Old Testament Law

Written by Dale Patrick Reviewed By David G. Deboys

This clearly written book aims to ‘survey the legal texts of the Pentateuch and familiarize the reader with basic concepts and theories of current scholarship into biblical law’. It may be said at once that the author succeeds admirably in attaining these objectives.

Patrick first of all deals helpfully with definitions of Law, before moving on to consider ‘How Law is Studied by Critical Scholars’. His lucid sketch of source criticism (pp. 14–19) highlights the pivotal role of Deuteronomy in current hypotheses. Patrick’s own contribution is made in the context of the standard source-critical framework. Interestingly, at no point in the discussion of source criticism or in the bibliography at the end of the chapter is any indication given that there might be any uncertainty in applying the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis to the composition of the Pentateuch. Nor is any warning given on p. 14 of possible difficulties in the application of ANE material as ‘aids’ to interpretation of the biblical texts.

The second chapter also deals with form criticism, the types of legal corpora, and the categories of apodictic and casuistic law. Patrick offers clear discussion (though ‘series’ and ‘codes’ which he began to use on p. 8 are not defined until p. 20), and on p. 24 provides a useful diagram of the categories he is going to work with. He modifies apodictic law into ‘addressed commandments’ and ‘capital crimes’ and casuistic law into ‘casuistic primary law’ and ‘casuistic remedial law’.

The bulk of the following chapters are devoted to expounding certain major tracts of OT Law: chapter 3 ‘the Ten Commandments’, 4 ‘The Book of the Covenant’, 5 ‘The Deuteronomic Law’, 6 ‘The Holiness Code and Priestly Law’. Chapter 7 changes course to deal with ‘The Written and Unwritten Law’. Here Patrick argues forcefully for the view that ‘for the period during which the legal tradition was in formation, the law of God was an unwritten Law’ (p. 189). ‘The law which the judicial system enforced was an unwritten law woven into the fabric of society and discovered in the course of judicial deliberation’ (p. 198). Chapter 8 deals with ‘Law and Covenant’.

The concluding chapter attempts to address the question ‘what is the meaning of this law for the twentieth-century reader?’ (p. 249). Patrick notes perceptively that ‘the legal texts of ancient Israel were preserved and edited for the religious community that arose from the ashes of national destruction. The Bible in its present form, thus, was not intended to be used as evidence from the ancient past but was intended to be the living word of the living God for the living people of God (Judaism). The law contained in the Bible is meant to become an address to the members of that community and can be an address to the people which claims to be the “new Israel” (Christianity)’ (p. 250). Not all his suggestions for appropriating the message of the law will commend themselves and the readers of this journal may find more help on this point in G. J. Wenham’s two essays (‘Grace and law in the Old Testament’; ‘Law and the legal system in the Old Testament’) in B. N. Kaye and G. J. Wenham (edd.) Law, Morality and the Bible (Leicester: IVP, 1978).

It is beyond the scope of this review to discuss in detail many of the exegetical issues raised by Patrick’s study. Something of his approach may be seen in the way he handles ‘The Deuteronomic Law’. Here Patrick attempts to combine von Rad’s hypothesis that Deuteronomy’s origins are to be sought among the rural Levites with the alternative hypothesis that the book is a product of the northern tribes. Although he interacts briefly (and negatively) with Weinfeld—who holds that Deuteronomy reflects the ‘Assyrian state treaty form’—Patrick never interacts with those who believe Deuteronomy to reflect the earlier 2nd millennium state-treaties, and this despite listing two such scholars (Kline and McCarthy) in his bibliography! Having conceded that there are parallels between ‘D’s condemnation of incitement to apostasy’ in Deuteronomy 13 and ‘provisions of Hittite and Assyrian treaties’, Patrick then adds ‘the interpreter should not overextend the analogy between treaty and covenant, however’ (p. 107). Why not? Because it might provide real, as opposed to hypothetical, grounds for dating Deuteronomy, and that to the second millennium bc?

Patrick frequently asserts the Utopian character of Deuteronomy’s legislation. With regard to the provision in Deuteronomy 13:13–18 that the community should put an Israelite city under the ban Patrick writes, ‘Although the author undoubtedly composed these paragraphs in all seriousness, they have the ring of Utopian theory. That Israelites would be willing to inform on family or friends or destroy a whole city is doubtful. No biblical narratives evidence such willingness’ (p. 108). It might be suggested, au contraire, that Jdg. 20, which recounts the sequel to the rape of the Levite’s concubine by the Benjaminites of Gibeah, does in fact evidence what Patrick denies. For in Jdg. 20 the ‘whole’ of Israel goes out against the tribe of Benjamin, and at enormous cost (Jdg. 20:21, 25). And it is noteworthy that in both Dt. 13 and Jdg. 20 those who are to be removed from Israel are described as ‘sons of Belial’.

Patrick rather ends up in a blind alley over Dt. 17:14–20 on kingship because of his late dating. He contends that the account depends particularly on 1 Sa. 8, but he goes on, ‘It is noteworthy that D ignores those traditions in 1 Sa. 7–12 which depict the monarchy as instituted by God to deliver Israel from its enemies. D also ignores the theology that elevated the Davidic dynasty to a sacred status.… Clearly, the Deuteronomist is not an apologist for the Davidic monarchy and exponent of Judean tradition: he speaks, rather, for the theocratic-democratic north’ (p. 119). But if Dt. 17 predates the Davidic dynasty, of course 1 Sa. 7–12 is ‘ignored’ and the alternatives presented by Patrick are in that case both anachronistic.

Or again, Patrick’s mystification as to why Dt. 25:17–19 should contain ‘a command to exterminate the Amalekites’ when it ‘comes from the centuries following the disappearance of these desert marauders’ (p. 139) is set in a different context entirely if Dt. in fact comes from a time when the Amalekites were indeed alive and well.

Taken as a whole, however, this is a readable exposition of OT Law from the standpoint of critical orthodoxy which actually goes beyond mere description and attempts to salvage the Law for the contemporary Christian. The publishers are correct in their claim that ‘there is no other book available quite like this’. It requires discerning reading—which it will repay.

David G. Deboys