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Law, though not as we know it

08 February 2011

Anthony Phillips finds that the Hebrews had different priorities


Justice and Compassion in Biblical Law
Richard H. Hiers

Continuum £65 (hbk), £19.99 (pbk)
(978-0-567-29789-1 hbk)
(978-0-567-26909-6 pbk)
Church Times Bookshop £58.50; £15.30

HIERS sets out to examine biblical law under the headings of civil law, criminal law, and social-welfare legislation. He believes that his dating of what he calls the codes follows general scholarly consensus, a doubtful claim. Further, with the possible exception of the Covenant Code (Exodus 21-22.16), we are not dealing with law codes, but collec­tions put together for theological reasons.

Under civil law, Hiers examines contract and tort and the difference between transferring property by inheritance and doing so by testation, although he acknowledges the paucity of the evidence. This is always the case with biblical law.

Turning to the criminal law, Hiers lists what he believes to be nine trial scenes and then examines various offences that carried the death penalty. While he acknowledges that biblical law contains no due-process laws as such, he points out that a number seek to protect both the in­nocent accused and society itself from a charge of miscarriage of justice.

Further, he argues that biblical law offers lessons today in its high regard for human life, and the im­portance of not executing an in­nocent person, and of treating all as equal under the law, including resident aliens and foreigners.

Finally, Hiers sets out the biblical social-welfare legislation, dealing first with protection against injustice and mistreatment, and second with laws calling for affirmative action by private persons to protect vulnerable members of the community. He then relates these provisions to current American society.

While biblical law cannot resolve current social problems, it can help to evaluate the means we use to help the poor and socially deprived. It is the often-overlooked compassionate nature of biblical law that Hiers rightly seeks to emphasise.

Hiers does not hesitate to use current legal concepts in interpreting biblical law. There is always a risk in doing this. But certainly Nathan’s parable cannot be understood until it is recognised that the prophet is contrasting the crime of murder, which carried the death penalty, with the tort of theft of an animal, for which punitive damages are required (2 Samuel 12). Indeed, Hiers might well have contrasted the Hebrews’ legal attitude to persons and property with contemporary legal systems.

Further, when dealing with the social legislation, Hiers fails to point out the Deuteronomic recognition that obedience to the apparently unprofitable injunctions of its welfare laws would itself bring material blessing, of which post-war Marshall Aid is a modern example.

Any work on biblical law is to be welcomed; for, as Hiers complains, biblical lawyers are a rarity. There is, though, much more that Hiers could have said, and indeed that has been said, on the provisions that he highlights, although without a bibliography it is difficult to know of how much of this Hiers is aware.

It is, however, good to be reminded that for the Hebrews “concepts of justice and compassion often may be seen as different sides of the same coin.”

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of the King’s School, Canterbury.

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