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We started looking at questions about Old Testament sexual laws in the last question. Let’s look at the question again –

“Odd laws concerning adultery, rape, and marrying captives (Deuteronomy 21:13-14 and 22:28-29):

There seems to be no admonishment to take into consideration a captive woman’s wishes when deciding to marry her; also, this seems to be an instance when divorce without reason is perfectly legal. Is this correct?

As for adultery and rape, I could not tell which the later passage was referring to. It being the Bible I would like to assume it means adultery (mutual consent) but without knowing any Hebrew I cannot tell for sure. Regardless it seems to be saying that adultery with an unengaged woman has no severe punishment, whereas gathering sticks on the Sabbath day is punishable by death (Numbers 15:32-35). Is this correct? If so, how is it Just?”

We continue now with the next part of our answer.

Ancient Legal Codes

The oldest legal code we have archaeological evidence for is the Code of Urukagina. Urukagina was an ancient ruler of a city-state in the northeastern part of Mesopotamia (ancient Girsu and Lagash). The Bible tells us that Nimrod, son of Cush and great-grandson of Noah, built many of the cities in ancient Mesopotamia. Those included Babel, Erech, Accad, Calneh, Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen. Though the Bible does not give us any list of Nimrod’s descendants, they may have been early rulers of his city-states. It was the ruler’s job to govern the people and ensure the continued worship of their gods (e.g. Enlil, Ninlil, Ninurta/Ningirsu, Shulshagana, Bau, Anzu).

A fragment of the Code of Urukagina can be seen in the Louvre Museum in Paris. We also have two of his ‘liberty cones’ and learn about some of his social reforms. We can also see the two Liberty Cones at the Louvre.

They include information about social, economic and religious conditions at the time and Urukagina’s reforms. He addressed many abuses of the citizens by previous rulers, temple administrators and priests. The government was corrupt and abuses included unfair taxes and the theft of personal property by leaders.

We learn from the Code of Urukagina and the Liberty Cones that the governor established legal, economic, social and religious reforms that treated people more fairly (including widows and orphans) – evidence of a desire by some in ancient leadership to value people more highly – just as God commanded Noah. He removed many of the corrupt people in government and established fairness throughout the social, economic and legal system.

The city-state of Ur was in the southeastern part of Mesopotamia. Ur-Nammu claimed to be a mighty warrior and king of Ur, Sumer and Akkad, “by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Ut.”

The Code of Ur-Nammu can be seen at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums/Ancient Orient Museum in Turkey. The code lists a crime followed by the punishment for that crime, which is a format used for thousands of years up to the present time.

The first crime to be addressed (following the Prologue) was murder. Notice how closely the code followed God’s command to Noah and his sons. First, from the Code of Ur-Nammu –

“If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.”

Next, from God’s commandment to Noah and his sons –

“Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed.”

Very close in wording and intent.

The second law in the Code of Ur-Nammu reads –

“If a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.”

That went further than God’s command to Noah, but demonstrates how rulers viewed the value of people and their property.

Other laws in the Code of Ur-Nammu addressed issues of kidnapping, rape, slavery, adultery, divorce, sorcery, assault that caused physical injury, and perjury. Property crimes are also mentioned along with specific penalties for breaking the Code.

Keep in mind that the Code of Ur-Nammu is the legal system Abram would have grown up with in Ur. That Code, along with the commands God gave to him directly, would be a primary driver in how Abram viewed people and property.

Once Abram moved from Ur to Haran and then to Canaan, he began interacting with different groups of people who had varying ideas about how to treat people and property. We see Abram dealing with the Canaanites and Egyptians. Both of those nations and their legal and social policies played a major role in the life of the nation of Israel, so it’s important to note that in our response to your question. (I’m including other peoples in the area of Canaan under the umbrella name of Canaanites. Those include the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites).

Abraham’s (Abram) first son (Ishmael) came from his union with an Egyptian servant girl (Hagar) who came with him and his wife (Sarah) from their time in Egypt. Ishmael had several sons and became the father of the Ishmaelites. Abraham’s second son (Isaac) came from his union with his wife, Sarah. Isaac became the father of Esau and Jacob. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Jacob had twelve sons.

One of them, Joseph, had to deal directly with the legal code of Egypt. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers to a group of Ishmaelites who sold him to an officer of the Egyptian king (pharaoh). Joseph got along well until an officer’s wife falsely accused Joseph of trying to have sex with her. The officer had Joseph thrown into prison, which tells us something about the Egyptian laws of the time.

We learn a bit more about Egyptian laws because of two of the people Joseph met in prison. The king become angry with his chief butler and chief baker and threw them into prison. We don’t know why the pharaoh was angry with them, but it demonstrated his legal authority and power.

We also learn more about Egyptian law after Joseph was released from prison and made second in command to the pharaoh. Joseph became an Egyptian ruler and established many of the laws that guided Egypt through a great famine. Joseph moved his father and brothers from Canaan to Egypt to protect them during the famine.

That’s important background to understand when we come to Moses, because the questions you asked concern what is known as the Law of Moses (Mosaic Law). Moses was a Hebrew born in Egypt because Jacob (Israel) and his family had moved from Canaan to Egypt. If God had not intervened in the life of their family, Moses would have been born in Canaan (if Jacob’s family could have survived the famine). It was God’s plan that Moses be born in Egypt during a time when a new pharaoh who did not know Joseph became ruler. The new pharaoh changed the laws that had blessed the people of Israel under Joseph to a time of brutal slavery.

Keep in mind that the king of Egypt at the time Moses was born had commanded that every son born to the Hebrew people was to be be cast into the river to die. The daughters born to the Hebrews were allowed to live. God saved Moses from being killed after he was born and made it so Moses would become the adopted son of one of the king’s daughters. We learn in Acts 7 that Moses was schooled in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. That would have included their laws.

Moses had to run for his life when the pharaoh heard that Moses had killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. Moses was 40-years-old when he left Egypt and traveled to the land of Midian. He worked as a shepherd for 40 more years, married and had a son. God called Moses from the burning bush when he was 80-years-old and told him to go back to Egypt to confront a new pharaoh about freeing the people Israel. A short time after God miraculously brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and into the wilderness, Moses received God’s Law.

The Mosaic Legal Code

Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness and wrote extensively about what God revealed to him. Moses wrote about the history of the world and the Hebrew people (Genesis). He wrote about God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt and giving them a new legal code – the Law of Moses.

Keep in mind as we look specifically at some of the laws in the Mosaic Code that God first established a basic legal code with Noah.

“Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.”

That basic code was built on by some rulers for centuries following Noah. They expanded on it but kept the basic idea of the value and worth of human beings. Even though many ancient rulers and leaders abused their positions and their people, reformers would return to the basic concepts God gave Noah.

What God did with Moses and Israel was to expand on His previous commandment to Noah in a way only God could do. The other legal systems of the time were human ideas about how to build on God’s original commands. While some of their ideas, especially of the social, economic and legal reformers of the time, had some good points, the evil intent of people’s hearts would lead them to abuse and mistreat and neglect those who were weaker or not of the ruling class.

God revealed a system of laws that addressed crime and punishment in a way that reflected both His holiness and righteousness, and His mercy and grace.

Next Time

We will look at the specific questions about sexual laws in the Old Testament in the next part of our special Tough Questions series.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.