The question surfaces while students study Western Civilization, “were the laws of Moses just another set of laws, written like the other laws in the surrounding nations at the time?” What was unique about the laws of Moses? College students are sometimes challenged by Professors that put the Biblical law on equal footing with all other Ancient Near East (map below) laws. Some professors insist on the Old Testament’s lack of truth if they do not see the uniqueness of God. The following is an example from two college Western Civilization books.
“Many scholars today doubt that the early books of the Hebrew Bible reflect the true history of the early Israelites. They argue that the early books of the Bible, written centuries after the events described, preserve only what the Israelites came to believe about themselves and that recent archaeological evidence often contradicts the details of the biblical account.” Western Civilization Jackson J. Spielvogel
“One of many small nations of the ancient Near East….the Hebrews would hardly merit attention if it were not for the example of their tenacious survival in the face of daunting odds and the fact that their spiritual legacy of strict monotheism became defining feature of Western civilization (mainly due to the spread of Christianity…)” CLEP Western Civilization I Robert Ziomkowski
For this setting, the events of the Israelites start in the book of Exodus, the Israelites were set apart through the seed of Abraham, when God called Moses to lead His people to the promised land. During the time of travel to the promised land they were given certain laws known as the Law of Moses or the Mosaic Laws, to set them apart as God’s people for His glory to reflect to the surrounding nations.
The time period was Ancient History dated between creation and 31BCE. Egypt, Canaan, Assyria and Babylon were growing and developing nations. The religion of the day “was polytheistic (believing in many gods), syncretistic (combining one belief with another), and pantheistic (God is everything). The ancients believed in multiplicity of gods-everyone being a specialist in some aspect of the world or nature… it was unthinkable to most ancients that a single god could be the only God.”[i]
Some of the surrounding laws or codes during that time consisted of the “Laws of Ur-Nammu from Ur, Laws of Lipit-Ishtar from Isin, Laws of Eshnunna from Eshnunna and one of the most well noted, the Laws of Hammurabi from Babylon also known as the Code of Hammurabi.”[ii] So the question arises, did Moses write a set of unique laws that were a standard of truth for all or did he just borrow from the surrounding nations and copy their procedures?
Moses did not copy from other ancient documents. He was bringing a correction, a better way of living, in contrast to the barbaric way of life. We can note that Moses is the author of the books since he does claim to be the author (Exodus 17:14, Exodus 24:4, Exodus 34:27). In addition, Jesus affirms that Moses wrote the first five books (Luke 24:44). Moses was revealing the true God and proclaiming a declaration that there was only one unique God. In addition, God was the one establishing authority not a King. The ANE laws elevated Kings and Rulers and they were the ones establishing justice, as opposed to the Exodus account which describes Yahweh as the judge and the one who brings justice. In the Israelite community the authorship is attributed to God, unlike the Code of Hammurabi which is attributed to King Hammurabi. Secondly, other Laws often catered to the upper class, also called the aristocrat or the ruling class. However, in the Biblical Law it liberates the citizen, stranger and slave alike. It brings justice to all, not just the ruling class, but also to the disadvantaged. Ultimately, there are two distinctions regarding the Mosaic Law, the first is establishing God as the one true God who brings justice and second, He is establishing laws for people to treat others as they would want to be treated.
There might be some that argue against the goodness of God in these laws, but that is for a later blog. The purpose of this blog is to point out that God is unique in the Mosaic Law, in claiming to be the one true God and He was bringing liberation to the slave and citizen alike. There were 613 laws given to Moses that can be summed up in 10 Commandments and lastly into 2 Commandments. These commandments call for the person to “love God and love their neighbor as themselves.” (Matthew 22:36).
So, if your student is challenged in the classroom, get equipped and get ready to respond in those situations with ready truth.
“Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.” Deuteronomy 4:39
Map from – http://www.bible-history.com/geography/maps/Map-Ancient-Near-East.pdf
Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan
Has God Spoken by Hank Hanegraaff
Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary Edited by John H. Walton
Beyond Opinion Edited by Ravi Zacharias
Stuart, Douglas K., The New American Commentary, B&H 2006; pg. 452
Walton, John H., Zondernvan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, pg. 235.