Law in the Old Testament

Defining ‘law’

The whole of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) is called Torah in Jewish tradition. This Hebrew word is commonly translated ‘law’, but its original meaning is more like ‘teaching’, ‘instruction’. The Pentateuch as a whole is the foundation for Israel‘s life, and framed within its story are long passages of instruction that are commonly referred to as ‘law’, although much of this material is not what we would call ‘law’ in a modern society. It is presented as God’s guidance for Israel and individual Israelites, and that is how it is understood by those (Jews and Samaritans) who take it as their primary or only scripture. This is what it means when this material is called ‘law’, or ‘the Law’.

Laws in the narrative

In the course of the Pentateuchal story we may trace a developing programme of instruction for Israel’s life (see Walter J. Houston). Circumcision is commanded through Abraham in Gen 17:9-14, and three rites for the commemoration of the exodus from Egypt at the time the Israelites are delivered, in Exod 12:1–13:16. The programme becomes systematic after Israel arrives at Mount Sinai in Exod 19.

The Ten Commandments

God speaks the words of the Ten Commandments directly to the Israelites in Exod 20:2-17. This marks them out as distinctive; they are repeated by Moses in Deut 5:6-21, and he makes it clear they are the words of the covenant, the fundamental religious and moral obligations of the people.

All the rest of the law is spoken by God to Moses to pass on (in Exod 20:22 to Num 36), or by Moses on behalf of God (in Deuteronomy). However, Exod 24 appears to suggest that the laws in Exod 20:22 to 23:19 are also conditions of the covenant, and Moses in Deut 29:1 announces a second covenant on the basis of the laws in Deuteronomy.

Exodus to Numbers

The material falls into several distinct blocks. First is what scholars call the ‘Book of the Covenant’ (after the words in Exod 24:7) or the ‘Covenant Code’, in Exod 20:22–23:19, with an appendix in 23:20-33. This consists of regulations for worship (20:22-26; 23:14-19), legal rules (21:1–22:20), and commandments for the individual, mostly moral (22:21–23:13).

The laws that follow are mostly concerned with ritual, and are generally known as the Priestly Code. In Exodus 25–31 are instructions for the building of the Tabernacle and for the worship of YHWH in it in the wilderness. Most of these apply to the temple worship after settlement in the land. Ritual instruction continues in Leviticus: chs. 1–7 deal with sacrifices, chs. 11-15 with ritual purity, and ch. 16 with the purification of the temple on the Day of Atonement. Leviticus 17-26 is generally known as the ‘Holiness Code’, after the repeated command ‘You shall be holy as I am holy’. It tells how Israel’s holiness is to be achieved in various religious and moral fields. There are several blocks of miscellaneous teaching, mostly ritual, in Numbers (3:5-10; 5–6; 8:1–10:10; 15; 18-19; 27:1-11; 28–30; 35-36).


In Deuteronomy Moses addresses the Israelites gathered to cross the Jordan into the promised land. He exhorts them to be faithful to YHWH (Deut 4-11) and gives them rules for the ordering of their life in the land (12-26). Some of these rules repeat and update laws already given in the Book of the Covenant (compare, e.g., Exod 21:2-11 with Deut 15:12-18).

How old are they?

The different blocks are difficult to date, but seem to come from a wide range of periods in Israel’s history (see Frank Crüsemann).

Although the Ten Commandments are often thought to be very old, they contain language similar to Deuteronomy, and will not be older in their present form than the 7th century BCE. They seem to be a summing up of the essential teaching of the Torah.

The Book of the Covenant is usually thought to be the oldest block, dated by some as early as the time before the monarchy, and usually to before Deuteronomy, as Deuteronomy updates some of the laws from the Book of the Covenant (10th to 7th century).

The laws in Deuteronomy are usually dated in the late 7th century, but some at least are later.

Most scholars date the Holiness Code and the ritual laws known as the Priestly Code to the time after the exile, in the 5th century, but others would put them earlier. The Holiness Code seems to be part of the work of an editor working on the other priestly laws.

It is easy to see the difference in style and purpose between (a) Exod 22:1, ‘When someone steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it, the thief must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep’, and (b) Exod 22:21, ‘You shall not ill-treat or oppress an alien, for you were aliens in Egypt.’ (a) is an impersonal statement, (b) is personal address from God to the individual; (a) states a case and says what is to happen in that case, while (b) gives a moral rule, stating the reason for it, but not what the consequences might be. Commandments of this type often do go on to warn of divine punishment (e.g., Exod 22:22-24), but no human punishment is specified. (a) is what we would call a law in modern society, (b) is a commandment giving moral teaching.

Both types are used in contexts concerned with ritual and religious law, as well as with civil law and morality. Quite often you will find a mixed type, as in 21:2-6, which starts ‘When you…’. This is especially common in Deuteronomy, where the laws are not simply given but preached: we see Moses being concerned that Israel should be blessed by God, and urging them in every way he can to live as God wishes them to live.

Origins of the types of law

The first type, the ‘When/if… then’ type, is similar to the laws found in the ancient law codes of Mesopotamia, such as Hammurabi’s. Scholars call this type of law ‘casuistic law’, meaning laws that state cases (see Albrecht Alt). It seems that Israelite scribes used here a mode of expression widespread in the ancient Near East and applied to a range of subjects.

The second type would naturally be used by patriarchs ‘laying down the law’, as we say, to their family or clan. So it is equally natural to present God as speaking in the same absolute way—except that very often, even for some of the Ten Commandments, he gives reasons why you should obey the command, appealing to one’s reason, moral sense or empathy, not just asking for obedience.

How the laws work

It would be easy to think that the laws, especially the casuistic laws, are meant to be used in the way we expect laws to be used today: to be applied to the letter by a court of law to decide cases brought to it. Many of the laws may represent the way cases were actually decided. But all the evidence shows that judges in the ancient Near East, including Israel, did not apply written laws but judged according to custom, tradition and their own sense of what was right, which sometimes might be seen as divinely inspired (see Dale Patrick and Michael LeFebvre).

The ancient law codes presented the scribes’ idea of what the law ought to be (Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley). They may have been intended to provide an education in justice, while the royal codes of Mesopotamia, which were set up in public, were probably intended to demonstrate the king’s justice. The laws in the Bible, similarly, demonstrate the justice of God, and provide ideal examples of justice, kindness, and faithfulness that may be followed by the people of God.

How far were the laws applied?

That does not mean that anyone thought that they necessarily should be followed word for word. Much of the teaching of the Torah is moral teaching, and it was down to the moral responsibility of the individual to decide exactly how to carry it out.

It was probably only after the laws had become recognised as Scripture that it began to be felt that they should be implemented literally in the courts and the temple (at latest by the 2nd century BCE; LeFebvre).

Even when they became recognised as Scripture, they still could not be treated as a precise code of laws. For one, they did not cover every area of life, or were inadequate in what they did cover: for example, there is almost nothing on the law of contract. For another, there were some laws (very many after the loss of the Temple in 70 CE) that could not be implemented, and remained dead letters: for example, we do not have any evidence that there was any attempt to enforce the jubilee laws in Lev 25. For practical purposes, a large body of oral law developed, which eventually became written down in the Mishnah, about 200 CE.

The moral sense of the Torah

The Ten Commandments begin with the announcement (Exod 20:2), ‘I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.’

‘Out of the house of slaves’

The consciousness of deliverance from slavery runs through much of the legal material in the Torah, especially in Deuteronomy. But slavery was so universal an institution in the ancient world that there was no question of abolishing it. The law gives slave owners who kill or injure their slaves an easier time than if they had done it to a free person (compare Exod 21:12 and 18-19 with Exod 21:20-21; and vv. 23-25 with vv. 26-27). On the other hand, in Deut 15:12-18 the teaching urges that a Hebrew slave released after six years’ service should be provided for generously, and 5:14-15 (see also Exod 20:10 and 23:12) commands that slaves should also rest on the sabbath day. In both places this is supported on the grounds ‘Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.’

No class distinctions

The Mesopotamian law ‘codes’ prescribe different penalties for different classes of free citizens. There are no such distinctions in the biblical ‘codes’. On the contrary, in the commandments or moral teaching, a fellow-citizen is referred to as ‘your neighbour’ (Ten Commandments, Book of the Covenant, and Holiness Code) or ‘your brother’ (Deuteronomy and Lev 25). This makes all citizens or members of the people of Israel ideally members of one family, though this does not necessarily imply equality. Women are certainly not treated as equal with men for many purposes. Many of the commandments urge compassion for the poor and those without effective family support: widows, fatherless children, and resident aliens (see David L. Baker).

Violence and property offences

The Mesopotamian codes often impose very severe penalties on thieves: for example certain chapters of Hammurabi’s laws prescribe capital punishment. But no biblical law does so (see, e.g., Exod. 22:1-4). Murderers, on the other hand, are always subject to family vengeance in the Bible, and one priestly law (Num 35:32) forbids the family to accept a ransom to save the murderer from death. But in Mesopotamian codes this is sometimes allowable. It clearly gives an advantage to a wealthy murderer over a poor one, so could again be regarded as a matter of class. The greater weight given to property offences reflects the society’s scale of values. In the Bible human life is of greater value than property.

Religious framework

It doesn’t surprise us that there is a strong religious strain in biblical ‘law’. This doesn’t apply so much to the casuistic law, but the commandments are often supported by warnings of the punishment of God for disobedience, or, especially in Deuteronomy, by promises of blessing if they are obeyed. A large part of the biblical laws are technical ritual instructions. Others put moral teaching in a religious framework: for example, the Holiness Code commands the people of Israel to be holy, in part by observing ritual rules, but in part (see especially Lev 19) by maintaining peace, fairness, and compassion among themselves.

The Law in Judaism and Christianity

The laws of the Torah have aways been understood as the basis of Jewish law. However, in practice the halachah, that is, the code that governs Jews’ everyday life, is not directly derived from the Torah. Many Pentateuchal laws no longer apply, while many rules of halachah are only derived indirectly from the Torah, and they include a great deal of detail that is needed to apply the laws in practical situations. So, for example, from the commandment ‘You shall not boil a kid (a young goat) in its mother’s milk’ (Exod 23:19; 34:26; Deut 14:21), the rule is derived that forbids meat and milk or milk products being consumed at the same meal; and a chapter in the Mishnah, the earliest codification of the halachah, discusses precisely how the rule applies, e.g., what is meat? (it applies to chicken, but not to fish).

Commentaries on the books of the Torah, the so-called ‘halachic midrashim‘, explain how the halachah is derived from the biblical laws and commandments. These come from the early centuries CE.

Orthodox Jewish rabbis and courts continue to work out how the halachah applies to modern conditions, but many Jews belong to Liberal or Reform movements that do not believe it is necessary in modern conditions to observe all the rules literally and exactly, or some of them at all.


Ever since Paul, if not before, Christians have wrestled with how they should deal with the laws of the Torah, often called just ‘the Law’. It is the Law of God, and holy scripture, but Paul was very clear that it did not bring salvation, and Gentiles should not be made to observe it. But that didn’t alter the fact that it contains teaching essential to everyone’s life—e.g., the two love commandments picked out by Jesus.

Later writers developed a classification of the Law: there was the moral law (mainly the Ten Commandments), which everyone should keep; the ‘ceremonial’ law, which only applies to the Jewish religion; and the ‘civil’ law, which consists of useful but not essential rules for life in society. But the lines between these types are fuzzy. Medieval writers treated the prohibition of charging interest on loans (Deut 23:19-20) as a moral law which it was a serious sin to break. But from the 17th century on it began to be treated as a Jewish ‘civil law’, and people began to think modern conditions made it outdated. The same thing is happening today with some of the sexual prohibitions, e.g., against male gay sex (Lev 18:22).

It is true that changes in society, which do not affect the basic moral principles of the Law, make many of the detailed commandments outdated and problematic. But many Christians (e.g., J. W. Rogerson) ask: if that is how they in their society applied the basic principles of justice, compassion, and honesty, which the Law enshrines, how should we apply the same principles in our different society?

Further reading

Patrick, Dale. Old Testament Law. London: SCM Press, 1985 is the best accessible guide to OT Law in general.

Other works:

Alt, Albrecht. “The Origins of Israelite Law.” Pages 79-132 in Essays on Old Testament History and Religion. Translated by R. A. Wilson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1966. Repr., Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989.
Baker, David L. Tight Fists or Open Hands: Wealth and Poverty in Old Testament Law. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdamns, 2009.
Crüsemann, Frank. The Torah: Theology and Social History of Old Testament Law. Translated by Allan W. Mahnke. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996.
Fitzpatrick-McKinley, Anne. The Transformation of Torah from Scribal Advice to Law. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999.
Houston, Walter J. Pages 42-70 in The Pentateuch. SCM Core Text. London: SCM Press, 2013.
LeFebvre, Michael. Collections, Codes, and Torah: The Re-characterization of Israel’s Written Law. New York: T & T Clark International, 2006.
Rogerson, J. W. According to the Scriptures? The Challenge of Using the Bible in Social, Moral and Political Questions. London: Equinox, 2007.