Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel


3 Pages Posted: 26 May 2011 Last revised: 26 Aug 2015

Date Written: 2008


This book examines the doctrine of transgenerational punishment found in the Decalogue: the idea that God punishes sinners vicariously and extends the punishment due them to three or four generations of their progeny. Already in ancient Israel, even though it was a “God-given” law, the unfairness of punishing innocent people merely for being the children or grandchildren of wrongdoers was clearly recognized. A series of inner-biblical and post-biblical responses to the rule demonstrates that later writers were able to criticize, reject, and replace this problematic doctrine with the alternative notion of individual retribution. From this perspective, the formative canon is the source of its own renewal: it fosters critical reflection upon the textual tradition and sponsors intellectual freedom.

To round out the volume, a final chapter provides a valuable bibliographical essay on the distinctive approach of “inner-biblical exegesis.” This resource will support further study and shows the contributions of European, Israeli, and North American scholars. The volume opens new perspectives on current debates within the humanities about canonicity, textual authority, and authorship. There is an extended discussion of the formation of the German literary canon (Mme de Stael; Heinrich Heine and the “portatives Kanon”) and of German intellectual history (Immanuel Kant).

From the back cover (paperback edition, 2010):

“With this study Levinson demonstrates again how he masterfully integrates his own exegetical brilliance into larger theoretical frameworks beyond the constraints of biblical studies. Especially helpful to the specialist and colleagues from other fields is a long essay on the history of research about rewriting processes inside the Hebrew Bible.” — Journal of Ancient Judaism

"This just might be the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s challenged my assumptions about the development of the Hebrew Bible and the role of innovation alongside preservation. . . . All in all, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues of early biblical interpretation and the formation of the biblical canon. Specialists across the board in religious studies and biblical studies would profit from a closer look at Levinson’s book. I’m recommending it to everyone I know—NT students, rabbinics experts, early Christian studies people, Hebrew Bible colleagues — you know who you are — read this book!"
 — Biblia Hebraica Blog

"The bibliographical essay is an excellent overview of research on what is now often called ‘inner-biblical exegesis,’ and it will serve as a superb tool for beginners and seasoned researchers alike. The other essays span a vast array of methodological problems and exegetical insights and are at the forefront of current research into legal traditions in the HB. A highly welcome volume."
— Society for Old Testament Study Book List

"The book deserves a wide readership. It would serve well as a text for advanced undergraduate or graduate courses that deal with inner-biblical exegesis. One can also hope that scholars in other fields will read it and take to heart Levinson’s argument for the reintegration of biblical studies into the core of academic work in the humanities. In addition, there are faith communities that would be encouraged by Levinson’s insight into the nature of canon and the necessity for ongoing reinterpretation of tradition. The book’s research is thorough, its argument forceful, its writing elegant, and it is blessedly short. If books can be placed into tribes, may this one’s increase."
— Review of Biblical Literature

Bernard M. Levinson holds the Berman Family Chair of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible at the University of Minnesota, where he is Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies and of Law.

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Keywords: Decalogue, Divine Justice, Canon, Intertextuality, Allusion, Immanuel Kant, Inner-Biblical Exegesis, Relecture, Fortschreibung, Kanon, Textuality, Literary Theory, Hammurabi, Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon, Scribal Curriculum, Ruth, Authorship, Ezekiel 18, Hittite Laws, Lamentations 5:7

Suggested Citation

Levinson, Bernard M., Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel (2008). LEGAL REVISION AND RELIGIOUS RENEWAL IN ANCIENT ISRAEL, Cambridge University Press, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Bernard M. Levinson (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota ( email )

245 Nicholson Hall
216 Pillsbury Dr., SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455-0229
United States
612-625-4323 (Phone)


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