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Making a Case

The Practical Roots of Biblical Law

by (author) Sarah Milstein

Oxford University Press
Initial publish date
Sep 2021
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    Publish Date
    Sep 2021
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Outside of the Bible, all the known Near Eastern law collections were produced in the 3rd-2nd millennia B.C.E. in cuneiform on clay tablets and in major cities in Mesopotamia and in the Hittite Empire. None of the five major sites in Syria that have yielded cuneiform tablets have borne even a fragment of a law collection, even though several have produced ample legal documentation. Excavations at Nuzi have also turned up numerous legal documents, but again, no law collection. Even Egypt has not yielded a collection of laws. As such, the biblical texts that scholars regularly identify as law collections only represent the "western," non-cuneiform expressions of the genre in the ancient Near East, produced by societies not known for their political clout and separated in time from "other" collections by centuries.

Making a Case: The Practical Roots of Biblical Law challenges the long-held notion that Israelite and Judahite scribes either made use of "old" law collections or set out to produce law collections in the Near Eastern sense of the genre. Sara Milstein instead proposes that what we call "biblical law" is closer in form and function to another, oft-neglected Mesopotamian genre: legal-pedagogical texts. During their education, Mesopotamian scribes studied a variety of legal-oriented school texts: sample contracts, fictional cases, sequences of non-canonical law, and legal phrasebooks. When Exodus 20-23 and Deuteronomy 12-26 are viewed in the context of these legal-pedagogical texts from Mesopotamia, their practical roots in comparable (lost) legal exercises begin to emerge.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Sara Milstein is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at the University of British Columbia.

Editorial Reviews

"This book is a tour de force-a landmark study that reshapes our understanding of biblical law. Milstein shows that biblical legal codes draw upon cuneiform legal-pedagogical texts rather than the Code of Hammurabi. ABy demonstrating the central role that scribal pedagogy and education play in biblical law, her study should have wide-ranging implications for the whole field in the next generation."

--William M. Schniedewind, Professor of Biblical Studies and NWS Languages, Director of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies, Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department, UCLA

"A new approach to the family laws of Deuteronomy has long been overdue. Older models unjustly primitived and deintellectualized this fascinating group of laws. Sara Milstein's innovative work provides a fresh path forward. Drawing upon her expertise in cuneiform law and scribal practice, she proposes a new way of understanding the composition and social location of these texts. In the process, she raises important broader questions about biblical law and pedagogy."

--Bernard M. Levinson, author of Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel

"Milstein's claims will prove controversial but in the best possible sense. Her efforts to bind the origins of key pentateuchal provisions to the exercises and basic texts of scribes-in-training will force many of us to reexamine how we understand the nature of biblical law. Most crucially, Milstein's work will serve to redirect our attention back to the entire oeuvre of Near Eastern legal texts, which is where it should have been all along."

--Bruce Wells, Associate Professor, Dept. of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin

"Milstein expertly draws attention to Mesopotamian legal-pedagogical expressions, finding that Hebrew scribes displayed knowledge and interest in sophisticated legal reasoning. For the Hebrew Legal Fictions in the Deuteronomic Code (Dt 12-26), she draws on Mesopotamian model court cases. The Mesopotamian scribal practice of clustering related sets of provisions suggests a reassessment of the legal expressions in the Covenant Code (Ex 20-23). This volume provides a powerful and important contribution to the nature of biblical law within its ancient Near Eastern intellectual milieu."

--Martha T. Roth, author Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor