Putting ‘the Rules’ In Perspective

By Gary A. Rendsburg

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

With this week’s Torah reading, called Mishpatim, or “Rules,” the presentation of the laws of ancient Israel formally commences. Earlier sections of the Torah have occasional laws imbedded in them, such as the law of circumcision in Genesis 17 or the laws pertaining to Pesach in Exodus 12. But these items are few in number and are directly related to the narrative at large (in these two instances: Abraham’s life story and the Exodus from Egypt). The laws of Mishpatim and of many ensuing portions, by contrast, are large collections of diverse laws often worded in ancient legal formulae akin to our present-day legalese, and they are not necessarily tied to the large narrative that the Torah tells.

In the past century and a half, archaeologists working in the Near East have uncovered the law codes of various peoples of antiquity, in particular, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Hittites. These law codes, the most famous of which is Hammurabi’s Code of Babylonia, allow us to place the laws of the Torah in historical and cultural perspective. Not surprisingly, many of the laws included in Mishpatim (and in other sections of the Torah) closely parallel laws known from the other law codes of the ancient Near East. The paradigm example is the law of harming a pregnant woman so that she miscarries (Exodus 21:22-25); parallels to the biblical text appear in the law codes of all the peoples enumerated above. This and other examples demonstrate that ancient Israel shared a common legal tradition with the peoples of the ancient Near East.

Much more interesting, however, is the manner in which the laws of the Torah depart from the legal traditions of the greater ancient Near East. For it is these departures or contrasts (as opposed to the similarities) that point the way to revealing what was truly unique about ancient Israel, especially in regard to law.

Space does not allow a full treatment of this important subject, but we can illustrate the point by concentrating specifically on the laws of slavery. The institution of slavery was recognized throughout the Near East in antiquity, including Israel. But an important difference exists in the way slaves were treated in other countries and in Israel. From the legal and other texts in our possession, it appears that the condition of slaves in the Near East in general was at times quite harsh. Not so in Israel, as a glance at several crucial laws indicates.

The opening of Mishpatim states that a slave shall serve only six years, after which he gains his freedom (Exodus 21:2). No such provision exists elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Slaves could gain their freedom through other means, but there was no automatic end to their enslavement.

Next the law states that a slave who was devoted to his master could opt to remain with this master; a ceremony of piercing the ear marked this decision (Exodus 21:5-6). In all of the legal texts from antiquity we have no similar statement. Quite the opposite, we only have laws that deal with the reverse situation, when a slave denies that he is the slave of his master. In such cases an ear ceremony also was carried out, but quite a severe one. The ear of such a slave was cut off, as a sign that he had denied his enslavement.

The Torah also provides for the occasions on which a master kills or injures his slave (Exodus 21:20, 21:26-27); in the former case the master receives the death penalty, and in the latter case the slave gains his freedom. Here a sharp distinction is seen, for nowhere else in the entire corpus of ancient Near Eastern legal texts do slaves gain protection from abusive masters.

Later in the Torah we read, “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who has taken refuge from him with you. Let him live with you wherever he chooses, in any one of your communities that pleases him. Do not molest him” (Deuteronomy 23:16). Elsewhere in the Near East, assisting a slave in his escape was an offense punishable by death. Slaves were property belonging to others, and assisting a runaway slave was akin to theft or worse. In Israel, theft was a punishable offense too, of course, but a distinction was made between theft of items and harboring runaway slaves. The latter were human beings and did not fall into the same category as stolen property.

These and other laws indicate that in Israel the fate of slaves was not nearly as harsh as their condition elsewhere. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the entire formal presentation of law in the Torah begins with the laws of slavery. After the introductory verse in Exodus 21:1, “These are the rules that you shall set before them,” the Torah commences with the laws of slavery discussed above. This is unique among the law codes of antiquity.

The reason for this placement of slavery laws in primary position, and for the relatively beneficent treatment of slaves in Israel, is clear. Israel’s national experience had been one of slavery. Indeed, the people had emerged as a unified nation during the period of slavery in Egypt. This experience was so central to Israel’s consciousness that it never forgot its roots. It permeates the Bible, and thus explains both the position and the particulars of the laws of slavery in the Torah.

Gary A. Rendsburg is the Paul and Berthe Hendrix memorial professor of Jewish studies at Cornell University.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.