How does Biblical law differ from other ancient law systems?
Ultimately, the one thing which distinguishes Biblical laws from other laws is the fact that they are commanded by God, not by man. This transcendence is the only characteristic that ultimately matters when it comes to law. Laws made by mere men are (by definition) not transcendent.
However, you will find some people claiming that Biblical law is not transcendent. They will speculate that it derives from pre-existing laws which existed in the heathen cultures surrounding the Israelites. Fortunately, these claims are easy to disprove, simply by comparing the laws themselves. It should not surprise us that God's laws will have characteristics which make them stand out from heathen laws. Moses spoke on God's behalf:
6 Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who shall hear all these statutes and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” Deuteronomy 4:6WEB ... 8 What great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you today? Deuteronomy 4:8WEBDeut. 4:6,8
The following thirteen things distinguish Biblical law from other contemporary (ancient Near East) law systems. In fact, many of them still distinguish Biblical law from modern law systems.
- Creates the strongest possible formulation of the "rule of law": Deut. 4:2. No law system, ancient or modern, can match the strength of Biblical rule of law. In fact, man's desire to use changeable law as an instrument for his own ends is one reason why Biblical law is rejected, even by Christians. See How does Biblical law create the strongest possible "Rule of Law"?
- Subordinates the (human) king to the law (Deut. 17:18-20).
- Uses motive clauses to teach the intent and presuppositions behind the law.
- Opposes social class distinctions, which are integral to ancient heathen law systems.
- Protects the rights of resident aliens (ger) in the land, something which no other ancient Near East nation did.
- Protects slaves against injury by their masters (Exod. 21:20-21). Requires the manumission of all debt-slaves (Exod. 21:2), and the harboring/protection of runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16).
- Disallows vicarious punishments (Deut. 24:16), which were a common practice in ancient heathen law.
- No use of the judicial "ordeal", which is characteristic of many other contemporary legal systems.
- Disallows the death penalty and bodily mutilation for mere property crimes.
- Publicizes the law, keeping it simple, so that every person can know it and follow it.
- Prohibits civil government interference (such as price-fixing) with voluntary economic exchange.
- Prohibits the enforcement of interest contracts on charitable loans.
- Establishes Cities of Refuge to eliminate blood-feuds and personal vengeance: Num. 35:6-34; Deut. 19:1-13. These were havens of protection, established to protect innocent people (involuntary manslaughterers) from being killed by those acting outside of Biblical judicial procedures.
- There are more distinctives than these, but these are the most interesting for the purpose of this survey. These are also essentially unchallengeable when you examine the comparative evidence.
- "It is the limitations placed on the king (17:16-20) that make the laws on the administration of Israel so radical. The deuteronomic picture of the king contrasts, in fact, not only with kingship as it was exercised in the ANE, but also with the reality of it in ancient Israel. The kings of Israel and Judah assumed rights that are not provided for here." (McConville, Deuteronomy, 283)
- On motive clauses: "Within ancient Near Eastern law there is no parallel within legal material." (Samuel Jackson, A Comparison of Ancient Near Eastern Law Collections Prior to the First Millenium BC, 59)
- "The concern manifest in cuneiform law is on the fixing of the status of the victim in certain categories and how that status affects the punishment. .... Lex talionis in biblical law restricts the punishment to the offender himself. Lex talonis makes rich and poor equal in biblical law. More than that, status, with the exception of the slave, is simply not a factor in biblical law." (Barmash, Homicide in the Biblical World, p. 175)
"There is also no trace in Old Testament law of any gradation of penalties according to the social class and rank of the offended party. In Mesopotamian law an injury to a nobleman would commonly entail a far heavier penalty than an identical injury done to a commoner or slave. In Israel, by contrast, equality before the law for all social groups, including aliens and immigrants, is made explicit in Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 19:34 and Numbers 15:16." (Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, 310)
- "Everywhere in the Near East the resident alien (Heb. ger) was without legal rights and protection and was wholly dependent upon the good will of the local community, In biblical texts the ger is usually classified along with the deprived and underprivileged of society, such as the orphan and the widow, whom it is forbidden to oppress and to whose needs one must be particularly sensitive." (Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 93)
- "No other ancient Near Eastern law has been found that holds a master to account for the treatment of his own slaves (as distinct from injury done to the slave of another master), and the otherwise universal law regarding runaway slaves was that they must be sent back, with severe penalties for those who failed to comply." (Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, p. 292)
- Vicarious punishments are punishments of one person for the crimes of another. "This principle of individual culpability in fact governs all of biblical [criminal] law. Nowhere does the criminal law of the Bible, in contrast to that of the rest of the Near East, punish secular offenses collectively or vicariously." (Greenberg, "Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law", 345)
- A judicial ordeal is an attempt to force a judgment by God (or gods, in the case of polytheists), usually requiring a person to do something that would normally injure them. "The ordeal is not found in any legal passage in the Bible." (Westbrook and Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel, 49)
- "In Babylonian law, offenses against property were often punished by death.... In Biblical law, however, an offense against property is never punished by death." (Sonsino, "Characteristics of Biblical Law", Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 33, p. 206)
- "In ancient Mesopotamia, the law was directed primarily to the intelligentsia, that is, to priests, scribes, students....For Biblical law, however, publicity was central. The teaching was revealed, not to a few individuals alone but to the entire people of Israel." (Sonsino, "Characteristics of Biblical Law", Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, 33, p. 206)
- "The contrast between biblical and Mesopotamian legal corpora is underscored even further by the almost total absence in the former of normative rules, that is, formulations of the proper procedures governing commerce and economic life in general." (Finkelstein, "The Ox that Gored", Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, v.71 n.2, p. 42)
- A prohibition not found in any other ancient Near East law code (see Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land, pp. 143-144)
- "[Cities of refuge] are a unique institution, not found anywhere in ancient sources outside of the Bible." (Westbrook and Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel, p. 75)