Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Book of the Covenant

BOOK OF THE COVENANT (Heb. Sefer ha-Berit), name derived from Exodus 24:7 ("And he took the book of the covenant, and read it aloud to the people.…"), and usually taken to refer to the legal, moral, and cultic corpus of literature found in Exodus 20:22–23:33. This literary complex can be divided into four major units: Exodus 20:22–26, cultic ordinances; 21:1–22:16, legal prescriptions; 22:17–23:19, religious, moral, and cultic instructions; and 23:20–33, epilogue or concluding section. The Book of the Covenant begins (20:22–26) and concludes (23:10–19) – immediately preceding the epilogue – with instructions pertaining to correct ritual procedure. A cultic frame to a juridical corpus is also characteristic of two other biblical corpora, the so-called *Holiness Code of Leviticus (17:1ff. and 26:1–2), and the laws of *Deuteronomy (12:1ff. and 26). The legal corpus proper, Exodus 21:2–22:16, immediately follows the initial cultic prescriptions and contains civil and criminal legislation on the following topics:

Section I: 21:2–6, Hebrew slave; 21:7–11, bondwoman; 21:12–17, capital offense; 18–27, bodily injuries (including the laws of talion);

Section II, 21:28–32, goring ox;

Section III, 21:33–36, pit and ox;

Section IV, 21:37–22:3, theft and burglary; 22:4–5, grazing and burning; 22:6–14, deposits and bailees; 22:15–16, seduction of an unbetrothed girl.

In sections I and II human beings are the objects; in III and IV property is the object. Most of the individual laws are interrelated, moreover, by means of association and concatenation of similar ideas, motifs, and key words.

Similarity to Cuneiform Laws

In both form and content many of these laws are indebted directly or indirectly to laws found in earlier cuneiform collections, i.e., Laws of Ur-Namma (LU) and Lipit-Ishtar (LI), written in Sumerian; Laws of Eshnunna (LE) and Laws of Hammurapi (LH), written in Akkadian; Middle Assyrian Laws (MAL); and Hittite Laws (HL). (See *Mesopotamia , Cuneiform Law.) The laws are formulated in the traditional casuistic style. The casuistic formulation of law, which predominates throughout all of the above-mentioned extra-biblical corpora, consists of a protasis, containing the statement of the case, and an apodosis, setting forth the solution, i.e., penalty. The protasis of the main clause is introduced by Hebrew ki, and of subordinate or secondary clauses by Hebrew im or oʾ (here meaning "if"). The only exceptions to the casuistic formulation in this section are the prescriptions found in Exodus 21:12, 15, 16, 17, all of which begin (in Hebrew) with a participle.

In content too, this earliest collection of biblical law remains to a great extent within the legal orbit of its cuneiform predecessors. Several possible extra-biblical substrata are still contextually and linguistically identifiable. The threefold basic maintenance requirement for a woman (Ex. 21:10) has analogues in LI 27–28 and in legal documents from Ur III down to neo-Babylonian times. The equal division of all assets and liabilities between two owners when one ox gores another to death (Ex. 21:35–36) is identical to LE 53. The laws of talion (punishment in kind; Ex. 21:23–25) are first legislated in LH 196, 197, 200. The Bible, however, does not incorporate vicarious talion (but see Cassuto , Exodus, p. 277) as is the practice in LH 116, 210, 230, but does insist, on the other hand, on talion in cases of homicide (Ex. 21:23; according to LH 207, composition is acceptable). The laws of assault and battery (Ex. 21:18–19) are analogous to HL 10 in many respects. The laws pertaining to the seduction of an unbetrothed girl (Ex. 22:15–16) contain several features similar to MAL A 56. The case of an injury to a pregnant woman which results in a miscarriage, or in her own death (Ex. 21:22–23), is dealt with in LH 209–214, MAL A 21, 50–52, HL 17–18, and in earlier Sumerian collections. Another example of a common legal tradition that the biblical corpus shares with its Mesopotamian cogeners is the law of the goring ox (Ex. 21:28–32), in which there are several common features: an official warning, a lack of precaution in spite of the warning, the fatal accident, and the punishment.

Distinguishing Features

Though the legal corpus of the Book of the Covenant emerges as an integral component of ancient Near Eastern law, there are still striking differences to be observed which are due not only to the different composition of the societies, but also to the relative set of values within each society. Though slavery is a recognized institution within the Bible, the laws in the Book of the Covenant are concerned with the protection of the slave and the preservation of his human dignity: The status of the Hebrew slave is temporary (21:2), his physical being must be guarded against abuse, and he is considered a human being in his own right and not merely his owner's chattel (21:20, 26, 27). In several of the laws the females are given equal rank with their male counterparts (a mother, 21:15, 17; a daughter, 21:31; a woman, 21:28, 29; and a female slave, 21:20, 26, 27, 32).

The laws of the goring ox best demonstrate the difference between cuneiform law and the Book of the Covenant, for the biblical version (Ex. 21:28–32) is the only one that preserves an inherent religious evaluation. The sole concern of the corresponding cuneiform laws, LE 54–55 and LH 250–252, is economic; hence, the victim's family is compensated for its loss. The laws are not concerned with the liability of the ox. Only according to biblical law is the ox stoned, its flesh not to be eaten, and the execution of its owner demanded. The stoning of the ox and its taboo status are related in turn to the religious presupposition of bloodguilt (Gen. 9:5–6). A beast that kills a human being destroys the image of God, is held accountable for being objectively guilty of a criminal action, and hence is executed. Furthermore, biblical legislation ordinarily repudiates the concept of paying an indemnification to the family of the slain man. However, since this is a case of criminal negligence in which the ox alone is guilty of the killing, the owner may redeem his own life, if the slain person's family permits it, by paying a ransom (Ex. 21:30); in this case alone is a ransom acceptable; in other instances of homicide it is strictly forbidden (Num. 35:31). Here, as well as in the other biblical corpora, the sacredness of human life is paramount. Hence, there is an absolute ban on composition (Ex. 21:22), for according to biblical law, life and property are incommensurable. Exodus 21:31 adds another new element to the law by prohibiting the practice of vicarious talionic punishment (contrast LH 116, 210, 230). The religious underpinning of this law reflects the unique characteristic of biblical law. Whereas in Mesopotamian legal corpora the gods may be credited with calling the king to establish justice and equity, it is the king who is the sole legislator. In the Bible, the law claims divine authorship. Indeed, from the Book of the Covenant one would never know that the states of ancient Israel were monarchies. Law is depicted as the expression of the will of a single God, who is the sole source and sanction of law, and all of life is ultimately bound up with this will. This explains why in the Book of the Covenant and in other biblical corpora, but not in cuneiform corpora, there is a blending of strictly legal with moral, ethical, and cultic ordinances (Ex. 22:17–23:19).

The next section, Exodus 22:17–23:19, may be subdivided as follows: 22:17–19, laws against sorcery and bestiality; 22:20–26, love and fellowship toward the poor and needy; 22:27, reverence toward God and the leader of the community; 22:28–30, ritual prescriptions; 23:1–9, justice toward all; 23:10–19, cultic calendar.

This complex is distinguished by the use of the apodictic legal formulation. This formulation is stated as a direct address consisting of a command, whose validity is unlimited, and which obliges one to do, or refrain from doing, a certain action. The Bible uses the apodictic style to a much greater extent than do extra-biblical law corpora. This feature is due to the regular biblical setting of the laws as oral addesses to the people (see Greengus in Bibliography). Another feature of this section is the presence of motive clauses of an explanatory, ethical, religious, or historical nature. For law in Israel also constitutes a body of teaching (torah), which is set forth publicly and prospectively to the entire community (Ex. 21:1; Deut. 31:9–13).

The final section, the epilogue, Exodus 23:20–33, consists of two different paragraphs, verses 20–25 and verses 26–33. It contains the promise of God's presence and protection of Israel in the forthcoming conquest of Canaan as long as they remain faithful to His laws. Since several extra-biblical legal corpora (LU, LI, LH) that conclude with epilogues also commence with prologues, the question has been raised whether a prologue can be found in the Book of the Covenant. It has been suggested that in light of the final redaction of the Book of Exodus, chapter 19:3–6 actually serves the function of a prologue by setting forth the prime purpose of biblical legislation, that of sanctification. Thus, Exodus 19:3–6 and Exodus 23:20–33 would form a literary frame that encases the new constitution of Israel and binds the history and destiny of Israel to the discipline of law.


Various dates have been suggested for the compilation of the Book of the Covenant, ranging from the period of Moses to post-exilic times. The resort to parallels has often been determined by a scholar's presuppositions. Thus, the slave law in Exodus 21:2–6 has been explained as meeting the needs of defaulting debtors in early Israelite society, and alternatively, as reflective of the redemption of Jewish slaves from gentiles in the Persian period described in the Book of Nehemiah (5:8). Similarly, the absence of references to the monarchy has been used to support either a pre-monarchic date or a post-monarchic date. Likewise, the office of nasi, " *Chieftain " (22:7), is referred to elsewhere in the Bible in both early and late settings. As a final complication, one must deal with the "boomerang phenomenon" (Zakovitch) in which a law in an early collection was reinterpreted in a later one, the interpretation subsequently finding its way into the earlier collection once both collections found their way into the Torah.

Some scholars would separate the question of the original date of compilation of the laws in the Book of the Covenant from that of its incorporation within the Torah. The monarchic period suggests itself for the original date because of the close resemblance of its laws to the ancient Near Eastern laws, which were royal in origin. The absence of references to the monarchy would then be explained as the result of deletions from the Book of the Covenant when it was incorporated in the final redaction of the Pentateuch in post-exilic times. Plausible as this hypothesis is, it remains unproved.


M. Greenberg, in: Sefer Yovel Y. Kaufmann (1960), 5–28; H. Cazelles, Etudes sur le Code de l'Alliance (1946); U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (1967); M. Haran, in: EM, 5 (1968), 1087–91 (incl. bibl.); S.M. Paul, Studies in the Book of the Covenant in the Light of Cuneiform and Biblical Law (1970); O. Eissfeldt, The Old Testament, an Introduction (1965), 212–9 (incl. bibl.). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: I. Mendelsohn, Slavery in the Ancient Near East… (1949); S. Greengus, IDBSUP (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible Supplementary Volume), 532–37; M. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (1995); Y. Zakovitch, "Book of the Covenant," in: M. Fox et al. (eds.), Texts, Temples, and Traditions (in Hebrew; FS M. Haran, 1996), 59–64; M. Koeckert, in: C. Bultmann et al. (eds.), Vergegenwaertigung des Alten Testaments (FS R. Smend, 2002), 13–27; J. van Seters, in: ZAW, 108 (1996), 534–46; L. Schmidt, in: ZAW, 113 (2001), 167–85; D. Knight, in: S. Olyan (ed.), A Wise and Discerning Heart (FS B. Long, 2002), 13–79.

[Shalom M. Paul/ S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.