Archaeologists discovered several ancient Near Eastern law codes in the first half of the twentieth century. Many of the laws contained in these codes bear a striking resemblance to some of the Mosaic laws of the Old Testament. This fact has forced Old Testament critics to revise their late date for the Pentateuch (Albright, 109). But the relationship between Mosaic Law and the ancient Near East legal codes has also given rise to another form of criticism. Modern critics argue that Moses (or whoever authored the Pentateuch) received his laws from his ancient Near Eastern neighbors. This claim raises an important question for the Bible-believing Christian: Did the Mosaic Law ultimately originate with God or with pagan societies? More bluntly, was Moses a plagiarist?
The ANE Legal Codes
Below is a summary of the ancient Near East legal codes, listed according to rank of antiquity. Most of these legal codes are casuistic in form though some apodictic laws are found in the Hittite law codes. Casuistic laws are framed in conditional language, the protasis introducing a particular scenario and the apodosis rendering a corresponding judgment (hence they are also called “case laws”). Apodictic laws are categorical commands or prohibitions, like those in the Decalogue (cf. Alt, 101-71).
1. The Code of Ur-nammu (c. 2050 B.C.)
- Discovered: Deciphered in 1952 by Samuel Kramer, but discovered earlier.
- Language: Sumerian
- Content and form: Prologue and 29 laws; casuistic
2. The Code of Eshnunna (c. 1980 B.C.)
- Discovered: In 1945 and 1948 by the Iraq Directorate of Antiquities; published by A. Goetze in 1948.
- Language: Akkadian
- Content and form: 61 laws; casuistic
3. The Code of Lipit-Ishtar (c. 1930 B.C.)
- Discovered: In 1947 by Francis Steele and published in 1948, 1950.
- Language: Sumerian
- Content and form: 39 laws have survived with prologue and epilogue; casuistic
4. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1700 B.C.)
- Discovered: 1901-02 by Jacques de Morgan; deciphered by P. V. Scheil.
- Language: Akkadian
- Content and form: Prologue, 282 laws, and an epilogue; casuistic
5. The Hittite laws (c. 1500 B.C.)
- Discovered: 1906-12 by Hugo Winckler; published in 1921.
- Language: Hittite (also contains some Sumerian and Akkadian)
- Content and form: 2 tablets, each containing of 100 laws; casuistic and some apodictic
6. The Middle Assyrian laws (c. 1100 B.C.)
- Discovered: 1903 to 1914 by German archaeologists; published 1920.
- Language: Akkadian
- Content and form: 116 laws preserved on 11 tablets; casuistic
Moses and the ANE Legal Codes
Most scholars, including evangelicals, have recognized both similarities and differences between the Mosaic codes and its Near Eastern counterparts (Gordon, 154-161; Hamilton, 215, 218).
1. Some examples of correspondence
(1) Regarding the lex talionis
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exod 21:24-25; cf. Lev 24:19)
“If a seignior has destroyed the eye of a member of the aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye.”
“If he has broken a(nother) seignior’s bone, they shall break his bone.”
“If a seignior has knocked out a tooth of a seignior of his own rank, they shall knock out his tooth.”
(2) Regarding the ox that gores
If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go unpunished. “If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death. (Exod 21:28-36)
“If an ox is known to gore habitually and the authorities have brought the fact to the knowledge of its owner, but he does not have his ox dehorned, it gores a man and causes (his) death, then the owner of the ox shall pay two-thirds of a mina of silver” (cf. Hammurabi, sec. 250-251).
(3) Regarding the rape of a virgin
If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife…. But if in the field the man finds the girl who is engaged, and the man forces her and lies with her, then only the man who lies with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the girl; there is no sin in the girl worthy of death, for just as a man rises against his neighbor and murders him, so is this case. When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out, but there was no one to save her. (Deut 22:23-27)
Hittite law code
Sec. 197 [2nd Tablet]:
“If a man seizes a woman in the mountains, it is the man’s crime and he will be killed. But if he seizes here in her house, it is the woman’s crime and the woman shall be killed. If the husband finds them, he may kill them, there shall be no punishment for him.”
(4) Regarding the levirate marriage
When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. (Deut 25:5ff.; cf. Gen 38; Ruth 4)
Sec. 193 [2nd Tablet]:
“If a man has a wife and then the man dies, his brother shall take his wife, then his father shall take her. If in turn also his father dies, one of his brother’s sons shall take the wife whom he had. There shall be no punishment.”
2. Important points of contrast
First, The Mosaic Law places a higher value upon human life; whereas the other codes place more value upon physical property. For example, if an ox gores a man, Mosaic law demands that the animal be slaughtered and, if the owner had prior warning, that it’s owner be put to death in order to underscore the sanctity of human life (Exod 21:28; cf. Gen 9:6). On the other hand, the Eshnunna code and Hammurabi code are only concerned with economic compensation for the victim’s family (EC, 54; HC, 251). As Cyrus Gordon notes, “In these instances, we can see that the greater concern for human life leads to a harsher position in Israel” (157; cf. Kitchen, 148; Cole, 886; Alexander, 184).
Second, the Mosaic Law is framed in a distinctively religious-cultic framework; whereas the other law codes are predominantly civil in perspective. The Torah contains many laws that serve to keep Israel separate from the moral and religious influence of pagan society (Leviticus 2:11; 18:1-24; Deut 22:5; 23:18). Thus these laws are original to Israel, and are notably absent from the other law codes. Once again, Gordon writes,
“the Israelite leaders saw as part of their calling the need to separate the Israelites from the Canaanites. The way to do this was to drive a legal wedge between the Israelites and Canaanites by outlawing for the former many of the practices of the latter” (158; cf. de Vaux, 158; Kitchen, 148).
Third, the Mosaic Law is represented as being ultimately authored by God, whereas the other law codes are represented merely as the laws of human kings. Moses clearly identifies God as the ultimate author of his legislation (Exod 20:1, 22; 21:1; 24:3, 4; Deut 4:2; etc.). According to some, the relief atop Hammurabi’s stela pictures the king receiving his laws from his god (Schwantes, 35). But since Hammurabi takes credit for the laws in both the prologue and epilogue, it is better to understand the relief as the god handing the king a scepter or stylus, not a scroll, and authorizing the king to make laws (Gordon, 163; Smith, 37-38). Neufeld says of the Hittite laws, “There is hardly any trace of a theocratic element here” (102).
Explaining the Relationship
1. Coincidence, dependence, or adaptation?
A similar Sitz im Leben may account for some degree of correspondence. But there appear to be too many linguistic and semantic parallels to be merely coincidental. On the other hand, the differences between the codes are substantially significant to preclude a slavish borrowing. Most scholars believe the Mosaic laws are based upon a common ancient Near East legal tradition. Liberals view divine authorship (and usually Mosaic as well) as pure fiction invented for propagandist purposes by later Jewish literati (Gordon, 161-62). However, many evangelicals believe God may have led Moses to employ laws from his contemporary Near East tradition that were consistent with the covenant or to modify laws which were not (Livingston, 185).
2. Inspired revelation and reformulation
Since Moses was educated in Egypt (where Hammurabi’s code was studied) and was exposed to Semitic legal tradition through the Hebrews (whose forefathers came from Aram) and the Midianites, we can be sure that Moses was familiar with the Near Eastern legal tradition of his day. That Moses’ laws resemble those of Near Eastern neighbors should not surprise us since they share a common Sitz im Leben and an identical moral law written upon the conscience from creation (Rom 1:32; 2:14-15). Thus, that fact Jesus’ Golden Rule (Matt 7:12) is found upon the lips of pagans several centuries before Christ uttered it on the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t mean Jesus is plagiarizing. He’s simply summarizing the moral law with an axiom with which people made in the image of God were familiar.
Furthermore, these non-biblical legal codes may also be remnants of previous revelation God had given to certain individuals (Gen 9:1-17; 26:5). Because of human depravity, these societies distorted previous revelation so that their laws do not always accurately reflect God’s moral law (Rom 1:18-32).
At Sinai God revealed the moral law in the form of ten apodictic commandments (Exod 20; Deut 5), which would form the basis for all religious and ethical legislation. He also guided Moses in the inclusion of whatever contemporary legal tradition was still consistent with the moral law and the emendation of those laws inconsistent with the moral law (Cassuto). Moreover, God gave Moses additional laws to keep the Israelites separate from the pagan nations (Exod 34:27; Lev 2:11; 18:1-24; Deut 22:5; 23:18).
Finally, we need not deny that God used Moses’ knowledge of Near Eastern legal codes. Of course, it’s possible Moses passively dictated what God said. In that case, we might say that it was God alone who chose to communicate in words, concepts, and literary forms familiar to Moses and the Israelites. Moses only wrote down what he heard audibly spoken by God. On the other hand, the doctrine of concursive inspiration depicts the human agent of divine revelation as (to some degree) active (cf. Luke 1:1-4). In that case, BOTH God AND Moses were familiar with ANE legal tradition and diplomatic treaties (e.g., the 2nd millennium BC suzerain-vassal treaty model). Moreover, BOTH the Divine AND ALSO the human author are active in the selection of words, concepts, and literary forms to convey special revelation. Hence, revelation that is portrayed as God’s own word or God’s own command need not imply complete passivity on the part of the human author (cf. Deut 18:18-22; 2 Sam 23:1-2; 1 Cor 14:37). Perhaps the best approach is view the Mosaic law as conveyed through a combination of dictation and concursive inspiration. In either case, God accommodates his communication to his target audience, speaking to them in vocabulary, concepts, and literary forms with which they are familiar.
Primary: James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (1950).
Secondary: William F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968), 101-09; Albrecht Alt, “The Origins of Israelite Law” in Essays on Old Testament History and Religion (1967), 101-71; T. D. Alexander, From Paradise to the Promised Land (2002), 62-79, 176-188; Umberto Cassuto, Commentary on Exodus (1967), 254-316; Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus (1974), 440-64; R. A. Cole, “Law in the Old Testament,” ZPEB (1976), 883-94; Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 143-63; Cyrus Gordon, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, 4th edition (1997), 153-167; Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Pentateuch (1982), 193-226; H. A. Hoffner, “Hittites,” ZPEB (1976), 168-72; Kenneth Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (1966), 147-49; G. Herbert Livingston, The Pentateuch in its Cultural Environment (1974), 171-186; Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East (1997), 97-123; E. Neufeld, The Hittite Laws (1951); James Pritchard, Archaeology and the Old Testament (1958), 206-27; Siegfried Schwantes, A Short History of the Ancient Near East (1965), 29, 36-37, 48, 84-85; J. M. Powis Smith, The Origin and History of Hebrew Law (1931); Merrill Unger, Archeology and the Old Testament, 3rd edition (1956), 153-57; Arthur Ungnad, “Hammurabi, Code of” in ISBE (1939), 2:1327-32; D. J. Wiseman, “Hammurabi,” ZPEB (1972), 23-26.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.