The Old testament

Introduction For all intends and purposes of this course, the phenomenon of prophecy in Israel is our main focus. And to properly put prophecy into perspective, it is important that we analyze it not as a stand-alone institution but as an institution within the broader context of Israelite religion. The Israelite religion was made up of three main complementary institutions namely; The Judiciary (dealing mainly with issues to do with the Law), The Priesthood (concentrating mainly with sacrifices and/or rituals) and Prophecy. While the three spheres were originally meant to complement each other in service to the Israelite society, soon after the birth of the monarchy more often than not, there are struggles within and sometimes confrontation with each other. That is, we sometimes witness a priest against a priest; a prophet against a priest or vice versa; a prophet against a prophet; or a prophet against judges. It seems however that, it was prophecy that was always at loggerheads with other institutions the most, as if to suggest that prophecy played a supervisory role to the other two institutions.


The Israelite legal system was administered locally by “wise elders” drawn from all the tribes that constituted early Israel (Exo. 4:29-31; Num.11:16-17). This picture corresponds well with known examples of Communal Modes of Production. In this mode of economic production everything is administered locally by heads of households. While it is known that Israel had laws and judges who interpreted such laws, what is not clear is how and when Israel developed its legal corpus. What is known from a form critical perspective is that Israelite law existed in two forms. According to A. Alt, Israelite Laws can be divided into two categories namely; the Casuistic Laws (Case) and the Apodictic Laws. Casuistic Laws These are the conditional Laws and they are characterized by the conditional clause “if, whenever, when …”, then the consequence follows. One of the best examples are the manumission clauses in Exodus 21 and laws regarding property or animal rights in Exodus 22; manumission laws in Deut 15:12ff and Lev 25:25-55. A closer look at them betrays the perception that they were crafted to deal with interpersonal relationships. That is, these laws sought to instill proper human relations among members of the Israelite community. This reveals that like us, and the rest of humanity, ancient Israelites engaged in petty squabbles among themselves. There were crooks, exploiters, and those who sought to profiteer at the backdrop of the suffering of others. It was the responsibility of judges at the gates to preside over these cases when neighbors or employer and employee had disputes. They always would take sides with the weak. They therefore were guardians of the poor, the weak and the oppressed. This is the background for appreciating the notion that Yahweh is always for the weaker members of the society (women, widows, orphans, aliens, etc).


The judges always 3 interpreted these laws to guarantee justice. As justice was understood to be God’s main character, the judges we could say, were Yahweh’s representatives. As servants of Yahweh who was for the egalitarian social order, it was the duty of judges to always call for egalitarianism/equitable distribution of wealth (the economy), especially the land. They had to make sure that everyone had access to land and no one could lose his father’s inheritance. The land was always inherited from the fathers and there was no room for hoarding land and dispossessing others from their ancestral land. The land was communally owned and never an individually owned property. It is also possible to historically explain the clear legal bias toward the poor in Israel. The legal system was established soon after the peasant revolution that brought about the end to city-state scenarios that characterized pre-settled Israel/Canaan. During the city-state era, the society was highly hierarchical. Individuals were ranked in terms of class (and maybe race). The law was as such only there to protect the high class and those with positions of influence in society. The peasants could be dispossessed from their inheritance by the elite class. And with the corrupt and biased legal system, there was no chance for the poor to with cases against the rich. When you read proponents of the peasant revolt theory such as G. Mendenhall’s The Tenth Generation, these are the ills that prompted a peasant revolution which had to turn things up-side-down. According to Gottwald, they turned “outlawry into inlawry”. The culture and aspirations of the peasants began to dominate every sphere. Therefore, while the city-state scenario was hierarchical and served the elite few, the “new” order was egalitarian hence served the majority.


However, a form critical analysis of the laws found among Israel’s ANE neighbors shows that Israel’s casuistic laws (especially manumission laws) in many respects resembled the laws enshrined in the Hammurabi Code of Laws found at Mari, a cultic center in (Syria) Mesopotamia. The Hammurabi Code literally has all the casuistic laws as we have them in the Old Testament with very minor differences. Therefore, these Laws could have been “borrowed” or copied from Mesopotamia by Israelite Patriarchs. This position has been supported by the fact that Mari was an ancient city thought to have been inhabited from the 5 th millennium BCE although it flourished from 2900 BCE until 1759 when it was sacked by Hammurabi. It is believed that Abraham the great patriarch of the Hebrews passed through Mari on his way from Ur to Haran. Therefore, most likely, Mari as a very important ancient city could have influenced the culture of the Ancient Near East. But the problem with this position is that it is based on an improbable myth. There is no archaeological evidence so far that there have been places called, Ur and Haran. The most likely explanation for the similarities is that these casuistic laws were common among all peoples of the Ancient Near East. By the way these laws corresponded with the existing mode of economic production. So, as Israel retribalised after their peasant revolution, they created a society along the already existing tribal model. That means, laws that governed them before the rise of the city-states became prominent. 4 Apodictic Laws These are the absolute laws, which are almost always found in the imperative mood. (Do not… thou shall not…, you shall not….) These are therefore commands. This is why Alt identified the Decalogue as part of the apodictic laws in Israel (Exodus 20: 3ff and Deut 5: 7ff).Unlike, Casuistic laws that could deal with civil matters, Apodictic laws were more religious than secular. As such, they dealt with issues pertaining to covenantal stipulations between Yahweh and Israel-the covenant community. These were unique to Israel as they resembled no other known laws from the ANE.

Read more of the Old testament notes