Covenant Code Week 2 Reading Guide

Life, Personal Status and Slavery

Greenberg, “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law” (PDF)

First published in Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume, edited by M. Haran, 5–28. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1960. Reprinted in Moshe Greenberg, Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought, 25–41. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995.

Moshe Greenberg – born Philadelphia 1928; Ph.D. U. Penn 1954; ordained rabbi in conservative movement; taught in U.S. and Israel; died Jerusalem 2010. Greenberg was a pioneer of Jewish academic Bible research (see also Yehezkel Kaufmann). Jewish scholarship previously valued Talmud as the most worthy object of study, and academic Bible research was dominated by German protestants, often with some anti-Jewish bias. His work integrated traditional Jewish Bible commentary and modern academic scholarship.

This article is a classic in the history of scholarship, not so much because it is correct in every detail or avoids overstatement, but because of its influence as a critique of previous scholarship. Previous scholars tended to exaggerate on the following three views which Greenberg argued against.

Questions one should be able to answer after close reading:

Questions for discussion and ongoing consideration:

Terms used

Westbrook, “Personal Status” (PDF)

This reading and the next come from a two volume collection titled A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (2003). Westbrook provides a general overview, and other contributors provide more detail in specific periods and regions. Tikva Frymer-Kensky provides the chapter on Israel. As a class we will focus on “Personal Status.” The remainder of their chapters may be of interest for paper research or curiosity on other legal issues. Westbrook’s complete chapter (PDF), Frymer-Kensky’s complete chapter (PDF)

Westbrook gives a systematic and precise overview of the categories and basic positions on personal status in the ancient Near East. By way of pointing out the forest beyond the trees, I would emphasize that any one person’s status was the product of a variety of factors, and there was no one clear line by which society was divided (although that could be debated). It is believed that the laws are not meant to be exhaustive, but paradigms from which judges could extrapolate and combine the factors in any one case. I would also reiterate Westbrook’s distinction between a society of families in which each person’s role is defined primarily with respect to the household, and a society of individuals in which each person’s role is defined with respect to the state and individual obligations.

Frymer-Kensky, “Personal Status” (PDF)

This section gives a good overview of the issues at hand, but flattens two distinctions that will be important for this course. First, other than citing sources, Frymer-Kensky does not distinguish between the different collections found within the Bible. Interpreters may have tried to treat the Bible as a single system, but in ancient Israel we should distinguish between the Covenant Code (Exodus 21–23), Deuteronomy, the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17–26), and the rest of the Priestly Source (Leviticus 1–16, most of Exodus and Numbers). Frymer-Kensky chooses her words carefully, but might give the wrong impression that the different collections agree and all reflect the same social reality. That brings us to the next distinction we will need to make. We don’t always know if our documents reflect normal, practical social realities, or if they are exceptional cases, or if they are idealized systems produced for rhetorical effect but never actually practiced in society.

Matthews, “The Anthropology of Slavery in the Covenant Code” (PDF)

Major types of slavery in ANE: Permanent Temporary
Socio-economic need: Labor-intensive economies Debt management in weak economies
Ethnicity: Foreigners Within the ethnic group
Origin: Capture in war or raids (involuntary) Resolution of debt (relatively voluntary)
Resolution: Ransom or permanent serf (but not chattel) status Time limited (day-to-day or up to six years)
Predominance: More common in Greece and Rome More common in ancient Israel

Slavery laws develop from early to late collections (Covenant Code to Deuteronomy to Holiness Code). This is a natural evolution with changing political, economic, and ethical circumstances as Israel went from a village culture to a state culture [I might add to an idealized religious structure].

The major passages Matthews discusses are (in chronological order):

In addition to the above passages, there are other passages that aim to prevent or regulate domestic slavery to the point that it would have been obsolete (especially Deuteronomy 23:16–17, which guarantees protection if a slave runs away).

Think about modern analogs for some of the ancient issues Matthews discusses.

Kugel, “At Mt. Sinai [part 2],” pp. 395–414

Kugel discusses interpretations of issues with significant implications for theology and the authority to legislate and interpret laws. Among these, Talion (an eye for an eye) is a good example of an issue that changed in interpretation for changing times. Originally, the law was intended to limit retaliation (no more than an eye). Nevertheless, it seemed increasingly harsh and barbaric in the history of interpretation (“An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye ... ends in making everybody blind” attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and used by MLK). While Mosaic law seems to prohibit substitute or negotiated settlements (Lev 24:10, Deut 19:21), in the Talmud a chain of qualifications leads to financial penalty replacing compensatory mutilation. It is my understanding that comparable arguments are used for determining compensation in tort cases (How much is your eye worth to you?).

It seems every generation debates the authority to interpret or supplement the central law collection in cases of ambiguity. By the end of the Second Temple Period the Law of Moses seems to have been accepted in Judaism, but there were hot debates about supplemental authorities (textual, traditional, and personal). The Sadducees (later the Karaites, in a different way Justinian) rejected any legal obligations not written in the Pentateuch. The Essenes seem to have accepted additional revelations and discovery of hidden meanings, and wrote them down. The Pharisees, who more than any other group became Rabbinic Judaism, maintained the binding authority of the traditions of the elders, later understood as the Oral Torah, received at Sinai along with the Written Torah. They were reluctant to write this down, but eventually did in the Mishnah and Gemarra (Talmud). I see analogous issues everywhere. In Christianity there are debates about the authority of tradition in addition to (or inseparable from) scripture as two streams “flowing from the same divine wellspring.” The idea of the “apostolic deposit” reminds me of the idea of Oral Torah from Sinai. In Modern Judaism the relative authority of the Talmud partially defines the major movements (reform, conservative, orthodox). In American law we supplement statues with court precedent, and often use external authorities to argue about the intent of the framers, courts, or congress.

Last but not least, Kugel touches on the perennial issue of election, or chosenness, which touches on the balance of universalism and particularism, and the view of international justice. Jewish interpretation often uses the “merit of Abraham” to explain why Israel is the chosen people and not another nation. Christians tend to use the concept of “grace” to answer similar questions. In American political discourse I often hear rhetoric to the effect that America is chosen by God as a shining city on a hill to spread democracy to all creation. If one side of the problem is the explanation of one group’s sense of chosenness, the other side is the status of the unchosen. If God’s laws were given to Israel alone, could foreign nations be judged for violating the law? Kugel offers several answers, the most common of which is that their ancestors (Enoch or Noah) did receive the central laws.

Optional: Greenberg on Kaufmann (PDF)

This tribute by Moshe Greenberg to Yehezkel Kaufmann captures a profound moment in the history of scholarship when Israeli and Jewish academic biblical scholarship started to come into its own in the wake of World War 2. The field had been dominated by German scholars.