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How God Became a Lawgiver

Project Description

The joint study of law and religion has attracted significant attention in the last few decades and has produced valuable insights and publications. However, the notion of divine laws with its historical backgrounds and impacts remains one significantly under-researched topic despite its commonality to the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and resulting importance for legal, religious, and political history. Historically, it is the Torah in the Hebrew Bible that is predominantly responsible for developing the idea of “divine laws”.

The notions of divine laws and non-negotiable religious claims are deeply anchored in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In striking contrast, this notion constitutes a radical innovation in comparison with the ancient Near Eastern cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where, starting in the third millennium, some of the first human civilizations developed and gave rise to specific legal traditions. In particular, the king served as the lawgiver in the empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In these depictions, the king did not simply invent his laws; he instead aimed to design laws that would accord with cosmic principles of order and justice. Similarly, biblical texts present monarchs functioning as the legal authority in the small states of Israel and Judah from the tenth century onward (e.g., 2 Samuel 15 for David or 1 Kings 3 for Solomon), yet these narratives show no knowledge of divine laws.

Instead, the idea of divine laws only began to emerge much later, probably in the eighth and seventh century BCE in ancient Judah, and the concept was reinforced through the Babylonian exile. It is an intellectual product of a small nation in the Levant, not of one the great civilizations of the ancient Near East.

A number of convergences in recent scholarship have paved the way for the investigation of this subject.

First, the development of historical studies of the Bible in the 18th century laid the intellectual foundations for the articulation of a critical approach to the notion of divine laws that is able to plumb its historical emergence. This historical approach on the origins of God’s law resulted in locating this law in a significantly different historical context than the one appearing in the Bible: Historically speaking, God’s law does not come from Mount Sinai in the time of Moses as narrated in the Bible. It instead arose and found its way into the Torah under alternate circumstances. J. Wellhausen’s monumental Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels articulates the basic observation supporting this conclusion: the prophetic literature of the Bible from the preexilic period of the eighth and seventh centuries such as Isaiah and Amos does not really refer to the laws of the Pentateuch, much less as authoritative divine law. This fundamental change in perspective raises the question of when, why, and by whom the concept of divine laws was coined.

In addition, along with the lack of accepted divine law in Israel and Judah in this period, legal literature had existed in the broader Ancient Near East since the third millennium, centuries prior to the well-known stela containing King Hammurabi’s Laws from the eighteenth century BCE, which designate the king—not a deity—as the lawgiver. In order to come to terms with this data for the divine laws in the Bible in contrast to the royal laws of the surrounding context, in the 1920–30s A. Alt articulated the distinction between casuistic and apodictic laws that went on to develop into a long-standing paradigm in scholarship. He attempted to acknowledge the similarity of many biblical laws such as that on the “goring ox” or restitution for physical injuries with laws from the surrounding Ancient Near East or Canaanite culture on the one hand, while still maintaining the uniqueness of other laws in the Bible on the other. He argued that apodictic law, such as the “Thou shall not’s” of the Ten Commandments, represent the unique heritage of Israelite/Jewish culture. As a result, despite the already long established historical-critical viewpoints on the Bible, scholars continued to view the notion of “divine law” as part of the historical bedrock of the biblical conception of law. Furthermore, while scholars since Alt’s time have discovered similar apodictic legal material in other (and earlier) societies with which Israel and Judah had cultural contact, the edifice of the hoary antiquity of “divine law” remained in place for half a century. However, research on the Pentateuch has undergone considerable transformation since the 1970s: scholars have become increasingly aware of the Pentateuch’s nature as a literary entity with a long tradition and redaction history, a history that included transformations in the biblical laws as well. As a result of this radical shift, scholarship needs to inquire anew how, when, and why the notion of divine laws and the image of God as a lawgiver developed in the history of the Pentateuch within the context of recent developments in pentateuchal research.

Finally, in recent decades, a major development consists of the contextualization of the Hebrew Bible, especially its legal traditions, within the broad realm of the ancient Near East. Increased scholarship on ancient Near Eastern laws has coincided with increased interaction between ancient Near Eastern and biblical scholars. Their efforts have produced detailed inquiries that show not only the similarities, but also the differences between Mesopotamian and ancient Israelite legal traditions. These explorations also make possible the study of the differing conceptions of law in the Ancient Near East and the Bible.

Building on this foundation, in the late 20th century scholars began to recognize the possibility of a new paradigm: the most basic contours of the processes behind the notion of divine laws and the image of God as lawgiver could have taken root in Judah during the eighth and seventh century BCE. In recent scholarship, significant advances have been made in that respect, although a detailed synthesis remains outstanding.

The project strives to elucidate the historical origins of the notion of divine laws and its impact on religion and politics in ancient Judah, ancient Judaism, and their Eastern Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern environments. Moreover, it seeks not only to describe and reconstruct the immediate historical factors, but also to explore deeply the long term implications of this concept’s influence on the intellectual, social, and legal history of Judaism, subsequent monotheistic worldviews, and corresponding relevant political entities. The project has four specific aims:

  1. It will elucidate the intellectual, religious, and socio-political processes in the ancient Near East as a whole and ancient Judaism in particular that eventually led to the notion of divine laws and to the conception of God as lawgiver.
  2. It will identify and describe how ancient Judaism coped with the necessity of altering, updating, or expanding its legal provisions once they became regarded as “divine laws.” That is, the goal is to trace how legal traditions and ancient Judean societies developed strategies for “negotiating the non-negotiable” (i.e., harmonizing, historicizing, exegesis, abrogation, etc.), taking into account the relevant social and political contexts.
  3. It will assess this notion’s impact on ancient Judaism, evaluating the historical, social, and political contexts in which the concept of divine laws was operative. In particular, it addresses the distinct results from various views of these divine laws on the spectrum of utopian to practical as seen throughout Persian and Hellenistic Jewish communities from the sixth to second centuries BCE.
  4. It will contextualize this development in the ancient Near Eastern world in comparison with parallel and related developments within ancient Greek polities and discourse that reflect on “divine law” in radically different ways.

The project focuses on the formative phases (eighth century BCE to second century BCE) of the articulations and impacts of divine law. The goal of this project is to provide a historical understanding of a central feature of biblical literature that has gone on to form a major influence in subsequent religious and socio-political settings into the present day