Biblical Law and Contemporary Law: Some Thoughts on Copyright Law, Facts, and History

I spent a chunk of time at work last week reading about copyright and fair use laws. Unsurprisingly, the laws surrounding copyright and fair use are quite complex and situational. Particularly interesting to me was the conversation about public domain, “creative materials that are not protected by intellectual property laws such as copy right, trademark, or patent laws. The public owns these works, not an individual author or artist. Anyone can use a public domain work without obtaining permission, but no one can ever own it” [1]. Simply put, people can use public domain material in their content because the material itself belongs to the public.

Laws, for example, are considered public domain. In a 2002 case [2], a court ruled that an entity cannot sue for copyright infringement regarding laws, such as building codes. The court justified this ruling by noting that “when a model code is enacted into law, it becomes a fact—the law of a particular local government” [3]. The fact in this context, though, is somewhat ambiguous. Indeed, the Supreme Court doesn’t explicitly call laws fact; however, laws parallel census data, scientific facts, historical data, and biographical data inasmuch as “they may not be copyrighted and are part of the public domain available to ever person” [4].

This framework—namely, the modern US legal conceptions of law in relation to data and facts—raise interesting issues regarding biblical and ancient Near Eastern law: To what extent have modern US legal conceptions of law and copyright impacts how we approach and think about the function and creation of law (broadly construed) in the ancient Near East? More specifically, how does contemporary copyright law impact studies regarding things like innerbiblical exegesis, Pentateuch studies, law in the Hebrew Bible, redaction criticism (et. al), and in light of Milstein’s recent work, ancient law more broadly? (Literary studies undoubtedly play a huge role, as well as other methodologies. Still, identifying how this particular issues impacts conclusions and studies, if at all, might be a worthwhile endeavor.)

While I can’t answer these questions here, these questions are part of the reason why I appreciated Sara Milstein’s book Making A Case. Rather than framing biblical texts through a distinctly modern legal framework, her work takes into greater consideration how the Hebrew Bible fits with broader historical trends. In doing so, her approach to biblical law moves beyond other approaches that contemporary law impacts to a great extent.

The problem of copyright and public domain in US law likewise raises another question: To what extent did facts exist in ancient Near Eastern law? And how did different ancient communities draw the line between fact and opinion, if at all? Again, I have no answer to this question, but the issue is worth thinking about. (At least I think the issue is worth considering.)


[2] Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc., 293 F. 3d 791 (5th Cir. 2002).




Notes on “Civilizations of the Ancient Near East”

In my spare time, I am working on writing an article about ancient Israelite and Judean religion. This, of course, is a very difficult thing to do. It is difficult because saying something about ancient Israel comes with a lot of modern baggage. So, these are some notes from a large encyclopedia, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. One thing which I’d like to draw out is that even when we do speak of ancient Israelite religion, we must remember that religion and politics operated in the same social sphere. Communicating this historical reality will be one of the greatest challenges in writing this definition/article.

Administration of the State in Canaan and Ancient Israel (Vol. 1-2, Gosta W. Ahlstrom, pp. 587-603)

  • c. 1500-1000 BCE, Palestine and Transjordan was primarily a mixture of West Semitic ethnic groups.
  • 12th-11th centuries see the increase of Canaanite settlements
    • Canaanite is not an ethnic term, just about those who live in the country.
  • Majority of Israelites were originally “Canaanites”, part of that diverse group people who settled in the region.
  • KEY: Idea of twelve-tribe is a “historiographic reconstruction” (588).
    • When writing, be sure to define this.
    • Accoridn got WIliam Foxwell Albright, history through the Bible “is a pious fiction.”
    • NOTE FOR SELF: This is a good way to problematize how we look at ancient Israelite religion in the first place. It demands that we be aware the HB reflect old tradition, though usually not completely accurately.
  • Government was a tribal system; Ahlstrom claims that no institution of elected official developed. Of course. But we need to remember that as a tribal system, they did have a voice, often time over other kings in a West Semitic context. Cf. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew.
  • We could also see the old rulers as theoocratic rulers, but this is problematic as the term carries too much negative baggage when presenting to a large audience of general readers.
  • “To promote and support the ruler’s position in such as development, a kingship ideology anchored the ruler and his power in the divine will, and thus legitimized his might” (590).
    • Cf. Ps. 2:7, 45:6 (King is addressed as elohim), 89:26 (adoption formula for a god adopting a king); Is. 9:6-7 (who will inherit the dominion of Yahweh), etc.
  • Broadly speaking, this is shared throughout ANE (591).
    • King Keret was son of the god El, Assyrian king was the son of a god. Esarhaddon is the son of Ninlil and Shamash. Shulgi, a Sumerian king, is the son of the goddess Ninsun. etc.
  • In a West Semitic context especially, one individual god was usually the main god (591). He writes, “The temple was an expression of the deitiy’s cosmos and domain. Nation and religion were the same. The reality was that in order for a nation to be ruled and governed according to the deity’s will, it had to have a “deputy” divinity choisen, namely, the king (591).”
    • Cf. Sanders on this for more details unique to a West Semitic context.
  • Theological kingship was part of ancient Israel’s heritage as it emerged as a unique and long lasting contending among the various ethnic groups categorized as Canaanites. (Loosely based off of 592; I expanded the details the words of Gosta).
  • Enthronement of a king was a religious activity (593). It involved the following:
    • Selecting a king and proclaiming affirmation of king via religious oracle, anointing, victory, ride a donky to place of investitutre, born of or adopted as the son of Yahweh, proclaimed with eternal dynasty, people acclaim, and a banquet!
  • King was in charge of building a temple, as demonstrated through various inscriptions throughout Syro-Palestine (596).
    • Panamu of Sam’al, Azatiwata of the Karatepe inscription, Mesha of Moab, Solomon, kings of Israel.
    • This temple building, a religious and political activity, had economic implications. Land was bought, people were hired, and animals were sold for sacrifice (596).
  • State Cult (597-598)
    • Responsible for liturgical contact between deity, the foundation of the nation.
    • Again, “religion and state were one.”
    • Accordingly, the “king had supreme authority over the state religion and its cult” (597); however, that doesn’t mean others had a significant say in matters of religion.
    • Roles of state cult, in a West Semitic context, on behalf of people:
      • Offer sacrifices and burn incense
        • 1 Samuel 15, 1 Kings 3 (one thousand burnt offerings), 1 King 9:25 (Sacrifice 3 times per year.
      • Temple building and cult paraphernalia
        • 1 Kings 6-8 (Solomon builds temple), 1 Kings 16:32 (Ahab puts up religious symbol of a Phoenician Baal.
      • Ordering cultic meetings (?)
        • Seems unsubstantiated.
      • Organize and run the cult.
        • Jeroboam did this at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12)
  • “Realizing that kingship would not be restored, the only way to retain the kingship concept was to divorce it from an earthly king and, in agreement with an old ideology, proclaim Yahweh as king, ruling no longer throuh his deputy the eartlhly king but through the priesthood. In this way one could come to grips with the idea of being a people not governed by an indigenous king. The theogcratic ideal or dogma became anchored in a remote time in order to acquire the prestige of something primeval” (602).


Over the next week or two, I will take notes for the following chapters: Palaces and Temples in Canaan and Ancient Israel by William G. Dever (605-614), Legal and Social Institutions in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Hector Avalos (615-631), and Private Life in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Mayer I. Gruber (633-648). Part VIII of these volumes also have five other important chapters: Myth and Mythmaking in Canaan and Ancient Israel y Mark Smith (of course), Theology, Priests, and Worship in Canaan and Ancient IsraelDeath and the Afterlife in Canaanite and Hebrew ThoughtWitchcraft, Magic, and Diviniation in Canaan and Ancient Israel, and Prophecy and Apocalyptics in the Ancient Near EastArt and Architecture in Canaan and Ancient Israel may also be a helpful article to read.

Although this is a lot of reading for a single, short work on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, it is imperative that an article (especially like this) be thorough. At the same time, it is important to be able to present the nuances while, at the same time, presenting the history of ancient Israelite religion in an understandable and comprehensible way.

Observations Relevant to Interpretation of Leviticus 10

In a previous post, I discussed the nature of the “strange fire” offered by Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, in Leviticus 10 (click here to read). My purpose of doing so was to offer an alternative explanation to the event of the fire consuming Aaron’s sons. My observations within this post are also intended to shed greater light on the issues of the consuming fire and, even more so, overall nature of the entire drama surrounding Aaron and his sons.

Primarily the presence of Aaron’s sons must be observed. As far as I am aware, and please correct me if I am wrong, the placement of Aaron’s sons has not been observed within scholarship. The phrase “Sons of Aaron” occurs 20 times within Leviticus. Sixteen occurrences reference all of Aaron’s sons (1:5, 7, 8, and 11, 2:2, 3:2, 5, 8, and 13, 6:7, 7:10, 8:13, 24, 9:9, 12, and 18). At the turning point of chapter 10, two occurrences solely reference Nadab and Abihu (10:1, 16:1). Eleazer and Ithamar as a pair of Aaron’s sons are referenced twice, once in the same narrative as Nadab and Abihu and once in the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26).

While these observation may carry implications for the overall structure and composition of Leviticus, they also carry implications as to what exactly Nadab and Abihu did incorrectly to be consumed by God’s fire. The text itself explains that “He had not commanded them”, a strong statement especially because the term for “command” is directly negated rather than the phrase as a whole. And when the actions of Aaron’s four sons are noted throughout the 1st part of Leviticus, a pattern becomes evidence: they are only to do as the cultic structure permits them.

Prior to the consuming fire, Aaron’s sons are commanded within the cultic system to act in three roles: to purify the altar by pouring the blood, to receive offerings as their livelihood, and to be consecrated. At the turn of events in chapter 10, the fire consumed the offerings and “the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people”. Based on roles of Aaron’s sons, the error of Nadab and Abihu becomes more clear with respect to each role.

First, they were responsible for handling the blood at the altar. Unclear to most readers from the 21st century, blood with ancient near eastern ritual systems played an essential role for the purification and expiatory natures of rituals. Yitzhaq Feder explores this extensively in his monograph “Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual” (2011). For Nadab and Abihu to step outside of their roles as priests who handled the blood at the altar, they potentially polluted themselves or simply disobeyed the order which God had established within the cultic system.

Second, they were responsible for receiving offerings as their livelihood. This command is clearly spoken towards Aaron and his sons. Because Aaron and his sons received the leftover grain offerings (Lev 2:3), it is possible that Nadab and Abihu were “recycling” the holy bread. Thus the offering was insincere and “strange”. This is supported by Leviticus 10:12, within the same narrative, in which Moses commands Aaron, Eleazar, and Ithamar, to “eat [the grain offering] unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy”. Clearly there is an dimension of Leviticus 10:1 in which the issue with Nadab and Abihu was the selected food which they offered.

Third, Aaron’s sons, just as Aaron were responsible for becoming consecrated. Loosely connected to the first point, Nadab and Abihu’s actions following the presence of God in Leviticus 9:23-24 reflects that Nadab and Abihu may have approached God in a manner contrary to their previous consecration rituals. Though this point is quite shaky, it is a possibility that should be seriously considered.

As one observes the role of Aaron’s sons within the Leviticus narrative, the error of Nadab and Abihu may become more apparent. Exploration of the roles of Aaron’s sons may also contribute to a fuller understanding of the historical composition, theology or theologies, and “strange fire” occurrence of Leviticus.

The Significance of a Biblical Genre

Genre in General

In reading anything, whether a grocery list, love letter, or satirical article, it is of the utmost importance to understand the genre of the text. After all, if one reads a satirical article as if it were a publication from The Seattle Times newspaper, there would be a significant misunderstanding of what it was trying to express. Take, for example, the following Onion post:

“WASHINGTON—Confirming that the probe successfully entered orbit around Mars late Sunday night, NASA officials reported today that the Maven spacecraft was now set to begin its mission of taking thousands of high-resolution computer backgrounds. “In its first year alone, the Maven probe will capture several hundred crisp desktop wallpapers of the Martian landscape in previously unattainable detail,” said NASA scientist Bruce Jakosky, noting that the space probe’s sophisticated instruments would ensure the backgrounds were in resolutions up to 1920×1200 and large enough to span two side-by-side monitors.”


Obviously, the author is not attempting to present this as a “fact”. With the knowledge that this is a satirical genre, it is clear that he is making light of the fact that people tend to simply use pictures of space for their background pictures, failing to recognize the scientific significance of the images. Rather than informing, the article is reflecting on something observed in culture.

Although it seems as if everybody should know this naturally, they do not. Everybody, even great scholars, defines the genre of a book before reading it because it informs them of how to understand the book. Like the Onion, one must understand the genre of a book in the Bible in order to truly grasp what is being expressed.

Genre in the Bible

In the Bible, there are multiple genres. The Old Testament has prophecy, law, history, narrative, etc. Among these genres, within the academic world, many will find sub-genres of a genre. However, that is beyond the scope of this post. Instead, this post will examine Genesis 1-3 and observe why genre is important in reading it.

Genesis 1-3 is not a historical record or scientific journal. If one reads Genesis 1-3 justly, it is essential to understand that it is a mythological account of the creation of the world and establishment of Order. As an important note, mythology does not mean false; it is simply an explanation of some phenomenon. In the case of Genesis 1-3, Genesis 1 focuses on the Order of creation and role of mankind within it. Genesis 2-3 is more focused on the creation of man and women and, in essence, why evil exists. Why does understanding the goal of the text in light of this genre matter?

People will often read something like Genesis 1:26 and make a statement like, “Because God created man, and then male and female, women should be subordinated to men”. Or, they will look at God’s creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and claim that “women should be subordinate to men because they were created from his rib”. This interpretation, however, misses the point of the text. Genesis 1-3 is not written as a historical account of the origins of humanity. Rather, it is a mythological account of the creation of the world and the fall of man in order to explain certain elements of humanity that seem to be wrong.

Unfortunately, this gross misunderstanding of the genre of Genesis 1-3 has caused many theologians, modern and ancient, to claim that man was designed as the superior being to women. With such a profound affect on Christianity and western culture as a whole, it is clear why a correct interpretation with acknowledgement of the biblical genre is absolutely essential. So, next time you read a book, especially a book of the Bible, understand what the goal of the text is. Ask what the genre is. To misunderstand the genre may result in and interpretation never intended by the author, and perhaps completely opposed to the goal of the author.