In my last blog, I discussed the fact that the Mosaic Law should not be understood as a lofty moral ideal for all cultures and all times. Rather, as Jesus points out in Matthew 19:8, many things were permitted (whether divorce, slavery, polygamy, war, patriarchal social structures), but these were far removed from the creational ideals presented in Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:24. No, the Mosaic Law wasn’t the ideal, but it certainly was a noteworthy improvement upon the miserable moral and religious conditions in the ancient Near East (ANE). In this blog, I want to note some of them. As we’ll see, Israel would have been a great moral and social refuge in contrast to the surrounding nations.

From the late fourth millennium BC until the first centuries AD, collections of cuneiform law were in existence in the ANE. Cuneiform was a script of wedges impressed upon tablets of clay or wax or inscribed in stone or metal. Various collections of cuneiform law exist. These include the laws of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 BC, during the Third Dynasty of Ur); the laws of Lipit-Ishtar (c. 1925 BC), who ruled the Sumerian city of Isin; the (Akkadian) laws of Eshnunna (c. 1800 BC), a city 100 miles north of Babylon; the laws of Hammurabi (1750 BC); and the Hittite laws (1650-1200 BC) of Asia Minor.

There are certainly many parallels and overlapping themes within the Mosaic law and various ANE law codes. These include legislation regarding perjury and false witnesses (cp. Dt. 19:16-21), death penalty for murder (cp. Ex. 21:12), a husband’s payment for false accusation of adultery (cp. Dt. 22:13-19), payment for injury to an ox while renting it (cp. Ex. 22:14-15), and so forth. One of the laws of Eshnunna (§53) is nearly identical to Exodus 21:35: If an ox gores an(other) ox causes its death, both ox owners shall divide the price of the live ox and also the meat of the dead ox.

Such similarities should not be surprising. For instance, we observe that the book of Proverbs utilizes and adapts various sayings and maxims from the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke observes: Proverbs’ similarity to pagan literature is part and parcel of Scripture’s incarnation within its historical milieu. Its theological significance does not depend on the originality of its individual sentences or sayings any more than the theological significance of the so-called Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21-23) rests on the originality of its individual commandments. Proverbs utilizes general revelation (various Egyptian wisdom sayings), but Proverbs names the covenant God who can be known and in whom true wisdom is anchored.

Another example of strong ANE influence is the structure of Deuteronomy as a covenant treaty between Yahweh and Israel; this is patterned after second-millennium BC Hittite suzerainty treaties’ with preamble, prologue, stipulations, blessings-curses, and witnesses. Deuteronomy is markedly different in certain respects, though: Yahweh is described as a loving, gracious initiative-taking God, not a mere suzerain; also, Yahweh is not the chief beneficiary of this covenant (cp. Dt. 30:19-20). In all of these examples, no one is denying ANE cultural influence in the Mosaic Law, but we have no wholesale adoption either.

Despite the overlap between the Mosaic Law and ANE legal texts, there are notable differences between them and sigificant moral advances made in the Mosaic Law. First, how are they different? Joe Sprinkle points out general disparities between cuneiform laws vs. biblical laws: (1) secular laws vs. religious cultic-ceremonial ones; (2) laws made by kings (not gods) vs. laws from God mediated through Moses; (3) laws to glorify kings vs. laws to glorify God and to instruct (torah = instruction ) people and shape a national character; (4) laws reflecting king’s unlimited authority vs. laws limiting the king’s authority (e.g., Dt. 17:14-20); (5) property crimes punishable by death if a thief cannot pay (up to thirty-fold) vs. property crimes not being capital offenses but limited to five-fold restitution or indentured servitude (not death) for those who cannot pay; (6) offenses against slaves as on the same level as property crimes (e.g., oxen) vs. offenses against slaves as persons of value; (7) religious sins not typically capital offenses vs. a number of religious sins as capital offenses’ idolatry (Dt. 13:6-9), false prophecy (Dt. 18:20), sorcery (Lev. 20:27), blasphemy (Lev. 24:10-23), Sabbath violations (Num. 15:32-36). We could also add that Israelite law is far more concerned about the sanctity of life than Mesopotamian law. Because of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, laws intending to preserve both the family unit and Yahweh’s unique covenant/marriage relationship to Israel were paramount. Thus their violation was a serious matter that would undermine Israel’s very identity.

What, then, about specific improvements in the Law of Moses could we highlight? Regarding slavery, Christopher Wright declares: The slave [in Israel] was given human and legal rights unheard of in contemporary societies.†Mosaic legislation offered a radical advance for ANE cultures. According to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, We have in the Bible the first appeals in world literature to treat slaves as human beings for their own sake and not just in the interests of their masters. Kidnapping a person to sell as a slave was punishable by death: He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death†(Ex. 21:16; see also 1 Tim. 1:10). This biblical prohibition presents a marked repudiation of the kidnapping of Africans that ushered in the era of more recent Western slavery. Yet the new atheists seem given to blur any such distinctions. While other ANE cultures may too have prohibited kidnapping, the Mosaic Law stands out in sharp moral contrast to the former’s standard extradition treaties for, and harsh treatment of, runaway slaves. For instance, Hammurabi called for the death penalty to those helping runaway slaves [§16]). Israel, however, was to offer safe harbor foreign runaway slaves (Dt. 23:15-16). The ANE was no picnic, but Israel was a notable improvement.

Indeed, Hebrew slaves were to be granted release in the seventh year (Lev. 29:35-43) a notable improvement over other ANE law codes. Furthermore, masters had to release them from service with generous provisions, all conducted with the right attitude for the slave’s well-being as he enters into freedom: Beware that there is no base thought in your heart . . . and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother (Dt. 15:9). The motivating reason for all of this is the fact that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today (Dt. 15:12-18, esp. v. 15). The overriding goal in Dt. 15 is that there be no slavery in the land at all (vv. 4, 11). Gordon McConville calls this revolutionary.

Another marked improvement is in the release of injured slaves (Ex. 21:20-21). This is in contrast to their masters merely being compensated, which is typical in the ANE codes. If a slave’s eye or tooth was knocked out, the master gets compensated and keeps the slave. In Israel, the slave was freed if this happened. Elsewhere in the OT, Job recognizes that he and his slaves have the same Maker and come from the same place their mother’s womb (Job. 31:15).

We can mention the inferior sexual morality of the ANE. We are familiar with the Canaanite qedeshot—the female and male prostitutes (cp. Gen. 38:15, 22-3; Dt. 23:18-19; also Hos. 4:14). A number of ANE cuneiform laws permitted activities that undermined the family’s integrity and stability by allowing men, for instance, to engage in adulterous relations with slaves and prostitutes. The laws of Lipit-Ishtar of Lower Mesopotamia (1930 BC) take for granted the practice of prostitution (e.g., ¶ 27, 30). In Hittite law (1650-1500 BC), If a father and son sleep with the same female slave or prostitute, it is not an offence (¶ 194). Hittite law even permitted bestiality: If a man has sexual relations with either a horse or a mule, it is not an offence†(¶ 200a).

Not only do we find morally-inferior cuneiform legislation, but its attendant harsh, ruthless punishments. Commenting on the brutal and harsh Code of Hammurabi, historian Paul Johnson observes: These dreadful laws are notable for the ferocity of their physical punishments, in contrast to the restraint of the Mosaic Code and the enactments of Deuteronomy and Leviticus. For instance, Hammurabi’s code stresses the centrality of property whereas the laws in the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 21-23) consider crimes against persons to be far more weighty.

For certain crimes, Hammurabi mandated that tongue, breast, hand, or ear be cut off (§§ 192, 194, 195, 205). One punishment involved the accused’s being dragged around a field by cattle. Babylon and Assyria (as well as Sumer) practiced the River Ordeal: when criminal evidence was inconclusive, the accused would be thrown into the river; if he drowned, he was guilty (the river god’s judgment), but if he survived, he was innocent and the accuser was guilty of false accusation. Besides punishments such as cutting off noses and ears, ancient Egyptian law permitted the beating of criminals (for, say, perjury or libel) with between 100 and 200 strokes. In fact, a 100-stroke beating was the “mildest form of punishment, according to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Contrast this with Dt. 25:1-3, which sets a limit of forty strokes for a criminal: He may beat him forty times but no more, so that he does not beat him with many more stripes than these. The reason? So that “your brother is not degraded in your eyes. Furthermore, in Babylonian or Hittite law, status or social rank determined the kind of sanctions for a particular crime whereas biblical law holds kings and priests and those of social rank to the same standards as the common person. The informed inhabitant of the ANE would have thought, Quick, get me to Israel!

Our interlocutor might ask: What about Scripture’s emphasis on lex talionis’ an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Is this not a brutal retribution? First, an investigation of the Pentateuch’s lex talionis texts (Ex. 21:23-25; Lev. 24:17-22; Dt. 19:16-21) reveals that, except for capital punishment (life for life), these are not taken literally. None of examples illustrating eye for an eye calls for bodily mutilation, but rather just (monetary) compensation. Brevard Childs comments on the uniqueness of this approach: Thus the principle of lex talionis marked an important advance and was far from being a vestige from a primitive age. Second, this principle served as useful guide for exacting proportional punishment and compensation; this was designed to prevent blood feuds and disproportionate acts of retaliation.

We could highlight many more such differences. Again, we see in the Mosaic Law a drastic improvement upon ANE cuneiform law. Though Sinai legislation attempts to balance realism with idealism and has a restraining, regulating effect, it brings moral uplift and points Israel back towards God’s creational designs of sexual, racial, social, equal and the goodness of lifelong monogamous marriage.

(This essay is excerpted from Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics. Forthcoming in the next issue of Philosophia Christi [].)

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry