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A Cursory Glance at Israelite Cuneiform

July 19, 2010

I’m in the throes of preparing for my dissertation defense (this Thursday, 7/22/10), but I felt I finally had to jump in on the recent discoveries of cuneiform tablets in Israel. By far, the most startling discovery has been that of a (small) tablet fragment in Jerusalem. Given the wonderful work at Hazor, I for one was surprised by the discovery in Jerusalem. Jerusalem has been so often been stripped down to bedrock by successive inhabitants and been the focus of such intensive excavation that I continue to be amazed by the luck of the archaeologist’s spade.

However, my surprise was compounded today by the announcement that not only has a tablet been found at Hazor, it shows similarities to Hammurabi’s law code! Immediately my thoughts turned to David Wright’s recent book Inventing God’s Law, which has as it’s thesis that the Covenant Code (Ex 20-22) consciously reworks material from Hammurabi’s law code and has a literary dependence on the Mesopotamian original (read recent reviews here). Wright posits that the Covenant Code (and some surrounding narrative) must have been composed c700BCE, when Assyrian influence was highest in ancient Israel and Judah and hence when it would have been most likely for Jerusalem scribes to access to Mesopotamian legal traditions.

Wright’s argument for literary dependence is tight, but his date is debatable given these recent discoveries. However, I’m not about to date the Covenant Code to the Late Bronze Age on the basis of one fragment (see similar ruminations by Seth Sanders).

Hopefully I’ll be able to give all these wonderful new discoveries their just due after defense.

(HTs: Duane Smith, Robert Cargill, and basically anyone else watching Jack Sasson’s list closer than I am at the moment)

  1. July 19, 2010 9:53 pm


    Best wishes on the occasion of your dissertation defense. I was fortunate in a way because I wrote mine in Italian, and the professors who picked it apart (among them J. A. Soggin and Mario Liverani) blamed an Italian friend of mine, not me, for infelicitous expressions in my non-mother tongue.

    On topic, I’m not sure that the arguments of Halbe, Jörn: Das Privilegrecht Jahwes. Ex 34, 10 – 26. Gestalt und Wesen, Herkunft und Wirken in vordeuteronomischer Zeit, for dating the book of the Covenant in the early monarchy have received the attention they deserve. See inter alia page 482. If his considerations are given weight, if only for the sake of argument, then one would want to postulate that West Semitic adaptations of CH and the broader Mesopotamian legal tradition survived into the Iron Age (but in what places: Jerusalem is not a likely candidate) long after cuneiform in Canaan ceased to be a reality.

    • rochelle permalink
      July 24, 2010 1:24 am

      Oh, dear, I’m a day late. I hope all went well for you Jim.

      Incidentally, I agree with John. How can the text be dated by retention of what was part of the Common Semitic pool? The Israelites did not live in a vacuum once they claimed land in the area. Personally, I suspect earlier in the Monarchial period because Genesis and Exodus are very much consolidation texts and consolidation of two traditions was necessary when the branches (not tribes, branches of a family) came under one ruler. Oh, yes, they also retain their prologues (sign of an oral tradition).

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