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
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: Suggested Citation