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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 65, 2017

WILLIAM S. MORROW, An Introduction to Biblical Law (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017). Pp. vii + 270. Paperback. US$24.00.

In recent years scholarship has witnessed a surge of interest in biblical law; the upcoming publication of The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), which follows the Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), means that scholars of biblical law have more surveys available to them than ever before. However, up-to-date and accessible textbooks on biblical law for students and congregational communities are still few and far between, and it is within this context that Morrow situates his Introduction to Biblical Law (xii).

Within Part One, Morrow lays down the book’s objective and method (Chapter 1). It is not his intention to write a comprehensive introduction to the biblical law collections (10), but to elucidate how the legal material articulates visions of human community that are responding to their experiences of the divine; that is, his primary objective is show how the biblical laws represent “a significant way in which ancient Israel did theology” (5–6). He accomplishes this by utilising the exegetical method that he calls “canonical criticism,” whereby canon and community are inextricably bound. Rather than focusing on the relationship between the written laws and their practical application—a topic of much uncertainty and debate—he addresses the reciprocal relationship between the written standards and the “community that knows itself through them” (7). From this perspective, the most important information encoded in the various law collections are the various and dynamic visions of community and of collective self-definition. The following Chapters 2–4 helpfully cover a number of foundational methodological issues that biblical scholars take for granted: the difficulty of dating biblical texts and the relevant archaeological, historical and literary timelines, the contested historicity of the Mosaic traditions, and other important critical approaches to biblical law.

The next four parts of the book provide introductions to the four major law collections: The Ten Commandments, the Covenant Code, the Priestly and Holiness Law and Deuteronomy. While Morrow’s preferred overarching exegetical method is canonical criticism, a helpful introductory chapter is dedicated to each law collection in which a number of key critical approaches—both traditional and contemporary—are introduced, particularly literary organisation, historical dating, source and redaction criticism, and comparisons with relevant ancient Near Eastern texts.

Within his analysis of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:2–17; Deut 5:6–21), Morrow argues that, ultimately, their purpose is to disclose the identity of YHWH as the King of Israel who is their creator and liberator (Chapter 5).

Accordingly, the Ten Commandments also disclose the identity of the Israelites as a people called to respond to YHWH’s divine dābār by obeying his commandments (51–54). When Morrow turns to the Covenant Code (Exod 20:23–23:19) in Part Three, the ideal Israel community appears to be the village assembly (Chapter 7). While the author does not rule out the possibility that the Code may reflect some real social conditions, he finds greater interpretative significance from the social vision that the text seeks to portray—an ideal community that “regulates itself without the apparatus of an ancient state and whose only king is God” (84).

Refreshingly, the bulk of Morrow’s survey takes place in Part Four, in which the Priestly (P) and Holiness law (H) in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers (Exodus 25–Numbers 36) is examined. These laws form the vast bulk of legal material in the Pentateuch, but are often under-studied and under-appreciated, particularly in Christian theological contexts. Both P and H, and their various rules and rituals, were motivated by religious experience: Israel’s encounter with the holy (110). Nevertheless, the complicated relationship between these two related but different sources are further nuanced by Morrow in terms of their origins and “style,” and different conceptions of holiness (111–16). Chapters 11–17 contain various case studies which are used to flesh out the religious and social imaginations of P and H. Although many of these laws may appear baffling and even distasteful to modern sensibilities, they describe systems of law that take as their central point the concept of divine holiness, and the desire to demarcate the sacred and sacred space, and facilitate appropriate human relationships in response to them (109). Deuteronomy 12–26, which emphasises the city as the socially and theologically important institution (Chapter 18), is the subject of Part Five. Deuteronomic law is in many ways the embodiment of biblical law: a fundamentally dynamic entity. The book utilises pre-existing written law and custom to initiate dramatic legal, social and religious changes, most notably cult centralisation “within the place where the LORD will chose” (Deut 12:14; 14:23; 16:2) (Chapter 20). Deuteronomy, while containing many laws that may or may not have been implemented (211, 225–26), contains a program which attempts to shore up social, religious and even ethnic solidarity in response to the external threats of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires (e. g. see 212–15, 225–26).

What emerges from these depictions of the four law collections is a mosaic (23); each collection presents its own unique agenda of community-making, but this plurality of visions contributes to the whole: “each collection of Pentateuchal law was written in order to convey a vision of what it means to live as God’s people” (241). Within the process, Morrow adroitly presents a highly accessible introduction to biblical law that still engages with serious scholarly issues and debates. To this end, a list of “Further Reading” has been provided for each law collection. Similarly, Morrow honestly addresses a number of controversial laws including those on revenge (Chapter 8), slavery (Chapter 9), religious intolerance (Chapter 19) and gender inequality (Chapter 22), but is still able to present a sympathetic and contextualised approach to Israel’s legal literature which, as the “water from Sinai,” is the shared source of many Jewish and Christian traditions.

Review by
University of Sydney
Whitley College, University of Divinity