name indicates the extent to which these books are regarded primarily as containing divine instruction to Israel about how to live even as they are framed by stories about Israel’s origins and distant past. Legal concepts also underpin the great literary and theological themes of the Hebrew Bible. For example, the notion of Israel’s covenant with God is rooted in legal concepts related to international relations, and the language and gestures of prayer in the Book of Psalms draw on courtroom imagery. Any reader interested in the Hebrew Bible will thus find biblical law a fascinating topic in its own right and one that sheds light on many other aspects of biblical literature. The term “biblical law” most often is used to refer to rules in the Torah, or Pentateuch. Legal rules specified in various biblical collections of law must surely have overlapped to some degree with legal practices and legal ideals in ancient Israel and Judah. However, biblical law is not identical to ancient Israelite and Judahite law, for which there is very little direct evidence. This brief survey article points to resources available for the study of both. The section Legacy of Biblical Law briefly discusses how biblical law was treated in Jewish and Christian traditions, but the main focus in this article is on legal material from the Hebrew Bible. Biblical law comprises both special rules governing the relationships between humans and the divine world, which border on moral precepts and are not enforceable in a court of law, and rules that would be recognizable to a legal historian studying any system of law, i.e., rules regulating the economic and social relationships between humans. The focus here is on the latter.

General Works

The most helpful starting points for the reader interested in biblical law and ancient Israelite and Judahite law are Westbrook and Wells 2009 and Wells 2015. These books are written for a general audience and set the biblical presentation of law within its ancient Israelite and Judahite and Near Eastern contexts. Patrick 1985 introduces the reader to the literary production of biblical law. Strawn 2015 presents recent comprehensive coverage of several facets of biblical law.

  • Patrick, Dale. Old Testament Law. Atlanta: John Knox, 1985.

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    Introduces the literary production and social context of biblical law and analyzes the content of the laws.

  • Strawn, Brent, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Law. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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    The most extensive introduction available. Compared to other general works on biblical law, this encyclopedia pays greater attention to the influence and legacy of biblical law.

  • Wells, Bruce. “Biblical Law: Hebrew Bible.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Law. Vol. 1. Edited by Brent Strawn, 39–50. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

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    Extremely clear and authoritative overview of biblical law. The general reader interested in biblical law should begin here.

  • Westbrook, Raymond, and Bruce Wells. Everyday Law in Biblical Israel: An Introduction. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.

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    Succinct, comprehensive, and accessible introductory textbook on ancient Israelite law. Each chapter concludes with review questions, making the volume particularly suitable for classroom use and independent study. Anyone interested in the Bible should read this book.

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