Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

law. In the O.T., instruction, from a Hebrew word meaning "to teach." Deut. 4:8, Josh. 1:7; Ezra 7:10; Isa. 5:24; Jer. 31:33. Many judgments and decisions were made on the basis of the ten commandments, which were the heart of the law. Collections of these and of regulations for worship in the O.T. books came to be called generally "the law." This is the N.T. meaning of the word.

law of Moses. In the N.T., the first five books of the O.T. and the collections of laws in them. Matt. 22:23-24; Luke 2:22; John 7:19; Rom. 2:17; Gal. 2:16: 3:24.

the law and the prophets. In the N.T., the books of the O.T. that were accepted at that time by Jewish authorities as scriptures. Matt. 11:13; Luke 16:6; Acts 13:15.


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

law, a system of commands designed to allow a society to function. Judaism divides the Bible into the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, ‘Law’ reflecting the Greek understanding of the Hebrew word torah (here used with reference to the Pentateuch) as law (Gk. nomos). But torah is more properly translated ‘instruction,’ and the content of the Pentateuch differs significantly from ‘law’ as we usually understand it. There is little evidence that biblical Law was the law applied by the courts before the Babylonian exile. ‘Law’ was not yet identified with the idea of a statutory text. Even in Babylonia, where we have considerable evidence of court practice, the ‘Codes’ (the Laws of Hammurabi, and earlier the Codes of Ur Nammu, Lipit Ishtar, and Eshnunna) are never quoted in the judicial records. Rather, they are royal statements of ideal justice.

A similar pattern is evidenced from the Bible. When courts are instituted, they are charged simply to apply justice and avoid corruption (Deut. 16:18-20); in cases of difficulty they are to resort to higher authority (Deut. 17:8-13). Jehoshaphat’s reform charges the judges in similar fashion (2 Chron. 19:5-11). Quite separately, Jehoshaphat sent officers to teach from ‘the book of the law of the Lord’ in the cities of Judah (2 Chron. 17:17-19)—a practice also found in Assyrian sources. The particular association of the book of the law (Heb. sefer torah) with the king, and with didactic rather than judicial functions, is found also in Deut. 17:18-20. The actual administration of justice was largely conducted by city elders sitting at the city gate, on the basis of customary rules tempered by occasional royal ordinance and determined in cases of difficulty by recourse to oracular procedures conducted in local shrines. With the centralization of the worship of God such difficult cases were transferred to Jerusalem.

The Role of the King: The role of the king in law is much disputed. Some scholars deny him any genuine legislative role. But the legal powers he claims are characteristic of kings in states where central authority is only beginning to consolidate: he could require conscription; establish military, judicial, and administrative structures; commandeer labor for his estates, the production of munitions, and the servicing of his household; and confiscate land and levy taxation (1 Sam. 8:11-17). In the last days of the kingdom of Judah, King Zedekiah (597-586 b.c.) is said to have enforced an economic reform to relieve debt-slavery (Jer. 34); but there are grounds to believe that the motivation was more concerned with recruitment into the army than the regulation of purely private law matters. Such practical ordinances as these, unlike the torah whose teaching the king sponsored, were not designed to establish rules that would continue in force unless repealed. Nevertheless, there is one royal ordinance that is reported to have subsisted: David’s law on the distribution of booty, which the author of 1 Sam. 30:25 tells us remained ‘a statute and an ordinance for Israel to this day.’ By contrast, God’s instructions to Moses regarding the distribution of the booty taken from the Midianites are not presented as establishing a general rule (Num. 31).

Moses, though not given the title of a king, frequently acted like one. On occasion, he issued commands for which no divine mandate was claimed. For example, he organized the judicial system along military lines (Exod. 18). He dictated the monuments to be raised and the ceremonies to be performed after the crossing of the Jordan (Deut. 27). He required a septennial reading of the Law at the festival of Sukkoth (Deut. 31:10-13)—but the law of Sukkoth was itself then neglected from the time of Joshua until rediscovered in the written law by Ezra (Neh. 8:13). At Marah, before the Israelites reached Sinai, he issued a ‘statute and an ordinance’ (Heb. khokumishpat, Exod. 15:25, the same term as is used of David’s booty law).

Some law was produced in the course of adjudication; here too there are parallels between the narratives of Moses and later kings. In the wilderness, the case of the daughters of Zelophehad (Num. 27, 36) is presented as a dispute, its resolution by Moses is through an oracular consultation of God, and there is a statement of general rules (going beyond the situation of the dispute) that are to have abiding force. David’s booty law is the product of a similar sequence: a dispute between sections of the army regarding the distribution of booty after the campaign. But not all adjudication produced precedents for the future (e.g., Solomon’s judgment, 1 Kings 3:16-28); a precedent required a new act of authoritative enunciation.

Narrative sources, both inside and outside the Pentateuch, present a picture of piecemeal lawgiving, albeit divinely inspired, often springing from concrete events. Given the central role of the king in both the promulgation of law and ordinances and the king’s capacity to act as supreme judge, it is not appropriate to differentiate strictly between precedent and legislation. The king’s power over and responsibility for the cult and his patronage of court prophets and court scribes also contributed to the institutionalization of divine law and its consolidation into the codes we find in the Pentateuch.

The Institutionalization of Divine Law: Four narratives cast light on the process. When Samuel is asked to authorize the appointment of a king, he—a prophet—acting under divine command issues a formulation of royal privileges which he writes in a ‘book’ (Heb. sefer, meaning writing on leather) and deposits in a sanctuary. If the account we have in 1 Samuel 8 is a guide, the text cannot have been long. More substantial was the text God commanded Jeremiah to have read in the Temple (Jer. 36:23), a scroll that was deposited in the Temple with the connivance of the Temple officials. The story may well cast light on the circumstances leading to the discovery of the ‘book of the covenant’ found in the Temple in the time of Josiah (ca. 620 b.c.; 2 Kings 23), a text whose authenticity is validated by a prophetess, Huldah, who consults God probably by means of an oracle (2 Kings 22:13, 18). We have no means of identifying positively the text found on that occasion, although scholarly opinion most commonly takes it to have been the bulk of Deuteronomy. After the Exile (late sixth century b.c.), Ezra is sent to Jerusalem with the authority of King Artaxerxes to guide the restoration of Israel in its own land. He is described as a scribe learned in the torah of Moses, and he comes prepared to ‘study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach his statutes and ordinances in Israel’ (Ezra 7:10). The two traditions kept separate by Jehoshaphat are here combined: the teaching of divine law is now to be accompanied by implementation measures characteristic of royal ordinance. At the same time, the text of the torah comes to acquire the kind of force we associate with statute, so that verbal interpretation be- comes necessary (Neh. 8:7-8).

The Covenant Code, the Priestly Code, and Deuteronomy: It is not easy to ascertain the place of the Pentateuchal laws in the history of the legal institutions of ancient Israel. The ‘Covenant Code’ (Exod. 21-23, deriving its conventional title from Exod. 24:7) is generally regarded as the oldest. It falls into two halves, the first of which (Exod. 21:1-22:17) is formulated mainly in conditional sentences (known as the ‘casuistic form’) wherein the protasis (‘if’ clause) states circumstances and the apodosis (‘then’ clause) the legal consequences. This is also the predominant (though not exclusive) form used in the ancient Near Eastern codes. The subject matter and tone (secular and without rhetorical ornamentation) also make it the most similar to its ancient counterpart. Parallels in content are found between all the biblical codes and those of the ancient Near East, but the Covenant Code includes one that is particularly striking in both form and content (Exod. 21:35; cf. Laws of Eshnunna 53), despite the impossibility of a direct literary connection. It perhaps serves as indirect evidence of the existence of Canaanite codes (thus far undiscovered), which may have served as intermediaries before the Israelites became familiar at first hand, as a result of conquest, with the legal traditions of Babylon and Assyria. The ‘Covenant Code’ contains rules on slavery, homicide, various types of assault, death caused by animals, cattle theft, agricultural damage, deposit of property, shepherding, loan of animals, and seduction of a virgin. The rule ‘an eye for an eye…’ is found earlier in the Laws of Hammurabi.

The second half of the Code (Exod. 22:18-23:19), expressed largely in the ‘apodictic’ form (direct, second-person commands, unaccompanied by any statement of sanction), combines sacral offenses, humanitarian injunctions, standards for the administration of justice, the laws of the seventh year, the Sabbath, and the three pilgrimage festivals (see Exod. 23:14-17) and regulations regarding sacrifice; it may be significant that the ban on seething (boiling) a kid in its mother’s milk is found in this latter context. It is likely that the Code as a whole was compiled from discrete sources, and it is widely believed not to have formed an original part of the Sinaitic narrative, to which it now belongs.

Much of the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers is called the ‘Priestly Code,’ associated with the literary source ‘P’ of traditional biblical criticism. There is increasing recognition of the existence within it of early materials, and some contemporary scholars date the source as a whole earlier than Deuteronomy, thus well before the Exile. Very generally, the Priestly Code emphasizes religious and ritual concerns, while the Covenant Code deals with civil law and Deuteronomy shows special interest in matters of public law. But these characteristics are by no means exclusive: both the Priestly Code and Deuteronomy also deal with slavery and homicide; Deuteronomy alone deals with remarriage. Within the Priestly corpus, there is a distinguishable text in Leviticus 17-26, known as the ‘Holiness Code’ in view of the reiterated motive for obedience to its laws: ‘Be Holy.’

Biblical law has traditionally been studied much like modern statutory sources, with concentration on the wording of the individual legal provisions.

Narrative in Biblical Law: For some, the biblical mixture of legal, ritual, and moral rules, together with the intermingling of law and narrative in the Pentateuch, is a matter to be ignored, or even explained away as representing a ‘primitive’ stage of legal development. Today, these literary characteristics of the text are themselves the object of study and are increasingly seen as integral to the understanding of the laws themselves. One example is the ‘law of the altar’ in Exod. 20:22-26, which some have regarded as misplaced, belonging properly to the Covenant Code (which is introduced only in Exod. 21:1). More likely, this law forms an essential part of the narrative that links the revelation of the law on Sinai with the sin of the golden calf (Exod. 32-34). The very arrangement of the Covenant Code may itself require explanation in terms of its narrative context, commencing with the theme of slavery (as does the Decalogue, which immediately precedes).

Attention to the narrative context is particularly important for the understanding of Deuteronomy, formulated as a speech made by Moses in the plains of Moab before the entry to the promised land. Whereas divine law is presented in Exodus-Numbers as the words of God to Moses, which he is commanded to transmit to the children of Israel, Deuteronomy recounts Moses’performance of that task: it is Moses telling the children of Israel what God has told him. Deuteronomy refers to itself (in the context of the law of the king, though the verses in question may well be secondary) as ‘a copy of this law’ (Heb. mishneh hatorah hazot, 17:18), understood by the Septuagint as ‘this second law,’ rather than ‘a copy of this law’ (rsv). The Greek rendering accords with the later Hebrew usage of the term and with what we find in the text. Moses does not proclaim a ‘copy’ of Exodus-Numbers; though many of the themes of the latter are taken up, he provides in effect a supplementary revelation. The narrative confirms the status of this supplementary revelation: at the conclusion of the book, God commands the making of a further covenant in the plains of Moab ‘besides the covenant which he had made with them at Horeb’ (Deut. 29:1). The strong association of law with covenant, wherein the observance of law becomes a term of the covenant, is characteristic of Deuteronomy and is thought by some to have been imposed by Deuteronomic editors on the Sinai narrative in Exodus: originally, it is argued, Sinai was understood as a reiteration of the patriarchal covenant to those descendants of the patriarchs who had escaped from Egypt, combined with the revelation of the Decalogue but not the Covenant Code or the Priestly laws.

Later Biblical Law: In the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods (539 b.c.-a.d. 325), biblical law was the object of increasing restatement and elaboration. Deuteronomy itself had indicated the continuation of prophetic revelation of the law, in promising the coming of a prophet like Moses, who would perform the same function as Moses in mediating the transmission of divine commands (Deut. 18:15-22). Rabbinic tradition regarded this figure not as a single eschatological prophet, but as a sequence of prophets operating through history: Micah was one, Abraham (anachronistically) another. This Deuteronomic tradition was used by the Qumran community to validate its own restatement of scriptural rules. There is evidence of a similar association of Jesus with the prophet like Moses (as well as with other ot figures) in the nt; the Sermon on the Mount (where Jesus claims not to change an iota of the law, despite the antitheses; Matt. 5:18) may be viewed as a compilation of teachings claiming this same status of revealed restatement.

Judaism by the first century a.d. had become a highly diversified phenomenon, with different groups interpreting the ot in their own ways and for their own purposes. This pluralism went far beyond the content of the interpretation of particular passages. Given the different audiences being addressed, the very style of interpretation differed. Thus Philo (late first century b.c. to early first century a.d.) addresses an intellectual Greek audience in terms of allegory and philosophy; the Qumran community addresses itself as a group dissentient from the Temple establishment and viewing its redemption in terms of separation and purity; the rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple in a.d. 70 seek to unify the people around the synagogue, the study-house, and the traditions of the pharisaic fellowships (Heb. khavurot). First, however, they needed to supplement the written law with an ‘Oral Law’ that would really regulate the details of everyday existence, thus providing a focus for both unity and the concentration of religious (and other) energies.

Jesus spoke to a popular and unsophisticated audience moved by none of these considerations. His target was not the law, but rather any style of interpretation of the law that removed its immediacy as teaching to the people. There is no hint of an antithesis between law and grace in the teachings of Jesus. In some of the Pauline writings, the matter stands differently. But Pauline antinomianism was not an opposition to law per se (e.g., Rom. 7:12), rather an opposition to observance of the law as the route to divine redemption (e.g., Gal. 5:4). Paul’s approach, too, was a function of his aims and his audience. Unlike Jesus, his audience was mainly gentile and his mission to convert them was likely to be impeded by insistence upon observance of the Mosaic law.

Bibliography Blenkinsopp, J. Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. Boecker, H. J. Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament and Ancient Near East. London: SPCK, 1980. Carmichael, C. M. The Laws of Deuteronomy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974. Falk, Z. W. Hebrew Law in Biblical Times. Jerusalem: Wahrmann Books, 1964. Kaye, B. N. and G. J. Wenham, eds. Law, Morality and the Bible. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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