Gordon Wenham




In the first chapter we looked at the relationship of law and grace within the Old Testament, a relationship that can be summed up in the word covenant. We saw that God’s love for Abraham, Israel and David was the basis of the three most important covenants. In each case the human partner had to respond, by loving God in return. They were assured that such loving obedience would lead to a yet fuller experience of divine mercy and blessing.

But how can a man or a nation love God? Without some revelation of God’s will human efforts to please God may well be misdirected. It is for this reason that law occupies such a central position in the Old Testament. It shows what love for God means in daily life: how man is to worship God in a way that is acceptable to his Creator and how he should treat his neighbour. To this end it offers a short but comprehensive statement of religious and moral principles in the Ten Commandments.

Were man unfallen, the Decalogue would no doubt be a sufficient guide to living. But that is not the case. Even members of the covenant nation failed to observe the commandments from time to time. For social and theological reasons it was therefore necessary to have a penal system to punish transgressors. Any society which fails to censure wrongdoers is liable to disintegrate, and in Israel’s case to lose the blessings of the covenants as well. To maintain, or restore when broken, the relationship between God and man is the purpose of the many regulations about worship in the Old Testament; to restore relations between man and man and to bear witness to the moral principles of the Decalogue is the purpose of the penal law. Where worship or morality is neglected, Israel will start to experience the covenant curses, both at a national and at an individual level. This covenant context of Israel’s law gives a special urgency to its penal law and makes its scale of values rather different from that of its neighbours. By surveying the types of punishment enshrined in the Pentateuch light is shed on its scale of values.

Finally, the organization of society has a material influence on the way people behave. Law must be known if it is to be obeyed, and there needs to be a means of enforcing obedience on the recalcitrant. Every society has its own set of devices for this purpose; in ancient Israel judges, law-teachers, prophets, kings and other rulers all played their part in undergirding the covenant law, and they will form the final subject of our enquiry.

The Nature of the Material

Before studying the laws themselves it is wise to ask some preliminary questions about the nature of the collections of law found in the Old Testament. Are they all-embracing codes of law intended to cover every aspect of Israelite life? How far do they conform to the patterns of other ancient legal collections? Can we discern any general principles running through biblical law which mark it off from other systems?

Various collections of law are to be found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and records of legal cases are to be found in many parts of the Bible. Comparison of these laws with other collections of Near Eastern law shows that Hebrew law was heavily indebted to the tradition of cuneiform law originating in Mesopotamia.1 It is now generally agreed that these extrabiblical documents are not comprehensive codes of statute law, but collections of traditional case law occasionally introducing certain innovations and reforms. It seems likely that the biblical collections of law are to be interpreted similarly. In many cases the Old Testament introduces changes into the traditional law of the Near East, but in other cases it simply assumes it (e.g. laws about oxen Ex. 21:28ff., divorce Deut. 24:1ff.).

Theory of Law

In Mesopotamia the king was the author of law. He was held to have been divinely endowed with gifts of justice and wisdom which enabled him to devise good law. Law was therefore a basically secular institution. In Israel, however, God himself was the author and giver of law, and this divine authorship of law had several consequences. First it meant that all offences were sins. They did not merely affect relationships between men but also the relationship between God and man. As we have seen, law was a central part of the covenant. Therefore, if the nation rejected the law or connived at its non-observance, curses came into play bringing divine judgment on the whole people.

Secondly, because all life is related to God, and the law came from God, moral and religious obligations are all to be found in a single law book. This is true of the Pentateuch as a whole and of the smaller collections of law within it (e.g. Lev. 21-23). Mesopotamia maintained a sharp distinction between these spheres: their collections of law consist almost entirely of civil legislation.

The third implication of the Old Testament views of law is that not just the king but every Israelite was responsible for its observance. He had to keep it himself and ensure that the community of which he was a member did so too. There was thus both an individual and a national responsibility to keep the law (cf. Deut. 29:18ff.).

Finally, since the law came from God, it was not to be a secret understood only by lawyers, but by everyone. There was therefore an obligation on the national leaders to teach and explain it to the people. The public character of the biblical legislation is reflected in the large number of motive clauses which give reasons why certain laws should be obeyed (e.g. ‘that your days may be long in the land’). Such reminders are more in character in a sermon addressed to the nation than in a piece of literature designed only for the edification of those administering the law. Hammurabi invited all who were oppressed to come and read his laws.2 In this limited sense he was looking for a popular knowledge of the law. The Bible stresses to a much greater degree the importance of everyone knowing the law. It is addressed to ‘all Israel’. Moses was appointed to explain the laws given at Sinai, and the law had to be read out every seven years at a national assembly (Deut. 5:1; Ex. 20:18ff.; Deut. 31:10f.). Thus law in the Old Testament is not simply intended to guide the judges but to create a climate of opinion that knows and respects it.

This fits in with the express purpose of the law: to create ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Ex. 19:6). The prologue and epilogue of the Laws of Hammurabi dwell on the political and economic benefits that law brings — justice, peace, prosperity and good government. But ‘the prime purpose of biblical compilations is sanctification’.3 As has been stressed before, law-giving is integral to the covenant. The law itself is the divine means of creating a holy people. Obedience to it renews the divine image in man and enables him to fulfil the imperative to ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ (Lev. 11:44f.; 19:2; 20:7, 26, etc.).

The Ten Commandments

The distinctive features of Old Testament law find expression in the opening words of the Decalogue: ‘And God spoke all these words saying . . .’ Here the divine authorship of the following laws is simply stated. After a brief historical prologue reminding Israel of what God had done on their behalf, there follows a series of injunctions covering both religious and social matters. God, the author of these laws, unlike earthly kings, is concerned with the whole of life.

Case law or moral principle? The Ten Commandments are rightly regarded as the quintessence of Old Testament law. It has been suggested in the previous chapter that they are to be understood as part of the stipulations of the Sinai covenant. But is it possible to be any more precise? How, for instance, are they related to the other laws in the Pentateuch? Should they be regarded as laws in their own right, or are they rather a set of moral principles, which could be enshrined in case and statute law? These questions have been debated intensively in recent years, and it is not possible to review the problem in depth here. The answers given depend on the view taken of the development of Israel’s law, since the interpretation of the commandments depends to some extent on the historical situation in which they were formulated. In spite of many attempts to disengage the commandments from their present context and recover earlier phraseology and meanings, no consensus of opinion has emerged.4 We can, however, be more certain how the author of Exodus understood the commandments, since he must have known them in the present form and have been responsible for the literary context in which they are found. It is the context and content of the commandments as they now stand that form the basis of the following exposition, not hypothetical reconstructions of the original form of the Decalogue.5

On this basis it becomes clear that we should not regard the commandments as case or statute law. No human penalties are specified for their transgression; rather divine curses are pronounced on those who break certain of the laws, and blessings are promised to those who keep them. These characteristics are more appropriate in a treaty text than in a collection of laws.6 The Decalogue itself does not state what punishment the community will impose on those who break the commandments. It is misleading to describe the Decalogue as Israel’s criminal law, for it is not a list of offences that the state would itself prosecute, let alone for which it would always exact the death penalty.7 Ancient law does not sharply distinguish between criminal and civil offences. Dishonouring parents, murder, adultery and theft were all cases in which the prime responsibility for bringing the offender before the courts was left to the injured party or his family. Since, however, the death penalty could be imposed for some of these offences, they might be called crimes.8 Religious offences could more aptly be described as crimes, since the whole community had to take action to punish the sinner. That the Decalogue cannot be classed as criminal or civil law is most clearly demonstrated by the tenth commandment, for a human court could hardly convict someone of covetousness. The Ten Commandments should therefore be looked on as a statement of basic religious and ethical principles rather than as a code of law.

Commandment and law. The principles of the Decalogue are illustrated and, in the laws which follow, put into a form that human judges can handle (Ex. 20:23ff.; Deut. 6-26). To revert to the treaty analogy, the commandments constitute the basic stipulations which precede the detailed stipulations in a covenant document. In the exposition that follows I shall therefore try to illustrate the meaning of the commandments by reference to the laws in the Pentateuch, though it should always be remembered that the commandment is more fundamental and wide ranging than the corresponding laws.

It should be noted that the special status of the Decalogue in both Jewish and Christian tradition is not a mere fancy of later exegetes; the Old Testament itself regards the Ten Commandments as different and more important than the other laws. They alone were written by the ‘finger of God’. The narrative in Exodus clearly emphasizes the unique significance of the Decalogue in the way it prepares for it and sets it apart from the case law which comes after.9 Similarly Deuteronomy, when harking back to the law-giving at Sinai, focuses exclusive attention on the commandments, though the other laws in Exodus are clearly presupposed in Deuteronomy. The Ten Commandments are thus acknowledged to be the heart of the covenant law, a special revelation of God in the fullest sense of the phrase.

But though every commandment expresses the will of God, and breach of any one of them is a sin calling down on the offender the wrath of God, their order is not haphazard: the most vital demands are placed first. This is confirmed by the penal law. Flagrant disregard of the first six commandments carried a mandatory death penalty. For the seventh death was probably optional, not compulsory. Only in exceptional cases would breach of the eighth and ninth commandments involve capital punishment. And it is most unlikely that the tenth commandment was ever the subject of judicial process. The order of the commandments thus gives some insight into Israel’s hierarchy of values and this should be borne in mind in their exegesis.

First Commandment. The principal concern of every vassal treaty was to secure the sole allegiance of the vassal to his suzerain. This is the thrust of the first commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ It is not certain whether this commandment implied absolute monotheism, i.e. the existence of only one God, but it undoubtedly was a demand for practical monotheism, worship of the Lord alone. This terse command is expanded in great detail in the book of Leviticus in particular, which gives instructions about the correct rituals in worship. But perhaps the laws for the instruction of the laity found in Exodus 20-23 and Deuteronomy give a better impression of the primacy of worship. Both collections begin their detailed stipulations section with laws about the place of worship.10 They also require the offering of tithes and the attendance of all Israelite men at the three national festivals, as well as the extermination of all pagan cults and their adherents (Ex. 23:14ff; Deut. 12; 14:22ff.; 16). Apostasy involving the worship of foreign deities was punishable by death (Num. 25; Deut. 13).

It has also been suggested11 that the need for whole-hearted allegiance to the Lord explains the ban on eating certain foodstuffs (Lev. 11; Deut. 14; cf. I Cor. 8). The unclean animals were either worshipped or sacrificed by the Canaanites or Egyptians and therefore Israel must shun them. But this explains too few of the regulations to be convincing. More probably, the reason for the prohibitions was that the unclean animals symbolized the unclean nations, the Gentiles, with whom Israel was forbidden to mix, whereas the clean species represented the chosen people of Israel.12 Thus, every time an Israelite ate meat he was reminded of God’s grace in choosing Israel to be his people, and that as one of God’s elect he had a duty to pursue holiness.

Second Commandment. The second commandment bans all visual representation of God for use in worship. Images of gods in human and animal form are well known in Egyptian and Canaanite religion. Deuteronomy 4:15ff. justifies this prohibition by appeal to Israel’s experience at Sinai, where they heard God but did not see him (cf. Rom. 1:18ff.).

The wording of this commandment shows that it is not a ban on art as such. Characteristically of biblical legislation the decisive condition or prohibition comes towards the end of the sentence, in this case: ‘You shall not bow down to them or worship them’ (verse 5). Had the commandment meant to ban all artwork and sculpture it should have ended with verse 4. This interpretation of the law is confirmed by the following chapters (25f.). The tabernacle itself was richly decorated with the likeness of many things in heaven and earth, and the ark, the earthly throne of God, was surmounted by two winged cherubim. But by making the golden calf and inviting the people to worship it, Aaron broke this commandment and threatened the whole nation with extinction (Ex. 32).

The commandment is followed by a motive clause explaining why it should be observed: ‘For I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Ex. 20:5f.). Motive clauses like this are a characteristic feature of Israelite legislation, showing that the commandment was supposed to be public law which had to be taught to the people. In this clause there are several reflections of basic covenant ideology, in particular the exclusive nature of the relationship, ‘I the Lord . . . am a jealous God’, and the blessing on those who keep the law and the curse on those who do not. In secular treaties ‘bowing down’, ‘serving’ and ‘loving’ are the appropriate actions of a vassal towards his lord. It is also worth noting that loving God is equated with keeping his commandments (cf. Jn. 14:15). Finally, the long-range effect of obedience and disobedience should be observed. Actions do not just affect the individual but also his descendants, up to the great-grandchildren in the ease of transgression and as far as the thousandth generation in the case of obedience (Deut. 7:9). This disproportion is one of many illustrations in the law of how God’s mercy far exceeds his anger.

Third Commandment. The third commandment forbids any misuse of the name of God, whether in frivolous speech or in such dark deeds as witchcraft and magic (Lev. 24:11f.; Mt. 5:33ff.; Acts 19:13ff.). In biblical thinking the name of God expresses the character of God himself. Again this commandment adds a motive clause reminding any transgressor that he will not escape the covenant curses, even if he escapes human judgment.

Fourth Commandment. The fourth commandment forbids all work on the sabbath day.13 There are few indications of exactly how this was interpreted in early days. Ordinary, everyday work such as trading was forbidden. More lowly tasks such as collecting manna or sticks were also prohibited, on pain of death (Ex. 16:22ff.; Num. 15:32ff.). Positively, it was a day set aside for worship (Is. 1:13). Like the tithe, the setting apart of one day in the week is a token of the consecration of the whole. The reason given in Exodus for the observance of the sabbath is imitation of God, who rested from the work of creation on the seventh day. In Deuteronomy it is remembrance for God’s deliverance from Egypt; under the new covenant Sunday commemorates the resurrection. It is probable that the rules about the sabbath were not so strict in early days as in post-exilic times. For instance, the commandment does not forbid the wife to work, journeys were permitted (2 Kg. 4:23), and the temple guard was changed on the sabbath (2 Kg. 11:5-8).

Therefore Jesus’ more flexible attitude to the sabbath over against the strictness of his Pharisaic opponents may really reflect the original practice in early Israel (Mk. 2:23ff.). Looking to the future, Hebrews 4 views the sabbath as a type of the rest of the saints in heaven.

Fifth Commandment. ‘Honour your father and mother.’ To honour (kibbed) is most often used in the Old Testament with respect to God or his representatives such as prophets and kings.’4 It may be that parents are envisaged as representing God to their children, and this would explain the very severe penalties prescribed for those who dishonour their parents (Ex. 21:15, 17; Deut. 21:18-21). But the motive clause, ‘that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you’, draws attention to the blessings of obedience. ‘The “promise” attached to this first manward command shows the family as the miniature of the nation. If the one is sound, it implies, so will be the other. To put it more accurately, unless God’s order is respected at the first level, his gifts will be forfeited at all others.’15

Sixth Commandment. The sixth commandment forbids murder and other actions that may result in loss of life (Deut. 22:8). It does not rule out the judicial execution of murderers and other heinous criminals, or killing in war. The death penalty is insisted on for murder. Genesis 9:5f. sets out the theological principle involved: ‘For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.’ The laws in the Pentateuch show how the principle was applied in practice. A man or an animal which causes the death of another man must be put to death (Ex. 21:12, 28ff.). Where a man is responsible for someone’s death, deliberate and accidental homicide are carefully distinguished (Ex. 2:13f.; Num. 35:9ff.). It was common in other legal systems to allow composition in the case of homicide; instead of being executed the homicide could pay appropriate damages to the dead man’s family. Numbers 35 expressly excludes this arrangement in Israel. In the case of murder the murderer must be executed; if the killing was not premeditated the homicide must live in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest.16 The Pentateuch is not only concerned with the punishment of homicides, but with the prevention of accidental death. Owners of dangerous animals are warned to keep them in (Ex. 21:29, 36), and house-builders are told to put a parapet around the roof to stop people falling off (Deut. 22:8).

One law (Ex. 21:22-25) specifically deals with the death of a foetus as the result of a brawl. Close parallels to this rule are known in cuneiform law (LH 209-14; HL 17: MAL A 21, 50-2) but the interpretation of the biblical law is highly complex.17 Three things are clear, however, in the present law. First, the miscarriage and the injury to the woman were caused accidentally, a by-product of a quarrel between two men. Secondly, this suggests that the talion formula ‘life for life . . . stripe for stripe’ which refers to the woman’s injury should be regarded as a formula insisting on a punishment proportionate to the injury, not necessarily literal retribution (cf. verses 26-27). ‘Life for life’ only applies in cases of premeditated killing. Thirdly, the loss of the foetus is compensated for by the payment of damages. Biblical law therefore does not deal with the ease of deliberately induced abortion. On the basis of certain passages in Job and the Psalms18 it seems likely that the child in the womb was regarded as a human being, under the protection of its Creator (Job. 10:8-12; Pss. 51:5f.; 139:13-16; cf. Lk. 1:15, 44), and that Old Testament writers would have shared the abhorrence of the Assyrians at artificially induced abortion.19

The Old Testament discourages wanton destruction and slaughter in war as well as in peace (Deut. 20:10ff.). It regards death in war, however, as one of God’s judgments (Deut. 28:25ff.), and therefore inevitable as long as men go on sinning. In the same way that ‘all Israel’ is summoned to execute judgment on criminals, so nations may be called to punish other nations (cf. Ex. 23:23;ff.; Is. 10:5ff.), though when they undertake this task, they are warned not to exceed their brief.

Seventh Commandment. Immediately following the prohibition of murder comes the prohibition of adultery (na’ap), i.e. sexual relations between a married woman and a man who is not her husband.20 A comparison of this commandment with various laws in the rest of the Pentateuch which deal with sexual offences is very revealing, in showing how the commandment expresses a bare moral principle, whereas the detailed laws apply the principle in various situations.

If the sixth commandment seeks to uphold the sanctity of human life, the seventh seeks to preserve the purity of marriage. Genesis 2:24 states the positive theological principle undergirding matrimony: ‘A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.’ This poetic couplet expresses rather cryptically one of the fundamentals of Old Testament marriage law, that in marriage a woman becomes, as it were, her husband’s closest relative. A man could therefore call his wife, rather misleadingly in some circumstances, his sister (Gen. 12:13, 19; 20:2; Cant. 4:9; 5:2). Other implications of this verse are not developed in the Old Testament. One group of first-century Jews held that it entailed monogamy. Our Lord added that it meant that marriage should be indissoluble, even though in practice human sinfulness (‘the hardness of men’s hearts’) often led to its breakdown (Mt. 19:5f.).

Similarly the commandment forbids adultery, a sin whose very nature involves breaking the marriage bond. What happens when marriages break up is the concern of the other laws in the Pentateuch. They are concerned with the situations that arise and not with theological utopia. This Old Testament legislation can, I believe, be seen to have a similar goal to the New Testament teaching on marriage, namely the creation and preservation of stable marriages.

As usual the Decalogue prescribes no human penalty for breach of this commandment. Other passages make it clear that the standard penalty for adultery was death. If caught, both parties, the man and the woman, were put to death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). The severity of the sentence is undoubtedly very shocking to modern readers. Certain observations may perhaps mitigate our sense of shock. First, the death penalty for adultery is not unique to the Old Testament; it is common to most of the legal systems of the ancient Near East. Secondly, the death penalty was not mandatory; if a husband wished to spare his wife, he had to spare the other man as well.21 Thirdly, where the circumstances suggest that the woman was coerced, she would be pardoned and only the man ‘would be put to death (Deut. 22:25-27). Nevertheless, in spite of these considerations, the penalties for adultery are still striking, and reflect a much harsher condemnation of those who deliberately break up marriage, home and family than is made in modern Western society.

In contrast the penalties imposed for other sexual misconduct are lighter. After betrothal, effected by the payment of a large present to the bride’s father (often equal to several years’ wages), a girl was legally as good as married and intercourse with her by a third party was regarded as adultery and therefore liable to the death penalty (Deut. 22:23-27). But when an unbetrothed girl was caught lying with a man, both escaped more lightly. The man was made to marry the girl and give the appropriate betrothal gift to the girl’s father, which by his action he had, as it were, by-passed. In addition his right to divorce was forfeit. If the girl’s father did not want her to marry the man concerned, he could still demand the betrothal gift from the man, but that was all (Ex. 22:16f.; Deut. 22:28f.). It can be seen that running through all these laws is a concern to promote stable marriages. The financial payments associated with marriage and divorce were also very effective in stabilizing marriages.22

Marriages did break up in Old Testament times, however, and remarriage was permitted. Nowhere does the Old Testament give any instructions about divorce itself. Contemporary custom is simply presupposed. What it does do, in fact, is regulate remarriage after divorce or widowhood. This is clearest in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which allows a divorced woman to contract a second marriage, but if her second husband dies or divorces her, she may not return to her first husband. The thinking behind this law has puzzled commentators. A common view is that the law regards the second marriage as adulterous23 and is concerned to discourage such unions. There is no hint of this motive in the law, however, and as there were other powerful legal and financial deterrents to divorce and adultery in the Old Testament, this view seems inadequate. More plausible is Yaron’s suggestion24 that the law is designed to protect the second marriage from interference by the first husband. Perhaps jealous of her second husband, her first partner might try to woo her back without the safeguard of this law. But this idea founders on the fact that the rule also applies after the second husband’s death (verse 3).

A more probable explanation25 of this law emerges from a comparison with the incest rules in Leviticus 18. These forbid sexual intercourse between brother and sister, grandfather and grand-daughter and so on. They also prohibit intercourse between brother-in-law and sister-in-law, or father-in-law and daughter-in-law. The logic of these prohibitions is as follows: in marriage a woman becomes her husband’s closest relative, his sister as it were, and therefore a sister to his brothers, a daughter to his father and so on. Therefore if it is wrong for a man to marry his sister or daughter, it is equally wrong for him to marry his sister-in-law or daughter-in-law. Now these prohibitions on intermarriage with one’s daughter-in-law only become relevant after the end of her first marriage in divorce or the death of her first husband. Up to that point such a union would be adulterous. The same logic applies in Deuteronomy 24 to remarrying one’s former wife. If one cannot marry one’s sister, one cannot marry one who has become sister through a previous marriage, i.e. one’s former wife. Thus while the Old Testament does not affirm the practical indissolubility of marriage, it does maintain its theoretical indissolubility, in the sense that the kinships created between the spouses and their families are not terminated by death or divorce.

In certain respects, then, Old Testament marriage law is less strict than that of the New Testament. Infidelity by the husband does not count as adultery in the Old Testament. It does in the New Testament. ‘Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery’ (Lk. 16: 18 parallels Mt. 19:3-12; Mk. 10:2-12).

These Gospel sayings also explicitly rule out remarriage after divorce and, by implication, polygamy as well, equating them with Adultery. Thus at three points — polygamy, remarriage,26 and a husband’s adultery — the Old Testament laws plainly conflict with the New Testament ideal of life-long monogamous marriage. But in practice the differences were quite slight. The great expense of marriage and divorce meant that few could afford a second marriage, while the legal restrictions placed on the choice of marriage partners for divorcees and widows bore witness, even in Old Testament times, to the permanency of the relationship established by marriage.

Eighth Commandment. Theft is prohibited by the eighth commandment. Theft in this context covers all attempts to deprive a man of his property and livelihood whether by brute force or stealth and cunning. In the Old Testament, land and property are seen as the gift of God and essential for a man’s livelihood (Deut. 11:9ff.; I Kg. 21:3). But again the commandment only represents the negative side of the law. At various other points a positive concern to support the poor and weak members of society comes to expression (e.g. Deut. 24:10-22). For instance, every third year tithes are to be given to the Levite, the immigrant, the orphan and the widow (Deut. 14:28f.). Every harvest-time corn is to be left ungathered round the edges of the fields for the poor to glean (Lev. 19:9f.). Most far-reaching of all are the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years, under which a man who had become so poor that he had been forced to sell his land to someone else or himself into slavery, recovered his property and his freedom. In this way the tendency for wealth to accumulate in fewer and fewer hands would have been checked (Ex. 21:1ff.; Lev. 25; Deut. 15 :1ff.).27

Ninth Commandment. After dealing with duties toward God and actions against neighbours the last two commandments deal with sins of speech and thought. The ninth commandment forbids false witness, primarily in a court of law, but it covers all other unfounded statements as well (Ex. 23:1ff., 7; Deut. 17:6; 19:15ff.; 22:13ff.). It should be noted that the command is in the negative; the Old Testament does not demand that the full truth has to be disclosed on every occasion I Sa. 16:2).

Tenth Commandment. The tenth commandment forbids all desiring of another’s property.28 Though covetousness cannot have been punished by the courts, feelings are not outside the realm of biblical law in the broader sense. On the one hand the Israelite was commanded to love God; on the other not to hate his neighbour in his heart or covet his goods (e.g. Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:17). This inward aspect of biblical morality is even more prominent in the book of Proverbs, which has much to say about motives, feelings and speech. The whole of a man’s life must be lived Out in the presence of God, who weighs the heart. It may therefore be concluded that the Old Testament contains as comprehensive and demanding an ethic as is to be found anywhere in the ancient world.

Go to Part II


  1. S. M. Paul, Studies in the Book of the Covenant in the Light of Cuneiform and Biblical Law (Brill, Leiden, 1970). For a list of parallels between biblical law and other oriental sources see S. Greengus, ‘Law in the Old Testament’, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume (Abingdon, New York, 1977), pp. 532-537.
  2. LH xxvb:3-14
  3. Paul, op. cit., p. 41.
  4. The version found in Deuteronomy varies slightly from that in Exodus. The variant phrases are typical of the book of Deuteronomy, and it would therefore seem likely that the Exodus version is closer to the original. However, attempts to go further and, for example, to reduce each commandment to one short sentence, have not led to a scholarly consensus. See J. J. Stamm and M. E. Andrew, The Ten Commandments in Recent Research (SCM Press, 1967); E. Nielsen, The Ten Commandments in New Perspective (SCM Press, 1968); A. C. J. Phillips, Ancient Israel’s Criminal Law (Blackwell, 1971).
    It has been customary to assign the first four commandments to the first table of the law and the last six to the second. A better suggestion (M. G. Kline, Westminster Theological Journal 22, 1960, pp. 133-146) is that one tablet was a duplicate of the other, so that there were ten commandments on both.
  5. My approach is thus similar to B. S. Childs. See for example his commentary on Exodus.
  6. Curses may be appropriate at the end of a collection of laws, but not within it.
  7. B. S. Jackson, Essays in Jewish and Comparative Legal History (Brill, Leiden, 1975), pp. 202ff.; cf. A. C. J. Phillips, op. cit.
  8. The definition of crime in ancient law is difficult, see Jackson, op. cit., pp. 55ff.
  9. Cf. B. S. Childs, Exodus, pp. 364ff.
  10. Ex. 20:23ff.; Deut. 12.
  11. E.g. by M. Noth, The Laws in the Pentateuch and Other Essays (Oliver and Boyd, 1966), pp. 56ff.
  12. See M. Douglas, Purity and Danger (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), pp. 1ff., and Implicit Meanings (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 249ff. This explanation has the merit of explaining why the early church saw fit to abolish the food laws. In the church there was to be no distinction between Jew and Gentile (cf. Acts 10). For further discussion see G. J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, forthcoming), chapter 11, and G. J. Wenham, ‘The Theology of Unclean Food’, Evangelical Quarterly, forthcoming.
  13. For a modern discussion see R. T. Beckwith and W. Stott, This is the Day (Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1978).
  14. E.g. Jdg. 9:9; 1 Sa. 2:30; 15:30; Pr. 3:9; Is. 29:13.
  15. F. D. Kidner, Hard Sayings: The Challenge of Old Testament Morals (Inter-Varsity Press, 1972), p. 12.
  16. Only where murder was premeditated was the death penalty mandatory. B. S. Jackson, op. cit., pp. 10f. A. Phillips, ‘Another Look at Murder’, Journal of Jewish Studies 28, 1977, pp. 105-126, thinks intention as opposed to premeditation distinguished murder from manslaughter in biblical law.
  17. See the discussions of S. M. Paul, op. cit., pp. 70ff.; B. S. Jackson, op. cit., pp. 75-107; S. E. Loewenstamm, ‘Exodus 21:22-25’, Vetus Testamentum 27, 1977, pp. 352- 360.
  18. See B. K. Waltke, ‘Reflections from the Old Testament on Abortion’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 19, 1976, pp. 3-13.
  19. MAL A53 sentences a woman who procures an abortion to death followed by impaling on a stake without burial. Without proper burial a person could not enjoy rest in the underworld.
  20. Relations between a married man and an unmarried woman did not count as adultery. If the laws in Ex. 22:16 and Deut. 22:28f. applied to married as well as unmarried men, the man would have been forced to take the woman as a second wife. This would fit in with the practice of polygamy, allowed in Old Testament times. However, the expense of marriage made a second wife a luxury only kings and patriarchs could afford.
  21. This is explicit in non-biblical law, and implied in Pr. 6:32ff. (which warns a would-be adulterer against counting on the offended husband being satisfied with damages) and also in Deut. 22:13ff. (see my article in Vetus Testamentum 22, 1972, pp. 330ff.).
  22. Not only did the bridegroom give a large present to his father-in-law on betrothal, but his father-in-law gave an even larger gift of land or other property to the couple on their marriage. This dowry belonged to the bride, but while the marriage lasted the husband could dispose of it as he wished. Should he divorce her though, he had to return the dowry and maybe make other payments as well. This dowry system kept divorce rates down to 5% among Palestinian Arabs earlier this century.
  23. E.g. A. Tong, ‘Does Deuteronomy 24:1-4 Incorporate a General Law on Divorce?’, Dine Israel 2, 1970, pp. 5-24; P.C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1976), p. 305.
  24. R. Yaron, ‘The Restoration of Marriage’, Journal of Jewish Studies 17, 1966, pp. 1-11.
  25. See my articles, ‘The Biblical View of Marriage and Divorce’, Third Way 1.20, 21, 22, 1977, pp. 3-5, 7-9. 7-9; ‘The Restoration of Marriage Reconsidered’, Journal of Jewish Studies (forthcoming). On Leviticus 18 see my commentary, The Book of Leviticus.
  26. Whether the New Testament permits remarriage after divorce for unchastity is disputed. Those against remarriage include J. Dupont, Mariage et divorce dans l’évangile (Desclée de Brouwer, Bruges, 1959); Q. Quesnell, ‘Made Themselves Eunuchs’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30, 1968, pp. 335-358; and G. J. Wenham, Third Way 1.22, 1977, pp. 7-9. This was also the standard patristic view; see H. Crouzel, L’EgIise primitive face an divorce (Beauchesne, Paris, 1 971). Those allowing remarriage in cases of unchastity include J. Murray, Divorce (Presbyterian and Reformed, Philadelphia, 1961) and J. R. W. Stott, Divorce: the Biblical Teaching (Falcon, 1972).
  27. The implementation of these laws must have been difficult. See R. Westbrook, ‘Jubilee Laws’, Israel Law Review 6, 1971, pp. 209-226.
  28. Attempts to reinterpret ‘covet’ as a species of taking are unconvincing. See B. S. Jackson, op. cit., pp. 202ff.


Gordon Wenham served as Lecturer in Semitic Studies at The Queen's University, Belfast. This article can be found in Law, Morality and the Bible, edited by Bruce Kaye and Gordon Wenham with a preface by J.I. Packer (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill., 1978.

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