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Israel’s Codes of Conduct
Compared to Surrounding Nations

Dennis Bratcher

Several edited versions of this article have appeared in Illustrated Bible Life

Any group of people needs guidelines to get along with each other in community. These range from matters of common courtesy and cultural norms that set boundaries for behavior, to civil and criminal law that keep order in society and restrict the ability of the powerful to dominate the weak. Such codes of conduct oil the machinery of society, reducing the friction caused by people living and working closely together.

The ancient Israelites developed such a code of social and religious behavior based on the Ten Commandments, or the "Ten Words" (Gk: Decalogue, Exod. 34:28). Spoken by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, these Ten Words express the essential religious and moral principles of the Old Testament (Exod. 20:1-17, Deut. 5:6-21). They put in a nutshell what God revealed to the ancient Israelites about Himself, as well as how they should live in community with each other (see Torah as Holiness:  Old Testament "Law" as Response to Divine Grace). From these "Words," as well as other instructions through prophets and priests, the Israelites developed a detailed system of religious and social regulations that bound the community together under God.

Yet, Israelites were not the only people of the Ancient Near East who had such codes of conduct. Much of what is contained in Israelite codes can be found in other cultures, some pre-dating the Old Testament by centuries. Often these are attributed to a deity who instructed the leader to give the laws to the people. The Code of Hammurabi, attributed to the ruler of the Amorite kingdom of ancient Babylon in the 17th century BC, several hundred years before Moses, makes such a claim. The ancient inscription begins by asserting that Hammurabi was chosen by the gods . . .

. . . to promote the welfare of the people. . . to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak . . . .

It concludes, like the book of Deuteronomy, with a series of curses upon those who violate the royal decrees.

Some of the regulations are exact parallels, while others duplicate shared cultural and social values in a more general way. For example, laws that allowed punishment for offenses to be no more severe than the offense itself are common to both codes.

Code of H 197 If he has broken a [landowner’s] bone, they shall break his bone.

Lev. 24:19-20 Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.

Other Eastern social customs, such as establishing honor and respect due parents, are also found in both codes.

Code of H 195 If a son has struck his father, they shall cut off his hand.

Exodus 21:15 Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

Other regulations also reveal the social and cultural background the Israelites shared with other ancient Near Eastern peoples, as in laws governing offenses against the community. For example, false charges brought against others was a serious breech of community in all Near Eastern cultures. If the charges could not be sustained, the accuser must himself suffer the penalty for the alleged crime (cf. Deut. 19:15-21).

Middle Assyrian laws dating to the 16th to 13th century BC established social norms concerning sexual impropriety that closely parallel Deut. 22:22-29. They also detail a variety of cultural norms, such as the requirement that a married woman wear a veil, but that a prostitute must not (cf. 1 Cor. 11:4-16). Also, laws regulating ownership and transfer of land, property, and slaves are so similar that they likely reflect a common cultural background.

MA Code B:1 If brothers divide the estate of their father . . . the orchards and wells on the land, the oldest son shall choose and take two portions as his share . . .

Deut. 21:17 He must acknowledge him as firstborn . . giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.

However, while Israelite and other Near Eastern codes of conduct do share common cultural strands, the Old Testament differs in three major ways.

1) Basis and Motive for Codes

The major difference lies in the grounding of the codes. Near Eastern codes were based on the authority and power of a ruler, or the state that supported a ruler. In effect, they were the king’s laws. While the codes were often attributed to the gods, and supported by the priests, the real authority lay in the power of the king as ruler. The laws were nearly all civil laws that governed society, actually meaning that the rights of the wealthy were protected and existing structures of power were not disturbed. This explains why a large percentage of the Code of Hammurabi deals with economic issues concerning interest rates on loans, rental of land, sale of goods, property rights and obligations, inheritance, dowries, treatment of slaves (as property), and the repeated distinction between landowners and commoners.

In the OT, the codes are not based on the authority of a king, since many of them predate the time when Israel had a king. They are rooted in the Israelites’ own unique experience of God. The covenant at Sinai, with the Ten Words at its heart, is the grounding of Israelite community. That covenant is based on an understanding of God as the defender of the oppressed, the One who hears the cries of oppressed slaves, and enters history to reveal Himself as a God of grace and compassion. So, although the Israelite codes deal with economic matters, they do not dominate. Rather, at the center of Israelite thinking is the first of the Ten Words:

Exod. 20:2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods besides me.

All other OT instructions, from social conventions to priestly regulations, are commentary on this profound experience of God in the exodus and at Sinai. So, while the Israelites shared many social customs with their neighbors, even borrowing certain conventions of behavior from them, they also brought a unique perspective. For example, the Israelites, like their neighbors, could own slaves. But slaves were not to be treated as mere property (see Exod. 21:1-11, Deut. 15:12-18). In Israel, slaves had some rights. Under certain circumstances, they could celebrate religious festivals with their owners. They were not to be mistreated. And there were limits imposed on the time they could serve as slaves (Lev. 25). Israelites could not enslave other Israelites . . .

. . . for they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold. (Lev. 25:42)

There are also various regulations for ownership of land that prevented leaders and powerful overlords from taking over all the land (Num. 27:1-11; 36:1-12). There are regulations limiting how debts could be collected and how long they could be held against someone, as well as provisions for Israelites to work off debts (Lev. 25). There are also provisions made for the care of the poor and powerless in society, such as widows, orphans, and foreigners living in the land. Landowners are required to leave part of the crop in the field for harvest by the poor (Lev. 19:9-10; cf. Ruth 2:1-23).

We are not sure how often and to what extent these ideals were followed in actual practice. But the very fact that they are in place suggests that the Israelites were trying to live out their experience of God, and to implement in practical ways the implications of the Ten Words.

2) Religious instructions

The second difference between Israel and other cultures of the Ancient Near East is in Israel’s religious codes, which derive directly from their unique understanding of God expressed in the first two of the "Ten Words." As noted, Israel’s codes of conduct come closest to those of other nations in practical matters, such as economic concerns and social conventions. Most of these are referred to as "case law," based on real or theoretical cases that would arise in the course of communal life. Both in other Near Eastern codes and in the OT, these are usually in the form: "If a person . . ." or "Whenever a person . . ."

However, Israel’s codes also contain a different type of requirement that has no parallel in any other collection of Near Eastern codes. These are instructions that begin with a simple command, a negative that means "never," and often followed by a reason or a motive for the command. This form can be seen in several of the Ten Words.

Exod. 20:7 You shall [never] make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for [or because] the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses His name.

These instructions always relate to religious matters, actions that are directly tied to the nature and character of Israel’s God. Even when they relate to what we might call "ethical" issues, such as coveting a neighbor’s property (Ex. 20:17), they are understood to be grounded in Israel’s understanding of God. They are not merely social convention or practical application, but matters fundamental to the life of the people as the ones chosen to be God’s people. They are the absolute and unequivocal basis for human conduct. They did not change with the whims of the king, but were the baseline against which Israel, people as well as leaders, was to measure its behavior under God.

3) people, property, and capital offenses

A third major difference between Israel and its surrounding neighbors is how people were treated growing out of Israel’s understanding of God. In the Near Eastern codes the most severe penalties were applied to crimes against the property of the wealthy. While both cultures made a distinction between slaves and citizens, with the slaves having less rights, the Babylonian codes also made a distinction between the aristocracy, landowners, and commoners, something the Old Testament does not do. Penalties for commoners who have committed offenses against landowners were often mutilation or death, while penalties for landowners against commoners for the same offenses were usually small fines, which they could easily afford. Capital offenses included: giving false testimony; making unproved accusations; theft from temples, state property, or the household of a landowner; receiving stolen goods; helping slaves escape or hiding runaway slaves; damaging the wall of a house; robbery; failure to heed the summons of the king; cheating in the selling of wine; allowing outlaws to congregate in a house without reporting them; violating vows; humiliating a husband; or poor house construction that caused a death.

There are also numerous cases, mostly involving commoners, where physical mutilation is the penalty, usually the cutting off of a hand, a foot, or an ear for relatively moderate offenses. In some cases, even more severe measures are taken, such as cutting out the tongue of a child who speaks against his parents, cutting off the lower lip of either landowner or commoner who kisses another man’s wife, castration for some sexual crimes, and cutting off the breast of a wet-nurse who takes another child after one has died in her care.

By contrast, the most severe penalties in the OT are applied to offenses against other people, regardless of social rank, or actions which threaten the community and its values. In the OT, there are only four categories of capital offenses: intentional homicide; sins against God, such as idolatry, sorcery, or blasphemy, all of which threaten the basis of the community; grave offenses against parents; and certain sexual abuses. The sentences were most often carried out by the community. There are no death penalties in the OT for crimes against property. There is only one instance where mutilation of a person is allowed, a special case of violation of the family (Deut 25:11-12), which probably reflects very old customs.

While the Old Testament codes may sometimes offend modern sensibilities, they are far less severe and arbitrary than others of the Near East. And they consistently reflect Israel’s unique encounter with the God of grace and compassion who revealed Himself to them in the exodus.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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