Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient East

Written by H. J. Boecker Reviewed By Christopher J.H. Wright

With so many scholars trying to think up new approaches to old problems in the field of pentateuchal law codes, it is a relief to read a book which is not yet another original theory to tax one’s credulity. The author provides a readable introductory survey of the legal system of Old Testment Israel against the background of comparative ancient Near Eastern legal texts. The publisher’s blurb is, for once, fairly accurate when it says the book will be of ‘value to students and teachers of Old Testament and legal history’.

Boecker is well aware of the dangers of simplistic comparisons which obscure the cultural uniqueness of any one society’s legal ethos and practice. So his method is to present selections of the texts themselves with analysis and comment and to avoid heavy systematic theorizing. However, in order to keep the book to a reasonable size he has excluded reference to Egyptian and Hittite law and concentrated on Mesopotamian law codes, and, within that field, only on the Code of Hammurabi in any detail. So the title’s reference to the ‘Ancient East’ is misleadingly broad. ‘Mesopotamia’ would have been more accurate.

The first two chapters describe the social background to the law—namely the way justice was conceived and administered in the ancient East and in Old Testament Israel. The chapter on Israel is a good survey of the available evidence and emphasizes the familial structure of Israelite legal life, as well as the centrality of the local legal assembly in the village ‘gate’, with its fluid informality and ‘democratic’ nature. It also rightly stresses that the purpose of Israelite local courts was not ‘to satisfy an abstract concept of justice’, but rather to achieve reconciliation by settling disputes between members of the community. The same chapter discusses the later role of the king in judicial affairs.

After a short chapter on the Mesopotamian law codes that preceded Hammurabi, the fourth and longest chapter is devoted to the Code of Hammurabi. The needs of the newcomer to the subject are met by a helpful sketch of the social situation in Babylon at the time and of the career and achievements of King Hammurabi himself. Then we are taken on a guided tour of different topics covered in the code, with side glances at interesting comparisons with Old Testament law. Inserted into the chapter at relevant points are three sizeable excursi on Old Testament laws concerning real estate, marriage, and inheritance and adoption. When the necessary selectivity is allowed for, the over-all coverage is adequate and the reader acquires a broad familiarity with the contents and characteristics of the code and is made aware of the significant differences between it and the Old Testament.

I was particularly pleased to see the good treatment of Old Testament land law and theology—especially the view that the jubilee regulations were not just a late fiction but reflected real customs. Also to be applauded is the dismissal of the hoary view that marriage was by simple purchase, either in Babylon or Israel. The idea that the exchange of bridal gifts at a marriage reduced the wife to a piece of purchased chattel property has long been exploded by anthropological and legal historical research, but it still keeps cropping up in popular books on the Old Testament, and it is refreshing to find Boecker emphatically arguing the proper perspective on the matter (pp. 101ff.).

On the debit side, it seems to me that Boecker avoids the real force of the law on granting asylum to runaway slaves in Deuteronomy 23:15f. when he argues that it could have applied only to foreign slaves escaping to Israel. The law does not make that circumstance explicit at all. I think we must accept the revolutionary uniqueness of this edict (it is totally unparalleled in any other code) as intentionally undermining in principle the whole institution of slavery. The law seems to assume however, that runaway slaves would be exceptional, which in turn suggests that slavery in Israel was not so excessively harsh as to give rise to spates of runaways.

The next chapter works steadily through the Book of the Covenant. The exegetical sections are more satisfying than the handling of the literary critical and historical questions. There is some confusion over the alleged ‘nomadic origins’ of Israel, which recent scholarship has shown to be erroneous. Because the Book of the Covenant has no apparent ‘nomadic ethos’ it is dated in the post-settlement, pre-monarchic days. But because ‘no one person had such authority in Israel at the time in question that he could have drawn up and promulgated a law collection like this one’, the code is said to have arisen within a ‘circle’—something which seems highly unlikely in comparison with other ancient Near Eastern codes. Boecker refers to this absence of individual authorship as one of the ‘remarkable peculiarities’ of the Old Testament codes (p. 143), but in fact it is a peculiarity created by the critics’ dogmatic exclusion of the possibility of Moses as a figure of sufficient authority to promulgate such a code and the literary severance of the code from the Sinai tradition in which it is set.

However, the detailed comment is readable, informative and mostly unexceptionable. The account of the slave laws is particularly good: the ‘Hebrew/habiru’ link and its sociological significance is explained as is the implications of the unique laws on bodily injury or murder done to a slave by his own master (Ex. 21:20f., 26f.). In the latter case, ‘we are faced with the astonishing fact that in this case the life of a slave is placed on a par with that of a free Israelite’ (p. 162). Indeed so, but unfortunately the other implication of these laws is not noticed, namely that they appear to assume that a slave could be a plaintiff in the legal assembly, even against his own master. This is usually ruled out a priori by commentators (cf. Boecker himself on p. 32), but Job 31:13 implies it, and how else could these casuistic laws (for that is what they are, not just charitable exhortations) have been applied and enforced if slaves were not allowed to bring a case or give evidence?

One wonders if the book had to be curtailed in length, for both Deuteronomy and the so-called Law of Holiness are squeezed into one short chapter and neither is discussed really adequately. Again, the literary and historical positions are those of prevailing ‘critical orthodoxy’, though it is rightly pointed out in the case of ‘H’ that the legal material in it is very much older than the alleged date of its collection into a code. This means that the literary critical dating of the documents should never be used as a guide to the sociological dating of the origin of a law or the practice it describes. Sadly there is no detailed discussion of the crucial chapters in ‘H’, especially Leviticus 19 and 25.

The last chapter is an outline of Alt’s theory on ‘apodeictic’ law and the developments and modifications in this theory in subsequent scholarship. It is a helpful introductory orientation for the newcomer, but does not advance the arguments any further. Unfortunately there is no discussion of the Decalogue, and the book ends a bit lamely with no concluding section or chapter.

The bibliography is admirable. Not only is there a list of some 200 titles at the end, but each section and subsection has relevant bibliography listed on the spot most helpfully. For such bibliographical help alone I would have found the book very useful in my early days as a research student in the field of Old Testament law.


Christopher J.H. Wright

Principal, All Nations Christian College, Ware