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Covenants and law codes - Chronological issues

Conventional chronology for law-codes and covenants The following charts set the various law-codes and covenant treaties in their appropriate chronological position, under both conventional and New chronologies. For comparative purposes, the position of Deuteronomy as suggested from other internal considerations is placed alongside these. The Exodus - and hence the original formulation of Deuteronomy - is taken to be just prior to the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, at the end of the 13th dynasty (around 1620 conventionally, 1450 in New Chronology terms). It is, of course, possible that the original form of Deuteronomy was adapted into written form at some stage after the entrance into Canaan. However, the considerations below provide limits on what time-ranges would be feasible for this. Alternative preferences for an Exodus date can be compared to the various other documents listed if desired.

New Chronology for law-codes and covenants As discussed on one of the companion pages, the law-code form is quite uniform throughout the period in question, so that the New Chronology later positioning of the rulers concerned is not especially important. The close proximity of Hammurabi, compiler of the longest and best-preserved surviving law-code, with the expected date of Deuteronomy is interesting, but does not supply compelling support for the New Chronology. See below for a discussion of how the contents of the various law codes can help identify an approximate time of composition.

The covenant form, on the other hand, is more specifically bound to certain time-bands. This is because the form changed markedly over the years. Given that the structure of Deuteronomy is closely related to the Middle Hittite form, one would expect the documents to originate from about the same time. Conventionally this is the case - both the Middle Hittite form and Deuteronomy are placed around the middle of the 2nd millennium. Deuteronomy is, to be sure, a little earlier, but not substantially so.

However, the New Chronology reduction of dates causes a serious separation between the two documentary types. Deuteronomy is only a little later, as explained above, but the Hittite treaty form is moved forward to the 11th century BCE, as are the Hittite and Middle Assyrian law codes. Although it is, of course, possible that the same treaty form was in use at this time, there is no surviving evidence for this. Within this chronological model, the Hittite kingdom was only just establishing a capital at Hattush and expanding into northern Syria, and there was no pressure for international treaties. The advance of Mursilis I to capture Babylon, thus allowing the rise of the Mitanni kingdom, was still in the future. It is difficult to see how the New Chronology model can easily accommodate the treaty data.

Law-code contents and dating

Since the formal structure of the law-codes does not permit a composition date to be established, it is interesting to investigate the particular laws to identify trends in them.

As mentioned elsewhere, one issue is the price set as compensation value for a slave. Over the years, this changed. The diagram below shows a number of specific examples. Although there is an overall trend discernible in the law codes (red marks), the actual prices as recovered from individual legal cases or other sources show a much more varied picture (blue marks) - though still following the same trend. This is presumably because slaves varied considerably in ability and usefulness, and because the market for slaves varied with availability and between one nation and another. The Hittite law value in particular is somewhat out of sequence.

Thus, the overall picture, considering the trend in slave prices, suggests an approximate date for the Mosaic law in the Bronze age in the region roughly 1600-1300 BCE conventionally (approx 1400-1100 BCE under New Chronology). The various law-codes in which compensation is given in terms of shekels of silver are listed along the bottom, spaced according to the time between them. The actual year values in either chronology can be determined from the charts above - the relative spacing is similar in both models with the exception of the late Babylonian and Persian dates. It will be seen that the price rose considerably in the time between Hammurabi and the Hittite Laws. For comparison, Exodus sets this at 30 shekels (Ex.21:32) - a value evidently closer to that of Hammurabi than the later Hittite laws. As a further item of interest here, the price Joseph's brothers received for him when they sold him to the Midianites (Genesis 37:28) is given as 20 shekels, reflecting the earlier time-period of this account.

Slave compensation price The individual items are (all years are approximate and expressed in conventional terms:

  1. Ur-nammu (c. 2100, 10 sh)
  2. Eshnunna (c. 1950, 15 sh)
  3. Lipit-Ishtar (c. 1920, 15 sh)
  4. Hammurabi (c. 1800, 20 sh)
  5. Hittite laws (c. 1300, 120 sh)
  6. In dynasty of Akkad (c. 2350-2200, 10-15 sh)
  7. Purchase of slave in reign of Ammiditana (c. 1600, 51 sh)
  8. Nuzi and Ugarit data (c. 1450-1350, 30 sh)
  9. Trade of 40 concubines in Amarna period (c. 1350, 40 sh)
  10. Purchase of girl slave in reign of Rameses II (c. 1275, 41 sh)
  11. Assyria (c. 950-850, 50-60 sh)
  12. Purchase of 2 slaves in reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 600, 140 sh)
  13. Persian era (c. 550, 90-120 sh)


Further information can be gleaned from how different laws are included or omitted as time passed. Although there are certain kinds of law which are common factors throughout the years, others are only typically found in either earlier or later codes. These are indicated in the following table, where a x tick mark indicates that the item is found in the code in question. It should be remembered that not all of the codes are complete: however the cumulative effect of the different factors should be considered.

Lawcode (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) Punishment
Eshnunnax       Most punishments financial - capital cases must be seen by the king
Lipit-Ishtarx x      Most punishments financial but the probable section covering serious cases has been lost
Hammurabix xx     Many punishments financial but there are a considerable number of offences punishable by death or mutilation. Punishments often differ by social class.
Hittite Laws   x x x  Many punishments financial or other forms of compensation, some require the death penalty
Middle Assyrian laws   x   x Most punishments involve physical mutilation as well as other penalties, many require the death penalty
Exodus, Leviticus or Deuteronomy x x x x x x Most punishments financial - capital cases must be seen by the king

The different situations covered by this table are:

  1. An ox known to gore causes death
  2. The rights of each of a man's first and subsequent wives and their children are defined so as to protect one who is loved less or has a lesser social status
  3. A fight between men causes the miscarriage of a pregnant woman
  4. If one brother dies, a surviving brother has a duty to marry his wife
  5. A murder case in the country is unsolved and some responsibility relates to the nearest village
  6. A wife interferes with a fight between men by seizing one by the private parts
It can be seen that the Mosaic law set out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy shares some characteristics with the earlier group (towards the left of this table) and some with the later ones (towards the right). This supports the contention that the Mosaic law was essentially composed at a time between these - in other words after about 1800 and before about 1200 conventionally (after about 1600 and before about 900 NC). In terms of overall similarity of wording, the Hittite laws appear to bear the closest similarity.

Another consideration concerns the inheritance rights of children of secondary wives. These evolved in a fairly clear-cut manner. The Lipit-Ishtar law-code (early 19th century BCE conventionally) states that the children of a second wife have sole rights over the dowry she brought from her father's house, but that in other respects the children of first and second wives were to receive equal shares of the estate. Hammurabi (mid 18th century) describes two situations. A father was allowed to make a special gift (perhaps a field or house) to his first-born son, but in other respects shares were to be equal. In the case of more than one wife (where the father had formally acknowledged the second wife's children as his own), the firstborn son of the first wife was to receive a preferential share, but the shares of all other children were to be equal. The Mari and Nuzi texts (though not formal law codes in the sense of the others) describe situations where the firstborn son receives double the share of an adopted son. Finally, the mid first millennium NeoBabylonian laws stipulate that the sons of a first wife share 2/3 of the estate between them, while the sons of a second wife share only 1/3, half as much.

How does this compare to the various inheritance regulations we see in the Old Testament? Jacob's blessing of his children in Gen. 48 and 49 shows him giving the preferential gift of land in Canaan to Joseph, the firstborn son of his favourite wife Rachel. The sequence of blessings in ch. 49 differ in detail from one another, but do not suggest that in terms of material shares any were to be preferred, or that the children of the less preferred wife Leah, or the slave-women Bilhah and Zilpah were in any way to be disadvantaged. This mirrors the situation described in the law code of Hammurabi. The formal regulations of Deut. 21:15-17 specify that a natural firstborn son is to receive a double share of the inheritance, even if born of a less-favoured wife. This, however, was only to apply to the firstborn, not to all children of the first wife. This is parallel to the Mari and Nuzi examples.

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