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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Michael Welker*
Senior Professor and Director of the Research Center for International and Interdisciplinary Theology, University of Heidelberg


Biblical law is a complex concept that contains several distinct legal currents. In an effort to explore the interplay of these currents, this article first focuses on the overlap between the biblical law of God and the strictly legal regulations of the Old Testament. It then unpacks the principles and inner rationalities of what is termed “archaic law” and shows that this law is connected with regulations that could be termed “mercy laws” and with cultic regulations. By extrapolating the normative dynamics between these three codes of the law, the article exposes the enormous moral, religious, and legal influence of biblical law in general and of the mercy code in particular. In this way, the article reveals a backbone of our occidental culture. The interdependence of justice and mercy drives societies and cultures to search for (humane) justice in a deep and truth-bound way and, further, to routinize social care and welfare beyond the boundaries of families and tribal relations. The article finally illuminates both commonalities and differences between mercy and a deep and encompassing understanding of love.

Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 2014 

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1 Cf. Welker, Michael and Etzelmüller, Gregor, eds., Concepts of Law in Science, Legal Studies, and Theology (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013)Google Scholar.

2 Exodus 20:22–23:33.

3 Deuteronomy 4–26, 29–30.

4 Exodus 25–31; Leviticus 1–7, 11–26; Numbers 1–3.

5 Exodus 20:2–17; Deuteronomy 5:6–21.

6 The interconnections among the Ten Commandments and the other biblical law codes are brilliantly explored in Miller, Patrick D., The Ten Commandments: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009)Google Scholar.

7 Konrad Schmid, “The Genesis of Normativity in Biblical Law,” in Welker and Etzelmüller, Concepts of Law, 119–36.

8 In July 2008, an ostracon was discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa in an excavation conducted by Yosef Garfinkel from Hebrew University. The ostracon, which clearly dates from around 900, seems to offer insights that are very similar to those of the book of the covenant. Cf. Achenbach, Reinhard, “The Protection of Personae Miserae in Ancient Israelite Law and Wisdom and in the Ostracon from Khirbet Qeiyafa,” Semitica 54 (2012): 93125Google Scholar. I am grateful to Andreas Schüle for information from this frontier of research.

9 Exodus 21:12–22:19.

10 For discussion of the term “casuistic law,” see Alt, Albrecht, “Die Ursprünge des israelitischen Rechts,” in Zur Geschichte des Volkes Israel. Eine Auswahl aus den “Kleinen Schriften,” ed. Herrmann, Siegfried (München: Beck, 1979), 203–57Google Scholar; Rothenbusch, Ralf, Die kasuistische Rechtssammlung im ‘Bundesbuch’ (Ex 21,2–22.18–22,16) und ihr literarischer Kontext im Licht altorientalischer Parallelen (Münster: Ugarit, 2000), 408–73Google Scholar.

11 Boecker, Hans Jochen, Recht und Gesetz im Alten Testament und im Alten Orient, 2nd ed. (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1984), 132–33Google Scholar.

12 Exodus 22:3.

13 Exodus 22:1.

14 Exodus 21:12–14.

15 I am borrowing the expression legal ideas or principles” from Esser, Josef, Grundsatz und Norm in der richterlichen Fortbildung des Privatrechts, 2nd ed. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1964)Google Scholar.

16 Exodus 21:23–25.

17 Boecker, Recht und Gesetz, 152–53.

18 Cf. Schmid, Konrad, “The Monetarization and Demonetarization of the Human Body: The Case of Compensatory Payments for Bodily Injuries and Homicide in Ancient Near Eastern and Ancient Israelite Law Books,” in Money as God? The Monetization of the Market and the Impact on Religion, Politics, Law and Ethics, eds. von Hagen, Jürgen and Welker, Michael (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming June 2014)Google Scholar; Otto, Eckart, “Zur Geschichte des Talions im Alten Orient und Israel,” in Ernten, was man sät. Festschrift Kurt Koch, eds. Daniels, Dwight Roger, Glessmer, Uwe, and Rösel, Martin (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1991), 101–30Google Scholar; ibid., Körperverletzungen in den Keilschriftrechten und im Alten Testament: Studien zum Rechtstransfer im Alten Orient (Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker, 1991)Google Scholar.

19 The relevance of these issues today (from a systematic perspective) can be seen in the discussion between Armin von Bogdandy and Robert Post on the significant (or problematic) role of academic jurisprudence in the co-formulation of the law in the legal system over and against an ideal dominated by case-law “conversations between the (Supreme) Court and the people and their representatives.” Cf. von Bogdandy, Armin, “The Past and Promise of Doctrinal Constructivism: A Strategy for Responding to the Challenges Facing Constitutional Scholarship in Europe,” International Journal of Constitutional Law 7, no. 3 (2009): 364400CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Post, Robert C., “Constitutional Scholarship in the United States,” International Journal of Constitutional Law 7, no. 3 (2009): 416–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 This systematic step and what follows are not only formative for archaic law; they are also the principal steps in the generation of any law. For an example, see Matthias Jestaedt's subtle reconstruction of the processes of “decontextualization, generating consistency, [and] (re)concretization,” in his article, Wissenschaftliches Recht—Rechtsdogmatik als gemeinsames Kommunikationsformat von Rechtswissenschaft und Rechtspraxis,” in Was weiß Dogmatik? Was leistet und wie steuert die Dogmatik des Öffentlichen Rechts?, eds. Kirchhof, Gregor, Magen, Stefan, and Schneider, Karsten (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012): 117–37, 125–26Google Scholar.

21 Cf. Welker, Michael, “Security of Expectations. Reformulating the Theology of Law and Gospel,” Journal of Religion 66 (1986): 237–60CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Luhmann, Niklas, Law as a Social System (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)Google Scholar.

22 This was a crucial object of discussion in the multiyear, international, and interdisciplinary research project “Concepts of Law in Science, Legal Studies, and Theology.” See esp. John Polkinghorne, Michael Welker, and John Witte Jr., introductions to Concepts of Law, eds. Welker and Etzelmüller, 7–10, 115–18, 227–38.

23 Exodus 21:1–11.

24 Exodus 21:2.

25 Cf. Boecker, Recht und Gesetz, 135ff.

26 Exodus 22:21, 23:9.

27 Exodus 22:22ff.

28 Exodus 22:25ff, 23:6ff, 10ff.

29 Exodus 23:1ff.

30 Exodus 23:4–5.

31 Alt, Die Ursprünge des israelitischen Rechts; Boecker, Recht und Gesetz, 166ff; Weinfeld, Moshe, “The Origin of the Apodictic Law: An Overlooked Source,” Vetus Testamentum 23 (1973): 6375Google Scholar.

32 Exodus 21:2.

33 Cf. Hezser, Catherine, Jewish Slavery in Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Marcus Terentius Varro, De Re Rustica 1.17.

35 Cf. Brandt, Sigrid and Suchocki, Marjorie, Sünde. Ein unverständlich gewordenes Thema, 2nd ed. (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 2005)Google Scholar.

36 Deuteronomy 15:13–14; Heirs, Richard, Justice and Compassion in Biblical Law (New York: Continuum, 2009), 208Google Scholar.

37 Welker, Michael, God the Spirit (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 1823, 116–20Google Scholar. It is important to stress the creative move in favor of others, not just a withdrawal that leaves them alone. The mercy laws cultivate the expectation that those who are privileged will withdraw their own claims—even to the point of sacrificing their legal rights—for the benefit of those who are weak and in distress, and that they will turn this into creative action. The proactive dimension should not be overlooked.

38 Exodus 6:1–9.

39 Exodus 20:2, 22:21, 23:9.

40 Deuteronomy 4:34, 5:6, 15, 7:19, 11:7, 26:8; Leviticus 19:34, 26:13.

41 Kaveny, Cathleen, Law's Virtues: Fostering Autonomy and Solidarity in American Society (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012)Google Scholar. For a global perspective on religious human rights and human rights in general, see Witte, John Jr. and van der Vyver, Johan D., eds., Religious Human Rights in Global Perspective, 2 vols. (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1996)Google Scholar; Witte, John Jr., introduction to Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction, eds. Witte, John Jr. and Alexander, Frank S. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 On the “function of religion,” see Assmann, Jan, Janowski, Bernd, and Welker, Michael, “Richten und Retten. Zur Aktualität der altorientalischen und biblischen Gerechtigkeitskonzeption,” in Gerechtigkeit. Richten und Retten in der abendländischen Tradition und ihren altorientalischen Ursprüngen (München: Fink, 1998), 936Google Scholar.

43 Whitehead, Alfred North, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1967), 289Google Scholar.

44 Welker, Michael, “Romantic Love, Covenantal Love, Kenotic Love,” in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, ed. Polkinghorne, John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans and London: SPCK, 2001), 127–36Google Scholar.

45 1 Thessalonians 1:6.

46 Cf. Welker, Michael, God the Revealed: Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014)Google Scholar, pts. 5.3, 5.4.

47 Matthew 22:40; Romans 13:8.

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