EPS Article Library
Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? - Page 4
3. Contrasting the moral improvements of the Mosaic Law to ANE law codes.
Certain collections of cuneiform law exist. These include the laws of Ur-Nammu (ca. 2100 BC, during the Third Dynasty of Ur); the laws of Lipit-Ishtar (ca. 1925 BC), who ruled the Sumerian city of Isin; the (Akkadian) laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1800 BC), a city one hundred miles north of Babylon; the laws of Hammurabi (1750 BC); and the Hittite laws (1650-1200 BC) of Asia Minor.
There are certainly many parallels and overlapping themes within the Mosaic law and various ANE law codes. These include legislation regarding perjury and false witnesses (cp. Deut. 19:16-21), death penalty for murder (cp. Exod. 21:12), a husband's payment for false accusation of adultery (cp. Deut. 22:13-19), payment for injury to an ox while renting it (cp. Exod. 22:14-15), and so forth. One of the laws of Eshnunna (?53) is nearly identical to Exodus 21:35: "If an ox gores an(other) ox causing its death, both ox owners shall divide the price of the live ox and also the meat of the dead ox."
Such similarities should not be surprising. For instance, we observe that the book of Proverbs utilizes and adapts various sayings and maxims from the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. Another example of strong ANE influence is the structure of Deuteronomy as a covenant treaty between Yahweh and Israel; this is patterned after second-millennium BC Hittite suzerainty treaties-with preamble, prologue, stipulations, blessings-curses, and witnesses. Deuteronomy is markedly different in certain respects, though: Yahweh is described as a loving, gracious initiative-taking God, not a mere suzerain; also, Yahweh is not the chief beneficiary of this covenant (cp. Deut. 30:19-20). In all of these examples, no one is denying ANE cultural influence in the Mosaic Law, but we have no wholesale adoption either.
How then does the Mosaic Law differ from ANE legal texts? We can observe general disparities between cuneiform laws versus biblical laws: (1) secular laws versus religious cultic-ceremonial ones; (2) laws made by kings (not gods) versus laws from God mediated through Moses; (3) laws to glorify kings versus laws to glorify God and to instruct (torah = "instruction") people and shape a national character; (4) laws reflecting king's unlimited authority versus laws limiting the king's authority (for example, Deut. 17:14-20); (5) property crimes punishable by death if a thief cannot pay (up to thirty-fold) versus property crimes not being capital offenses but limited to five-fold restitution or indentured servitude (not death) for those who cannot pay; (6) offenses against slaves as on the same level as property crimes (for example, oxen) versus offenses against slaves as persons of value; (7) religious sins not typically capital offenses versus a number of religious sins as capital offenses-idolatry (Deut. 13:6-9), false prophecy (Deut. 18:20), sorcery (Lev. 20:27), blasphemy (Lev. 24:10-23), Sabbath violations (Num. 15:32-6). We could also add that Israelite law is far more concerned about "the sanctity of life" than Mesopotamian law. Because of Yahweh's covenant with Israel, laws intending to preserve both the family unit and Yahweh's unique covenant/marriage relationship to Israel were paramount. Thus their violation was a serious matter that would undermine Israel's very identity.
What specific improvements could we highlight? Regarding slavery, Christopher Wright declares: "The slave [in Israel] was given human and legal rights unheard of in contemporary societies." Mosaic legislation offered a radical advance for ANE cultures. According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, "We have in the Bible the first appeals in world literature to treat slaves as human beings for their own sake and not just in the interests of their masters." Kidnapping a person to sell as a slave was punishable by death: "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death" (Exod. 21:16; see also 1 Tim. 1:10). This biblical prohibition presents a marked repudiation of the kidnapping of Africans that ushered in the era of more recent Western slavery. Yet the new atheists seem given to blur any such distinctions. While other ANE cultures may too have prohibited kidnapping, the Mosaic Law stands out in sharp moral contrast to their standard extradition treaties for, and harsh treatment of, runaway slaves. Hammurabi called for the death penalty to those helping runaway slaves [?16]). Israel, however, was to offer safe harbor to foreign runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16).
Indeed, Hebrew slaves were to be granted release in the seventh year (Lev. 29:35-43)-a notable improvement over other ANE law codes. Furthermore, masters had to release them from service with generous provisions, all conducted with the right attitude for the slave's well-being as he enters into freedom: "Beware that there is no base thought in your heart . . . and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother" (Deut. 15:9). The motivating reason for all of this is the fact "that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today" (Deut. 15:12-18, esp. v. 15). The overriding goal in Deuteronomy 15 is that there be no slavery in the land at all (vv. 4, 11). Gordon McConville calls this "revolutionary."
Another marked improvement is in the release of injured slaves themselves (Exod. 21:20-1). This is in contrast to their masters merely being compensated, which is typical in the ANE codes. Elsewhere in the OT, Job recognizes that he and his slaves have the same Maker and come from the same place-their mother's womb (Job. 31:15). Later in Amos (2:6; 8:6), slavery is again repudiated. Thus, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris notwithstanding, such improvements-or pointers back to Genesis 1:26-27-can hardly be called "a warrant for trafficking in humans" or treating them "like farm equipment."
We can mention the inferior sexual morality of the ANE. We are familiar with the Canaanite qedeshot-the female and male cult prostitutes (cp. Gen. 38:15, 22-3; Deut. 23:18-19; also Hos. 4:14). A number of ANE cuneiform laws permitted activities that undermined the family's integrity and stability by allowing men, for instance, to engage in adulterous relations with slaves and prostitutes. The laws of Lipit-Ishtar of Lower Mesopotamia (1930 BC) take for granted the practice of prostitution (for example, ¶¶27, 30). In Hittite law (1650-1500 BC), "If a father and son sleep with the same female slave or prostitute, it is not an offence" (¶194). Hittite law even permitted bestiality: "If a man has sexual relations with either a horse or a mule, it is not an offence" (¶200a).
Not only do we find morally-inferior cuneiform legislation, but its attendant harsh, ruthless punishments. Commenting on the brutal and harsh Code of Hammurabi, historian Paul Johnson observes: "These dreadful laws are notable for the ferocity of their physical punishments, in contrast to the restraint of the Mosaic Code and the enactments of Deuteronomy and Leviticus." For instance, Hammurabi's code stresses the centrality of property whereas the laws in the "Book of the Covenant" (Exod. 21-23) consider crimes against persons to be far more weighty.
For certain crimes, Hammurabi mandated that tongue, breast, hand, or ear be cut off (??192, 194, 195, 205). One punishment involved the accused's being dragged around a field by cattle. Babylon and Assyria (as well as Sumer) practiced the River Ordeal: when criminal evidence was inconclusive, the accused would be thrown into the river; if he drowned, he was guilty (the river god's judgment), but if he survived, he was innocent and the accuser was guilty of false accusation. Besides punishments such as cutting off noses and ears, ancient Egyptian law permitted the beating of criminals (for, say, perjury or libel) with between one hundred and two hundred strokes. In fact, a one-hundred-stroke beating was the "mildest form of punishment." Contrast this with Deuteronomy 25:1-3, which sets a limit of forty strokes for a criminal: "He may beat him forty times but no more, so that he does not beat him with many more stripes than these." The reason? So that "your brother is not degraded in your eyes." Furthermore, in Babylonian or Hittite law, status or social rank determined the kind of sanctions for a particular crime whereas biblical law holds kings and priests and those of social rank to the same standards as the common person. The informed inhabitant of the ANE would have thought, "Quick, get me to Israel!"
Our interlocutor might ask: What about Scripture's emphasis on lex talionis-an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Is this not a brutal retribution? First, an investigation of the Pentateuch's lex talionis texts (Exod. 21:23-5; Lev. 24:17-22; Deut. 19:16-21) reveals that, except for capital punishment ("life for life"), these are not taken literally. None of the examples illustrating "an eye for an eye" calls for bodily mutilation, but rather just (monetary) compensation. Brevard Childs comments on the uniqueness of this approach: "Thus the principle of lex talionis marked an important advance and was far from being a vestige from a primitive age." Second, this principle served as useful guide for exacting proportional punishment and compensation; this was designed to prevent blood feuds and disproportionate acts of retaliation.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10