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Level 6

6AAT3050 Law and Ethics in the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament


The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee this module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

Credit value: 15
Module tutor: Professor Paul Joyce
Assessment: One 2,500-word essay (40%) and one two-hour examination (60%)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Teaching pattern: Two-hour weekly classes over ten weeks
Pre-requisites: None

Biblical law is often characterised as a restrictive set of long redundant rules; the orders of a demanding divine sovereign; or the opposite of love. Here we move beyond the world of telegrams and anger in which law is usually situated to consider fascinating alternatives:

  • Biblical law as a means for instilling and transmitting social and cultural values
  • Law as a receptacle for tradition
  • Law as protection against divine anger and human injustice
  • A legal system for imposing cosmic order and adapting to change
  • Law as a teaching tool
  • Law as vehicle for divine / human engagement that approximates erotic love

The Hebrew Bible’s legal texts provide at once a brilliantly illuminating spotlight on the ancient world, and – especially when read in conjunction with narrative and other biblical genres – a focus for considering ethical dilemmas that remain as challenging today as when the laws were framed.

Sample topics

  • Introduction to reading and interpreting ancient texts in translation; to identifying and applying appropriate methodological approaches; and to thinking about law and legal systems.
  • The Ten Commandments – what do they teach us about biblical law? (Exodus and Deuteronomy)
  • Crime and Punishment, Law and Narrative (Exodus and Deuteronomy; Genesis and 1 and 2 Samuel)
  • Abraham and Sinai: Is biblical law natural law (Exodus and Genesis)?
  • Human rights in the Hebrew Bible : Are non-Israelites bound by biblical laws? (Amos, Ezekiel, and Genesis)
  • Laws and the Law-giver: Must God keep his own laws? ( 2 Kings and Esther)
  • Individual crime and collective punishment: Can biblical justice ever be just? (Jeremiah and Job)
  • Biblical Law as a vehicle for Engagement (Deuteronomy, Psalms, Genesis)
  • Law and Identity Politics – Slaves, Women and other Others (Exodus, Deuteronomy)
  • Case Studies, Character Ethics and other applications of Biblical Law

Past syllabus

Please find syllabus document here for academic year 2015-16. Please be aware that the content of the syllabus will differ each academic year. 

Further information

Module aims
  • To introduce students to a variety of biblical texts of different genres (law codes, narratives, prophetic texts, poetry, and wisdom) that address legal and ethical issues.
  • To help students to examine – from literary, anthropological, sociological, gender, and historical perspectives – the functions of biblical law in the context of ancient Israel, and to think more generally about the role of law in the creation and transmission of cultural values and identity.
  • To help students think about how ancient legal material may be applied to contemporary ethical issues, whilst remaining aware of the difficulties inherent in cross-cultural thinking.
Learning outcomes

Generic skills

  • Ability to read critically and interpret ancient texts in translation.
  • Ability to analyse and evaluate secondary literature.
  • Ability to think cross-culturally yet with sensitivity to historical and social differences.
  • Ability to write critical essays on primary and secondary source material.

Module specific skills

  • Ability to interpret a variety of biblical texts in English, with awareness of the significance of their original language.
  • Ability to explore, from a variety of methodological perspectives, ancient legal material in its own historical context.
  • Ability to develop strategies for the responsible and sensitive application of ancient legal material to contemporary ethical issues.
Preliminary Reading

- Barton, John. Ethics in Ancient Israel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

- Carr, David M., An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts of the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

- Rogerson, John W., Theory and Practice in Old Testament Ethics: Edited and with an Introduction by M. Daniel Carroll R. (LHBOTS, 405; London / New York: T & T Clark International, 2004). 



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