In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Biblical Law

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • The Law in the Pentateuch
  • The Decalogue
  • The Covenant Code
  • Priestly Law
  • Deuteronomy and Deuteronomic Law
  • Legal Inscriptions from Ancient Israel
  • Law from the Ancient Near East Outside Ancient Israel
  • Homicide and “An Eye for an Eye”
  • Women
  • Family Law
  • Slavery
  • Law and Literature
  • Courts, Witnesses, Judges, and Communal Responsibility
  • Kings and Law
  • Social Justice
  • Elephantine
  • Law of the Late Second Temple Period
  • Rabbinic Law and its Relationship to the Law of the Ancient Near East

Jewish Studies Biblical Law
Pamela Barmash
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0062


Law plays a major role in the Hebrew Bible, and biblical law, whether appearing as formal statutes or as motifs embedded in other genres, has served as a source and inspiration for later Jewish culture. The bulk of the Pentateuch is devoted to legal material, and biblical narrative often invokes legal matters. The prophets refer to law and use legal idioms and literary expressions. The major theological and literary structure of the Hebrew Bible is the covenant between God and the Israelites, a relationship based on legal concepts and requirements. Most legal sources assent to this concept, but the Priestly (P) source in the Pentateuch bases the relationship between God and the Israelites on a pact, with obligations for the Israelites, rather than the bilateral agreement of a covenant, with obligations for both sides. The study of biblical law is closely tied to major issues in the critical study of the Bible: source criticism of the Pentateuch; the social and economic development of ancient Israel; form criticism and the literary characteristics of the Bible; the comparative method and the relationship between ancient Israel and the influential cultures of the ancient Near East.

General Overviews and Textbooks

Boecker 1980, Patrick 1984, and Westbrook and Wells 2009 provide an excellent introduction for undergraduates and educated adults. Boecker 1980 gives an overview of general issues in the legal process and then proceeds with chapters on Mesopotamian and biblical law collections. Westbrook and Wells 2009 organizes its discussion according to types of offenses. Bovati 1994 illuminates the process and procedures by which a case would be adjudicated. Falk 1964 offers the viewpoint of a legal professional. Blenkinsopp 1995 traces the interdependence of biblical law with wisdom literature, the product of the scribes who may have transmitted biblical law. Hecht, et al. 1996 contextualizes biblical law in the development of Jewish law. Mendenhall 1955 illuminates the decisive concept of covenant.

  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament: The Ordering of Life in Israel and Early Judaism. Oxford Bible Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198755036.001.0001

    Integrates the study of biblical legal texts with their social context as part of the teaching of scribes and the wisdom tradition.

  • Boecker, Hans Jochen. Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient East. Translated by Jeremy Moiser. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980.

    Classic presentation of issues that arise in the study of biblical law.

  • Bovati, Pietro. Re-Establishing Justice: Legal Terms, Concepts and Procedures in the Hebrew Bible. Translated by Michael J. Smith. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 105. Sheffield, UK: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1994.

    Study of the practice and procedures of justice and adjudication.

  • Falk, Zeev W. Hebrew Law in Biblical Times: An Introduction. Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1964.

    Perspective on biblical law from a distinguished professor of law at Hebrew University.

  • Hecht, N. S., B. S. Jackson, S. M. Passameneck, D. Piatelli, and A. M. Rabello. An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198262626.001.0001

    Overview of Jewish law, starting with its origins in biblical law.

  • Mendenhall, George E. Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Pittsburgh, PA: Biblical Colloquium, 1955.

    Influential study of the way the concept of covenant shaped the Bible.

  • Patrick, Dale. Old Testament Law. Atlanta: Knox, 1984.

    Useful overview of biblical law.

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

    Overview of biblical law, with excellent bibliographies for each chapter.

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