The Book of Exodus and Hebrew Law & Wisdom in its Ancient Eastern Context

The Covenant and the Torah:

Closely associated with the story of the exodus in the Old Testament is that of how the Israelites journeyed to a mountain where Yahweh ratified a covenant between himself and his people. There is still a great deal of uncertainty about this mountain of Israel’s destiny. Its very name is variously given in tradition. Two of the sources (‘E’ and ‘D’) consistently refer to it as Horeb, two (‘J’ and ‘P’) call it Sinai. Its location is likewise in dispute. Tradition places it near the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula at the Jebel Musa (‘Mountain of Moses’). Many scholars hold to a much more northerly near Kadesh (Ex. 15: 12), while others place it further east beyond the Gulf of Aqaba. This latter location is based mainly on the supposition that the language describing God’s coming to his people on the mountain implies volcanic activity. Exodus 19: 16-18 speaks of thunder, lightning, thick cloud, trumpet blast, and smoke like that from a kiln. The language might equally refer to a violent mountain storm. However, it is doubtful whether we ought to press into service, literally, words and images traditionally associated with the divine appearances (cf. the covenant with Abraham, Gen. 15). The tradition as to what actually happened at the mountain is exceedingly complex. There are three different appearances (Ex. 19-20; 24: 10-18; 34), and each is associated with laws and regulations governing worship and social relationships within the community. Many of these regulations are obviously of later date.

Showing the supposed location of Mount Sinai/ Horeb.

Within the Hebrew Bible, considered as Torah, there are many individual laws and collections of laws in the more everyday sense of the term: directives on what is to be done in particular circumstances that come to court for adjudication and also a number of general commandments or prohibitions given in the name of God. A major example of the latter is the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue. The laws occur in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the OT, which is why this is sometimes referred to as the Torah within the narrative framework of the revelation to Moses during the journey of the people of Israel towards the promised land. According to Exodus 19-20, this occurred at Mount Sinai, vaguely located in the southern wilderness, where Moses passed the laws on directly to the people. According to Deuteronomy, Moses received the laws at Horeb but did not communicate them to the people until they were in the plains of Moab across the Jordan, about to the Land of Canaan. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments come first (Ex. 20 & Deut. 5), and so the more detailed laws that follow are presented as a spelling-out of the specific implications of these more general rules. But originally, the detailed laws existed independently of the Ten Commandments, as codes of law in their own right.

There are three main collections of laws in the Hebrew Bible. The first is often referred to as the Book of the Covenant or the Covenant Code and is found in Exodus 21-23. The general consensus is that this is the oldest of the biblical law codes. It presupposes a settled society, but one in which there is apparently no king, and for this reason, it is often thought to originate from pre-monarchic times. If the people of Israel did wander in the desert, it is not reflected here: those addressed have houses and domestic animals and are living in towns with local shrines. The popular belief, mirroring what the Old Testament tells us, that biblical legislation goes back to Moses and the wilderness is hard to accept once the details of this law code are pondered. The following quotations reveal a settled, agrarian mode of life, with farmers living in houses:

When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt… If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. … When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do.

But if the slave declares, “I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out a free person”, then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought ‘to the door or to the doorpost’; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

(Exodus 21: 27)

If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to the owner, but keeping the dead animal.

(Exodus 21: 33-34)

When someone causes a field or vineyard to be grazed over, or lets livestock loose to graze in someone elses field, restitution shall be made from the best in the owner’s field or vineyard.

(Exodus 22: 5)

You shall not delay to make offerings ‘from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses.

(Exodus 22: 29)

The second collection is found in the book of Deuteronomy, in chapters 12-26. It covers more topics than the laws in Exodus, but it looks like an updated version of the laws in the Book of Covenant when it deals with the same topics. The clearest case of this can again be found in the law about Hebrew slaves:

If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you for six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing-floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the LORD your God has blessed you.

(Deuteronomy 15: 12-14)

The theory that Deuteronomy was the law book promulgated in the reign of Josiah in the seventh century BCE (2 Kings 22: 8-13) fits well with this evidence that the older laws were updated in line with later principles.

The third legal corpus is Leviticus 19-26, generally known as the Holiness Code, because it begins (19: 2) with the injunction to be holy, as God is. This collection has some of the hallmarks of the ‘P’ source about it, above all, a concern with matters to do with ritual purity, and accordingly is usually dated to the exilic or post-exilic period like the rest of P; though there is little about it to indicate any specific date, and it could be older than Deuteronomy 12-26. Consistent with its affinities to P, it is much more concerned than the other two codes with public worship and sacrifice, all carefully set in the time when Israel was in the desert and worshipping in a sacred tent (the tabernacle), though commentators mostly agree that the tent actually stands for the Temple in Jerusalem. The Pentateuch also contains many more chapters of regulations and legislation regarding the details of worship, dietary laws and other issues of purity: for example, Exodus 24-30, Leviticus 1-18 (shown in the inset above) and Numbers 5-9.

These are the sections of the Bible many modern readers (especially Christians) find least interesting, though they have their own fascination, for example, for the social anthropologist and also for anyone wishing to understand Judaism properly, since many of them lie at the root of the system of purity laws that still govern the life of observant Jews and give that life its distinctive style. Most of them probably came into being in their present form after the exile, but they may have much older roots in Israelite society. The three major law codes have particularly close links to other laws in the ancient Near East. A number of these, some dating back to the far reaches of the second millennium BCE, have been discovered in Mesopotamia, such as the Code of Hammurabi (eighteenth century BCE), the Laws of Lipit-Ishtar (first half of the second millennium BCE) and the Middle Assyrian Laws (fifteenth century BCE). We have none from Egypt or from the Levant. Some contain provisions are so close to the Hebrew Law that there must have been some connection. It is probably a matter of a common legal culture that persisted for centuries unless Israelite scribes read Akkadian and borrowed directly, for the Code of Hammurabi lived on in many copies over the centuries after its creation. The parallel that is most striking is the ‘law of the goring ox’:

If an ox, when it was walking along the street, gored a nobleman to death, that case is not subject to claim. If a nobleman’s ox was a gorer and his city council had made it known to him that is was a gorer, but he did not pad its horns or tie up his ox, and that ox gored to death a member of the aristocracy, he shall give one half mina of silver.

(Code of Hammurabi: 250-51)

When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned, and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall not be lable. If the ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned but has not restrained it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner also shall be put to death… If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slave-owner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

(Exodus 21: 28-9, 32)

It could be argued that the similarity of the Hammurabi Code to the laws of Exodus is due to the two having been written close together in time, though few scholars would date the Law of Moses as far back as the early second millennium. But Hammarabi’s code consists of the laws of a city culture – one sufficiently advanced to have a municipal council – which bears no resemblance to the situation we would have to postulate for Moses and the wandering Israelites. For Israel to have been influenced by this ‘urban’ code, it must also have been a largely urbanised society, living as a settled population in towns and cities, with a scribal culture at least comparable to that of ancient Mesopotamia in the time of Hammurabi. The Book of the Covenant is manifestly not the document of a group of nomads living in tents, and no such group, even if literate, would have borrowed from another society’s laws concerned how to deal with escaping oxen. Therefore, although the Bible associates such laws with Moses, the connection is implausible.

What, then, is the authentic historical kernel of Moses as the law-giver from the mountain in all this? First, we can assert with confidence that at this mountain, a group of Hebrew refugee slaves from Egypt became conscious of their destiny as the people of God through a covenant ceremony. The covenant ritual is described in Ex. 24: 4-8. It involves sacrifice and sprinkling half the blood upon the altar, as a symbol of God’s presence, and half upon the people. God and people are now bound together in one common life. In one respect, this covenant ceremony echoes the covenant traditions in the patriarchal narratives. There is a heavy emphasis on God’s initiative, for it is He who comes to the people in the awesome imagery of the mountain scene. When Moses sprinkles the blood upon the people, he declares:

Behold the blood of the covenant which Yahweh has made with you.

Exodus 24: 8.
The Golden Calf Angers God (Exodus 32):
Exodus 32

Exodus 34 contains what has been called a ‘Ritual Decalogue’ prescribing the religious acts to be observed by the community throughout the year. Its emphasis in terms of its initiative is one-sided. No ceremony of covenant ratification is described, but this is a covenant which Yahweh makes (cf. Exodus 34: 10, 27). In another respect, however, this covenant is different from those in the patriarchal narrative. It was made by God no longer with one man such as Abraham but with a whole community.

The covenant was not between God and Moses, who simply acted as the priestly moderator in a covenant that binds God and people. Henceforth Yahweh was the God of Israel, and Israel was the people of Yahweh. That meant that Israel was no longer merely a tribal or ethnic group but a religious community, committed to a certain type of loyalty to a God who had chosen them to be his people. Two points need to be stressed about this covenant bond:

(i) It is in no sense a natural or inevitable relationship based on any ties of kinship between God and people. Rather it is a relationship of grace. It was inaugurated at a particular time and place in history as the outworking of God’s revealed compassion for his oppressed people. Its continuance, therefore, depended solely on the consistency of character of this God who had chosen Israel, upon what the Old Testament repeatedly refers to as the hesed, steadfast love, and the faithfulness of God (cf. Ex. 34: 6f.)

(ii) Although there is a historical ‘once and for all’ aspect to this covenant, its significance was not tied to any one point in Israel’s early history. Since it called the people to commit, it was a covenant that, from the people’s side, had to be accepted anew by each succeeding generation. Every generation was present at Mount Sinai. The Book of Deuteronomy spoke for every generation of the faithful in Israel when it declared:

Yahweh our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our fathers did Yahweh make this covenant, but with all of us here who are alive this day.

Deuteronomy 5: 2f.

The various laws and regulations associated with the divine appearances of the Exodus traditions are attempts to spell out for Israel the implications of this covenant relationship. The only element in them with any claim to be ‘Mosaic’ is the ‘Decalogue’, the Ten Words.

The Decalogue (Ten Commandments):

What then of the Ten Commandments? They come down to us in two versions, Ex. 20: 2-17 (‘E’) and Deut. 5: 6-10, both of them probably later theological variants of an original shorter form. Here they are in the version in the version in Exodus 20: 2-17:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

You shall not covet your neghbour’s house; you shall not covet neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.

(Exodus 20: 2-17)

Most people would recognise these as the bedrock of Israel’s laws and would attribute them to Moses, even if they do not accept the story of their delivery by Yahweh on Mount Sinai/ Horeb as historical. But here again, we have to ask whether they presuppose certain situations and settlements. The two listings, in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, differ little in content. They include moral principles common to almost every human society (prohibitions of theft, adultery and murder), which could come from any period in the history of Israel. But they also contain legislation implying, again, a settled agrarian community. The person who is addressed by the Sabbath law has slaves and domesticated animals to help him with his farm; his neighbour has a house that someone could covet. He is clearly not nomadic in lifestyle, nor does he live in the desert but on fertile land.

The only theory that will preserve a Mosaic origin for such laws is the Bible’s implication that Moses gave these laws as a matter of prophetic foresight: he knew that, once the tribes got into the Land, they would need them. But on any normal evaluation of the origins of legislation like this, we would judge that it came from a settled culture, one that prevailed in the days of the Hebrew kings, or just before it, as described in the book of Judges. The theological expansion is evident in the different reasons alleged for the observance of the sabbath; the Exodus version rooting it in the creation poem of Genesis 1, Deuteronomy making it a sacrament of the deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Many scholars regard the Decalogue as a distillation of the teaching of the great prophets of Israel and no earlier in date than the exile of the sixth century BCE. There are, however, no compelling reasons against it being, in essence, of Mosaic origin. In context, the Decalogue is distinctive because it consists of words addressed by God to the people, in contrast to the surrounding ordinances, regulations and statutes. Such ordinances are, in the main, in the form of ‘case law’ of a type common to the great law codes of the ancient Near East – the ordinance concerning Hebrew slaves in Ex. 21: 1-11 is a good example of this.

The Decalogue throughout is in the form of a direct address from God to the people. This has been compared with Hittite treaty documents of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE. Such treaty documents begin with a prologue in which the Great King identifies himself and lists his beneficent acts towards his vassal people. The obligations upon loyal vassals are then listed. They include no dealings with the king’s enemies and the fulfilment of all duties incumbent upon the king’s subjects. The form of the Decalogue is remarkably similar to these documents. The prologue identifies God. It declares his gracious deeds on behalf of the people:

I am Yahweh your God… who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

(Exodus 20: 2)

Obligations are then laid upon the people, including the demand for exclusive loyalty to Yahweh and the following of a code of conduct befitting Yahweh’s people. Later Assyrian treaty documents have provided further close parallels notable to elements in Deuteronomy. We may therefore think of the covenant at Mount Sinai as a treaty covenant, establishing the kingdom of Yahweh over his subject people. The Decalogue is the charter document of this treaty.

The character of Yahweh revealed in the Decalogue is remarkable. Firstly, there is a demand for an exclusive loyalty: no other gods “before me” or “besides me” or “in preference to me”. In a world of many pantheons where gods and goddesses had their places in family groups, Yahweh was to stand alone in his people’s loyalty. Secondly, there was a demand for imageless worship. In a world where gods and goddesses were represented in myriad forms – human, animal, bird, fish – there was to be no representation of Yahweh. Deuteronomy 4: 15ff sees this as a safeguard to the element of mystery in the nature of Yahweh. The people saw no form on the day that Yahweh spoke to them at Horeb out of the midst of the fire. Thirdly, there is a demand to take the claims of Yahweh with utter seriousness; “not to take the Lord’s name in vain” meant far more than the prohibition of equivocal oaths. The best commentary on this command is found in Joshua 24: 19-22, where Joshua warns the people not to make any superficial pledge of allegiance to Yahweh. Fourthly, there is the command to keep the sabbath. The origin and background of the sabbath are obscure. The essential characteristic of the sabbath in the Old Testament was that of a day belonging to Yahweh, a tithe on time, proclaiming Yahweh’s lordship over the entirety of time.

“Learn them and be sure to obey them!” (Deuteronomy 5: 1). Deuteronomy tells us that The Ten Words were inscribed on stone tablets and placed in the Ark of the Covenant on the Journey to Canaan.

The last six demands on Yahweh’s people are concerned with regulating human relationships within the covenant community. These six words of command focus attention on the character of the individual worshipper in relation to the community in which s/he lives. They deal with what the prophets were later to summarise and interpret as ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’. If we draw an organic link between religion and morality, both social and personal, it is only because we stand within a Judaeo-Christian heritage which stems from the Decalogue. It was not always so in the world of the ancient Near East, where religion often centred on the forces of nature rather than on the demand for righteousness. According to Deut. 10: 1-5 these Ten Words inscribed on stone tablets were placed in the Ark of the Covenant and carried with the people on their pilgrimage from the mountain to Canaan, the promised land. Moses’ faith was in a God who shapes the forces of history and nature, brooks no rival, has no female consort, and demands the exclusive loyalty of his chosen people. His monotheism was not a theological or philosophical doctrine but a practical, ethical code of the followers of the One God.

How then were the Commandments written, and when?

By the end of the nineteenth century, it was usual for Old Testament scholars to think of the Ten Commandments as a distillation of the ethical teaching of the great prophets such as Amos, Hosea and Isaiah. There was a conservative backlash against so late a dating in the twentieth century, allied with the general sense that biblical archaeology had undermined scholarly scepticism about early Israel. But the renewed optimism about the reconstruction of early Israel proved short-lived, and the majority view would now be that we know little if anything about Moses as a historical figure, any more than we know about Abraham and his descendants through to Joseph. With this goes a willingness again to contemplate the possibility that the Decalogue is a comparatively late arrival, probably later than the individual laws in the Covenant and Deuteronomic Codes that were arranged to look as though they are a detailed spelling-out of its implications. The Ten Commandments now appear in both contexts as a prologue to the detailed laws, but they were probably, as a prologue, probably compiled later than those laws.

Therefore, the Ten Commandments may well have passed through a series of stages in their composition. Some have tried to reconstruct an original core of just ten pithy rules, but this has led to no agreement and has been largely abandoned in favour of seeing the texts as an amalgam of elements from different periods. The murder-adultery-theft section reflects a number of old texts such as Hosea 4: 2 and Jeremiah 7: 9, the opening sections of which describes Yahweh as the God who brought Israel out of Egypt, looking more like a reflection on the stories in the Pentateuch after they had crystallized into their present form. The law about coveting seems an oddity, in that it prohibits a sin of thought rather than, like the others, a sin of action.

The communities that revere the Commandments cannot even agree on how they are to be divided into ten discrete rules: Jews and many Protestants distinguish the precept to have no other gods before Yahweh as the First Commandment and the prohibition of images as the Second, whereas Catholics and Lutherans run these together as two aspects of the same sin and then divide the Tenth Commandment into (a) coveting your neighbour’s house, and (b) coveting anything else that your neighbour’s, so as to make up the requisite tally of ten. In itself, this shows that the text is not completely coherent as a set of ten items, and must have some kind of history of growth, even if we cannot reconstruct it. It is also obvious that some of the Commandments have lengthy explanations and motivations, whereas others are short and crisp, and to any biblical specialist this immediately suggests a long period of transmission in which the text has been embroidered.

Besides the Commandments, in Deuteronomy (28: 20-68), Moses is presented as listing a very large number of specific curses that will be the consequence of disobedience: madness, blindness, theft, of property, boils, enslavement, barrenness and cannibalism. But there are other kinds of incentives too, which are more common than this concern for future consequences. One type is a reference back to Israel’s past, urging that gratitude to God for his past blessings should motivate obedience to what he requires. This is particularly common in Deuteronomy, which repeatedly appeals to the exodus and the giving of the Land as a motivation for obedience:

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen… You shall love the LORD your God, therefore, and his commandments always.

(Deuteronomy 10: 19-21, 11: 1)

The Ten Commandments begin with a more implicit ‘therefore’ of this kind:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

(Exodus 20: 2)

Perhaps more surprising than appeals either to the future consequences or past benefits is a tendency to argue that the laws are good in themselves and that the reader can readily grasp their point. In Exodus, there is a law regulating the pawning of goods, which refers to the extreme case of someone having nothing left to pawn but his outer cloak and advises:

If you take your neighbours cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbour’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbour cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.

(Exodus 22: 26-27)

Here, there is an implied threat against the potential wrongdoer from God, who will listen to the poor person’s cry and, presumably, avenge him. But there is also an attempt to reason with the wrongdoer: how can it be right to deprive someone of his only covering in bed? This is an appeal to shared human experience and has the effect of making the law not an arbitrary command but a kind of natural moral principle.

The Narrative Framework of the Law:

The other feature to remember is the fact that the laws are set in a narrative framework. We do not possess any ‘raw’ Israelite law, as we have in the law codes of Mesopotamia as entities in their own right. We have only the laws contextualised by the authors of the narrative of Moses and the people he led out of Egypt. We encounter the law as part of a story, the story of God’s association with Israel. Judaism, though it insists that the law is definitely to be obeyed, is more nuanced than conservative forms of Christianity in seeing it as part of a dialogue between God and his people. Torah, as we saw, is not ‘law’ in any simple sense. It has to be adapted to deal with the changing circumstances, though it may not be abrogated. Christian moralists who insist on a ‘back to commandments’ revival are often less subtle than this and ignore the contextualization of the law which the Bible presents. Not only is a narrative framework offered for the laws in the Pentateuch, but the laws are also sometimes themselves build around narratives. This has been brought out by the Israeli lawyer and biblical scholar Assnat Bartor. She cites the many passages in the laws where the lawgiver engages with the reader by narrating a (very short) story about an ethically challenging situation:

When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.

(Exodus 23: 4-5)

This engagement is present even in criminal cases in which the situations are presented as narratives:

Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If he did not lie in wait for him, but it came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. But if someone wilfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

(Exodus 21: 12-14)

Bartor provides the following commentary on this passage:

The law as a whole describes three episodes. Three characters participate in the first: the assailant; the man who dies as a result of the latter’s blows; and an additional, unidentified character whose role is to execute the death sentence. The second episode involves four characters: the man who ‘did not lie in wait’, God, and the lawgiver who is revealed by the phrase ‘I will appoint’; and the addressee, whose presence is indicated in the direct address ‘for you’. … The third episode, too, involves four characters: the slayer, the slain, the lawgiver who reveals himself by mentioning ‘my altar’, and the addressee, who is drawn in as a participant via the command ‘you shall take the killer…’

(Bartor, 2010: Reading law as Narrative, pp. 28-29)

We are drawn into the situations envisaged rather than being presented with a set of rules. As with motive clauses, in the way many laws are set out, we find the legislators speaking to the community and encouraging them to imagine typical situations. From these, they will form good judgements in analogous cases. Thus, observing and enforcing the laws is not a simple matter of absolutes, but requires what in Christian moral tradition would be called casuistry, that is, the consideration of the requirements of each particular case. A school of ‘law as literature’ has arisen among those who study the Anglophone Common Law tradition, stressing that legal reflection is often more like reading and musing on a narrative rather than enforcing a rule. Biblical laws are more like ‘wisdom’ than ‘statutes’. They were not intended for use by judges and advocates, as a code, but for the people as a whole, as a statement of general legal principles, similar to the law codes of Mesopotamia. Judges probably made their decisions quite freely, though they had to be informed by the law codes which set down what the lawgiver thought of as reasonable ways of proceeding in both civil and criminal cases, rather than absolute rules. Actual cases were probably decided mostly by precedent and more by town elders than by professional judges in ancient Israel.

A scribe at work on a biblical scroll. They played a crucial role in transmitting the laws to the people.

There are certain absolute rules within the law codes, as in the Ten Commandments, though even then there are motive clauses, appealing to the reader’s heart and mind, not merely demanding obedience. But much of the law is casuistic in form, proposing how to deal with various situations as they arise, and these are probably not to be construed as rulings but more as invitations to look for analogies and parallels in the case before the court, to general principles and precedents. Justice in ancient Israel seems to have been dispensed by the elders of local communities rather than in centralised courts, and the elders would pay attention to the rudimentary law codes, but not necessarily be bound by the strict letter. So law and wisdom seem to be closer together than an initial reading of Exodus and the Pentateuch might suggest, forming a moral dialogue that the reader can enter into rather than closing off the debate from the start.

Certainly, there are some fundamental commandments, but for the most part, the literature is pragmatic and based on a consideration of individual cases. Wisdom and law in the Hebrew Bible thus come nearest to providing the guidance for how to live for which many people turn to the Bible. Yet neither supplies a timeless code; both are rooted firmly in the institutional life of ancient Israel. But while both exemplify moral principles that can be seen in modern discussions of ethics, any direct application of biblical teachings is difficult and a more oblique relationship is required between the Old Testament and modern Judaism and Christianity.

The Settlement in Canaan and the Legacy of Mosaic Monotheism:

The subsequent history of Israel’s religion from the time of the settlement in Canaan is a history of conflict between Mosaic monotheism, based on the exclusive claims of Yahweh and the many who demanded a Comprehensive Religious Insurance policy covering the gods of Canaan as well as Yahweh. It was a conflict between those who thought of religion in basic cultic terms and those who never lost sight of the essential ethical element of the Hebrew faith; a conflict between the many who viewed Yahweh as the private patron deity of Israel and the few who saw judgement upon Israel as springing essentially out of the demanding nature of Israel’s One God. Israel’s history was one of conflict, not merely compromise; a distinctive Yahwistic faith survived instead of being assimilated into the religious culture of Canaan. It outlived the political disintegration of the Hebrew states. Many centuries later, the prophet Isaiah (or the poetic author of Isaiah 40-55) pushed Mosaic religion to its logical conclusion when he declared unequivocally:

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God and there is no other.

Isa. 45: 22; cf 44: 6-8.

That was the legacy of the revelation that came to Moses, and the decisive shape of that revelation gave rise to Israel’s unique faith.


John Barton (2019), A History of The Bible; The Book and its Faiths. London: Allen Lane (Penguin, Random House).

Martin Manser (1999), Bible Stories. Bath: Parragon.

Robert C Walton (ed., 1982), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.

2 thoughts on “The Book of Exodus and Hebrew Law & Wisdom in its Ancient Eastern Context

  1. Interesting, as always! This has always been a conundrum to me: “for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me…” Jealousy seems like a character defect of humanity, not an omnipotent being. Jealousy seems to be the same thing as coveting your neighbor’s property – wanting it, and being jealous of the neighbor for having it, but not actually stealing it. The second part of this dealing with children being punished for the deeds of their parents and ancestors would put the majority of people in an impossible situation to rectify. No matter what one does, including following every commandment, one will still be punished due to the previous actions of others, which can’t be changed.


    1. Carla (have I got your name right?), thanks for your comment. Yes, I found this difficult as well, though I think that Christian scholars would say that this reveals the limited understanding of God possessed by the ancient Hebrews or Israelites, depending on when they think this ‘Word’ was given. The fullest revelation of God is given in the person of Jesus Christ, who sets us free from collective punishment for the sins of previous generations, once and for all, by his death and resurrection. We are no longer bound by the original sin of Adam and Eve. Even those in Moses’ day who accepted Yahweh as the One True God were not subject to punishment under the law for the sins of their people as a whole. I think we also need to distinguish between the righteous jealousy of the Creator God for his people and the unrighteous envy of his people for the family, households, animals and goods of their neighbours.


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