Friday, May 9, 2008

Ancient Law Codes

Alice C. Linsley


Understanding Abraham's power as a ruler requires determining the social controls that he exercised. When thinking of his context we must not imagine an extensive realm governed by law codes such as would characterize ancient Babylon. Abraham's exercise of power reflects an older pattern closer to that found in the Law of Tehut, but before we explore that pattern we must consider the function of ancient law codes.

Anthropologists recognize social controls in three categories: folkways, mores andl. Law codes, such as the Code of Hammurapi and the older Law of Tehut, pertain to the last category.

Stone inscriptions and inscriptions on oven-baked clay tablets were a common means of recording information in the ancient world. Ancient codes appealed to a high authority for their validity. The Code of Hammurapi was engraved on a stele more than 7 feet high. At the top of this stele appears an image of King Hammurapi standing reverently before the seated Shamash, the god of justice. Shamash is dictating the law to his earthly representative.

Many of these documents had colophons. Colophons are statements at the end of the document that identify the source and purpose of the document. Thus, the Code of Hammurapi closes with the statement, "The righteous laws which Hammurapi, the wise king, has established . . . ." Similarly, Leviticus closes with this statement: “These are the commandments which YHWH commanded Moses for the children of Israel . . ." and the colophon of Numbers states: “These are the commandments and the ordinances which YHWH commanded by the hand of Moses unto the children of Israel . . ." (36:13)

As was observed by Percy J. Wiseman (1888-1948), the colophon coming at the end serves two purposes: it is a title page and a marker to connect one tablet to the next in a narrative sequence. Wiseman’s theory of the composition of Genesis is presented in his book, New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis (1936). The book has undergone several editions, and the most recent appeared with the title Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis (Thomas Nelson, 1985), and was edited by Wiseman’s son, Donald J. Wiseman (University of London). There is merit to Wiseman's theory and I recommend the book, although I disagree with his conclusion that Moses is the central figure around whom the Genesis material came together.

Following Wiseman’s method of comparing ancient Near Eastern texts, I would expand our sights to include the ancient Hindu or Vedic literature, which also employed colophons and told of the founders of the world in a similar manner. I suggest that these texts and the ancient Near Eastern texts share a common Afro-Asiatic cultural milieu. The interaction of Afro-Asiatic peoples through written communication is well established. Mesopotamian cuneiform was understood in Egypt, as testified by the Akkadian Tell el-Amarna letters (c. 1400-1353 B.C.) and in Canaan.

One of Wiseman’s most interesting observations is the stylistic change in the sequence after the colophon of Tablet VI which is "the history of Terah" (11:27a). The colophon appears to end the previous section, but does not seem to be connected to what follows. At this point the editor wants to take the text in a different direction. The result is that we lose sight of the fact that Terah is the great Patriarch of all the peoples listed from Abraham onward. (We will see the significance of this when we consider David's lineage.)

Widespread practice of written law codes is characteristic of the great kingdoms that arose after the time of Abraham. They represent a means of social control less typical of the social controls based on kinship and the notion of deification of the ruler.

The oldest known law code is that of Tehut which relflects the Nilotic context and Abraham and his Kushite ancestors.  It is the law code that should be studied to better understand the social controls of the ancient Kushites and their Horite priests.


Related reading:  The Law of Tehut

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