Strategies for the Reinterpretation of Normative Texts within the Hebrew Bible

International Journal of Legal Discourse 3 (2018): 1–31. Online: DOI:10.1515/ijld-2018-2001.

Posted: 22 May 2020

Date Written: 2018

Abstract

Contemporary constitutional theory remains divided between competing approaches to the interpretation of normative texts: between originalism or original intent, on the one hand, and living constitution approaches, on the other. The purpose of this article is to complicate that problematic dichotomy by showing how cultures having a tradition of prestigious or authoritative texts addressed the problem of literary and legal innovation in antiquity. The study begins with cuneiform law from Mesopotamia and the Hittite Empire, and then shows how ancient Israel’s development of the idea of divine revelation of law creates a cluster of constraints that would be expected to impede legal revision or amendment. The well-known Decalogue or Ten Commandments provides a valuable test-case, with its normative statement that God punishes sinners across generations (vicariously extending the punishment due them to three or four generations of their progeny). A series of inner-biblical and post-biblical responses to that rule demonstrates, however, that later writers were able to criticize, challenge, reject, and replace it with the alternative notion of individual accountability. The article will provide a series of close readings of the texts involved, drawing attention to their legal language and hermeneutical strategies. The conclusions stress the remarkable freedom to modify ostensibly normative statements available to ancient judicial interpreters, despite the expected constraints of a formative religious canon attributed to divine revelation.

Keywords: legal hermeneutics, normative texts, constitutional theory, Jewish law, individual liability, Decalogue

JEL Classification: K14, K30, K40

Suggested Citation

Levinson, Bernard M., Strategies for the Reinterpretation of Normative Texts within the Hebrew Bible (2018). International Journal of Legal Discourse 3 (2018): 1–31. Online: DOI:10.1515/ijld-2018-2001., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3217900

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)

HOME PAGE: http://levinson.umn.edu/

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