Biblical assault and theft laws compared with Mesopotamian and Greek counterparts

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by Neil Godfrey

As per the previous post, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

I have added more illustrative and explanatory notes at the end of the table this time.

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

ASSAULT Bible ANE Greece/Plato
1. General principle: lex talionis (eye for an eye) X
2. Compensate loss of income and medical expenses *
3. Assault on parent punished by amputation of hand X X
4. Assault on parent punished by death X **
5. Maiming a slave entitles the slave to freedom X
6. Class based penalties:
–greater penalties for commoners against nobles;
–lesser penalties for nobles against commoners
X X***
7. Lesser (or no) punishments for assaults on slaves
 WHEN MEN FIGHT (with a woman nearby)….  Bible  ANE Greece/Plato 
And one injures a pregnant woman:
— Money compensation for loss of fetus
And one injures a pregnant woman so that she later dies:
— Execution of the man
And a woman grabs/crushes the testicles of one to assist the other:
— Cut off her hand or finger
THEFT Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Thieves breaking into a house at night to be slain ^  ^
Highwayman — death penalty
“Normal” daylight theft — financial penalties
Kidnapping — death penalty
Temple theft — death penalty
Public property theft — death penalty
Stealing from a house on fire — get thrown into the fire ^^
All property theft — only financial penalties, no death penalty ^^^ X X


* financial compensation for damages if unintentional or double the amount if willful
** Death was a maximum penalty but judges were to decide if it was warranted in each case
*** Greek laws in fact reversed the principle; hubris, the crime of humiliating another person to aggrandize oneself was worthy of death

the house owner himself was free to kill the thief
^^ this appears to me to be an obvious example of a theoretical or literary law; one presumes the fire would have burnt itself out by the time the trial was held.
^^^ See below

Illustrative and explanatory notes follow…..


1 & 6. Lex talionis and class based

Exodus 21:23-25 

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life,  eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Laws of Hammurabi

#196 If an awilu should blind the eye of another awilu, they shall blind his eye.

#197 If he should break the bone of another awilu, they shall break his bone.

#198 If he should blind the eye of a commoner or break the bone of a commoner, he shall weigh and deliver 60 shekels of silver.

2. Compensate loss of income

Exodus 21:18-19

In the case of men quarrelling, one man strikes his fellow with a stone or his fist, and he does not die but becomes bedridden; then if he rises and walks outside with his cane, the one who struck him will be cleared [of a serious charge], but he will pay for his period of rest and all his medical expenses.

Laws of Hammurabi #206

If an awilu should strike another awilu during a brawl and inflict upon him a wound, that awilu shall swear, “I did not strike intentionally,” and he shall satisfy the physician (i.e., pay his fees).

Plato, Laws [879b]

Whoever wounds another involuntarily shall pay a single equivalent for the damage . . . .

3 & 4. Assault on parent

Exodus 21:15

Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death.

Laws of Hammurabi #195

If a child should strike his father, they shall cut off his hand.

Plato, Laws 9:878e

When woundings of this kind are inflicted by children on parents, the judges shall be, of necessity, men over sixty years of age who have genuine, and not merely adopted, children of their own; and if a person be convicted, they shall assess the penalty—whether such a person ought to be put to death, or ought to suffer some other punishment still more severe, or possibly a little less severe: but none of the relatives of the culprit shall act as a judge,

5. Maiming a slave

Exodus 21:26-27

An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.

7. Lesser or no punishments for assaults on slaves

Exodus 21:20-21

Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.

^^^ All property theft — only financial penalties, no death penalty

The clearest expression of this is the remarkable leniency with which property offenses are dealt with in biblical law. No crime against property is punished with death. The insistence of life for life, to the exclusion of monetary compensation — a severity unparalleled in ancient Near Eastern law — has its counterpart in the refusal to consider any offense against property worthy of the death penalty — equally unheard of in all Near Eastern systems but the Hittite. In biblical law life and property are incommensurable.  — Greenberg, Moshe. “The Biblical Conception of Asylum”, in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 78, No. 2 (Jun., 1959), p. 129

In this context I find it interesting that the biblical codes contain no provision for temple theft or penalties for the highwayman. Is it possible that penalties that in real life required the death penalty were omitted from the biblical codes for theological reasons?


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Biblical assault and theft laws compared with Mesopotamian and Greek counterparts”

  1. Lex talionis (eye for an eye) probably is absent from the Athenian/Plato laws cause it was illogical.

    Demosthenes, Against Timocrates 140-1
    “[140] In very truth they are not bold enough to propose new laws, but punctually obey the old ones. And, during quite a long series of years, we are told, gentlemen of the jury, that they have enacted only one new statute. They had a law in that country that, if any one destroyed his neighbor’s eye, he must submit to the destruction of one of his own eyes; and there was no alternative of a fine. The story goes that a man, whose enemy had only one eye, threatened to knock that one eye out.
    [141] The one-eyed man was much perturbed by the threat, and, reflecting that his life would not be worth keeping after such a loss as that, he plucked up courage, as we are told, to introduce a law that whosoever struck out the eye of a man who had only one, should submit to the loss of both his own eyes, in order that both might suffer the same affliction. And that, according to the story, is the only new statute adopted by the Locrians for more than two hundred years. “

    Later on Rabbis tried to fix it, too. http://www.aish.com/atr/Eye-for-an-Eye.html

    1. Yes, and Locri is the only part of the Greek world that we are told followed the lex talionis law. But Michael Gagarin in Early Greek Law comments on that particular anecdote:

      The story implies that the lex talionis was a written law, but the cleverness of the anecdote may cast some doubt on the historical accuracy of its details.

  2. Concerning your interesting observation: ” biblical codes contain no provision for temple theft or penalties for the highwayman.” It appears that all ‘laws’ in the table of Assault and Theft laws are taken from Exodus. So the easy answer would be that – in the period described in Exodus- there was no temple to steal from. The Israelites just had the ark of the covenant. And they were an itinerant people, and did not control any highways.

    But it may be more complex; also in rabbinic times, penalties for theft from santuaries were surprisingly lenient. Perhaps it is because the ‘laws’ that we are discussing are mainly intended as our present-day ‘Civil Laws’; that is, they regulate the interactions between us humans. Disobedience to God (such as stealing from the temple) is dealt with by God himself, God doesn’t need to lay down laws for himself?

    Of course, there is a whole body of texts describing rituals and sacrifices, but I wouldn’t consider these as ‘laws’ in the sense of the comparison with Greek and ANE ‘laws’.

    1. Yet in other laws and narrative Exodus appears to show the same fingerprints we find in Classical and Hellenistic Greek records and texts. It is the model that treats Exodus as a document that is genuinely provenanced in the wilderness wanderings that is being questioned, of course. And I have to confess that I was a bit lazy in selecting quotes from the one book even where they appeared in others, as well, such as Deuteronomy. Gmirkin surveys the Primary History of the Bible as a whole, though, and his discussion looks for comparisons with both ANE and Greek sources across biblical works overall, not just the Pentateuch.

      1. Thanks Neil. Your point remains valid, also when we look beyond the book of Exodus: there is very little (if any) mention of temple theft in the Hebrew bible, considering to which length and detail the biblical laws go to regulate daily life. This is in sharp contrast with Greek/Plato laws. We should consider all evidence, also if it goes against the proposed hypothesis (i.e. that the Hebrew bible ‘shows Hellenistic fingerprints’).

        I understand that your table is not a true quantitative measure, but I counted the ‘parallels’ between Hebrew bible and ANE and Greek/Plato laws anyway: the Hebrew bible parallels ANE laws against Plato/Greek laws in 8 instances. The Hebrew bible parallels Greek/Plato law against ANE law in only one instance (assault on a parent). Such a count is no proof, but it does question whether there is really evidence that the Greek/Plato ‘fingerprints’ are significant at all in the light of the overwhelming ANE ‘fingerprints’?

  3. I’m not sure I understand you when you say that the “model that treats Exodus as a document that is genuinely provenanced in the wilderness wanderings is being questioned’. I didn’t see Gmirkin’s hypothesis in that sense: most modern scholars agree on a date for the writing of Exodus in 7th or 6th century BCE. Whether the events described in Exodus are historical or not is not relevant in setting that date. Gmirkin places the writing of Exodus 3 to 4 centuries later, and I thought that this was the issue at hand (not the historicity of the story)?

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