Law and Freedom

One gets the impression that the life of a peasant in ancient Babylon was essentially that of a worker bee.  The hive was the temple or the palace.  Peasants were allotted a piece of land to work, and were required to bring a certain amount of the produce to the temple or palace.  This wasn’t a tithe – it was a rent.   The land was allotted by the ruler and could be taken away by the same.  Every acre of land, every pig and goat, was counted – and belonged to the state. 1

A similar state of affairs existed in Egypt in the Ptolemaic period.  We know from the detailed records of the Ptolemies that absolutely everything was recorded. 2  One did not own a goose without the notice and approval of the State.  These detailed records were kept as a means of taxation.  It is true that at times, the power of nobles increased and that of the ruler diminished, but this decentralization never reached beyond the nobles to the commoner (someone who does not benefit directly from the patronage of the king). 3

The Atrahasis Epic cements a hierarchy in the divine realm that was mirrored in the human realm.  In the beginning, lesser gods were made to clear canals and plow fields for the higher gods.  At the top of the pyramid was Enlil, the king of the gods.  When the lesser gods rebelled against Enlil because of their backbreaking labour, Enlil created mankind to do the work that the lesser gods did not want to do!  Thus man was made to toil on behalf of the gods, or rather conveniently, on behalf of the king who was the gods representative here on earth.  The natural sense of superiority felt by Mesopotamian kings is perhaps revealed in the epithet they used to refer to their subjects –  ‘the black headed people…’.

Dates to the reign of King Ammisaduqa of Babylon - from Sippar 1635 BC -  The British Museum
From the reign of King Ammisaduqa of Babylon (1635 BC) – probably from Sippar – The British Museum

David Berman points out that In Genesis, the common man is elevated to the place reserved only for the king in Mesopotamia.   For example, in the Mesopotamian Atrahasis Epic, man is created to toil in the fields so that the lesser gods don’t have too.  In Genesis man is created to have dominion over the earth. 4  Early modern philosophers such as John Locke latched onto this idea by arguing that philosophy and science were not intended to be the preserve of an elite but that every man was created to have ‘dominion over the earth’ – a turn of phrase that they equated with science.

Just as Genesis ascribes dignity to the individual, so too, the Pentateuch safeguarded the liberties of the common man.  These safeguards are found in the economic, religious and political spheres of life.  This view of man found in Genesis is complemented by legislation contained in the Pentateuch that was designed to safeguard the liberty of the common man.  These liberties may be divided into three categories: economic, religious and social.

  1. Economic: Land is allotted according to clan and family.  It is not owned by the state, and therefore, cannot be appropriated by king or noble (ie. Naboth’s vineyard).  The year of Jubilee was intended to safeguard this decree, recognizing that a tendency exists over time for capital to accumulate into fewer and fewer hands.
  2. Religious:  Israel was to be a kingdom of priests.  In practical terms, this meant that every male in Israel was to be circumcised (a stricture that was confined only to the priesthood in Egypt) and was to appear before the LORD at the appointed time.  Thus each Israelite had a role to play in the temple service.  This is in striking contrast to Mesopotamia, where the common man had nothing to do with the temple service.
  3. Political:  When the time came for Israel to choose a king, they were commanded to choose one from ‘among your own brothers.’   The king was not accorded a supernatural pedigree.  Neither did the law originate with the king.

The importance of the individual in the laws of the Pentateuch is rooted in the nature of the covenant given on Sinai.  This covenant was made between God and the people and not between God and the Ruler.  This is in contrast to the role played by the king as recorded in the Code of Hammurabi.  In the prologue, Hammurabi makes it clear that he was ‘formed in perfection’ by the goddess Mama to rule the people.5  He concludes his laws by stating that these where his ‘precious words’ inscribed on the stela.6  Hammurabi claims to be prayerful and humble before the gods.  But in turn, the people, must be prayerful and humble before him!

The power of the king in Israel was limited by the power and influence of the priest and the prophet.  In Assyria, the king was also the High Priest, and therefore, absolute sovereign.  And there is no evidence that the diviners and fortune tellers of Assyria ever dared to censure the king.   How different this was from prophets of Israel who earned the title of ‘enemy’ of the state and a ‘troubler’ of the kingdom.    7



  1. Oppenheim writes, “Land seems to have been held in the south either by the great organizations or by private absentee owners living the cities who usually rented it out to poor tenant farmers.  Farmers who lived on their own fields are the exception. (Oppenheim, A. L. and E. Reiner (1977). Ancient Mesopotamia : portrait of a dead civilization. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.  pg. 87)  Oppenheim notes that Babylon was often identified with a corrupt economic system in the Old Testament.  So too, in the New!
  2. Tcherikover writes, “The Ptolemies had one aim throughout their domination in Egypt-to wring from the country’s inhabitants as much as they could in money and labor… The king drew especially large profits from a system of monopolies.  Nearly all edibles, such as salt, olive oil, honey and fish, as well as woolens and flax, blankets, cushions, towels and linens, all sorts of drugs and  cosmetics, gold and silver ornaments, papyrus and the like-all were made and sold under the supervision of government officials, and a severe penalty threatened anyone daring to infringe upon the king’s profits…. Such were the elements of the Ptolemaic kingdom, which may therefore justly be described in modern terms as a “totalitarian state.” 
  3. Tcherikover writes, “Ptolemaic policy in Palestine was conducted in two contradictory directions.  On the one hand, the Ptolemies saw that it was impossible to rule the country according to the principles of complete absolutism preavalent in Egypt.  Instead of the monotonous uniformity of a peasant population inured to a life of servitude- apicture characteristic of Ptolemaic Egypt-they found in Syria numerous peoples and tribes each holding to an ancestral tradition (sometimes a tradition both rich and ancient) and aspiring to an independent development. (Tcherikover, V. (1999). Hellenistic civilization and the Jews. Peabody, Mass., Hendrickson Publishers. pg 14 ff.)
  4. Berman, J. (2008). Created equal : how the Bible broke with ancient political thought. Oxford ; New York, N.Y., Oxford University Press. pg. 22
  5.  Devout god-fearing prince… who rises “like the sun over the people of this land”…”humble and prayerful… the king with superior understanding  who heeded Shamash… god among kings, master of insight…  lord fully meriting scepter and diadem, whom Mama, midwife (of the gods), formed in perfection… devout and prayerful to the great gods, scion of Sumu-lael, mighty heir to Sin-muballit, of royal lineage eternal, mighty king, sun god of Babylon who caused light to come out upon the land of Sumer and Akkad…  [5. Foster, B. R. (2005). Before the muses : an anthology of Akkadian literature. Bethesda, Md., CDL Press., 129-130)
  6.  “I have inscribed my precious words upon my stela and set it up before the statue of me, King of Justices, in Babylon… my words are carefully chosen, my capability unrivalled.  By the command of Shamash, the great judge of heaven and earth, may my justice show forth in all lands.  By the word of Marduk, my lord, may my ordinances find none who will set them aside.  (Foster, Before the Muses, 129-130)
  7. The critiques of power found in the OT are all the more remarkable when we consider that most ancient texts were commissioned by kings and read like royal propaganda.  It is true that Aristophanes critiques Cleon in his plays but this is many centuries later in Greece at a time when literacy was widespread.

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