The Torah and Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes

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There is both considerable overlap and significant differences between the legal sections of the Torah and its Ancient Near Eastern counterparts. While much is shared in both content and formulation, it is the differences between the codes which are most revealing. From the range of the topics covered to the specific details of the offenses and penalties, the collections vary widely. These variations reflect both the different underlying values and principles of the cultures, and their different conceptions of justice and punishment.1

The Ancient Near Eastern Law Codes

Lists of laws have been preserved in seven major cuneiform collections - the Sumerian codes of Ur-Nammu and Lipit Ishtar, the Old-Babylonian codes of Eshnuna and Hammurabi, and finally, the Middle Assyrian, Old Hittite and Neo-Babylonian lists. The degree of preservation varies for each text. Some, like the code of Ur-Nammu, remain only in bits and fragments, while others, like the famous code of Hammurabi, contain over 200 laws. The texts date to several different time periods. While the laws of Lipit Ishtar were composed as early as the nineteenth century BCE, the Middle Assyrian laws appear as late as the twelfth century BCE.

Points of Contact

Points of Difference

Torah Ancient Near Eastern Codes
Authorship Hashem King
Types of Laws Civil law, moral precepts and religious or cultic practices Limited to civil law
Formulation Casuistic20 and apodictic21 law; sometimes accompanied by motivational reasons Only casuistic; unaccompanied by motivations
Context Both distinct lists of laws and laws embedded in narrative List of laws without narrative
Punishments Life and property are not commensurate; few social distinctions; no vicarious punishment22 Life and property can be equated; social stratification; vicarious punishment
Conceptions of Justice Lay forth absolutes of right and wrong. Punishment is not just for restitution but also retribution for wrong-doing. Preservation of law and order. Compensation and restoration of society is the guiding principle.

A Case Study – Laws of Goring Oxen

The laws dealing with goring oxen are remarkably similar between the Codes of Eshnuna, Hammurabi and Parashat Mishpatim, and as such, serve as a useful case study for comparison. Click on the Table to the right to compare the laws.