Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wealth and Poverty and the Uniqueness of the Mosaic Law

Comparison of the Mosaic Law in the Hebrew Bible to other ancient Near Eastern law codes demonstrates many parallels and similarities. In his book Inspiration and Incarnation, Peter Enns comments: “But when you look at the specific laws, the degree of similarity is obvious. . . . biblical laws and ancient Near Eastern law codes cover very similar situations in similar wording: false accusations, stealing, stolen property, kidnapping, treatment of slaves, livestock, land, loans, marriage and divorce, children, and so on. It is no exaggeration to say that anyone familiar with ancient Near Eastern law codes, reading biblical law for the first time, although likely taking note of elements peculiar to the Israelites, would no doubt recognize it as ‘another ancient Near Eastern law code.’” The case law concerning a goring ox in Exodus 21:28 bears a striking similarity to the provision found in the Laws of Eshnunna (53): “If an ox gores another ox and thus causes its death, the two ox-owners shall divide the value of the living ox and the carcass of the dead ox.”

Despite these similarities, David L. Baker’s recent work Tight Fists or Open Hands: Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law, also documents how the Mosaic Law is distinctively different from these other law codes in its views on wealth, property, and treatment of the poor. Regarding social and economic issues, Baker writes that the differences between the Mosaic Law and these other law codes “far outnumber the similarities.” Baker’s topic is quite relevant at a time when Christians are both reawakening to their social responsibilities and being told to flee from churches that promote social justice. Much of this confusion can be directly attributed to the church’s failure to develop a coherent theology of wealth and to absorb the ethic of the Old Testament law. In the concluding chapter of his book, Baker highlights these ten unique features and concerns of the Mosaic Law.

1.The penalties for infringing property rights in the Bible are much more humane than elsewhere, and never involve mutilation, beating, or death. The same rules apply to all as well, and punishment does not depend on the status of the thief or the victim.

See Exod 22:1-4; 23:9; Lev 19:15; 24:22

Compare with other ancient Near Eastern law codes that often punish various forms of theft or dishonest practices with death or mutilation of some form:

Middle Assyrian Law (§ A3) If a man is either ill or dead, and his wife should steal something from his house and give it either to a man, or to a woman, or to anyone else, they shall kill the man’s wife as well as the receivers

Middle Assyrian Law (§ A4) If … a slave … should receive something from a man’s wife, they shall cut off the slave’s … nose and ears; they shall restore the stolen goods, the man shall cut off his wife’s ears… (the punishment for a man who steal is much more lenient and generally consists of a beating and restitution).

Code of Hammurabi (§ 25) If a fire breaks out in a man’s house, and a man who came to help put it out covets the household furnishings belonging to the householder, and takes household furnishings belonging to the householder, that man shall be cast into that very fire.

Code of Hammurabi (§ 108) If a tapster should refuse to accept grain for the price of beer but accepts [only] silver measured by the large weight, thereby reducing the value of beer in relation to the value of grain, they shall charge and convict that tapster and they shall cast her into the water.

2.With regard to laws on owner liability for animals and buildings, Mesopotamian laws deal with the economic aspect and provide compensation for the victim’s family, while biblical law is concerned primarily with bloodguilt because of the inestimable value of human life.

See Exod 21:28-29

3.According to OT law, ancestral land is God’s gift to his chosen people and allocated equitably to each of them. Old Babylonian and Middle Assyrian law assert that the land belongs to the king.

See Leviticus 25:23-24

4.In the OT law, chattel slavery is limited to non-Israelites, and the laws provide significant protection for slaves. Fugitive slaves are to be given asylum, and slaves are entitled to holidays. In other ANE law codes, slaves are subject to property law, which focuses on the rights of the slave owners over their property.

See Exod 21:20-21, 26-27; Lev 25:44-46; Deut 23:15-16

5.There are several distinctive features of OT law concerning semi-slaves. Temporary slaves are given the option of becoming permanent members of the household at the end of their service. Bonded labor for a limited term was another way of paying off debts and was actually a realistic possibility because of the OT policy of interest-free loans. High interest rates in other cultures meant that the worker was only covering interest payments and would likely remain in lifelong bondage. Biblical law also provides a measure of protection to concubines that entitles them to some of the rights of a wife or daughter, and this kindness toward concubines contrasts with their utilitarian treatment in Mesopotamia.

See Exod 21:2-6; Deut 15:13-18; Exod 21:7-11; Deut 21:10-14

6.The protection of vulnerable people is considered the divine will and a royal responsibility throughout the ANE. However, OT law is more concerned ensure that widows and orphans are not abused or exploited in law courts or financial dealings. They also benefit from the laws on gleaning, triennial tithes, and celebrations that promote generosity toward the needy. OT law also reflects a concern for ethnic minorities within the covenant community not found in other ANE law collections.

See Exod 22:22-24; Deut 24:17-18

7.Biblical law has distinctive emphases in relation to just lawsuits. The principle of impartiality may have been assumed elsewhere, but it is only explicitly stated in the OT.

See Exod 20:16; 22:21; 23:8-9; Lev 19:15, 33-34; 24:22; Deut 16:18-20; 17:16; 19:15; 24:17-18; 27:19

8.The idea that agricultural produce is God’s gift to his people, to be shared with all is another OT distinctive. This is reflected in specific ways in the laws of the sabbatical year, the triennial tithe, and ‘scrumping.’ The biblical laws on gleaning and scrumping have no parallel elsewhere. In other parts of the ANE, fallowing takes place for agricultural reasons, and tithes are paid to the temple or place, but neither of these practices is designed as social welfare.

See Exod 23:10-11; Lev 25:1-7, 18-25; 19:9-10; Deut 14:28-29; 24:19-22; 26:12-13

9.There is a significant contrast between the laws of the ANE and the OT on the subject of loans. Mesopotamian law is concerned with standardizing rates of interest, whereas Israelite law forbids interest on loans to fellow-members of the covenant community, especially the poor. While all the laws assume the principle of security for loans, the OT is more concerned with the needs of the poor who borrow than the rights of the rich who lend. A pledge is allowed as long as it does not cause hardship to the borrower, but since the poor are unlikely to have very little that they do not need, the law virtually eliminates security in practice. The OT laws do not even contemplate the possibility of the surrender of a family member or ancestral land as a pledge, practices which are common in other ANE laws.

See Exod 22:25; Lev 25:35-38; Deut 15:7-8; 23:19-20

10.The OT laws on terms and conditions for employment are unparalleled in the other law collection. The concept of Sabbath is unique in the ANE, especially in its emphasis that regular rest and recreation is a fundamental right for all—including slaves, resident aliens, and even livestock. The same emphasis is also reflected with several other biblical festivals. No other ANE law specifically legislates for holidays. The laws on wages in other ANE law codes are designed primarily to protect the rights of employers; biblical laws are more concerned with the right of employees to prompt payment for their work.

See Exod 20:8-11; 23:12; Lev 19:19; Deut 5:12-15; Deut 12:12, 18; 16:14; 24:14-15

Recognizing these distinctive features enhances our appreciation and respect for the Mosaic Law as sacred Scripture. It also serves as a reminder that Christian pastors have a responsibility to give a greater place to the teaching of the Mosaic Law in our pulpits. Remembering that the God of the Old Testament commanded his people “to be open-handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in the land” (Deut 15:11) will do much to correct our blindness toward our social responsibilities and to motivate us to practice the pure religion of looking after those in need (James 1:27).