origins of israelite lawAs usual, I’d like to give a summary and an evaluation of a scholarly work, in this case: The Origins of Israelite Law. Since this is an Old Testament work, I will speak as one who has engaged the professional literature, rather than a novice – as is my usual practice.

Summary of The Origins of Israelite Law

This article is part of a collection of essays titled Essays on Old Testament History and Religion. In this essay, Alt proposes that there are different codes of law in the Hexateuch, which are of different times and origins. He holds that the “Deuteronomic History” is a product of the 7th century BC. He also suggests that when Ezra was charged by Darius to present a law code, that this moment was when the law codes took their final shape in the Hexatuech. It was a major revision to the work, and a reworking of the law codes.

In describing types of laws, Alt begins with Casuistic Laws. He notes that these laws were fixed to decide precise legal situations. He suggests that they were international in character, in part because sometimes the word “Hebrew” is used instead of Israelite – a possible sign of connection with ‘Apiru. He also maintains that there was an advanced civilization in Palestine ca. 2000BC called by the Egyptians the Hyksos. This group must have had an advanced law code, which was maintained by the Canaanites, and incorporated by the Israelites. Additionally, similarities with Babylonian and Assyrian law are to be thought of as natural outgrowths of trade and international politics. He ends this section with an obscure parallel between the “minor judge” lists in the book of Judges and a list of Icelandic “judges” from 1000AD. He suggests that both stem from a sort of primal way of describing/listing these sorts of legal rulers.

Then he moves to describe Apodictic Law. This sort of law has a certain meter in some instances, is not conditional, and is often spiritual. These laws include the Decalogue, and also some which begin with a formula “cursed is he who…”. These sorts of laws are thought to have originated with Israel, in the desert according to Alt. He contends that Israel built these sorts of laws themselves, and then added the Canaanite Casuistic Laws to fill in the gaps.

Evaluation of The Origins of Israelite Law

Alt works from a very different set of views than I do. First, he assumes that one should speak of a “Hexateuch” rather than a “Pentateuch” as I do. The implication is that the final work (in his case the Hexateuch) is mostly the work of an editor, rather than an author as I hold. (I agree mostly with Sailhamer on these issues – see that discussion). Obviously those differences would play out in the way one views the authority of Scripture.

His view is also that the “Hexateuch” contains law codes or sections of law codes to prescribe conduct for the community. On the other hand, I agree with Sailhamer that the instances in the OT Pentateuch where law is presented represent the rules of the “religion” that were doomed from the get go. Every time a law or section of laws is presented, it is immediately followed by an instance of disobedience. There is a pattern that is intended by the author to show that humanity cannot attain righteousness by the use of a law code, or rule following. So, Alt and I are at odds on how the OT agrees or disagrees with the NT. I think that the two present a unified comment on the condition of man. That position is that laws and rules will never make humanity righteous, but a right relationship with God comes by faith – a faith which the NT shows is rooted in the person and work of Christ, the one who can change the hearts of humanity as Jeremiah pointed out.

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