This book presents a new window on the legal system of Ancient Israel. Building on the understanding that Israel was a society where writing was the medium for some forms of discourse but not others, where written texts were performed orally and rewritten from oral performances, Robert D. Miller II, OFS, examines law and jurisprudence in this oral-and-literate world. Using Iceland as an ethnographic analogy, Miller shows how law was practiced, performed, and transmitted; the way written artifacts of the law fit into oral performance and transmission; and the relationship of the detritus of law that survives in the Hebrew Bible, both Torah and Proverbs, to that earlier social world.
Robert D. Miller II, O.F.S., is Ordinary Professor of Old Testament at the Catholic University of America and a research affiliate with the Faculty of Theology and Religion at the University of Pretoria.
Chapter One: Approaches to Ancient Israel’s Legal World
Chapter Two: Icelandic Oral-Written Law
Interlude: Gothic Law as Control
Resume: Oral-Written Customary Law
Chapter Three: Oral-Written Customary Law in Ancient Israel
Chapter Four: Oral Law and Proverbs
In this eye-opening work, Robert Miller applies his deep understanding of oral tradition and performance to the study of biblical law. Among the very important aspects of the subject that Miller illuminates are the nature of customary law, the dependence of biblical law on law elsewhere in the ancient Near East, and the interpenetration of law and proverbial wisdom. Lucidly written and well-referenced, this book should be required reading for students and scholars.
Oral Law of Ancient Israel combines Miller’s specializations (Israelite history, ethnographic analogy, and comparative anthropology) together with an energetic imagination in an investigation that few scholars could have done. The result is new light on the oral-and-written hybrid society of pre-exilic Israel in a plausible reconstruction that must now be taken into consideration by all who seek to understand the Israelite instructional material.
Much has been written about origin, nature, and purpose of Old Testament civil laws. Robert Miller takes new avenues in drawing on distant Western (and sometimes African) cultures in order to gain insight into the living procedures of legislation and jurisprudence. Icelandic and other Nordic “things” (gatherings) in the Middle Ages used to discuss and develop customary rules; recognized speakers, elders, and wise men would offer counsel and eventually write down their knowledge. A hybrid oral-and-written tradition thus was built up in living performance. Similar structures and contents are recognizable in Hebrew Scriptures, especially in the Covenant Code and the Book of Proverbs. The author’s skill and enormous knowledge of Nordic, Near Eastern, and general legal history are admirable. This book will lead the way of future comparative studies, showing clearly the intrinsic relationship of written and oral tradition also in the Old Testament.
This fascinating study of the transmission and performance of legal traditions in ancient Hebrew societies makes a distinguished contribution to the comparative study of biblical law. Using ethnographic analogies from Icelandic Eddic and Skaldic poetry, Robert Miller successfully illuminates the mutually reinforcing relationship between written and oral sources. In this context he succeeds in clarifying the power of customary law to innovate, reshape, and dictate the practical workings of legal traditions in Judaean societies prior to the Babylonian exile.