Law in Ancient Times Comparison Term Paper

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If the purpose of law is to maintain the order of society yielding the best possible circumstance for each individual man, woman, and child, then the argument arises as to whether such direct revenge is actually conducive to preventing further disorders. Revenge can easily run in endless cycles, and fear of punishment may not in and of itself be any deterrent at all, in particular if the act which is to be punished was committed in the heat of passion or without premeditation. Philosophers of law and ethics have long discussed the precise nature of the divine code that was given to Moses. On a fundamental level, there exists the question as to whether these laws are immutable expressions of an unchanging natural order such as has always existed, or whether these Mosaic laws represent merely the decrees of God that are applicable to a particular, time, place, or situation.

If God had simply made law in the manner of most temporal rulers, then these laws might not be applicable under changed circumstances - an evolving society might require new laws, or new interpretations of existing precepts.

As has been stated, the Mosaic Code makes much of very specific punishments for very specific violations of the rules. Many of these penalties are considered cruel by modern standards, though they are remarkably similar to many that are found within the laws of Hammurabi. Furthermore, many of the Biblical injunctions do not appear to apply to modern society in as much as they are ignored or overlooked by most modern Western societies. The numerous commandments that concern ritual practice, both public and private, are largely ignored today, though the Bible contains no direct admonition that they are in force only under certain conditions or for a limited period of time. The fact that laws, even divinely-given laws can dispense with, further complicates the question of what constitutes "justice," and of what comprises the actual purpose of any system of laws. The "eye for an eye" principle of Mosaic law implies two different things on two different levels. Read literally, the violator must pay in directly equal proportions to his or her actions. Read figuratively, the prescription appears to be that individuals - and the society in which they live - must be held somehow responsible for their own decisions and acts. Perhaps the segregation of certain major pronouncements into a collection of Ten Commandments is meant to call attention to the idea of underlying motive in a way that is not as clearly represented in Hammurabi's nearly three hundred decrees liberally mixed between criminal, civil, familial, and religious matters. In the Mosaic Ten Commandments, a common thread can be seen between the kinds of motivations that give rise to violations of the major ten commandments and many of the other additional commandments. One commits adultery or covetice, or for that matter, ordinary theft, because of an inordinate desire for that which one does not possess. One displays disobedience if one does not "honor they father and the mother," or similarly violate the ritual precepts relating to sacrifice in the Temple, or following menstruation or childbirth. By looking into these concepts, one sees the deeper feelings that bind a society together and which create or destroy order. Whether that order is simply human, or broadly cosmic and universal, the ideas that back them up are the same. John Finnis argues that, "Even if laws should not aim to make citizens in general virtuous, still, they should aim to insure that those who govern be virtuous"

Clearly, the Laws of Moses were intended to create an order that was at once virtuous and orderly, the order among individuals within society deriving from the fact they observed virtuous principles. It is these principles taken together in the form of God's Commandments that help those who would make laws to understand the real purpose behind those laws.

Thus, the Mosaic Code has much in common with the older Code of Hammurabi. Both collections of legal pronouncements contain a jumble of laws that apply to almost every conceivable human situation. Civil, criminal, familial, administrative, and religious, the laws contained within the two codes speak to human society as a totality, a totality that exists within the larger whole of cosmic or divine order. Everything that exists and is or can be done is done for some sort of reason. While these reasons may not always be clear, they nonetheless exist. The welter of prohibitions that apply to conditions that no longer exist or are no longer observed cause one to ponder the deeper meanings of much legislation. Both codes appeared to define justice as a matter of direct retribution. Penalties were made to fit specific crimes and were graduated according to the severity of the offense. Each code was very specific to its civilization. The civilization of the ancient Israelites was, in large measure, derived from the earlier Mesopotamian culture of Babylonia and Sumer. The underlying ideas of cosmic order and justice that informed the laws of Hammurabi also informed the laws of Moses. By reading between the liens and understanding the motives that dictate this or that prescription, modern legal theorists, ethicists, and philosophers can continue to find meaning in these pronouncements as they have down to us today. The Biblical commandments continue to inspire a thirst for justice and right conduct even in modern, post-industrial democracies that otherwise appear to have little in common with the civilizations of the Ancient world.


Dalley, Stephanie, a.T. Reyes, David Pingree, Alison Salvesen, and Henrietta McCall. The Legacy of Mesopotamia. Edited by Stephanie Dalley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Del Testa, David W., ed. Government Leaders, Military Rulers, and Political Activists. Westport, CT: Oryx Press, 2001.


Frymer-kensky, Tikva. In Religion, Feminism, and the Family, edited by Carr, Anne and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, 55-70. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.


Hogan, Maurice P., ed. Order and History: Israel and Revelation. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001

Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Kelly, J.M. A Short History of Western Legal Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.


Pakaluk, Michael. "Is the Common Good of Political Society Limited and Instrumental?." The Review of Metaphysics 55, no. 1 (2001): 57+.


Smith, Adam T. The Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.


Westbrook, Raymond, Gary Beckman, Richard Jasnow, Baruch Levine, and Martha Roth, eds. A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law. Vol. 1. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

Raymond Westbrook, et al., eds., a History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, vol. 1 (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 1.

Adam T. Smith, the Political Landscape: Constellations of Authority in Early Complex Polities (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 232, 236.

Stephanie Dalley et al., the Legacy of Mesopotamia ed. Dalley, Stephanie, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 69.

David W. Del Testa, ed., Government Leaders, Military Rulers, and Political Activists (Westport, CT: Oryx Press, 2001), 74.

Tikva Frymer-kensky, in Religion, Feminism, and the Family ed. Anne Carr and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 62.

Maurice P. Hogan, ed., Order and History: Israel and Revelation (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 63.

Michael Pakaluk, "Is the Common Good of Political Society Limited and Instrumental?," the Review of Metaphysics 55, no. 1 (2001).

Ted Honderich, ed., the Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 120.

J.M. Kelly, a Short History of Western Legal Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 103.

Michael Pakaluk, "Is the Common Good of Political Society Limited and Instrumental?," the Review of Metaphysics 55, no. 1 (2001).[continue]

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