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How God Became a Lawgiver: The Place of the Torah in Ancient Near Eastern Legal History

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DIVLAW (How God Became a Lawgiver: The Place of the Torah in Ancient Near Eastern Legal History)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2021-06-30

While the notion of divine law developed in ancient times, this idea came about as a historical process. Once in place, the idea of the law given by God decisively shaped the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic conceptions of religion and society. The relationships between human rulers and the divine sphere provides fodder for debate around issues of political authority and legitimacy across religious and cultural boundaries.
Given the ongoing relevance of this concept, this project addresses some of the earliest recorded on this interplay in recorded history and evaluates the context, development, and early receptions of the formulation of divine law as they are found in the Ancient Near East, ancient Israel and Judaism, and ancient Greece.
Scholarship of ancient West Asia and the Bible traditionally viewed the divine law as part of the very beginnings of the Hebrew Bible, the “bedrock” of biblical tradition. Developments over recent decades have, however, rendered this view implausible. The Divine Law project provides a new formulation of the development of divine law and its implications in the Hebrew Bible and antiquity in four steps. First, it will elucidate the relationship between the divine and legal spheres in the ancient Near Eastern world that provide the context for the emergence of the notion of divine laws and to the conception of God as lawgiver. Second, it will describe the steps involved in God becoming a lawgiver in the Pentateuchal texts of Exodus and Deuteronomy in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods of early Jewish history. Third, it will assess this notion’s impact on ancient Judaism, evaluating the historical, social, and political contexts in which this concept was operative throughout Persian and Hellenistic Jewish communities. Fourth and finally, it will contextualize this development in the ancient world in comparison with parallel developments with ancient Greek polities and discourse that reflect on “divine law” in radically different ways.
As the cultural backdrop informing the composition of the Hebrew Bible, the legal literature of the ancient Near East reveals a complex relationship between notions of divine agency in maintaining social order and the role of temporal rulers in actualizing this ideal. The boundaries between divine and human law were not always clear, providing important context for why the biblical authors would later attribute all law to their god Yhwh. In their capacities as lawgivers, human kings were imagined to assume divine attributes and stand in closer proximity to the divine world than any other human beings.
With regard to the factors leading to the theologization of law in ancient Israel and Judah, the following trajectory has emerged: The Hebrew word-pair “righteousness and justice” and similar concepts in surrounding cultures stand for an ancient concept that represents the basic idea of law. Traditionally, these aspects belonged to the ancient Near Eastern sun god. The appearance of both law enforcement and solar aspects in biblical texts suggests that Yhwh took on a similar function. Divine law’s importance for early Jewish communities was initially limited to cultic practices and ethnic identity markers.
In comparative study, the idea of a world order for which the gods are responsible, and which reflects an overarching notion of cosmic justice is well attested both in Greek and Hebrew culture and lies at the heart of the very notion of “divine law.” This idea introduces reflection on what we usually define as “laws of nature” or “natural law” found in the use of legal vocabulary in Greek and Hebrew texts to describe natural or cosmic phenomena. The fragments of Anaximander, Heraclitus and Democritus build on an analogy between polis and cosmos: the latter serves as model of dynamic balance which is insured for the polis by its laws. Thus, this vocabulary should therefore be understood against the background of ancient Greek juridical practice. As for the Hebrew Bible, the idea of “law of nature” emerges in later wisdom traditions focused on the creation account, which is reinterpreted through a legal imagery.
Scholars have traditionally depicted Near Eastern law as an essentially secular system centered on the political authority of kings, with biblical law representing a radical break in attributing law to a divine source. Yet, the notion of divine laws is well attested in ancient Mesopotamia and the promulgation of law was one way that human lawgivers embodied certain aspects of the gods of justice. With only a few exceptions, the almost complete subordination of biblical kings under the legal authority of Yhwh was an important innovation that set it apart from its Near Eastern neighbors, but it built on motifs and ideas that had circulated in the ancient Near East for millennia. Several key processes led to and resulted from the theologization of law and the conviction that God is the lawgiver. First, a development took place in ancient Judah that increasingly connected legislation with the ethical demand for solidarity on the basis of theological motivations. Furthermore, a tension results involving in the typical role of the king as the mediator of law in the ancient Near Eastern world. Thus, a further main topic of the work undertaken focused on defining the perceived relation between God, legislation, and kingship in ancient Israel and Judah. If God functions as the lawgiver, the figure of the king is redundant in the realm of law.
With regard to the influence of Pentateuchal law on society, this law hardly functioned like the modern Western understanding of “law,” governing property rights and other economic concerns or criminal justice at any point in the Babylonian through Hellenistic periods. This hypothesis suggests that scholarship of the Hebrew Bible and early Judaism might reconceive of the role of Torah during these periods. And, not only the role of the Torah as a whole, but also its constituent parts for any given author or community hardly function as positive “law.”
The research shows a substantial continuity between ancient Israelite religion and Greek conceptions that nature is conceived as a space shared between human and divine beings. The prominence of the creation model to conceptualize nature in the Hebrew Bible does not automatically imply a concept of divine transcendence, which instead resulted from a long-term process. This undercuts the stark dichotomy between divine transcendence, often connected with the ideas of creation and revelation, and the “immanent” view of the divine of Israel’s neighbors. On the other hand, the emergence of the Torah as a written law code of divine origin may have progressively impacted the notion of “natural law” itself: the insistence of late traditions on the correspondence between creation and law will eventually lead to the idea that the whole world is sustained by the Torah. By contrast, since the fifth cent. BCE on, several Greek authors refer to a core of religious or ethical principles recognized as universally valid, emanating from the gods, and occasionally labeled as “natural.” These norms are explicitly defined as unwritten, and explicitly contrasted with the main written body of the city laws. In this regard, it is correct to affirm that Greek and Hebrew traditions follow divergent trajectories.