Three Law Codes

When we read through the books of the Pentateuch something extraordinary happens.  To one who is just getting started in Biblical study it would be logical to think that there would only be one set of laws.  However this is not the case and we, in fact, find three different codes of the law.  There is the Covenant code which contains laws that are appropriate for a rural economy.  There is a separate Holiness code that was set aside for priests.  Lastly there was the Deuteronomy code which revolved around an urban kingship or monarchy.

The Covenant code not only contained the Ten Commandments, but the Book of the Covenant.  The laws are designated for a rural settlement or community.  As Collins puts it “these laws were formulated in a settled, agrarian, community; they are not the laws of nomads wandering in the wilderness (Collins, page 130).”  The deal with consequences of violence against ones neighbor.  This is where the phrase an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” originates.

The next law code is the Holiness code found in the book of Leviticus.  This code is specialized in that it is for priests alone.  Though these laws are interwoven with the Decalogue they deal in specifics in regard to the ritual laws of the priests.  It lays out specific ways to slaughter and sacrifice an animal.  It also goes into detail about relations with other nations.  In we find that the Israelites are not to be like other nations.  Though not all activity of others is forbidden the way they acted sexually certainly was.  These are important because “these abominations are said to defile the land (Collins, page 149).

Lastly we have the third code which is the Deuteronomy code.  This code was in effect in an urban based monarchy.  Though the Decalogue is important there seems to be somewhat of an emphasis on the “laws of sabbatical release (Collins, page 165).”  Humanitarian care for the poor and the widow are emphasized, as well as the forgiveness of debts every seven years.  Another prominent feature is the release of slaves.  In Deuteronomy we also find the centralization of worship in Jerusalem.  People would now have to make a pilgrimage to offer sacrifice instead of going to the local shrine.  This was significant in the growth of Judaism as the rural people were still persuaded to worship other gods such as Baal .




Collins, John J. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004.


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