Laws touch on every aspect of our lives. Birth and death, marriage, taxes, traffic, the buying and selling of property—nearly all of our daily activities as people require predetermined arrangements for conduct between the parties involved. Westerners today tend to pride ourselves on the rule of law and justice in our society which is derived from a fundamentally secular sense of value. The separation of Church and State, as well as the further separation and subdivision of powers within the State, theoretically serves as a blanket guarantee of equality before the law that spans divides of status, culture, and religion.
In modern society, judges and legislators must bring their legal decisions into line with precedent and influential opinion. Biblical law, however, is able to bypass the stage of consultation and referendum by virtue of having been presented in fiat by God Himself. This dichotomy between secularism and divine injunction—and the ways in which it is subverted throughout the Old Testament—will represent the core of the coming essay. Specifically, I will be focusing on the chapters of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers which deal with the divine introduction and subsequent refinement of the Decalogue and the so-called “Holiness Code”.
The ways in which secular and divine law interweave in the Torah are particularly fascinating. Brettler asserts that “the Biblical authors understood all law as divine law”, and the authors/redactors of the Pentateuch have gone to great lengths to chronicle the various technicalities and details involved in fulfilling God’s commandments. Despite the ‘Priestly’ origin of the entirety of the book of Leviticus, it will be necessary to compare and/or reconcile the Priestly writings of Leviticus with the non-P textual elements offered in the books of Exodus and Numbers.
Another segment of this criticism will derive from a modest, cursory review of the similarities and differences between the legal codes of the Torah, and those of neighboring regional Semitic societies (such as the Akkadians and Sumerians) whose own cultures shared resources, customs of hospitality, and other items of belief and heritage with the ancient Hebrews. Incorporating this information into the essay will serve to strengthen claims that may arise regarding the widespread practice of given elements of the Holiness Code as described in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
As Baruch J. Schwartz notes in the JPS Tanakh introduction to the book of Leviticus, the narrative in which the Decalogue and Holiness Code appear spans roughly from Exodus 25 to Numbers 10. This is a considerable body of text, and a long series of technical injunctions on which to apply a thorough analysis. I will be relying heavily on information from the JPS and Brettler texts, as well as other critical scholarship gleaned from sources like EBSCOHOST. The introduction of the Holiness Code and the Decalogue represent a pivotal moment (if not the most pivotal) in the Old Testament, and the history of the Jewish people. It is extremely important to try and tease out the essential meanings of these injunctions—holy or otherwise—both for a class on writing and critical scholarship, and for the progress of religious understanding.