Biblical Studies Ancient Near Eastern Law
Pamela Barmash
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0295


Law played a major role in the cultures of the ancient Near East. Law from Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) is evidenced in collections of formal law, records from historical cases, and decrees of social equity. The law of the Hittite Empire is also recorded in a collection of formal law, the Hittite Laws, and in legal records. By contrast, not much evidence remains of the law of ancient Egypt, and only a few documents relating to law survive. A developing system of international law is reflected in treaties and diplomatic texts. Mesopotamian law influenced rabbinic law and may have shaped ancient Greek and Roman law.

Reference Works

There is a small number of general reference works with useful entries on ancient Near Eastern law, as well as specialty reference works. Westbrook 2003 has chapters organized in a set structure for each legal culture examined, making it useful for comparison. Barmash 2019 and Strawn, et al. 2015 have entries that address the ancient Near Eastern contest of issue in biblical law.

Mesopotamian Law: General Overviews and Textbooks

Boecker 1980 and Greengus 1995 are useful introductions for undergraduates and educated adults. Boecker 1980 gives a somewhat dated overview of general legal issues and then offers summarizing chapters on Mesopotamian and biblical law collections. Greengus 1995 offers a more concise but briefer survey. Wilcke 2007 offers a survey of third millennium law. Van de Mieroop 2016 situates Mesopotamian in the broader context of Mesopotamian intellectual endeavors.

Mesopotamian Law: Anthologies and Text Editions

Roth 1997 and Borger 1982 offer translations of law collections. (See sections on individual law collections.) Hallo 1997 has a wide set of material, both formal law collections and legal records. Hoffner 1997, Driver and Miles 1952–1955, Mattha and Hughes 1975 (cited under Egyptian Law: Texts) and Yaron 1988 offer excellent studies of specific texts. Archives Royales de Mari provides texts from actual disputes. See separate sections for entries on the Laws of Ur-Namma, Laws of Lipit-Ishtar, Laws of Eshnunna, Laws of Hammurabi (Code of Hammurabi), Middle Assyrian Laws, and Neo-Babylonian Laws.

Mesopotamian Law: Comparative Studies

Sasson 1995 offers an orientation to the culture and history of the ancient Near East and has a number of clearly written essays dealing with law. Malul 1990 addresses the benefits and perils of the comparative method. Sasson 1977 focuses on one major issue, while Finkelstein 1981 focuses on a single type of offense to illuminate how law reflects its cultural context. Barmash 2005 offers a comparative analysis of the treatment of homicide. Magdalene 2011 analyzes the contributions of one of the outstanding comparative scholars. Jackson offers a wide-ranging discussion of the varying modes of influence, while Morrow focuses on the relationship between Mesopotamian and biblical law and how the latter could be influenced by the former. Wright 2009 provides a highly contested argument for the direct influence of the Laws of Hammurabi upon the biblical Book of the Covenant.

Mesopotamian Law: Women and Law

A topic of perennial interest is the status of women in Mesopotamian law. Lafont 1999 and Lion and Michel 2016 offer a wide-ranging analysis of the many areas of law with which women interacted. Matthews, et al. 1998 contains many focused studies on women and law. Of special interest is the naditu, a woman from an upper-class household forbidden to have children yet able to operate without a male guardian: Harris 1964 is updated in Stone 1982. Macgregor 2012 focuses on the changed status of women in first millennium BCE Assyria, while Svärd 2015 highlights upper-class women. Among Roth’s many insightful studies is Roth 1998.

  • Harris, Rivkah. “The Nadītu Woman.” In Studies Presented to A. Leo Oppenheim, June 7, 1964 [from the Workshop of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary]. Edited by Robert D. Biggs, 106–135. Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 1964.

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    Classic essay on the naditu.

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  • Lafont, Sophie. Femmes, droit et justice dans l’antiqué orientale: Contribution à l’étude du droit penal au Proche-Orient ancient. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999.

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    Examination of the full range of legal issues regarding women.

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  • Lion, Brigitte, and Cécile Michel, eds. The Role of Women in Work and Society in the Ancient Near East. Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records. Boston: De Gruyter, 2016.

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    Collection of essays dealing with a full range of legal and societal issues.

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  • Macgregor, Sherry Lou. Beyond Hearth and Home: Women in the Public Sphere in Neo-Assyrian Society. Publications of the Foundation for Finnish Assyriological Research 21. Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project and the Foundation for Finnish Assyriological Research, 2012.

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    Volume focused on the varied aspects of women in the Neo-Assyrian period, when they are usually assumed to be more subordinate than in previous eras.

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  • Matthews, Victor H., Bernard M. Levinson, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, eds. Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 262. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

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    Collection of essays on a wide range of topics regarding women and law, some focusing on Mesopotamian law.

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  • Roth, Martha T. “Gender and Law: A Case Study from Ancient Mesopotamia.” In Gender and Law in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Edited by Victor H. Matthews, Bernard M. Levinson, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, 173–184. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 262. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

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    Highlights assumptions made about women’s roles through an analysis of the Nippur Murder Trial.

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  • Stone, Elizabeth C. “The Social Role of the Naditu Women in Old Babylonian Nippur.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 25 (1982): 50–70.

    DOI: 10.1163/156852082X00076Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Study of the changes in the scope of activities of the naditu women.

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  • Svärd, Saana. Women and Power in Neo-Assyrian Palaces. State Archives of Assyria Studies 23. Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2015.

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    Volume focuses on high-social-class women during the Neo-Assyrian periods, who experienced a different set of disabilities and privileges than other women.

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Mesopotamian Law: Marriage and Family Law

A subset of the topic of women and law is the issue of marriage. Levine 1969, Levine 2002, Roth 1989, and Westbrook 1988 are classic studies of marriage. Abraham 2005–2006 analyzes newly published texts about Western exiles in the Neo-Assyrian period. Wunsch 2003 presents a wide array of marriage law. Ben-Barak 1980 revisits the issue of whether there are instances of inheritance by daughters. Stol and Vleeming 1998 address how the elderly were taken care of, including adoption of adults as caretakers. Garroway 2014 deals with a wide range of legal issues regarding children.

Mesopotamian Law: Slavery

Chirichigno 1993 provides an overview of slavery across the cultures of the ancient Near East. Dandamaev 1984 and Reiner 2004 provide illuminating analyses of slavery outside of the biblical world. Callender 1998 explains how theology influenced social institutions and the distinct forms of slavery. Westbrook and Jasnow 2001 addresses the issue of debt: if a debtor defaulted, the debtor and the debtor’s family could be enslaved. Hurowitz 1992 presents a study of the mutilation of slaves as punishment. Interlinked with slavery is debt, since many, if not most, slaves sold themselves into slavery because of debt. Testart 2002 studies how often debt slavery occurred. Westbrook and Jasnow 2001 analyzes how enslavement resulted from debt.

Mesopotamian Law: Judicial Procedure

The wealth of legal records allows for the reconstruction of the features of Mesopotamian adjudication. Cancik-Kirschbaum 2013 analyzes how disputants were forced into court. Cuthbertson 2016 highlights the features of local courts in partial contrast to royal courts. Holtz 2009 and Hertel 2013 show features of adjudication in a single period of Mesopotamian history. Kleber and Frahm 2006 address a prison escape, and Levavi 2017 also discusses the use of detention. Jacobsen 1959 studies the classic court case of a women accused of collaborating in her husband’s murder. Yoffee 2000 studies dispute resolution. Radner highlights the relationship of judges to the larger society. Leemans 1968 studies Hammurabi’s letters to see how he decided whether to adjudicate a dispute himself.

Social Justice and Decrees of Social Equity

Mesopotamian kings issued decrees of social equity from time to time. Kraus 1958 provides the classic edition of the Old Babylonian decrees. Barmash 2015 offers an overview of decrees of social equity and why they were promulgated. Foster 1995 argues that Mesopotamian social reform was substantially different from what moderns might assume. Yaron 1993 offers the perspective of a law professor and comparativist. Weinfeld 1995 provides a comparative analysis. Olivier 1984 shows how those making contracts tried to circumvent decrees of social equity that would cancel debts. Veenhof 1997 argues that there were two types of decrees of social equity. Hruška 1973 and Hruška 1974 offer an in-depth analysis of the most famous of the decrees of social equity. Kramer 1989 analyzes reforms mentioned in royal hymns.

Laws of Ur-Namma

The Laws of Ur-Namma (name formerly rendered as Ur-Nammu) is the first example of a Mesopotamian law collection. Civil 2011 and Wilcke 2002 incorporate new texts and new viewpoints of the Laws of Ur-Namma. Kramer 1983 discusses whether Ur-Namma or his son Shulgi is the royal promulgator of the Laws of Ur-Namma. Flückiger-Hawker 1999 situates the laws in the continuum of the traditions about Ur-Namma.

Laws of Lipit-Ishtar

The latest example of a Mesopotamian law collection in Sumerian. Steele 1949 is the initial publication of the Laws of Lipit-Ishtar.

Laws of Eshnunna

Yaron 1988 is the classic edition of the Laws of Eshnunna. Petschow 1968 and Eichler 1987 analyze how the scribe formulated the statutes. Otto 1989 compares the Laws of Eshnunna to the biblical Book of the Covenant.

Laws of Hammurabi (Code of Hammurabi)

The most famous of the Mesopotamian law collections, both in antiquity and in modern times. Initial publication by the excavator is Scheil 1904. André-Salvini 2003 provides an introduction. Barmash 2020 offers a new analysis of the Laws of Hammurabi as reflecting the norms of royal tradition and surpassing the usual features of scribal tradition. Driver and Miles 1952 and Driver and Miles 1955 are still very useful commentaries. Hurowitz 1994 is a groundbreaking study of the “prologue” and “epilogue.” Kraus 1960 and Renger 1994 discuss how the Laws of Hammurabi figured in Mesopotamian culture. Roth 2002 and Roth 2013 provide two brilliant analyses of features of the Laws of Hammurabi. Sassoon 2005 offers an insightful, offbeat analysis.

Middle Assyrian Laws

The Middle Assyrian Laws differs from the other Mesopotamian law collection is that it appears to be a private document of law collected for personal use by a legal expert. Cardascia 1969 provides a translation and analysis in French. The older edition of Driver and Miles 1935 is still worthwhile for the in-depth analysis. Westbrook 2003 studies the types of evidence.

Neo-Babylonian Laws

The Neo-Babylonian Laws, a law collection, appears to be a revival of older Mesopotamian tradition. Holtz 2014 presents a wide array of Neo-Babylonian legal texts. Wells, et al. 2010 studies oath-taking in Neo-Babylonia texts beyond the law collection. Wells 2008 does a comparative analysis of evidence.

Model Contracts

The study of model contracts and court cases in scribal education has become an area of scholarly interest in recent years. Bodine 2014 presents Sumerian model contracts, while Klein and Sharlach 2007, Spada 2011 and Spada 2014 present somewhat later model contracts and court cases from the Old Babylonian period.

Hittite Law: General Overviews

Hittite law was influenced by Mesopotamian law and may have served as the conduit by which Mesopotamian law reached Greece and Rome. Güterbock 1954 presents a classic exposition on Hittite law, and Korošec 1963 provides an in-depth analysis of the historical factors that influenced Hittite law. Hoffner 1995 and Haase 2003 offer updated analyses. Hoffner 1973 addresses sexual offenses. Devecchi 2013 focuses on whether high level officials had to have their cases adjudicated before the king.

Hittite Law: Texts

Hoffner 1997a and Hoffner 1997b offer a critical edition of the Hittite Laws, with extended notes in Hoffner 1997b. Neufeld 1951 is the classic edition of the Hittite Laws. Haase 1984 offers an anthology of Hittite law, and Hagenbuchner 1989 includes letters dealing with legal disputes. The Edict of Telepinus contains rules for the royal family, discussed in Hoffmann 1984 and van den Hout 1997. Beckman 1996 presents treaties.

Egyptian Law: General Overview

Ancient Egyptian law is in contrast to Mesopotamian law. Jasnow 2003 and Kruchten 2001 offer an excellent introduction to Egyptian law. VerSteeg 2002 is an introduction aimed at law students from the perspective of a law professor in an American law school. Lorton 1977 focuses on criminals and how they are identified, tried, and punished. Of special interest is the role of the monarchy and communal officials in the legal arena, the topic of Wilson 1954. Johnson 1996 analyzes the status of women in Egyptian law. Morschauser 1995 focuses on issue of social inequity.

Egyptian Law: Texts

Because of the nature of the materials on which ancient Egyptians wrote legal records, very little has survived the millennia. Capart, et al. 1936 presents the records of an investigation in tomb robberies, including the use of torture to extract testimony. Gardiner 1905 analyzes a century-long dispute over property. Gardiner 1941, Eyre 1992, and Allam 1993 discuss a fascinating fictitious adoption. Černý 1929 presents a text about disputes over theft. Mattha and Hughes 1975 is an edition of the Hellenistic era law collection.

International Law and Treaties

The beginnings of an international system of relationships can be seen in treaties. McCarthy 1981 is a classic analysis of texts and history. Cohen and Westbrook 2000 and Podany 2010 offer updated analyses, and Kitchen and Lawrence 2012 contains a full range of texts, including law collections, treaties, and other works.

Legacy of Mesopotamian Law

Dalley and Reyes 1998a and Dalley and Reyes 1998b focus on the Greek heritage derived from Mesopotamia. Horowitz, et al. 2012 and Vukosavović 2014 discuss a recent archaeological find that may give evidence for how widespread the influence of Mesopotamian legal culture was. Certain rabbinic legal institutions (Levine 1968, Oppenheim 1955) and strategies of interpretation (Lieberman 1987) seem to have been borrowed directly from Mesopotamian sources, bypassing biblical law. Greengus 2011 is a wide-ranging analysis of the influence of Mesopotamia that will set the discussion for the next decades. Weinfeld 1990 and Weinfeld 1973 explore parallels in covenants.

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