Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Westbrook, Raymond and Bruce Wells, Everyday Law in Biblical Israel: An Introduction (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2009). Pp. ix+156. Softcover. US $24.95. ISBN 978-0-6642-3497-3

Far too often works dealing with law (most often simply a chapter or section in a larger work) become bogged down in legal minutiae and quickly lose the reader's interest. This demonstrates both the erudition and narrow focus of the author, whose scholarly or juridical approach cannot speak to or “come down” to that of a general audience. In addition, some works on biblical law are steeped in a theological agenda designed to make the case for contemporary social issues rather than addressing the original social context of the legal material. Thankfully, this is not the case with Westbrook and Wells' slim volume on “Everyday Law.” While not attempting to cover every facet of the law in ancient Israel, their discrete survey of the material provides sufficient coverage of the topic for students and interested laypersons. The succinct sections will be appealing to students and the comparative materials are helpful in getting the big picture. Other useful features include a list of additional readings at the end of each chapter, questions for review along with the answers, a brief legal glossary, and a bibliography of works consulted. The fact that the authors do not choose to enter the realm of theological discussion/interpretation also is a plus since that leaves more room for discussion of legal principles and procedures. It allows also the adoption of the book by both secular and more religiously conservative institutions. The comparative approach taken in this volume is very helpful, indicating to the reader that the various segments of biblical law are part of a larger social context in the ancient Near East and showing how interpretation of the law continues into later periods.

Westbrook and Wells remind us that the way that a culture expresses itself in legal formulas and procedures can provide insights into its value system and basic social organization. They begin by surveying and briefly defining the sources available to us from the biblical materials to the Mishnaic texts and ancient Near Eastern cuneiform documents. They rightly note that the early legal statements were not designed originally to serve as precedents or to be cited in later legal proceedings. However, with so many similar casuistic laws in each of the codes, it is clear that the concepts of liability, reciprocity, and property rights are common to each of the cultures who produced the codes.

The chapter on litigation opens with a glimpse of the court system from the king down to local officials. The latter, made up of elders or a mixture of local citizens and officials, worked in a collegial manner while creating a consensus opinion on punishment or the imposition of binding orders. The authors briefly draw attention to social organization in each of the periods of biblical tradition, from the Patriarchal Period to the Persian Period, before turning to forms of judicial procedure, both private and public disputes, points of law, use of evidence, divine intervention, and suprarational methods of proof. Throughout their discussion the authors keep the level appropriate to students, but they do not avoid items that have been disputed such as the use of the ordeal in biblical law (they see it only in the Psalms, p. 49).

The chapter on status and family describes the legal roles of citizenship, gender, slavery, and the household. Particularly helpful here is the section on marriage laws, framed according to conditions, formation, and stages of the transaction between families. Their explanation of mohar as something other than “bride price” or purchase of the bride opens up other possibilities related to the rights of the husband to remove his bride from her father's household and to sexual exclusivity (pp. 60–61). Because this is a very brief treatment of customs and laws, the sections on divorce, remarriage, and adoption barely touch on these subjects, although the information provided is useful as a starting point.

The chapter dealing with crimes and delicts touches on traditional crimes against persons (homicide, adultery, rape, theft, assault), but also deals with items such as witchcraft and wrongs against God. Three categories of criminal offense are discussed. First are offenses against a superior (king, God, hierarchy) such as treason or blasphemy. The second are grave offenses against an individual that called for revenge, including talionic response, such as murder or unintentional homicide, causing harm to a pregnant woman and/or her fetus, and other forms of personal injury (physical or related to sexual rights such as adultery or rape). Also included here are personal statements that cause harm (perjury, false witness, and slander) as well as a brief discussion of compensation that would either ameliorate the damage done or forestall a more severe punishment. Finally, the authors categorize minor offenses such as temporary injuries and negligence that results in damage or loss of property (as portrayed in the “goring ox” example, p. 86).

The final two chapters deal with property rights, inheritance issues (note the useful diagram of the levirate obligation on pp. 96–97), and contracts (including for hire, loans, and betrothal). Since oath taking is always in the name of God or a god in the ancient Near East, a promissory oath takes on singular importance and often appears in biblical narrative as a plot device that drives action and explains consequences (see pp. 118–119). In the section on debt, social justice issues are explored, including redemption regulations and term limits. The authors do note that there is no evidence that the sabbatical and jubilee year injustices on debt release were actually enforced and may relate to distrust of the civil authority's concern for social justice.

To put this volume in context, there is only one comparable work that is currently in print. William Doorly, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook to Biblical Law (Paulist, 2001), is another small volume (192 pp) that outlines the legal collections and addresses case law. However, Westbrook and Wells have chosen not to depend on historical-critical methods and that provides a clear differentiation with Doorly. Zeʾev Falk's reprinted volume, Hebrew Law in Biblical Times (BYU Press, 2001 [1964]) addresses many of the same topics, but it represents an older generation of scholarship that has only slightly been updated in the second edition. Only Dale Patrick's now out-of-print volume, Old Testament Law (John Knox, 1985) approaches Westbrook and Wells for coverage of both biblical and Near Eastern legal materials, and the latter does a much more seamless job of integrating the comparative data. That is to be expected given the late Dr. Westbrook's expertise, and the result is a volume that lays out with clarity and brevity the major facets of law while also providing a sense of the culture that produced these legal statements.

Given its size it is understandable that scholars will find this volume interesting, but not satisfying except as an excellent supplement for their students. Of course, leaving the reader to want more is a good goal for a textbook as it sparks the desire to seek out more on the topic. Other than more coverage of some items, the addition of a scripture index would also be helpful for those looking for particular citations or examples. With an eye to its purpose as an “introduction,” this short treatment of biblical law does a remarkable job and should receive wide use in the classroom.

Victor H. Matthews, Missouri State University