In scholarly circles, it is customary to refer to an author by using the title of his/her books. Thus, for example, I am known among my colleagues as “Motive Clauses,” because I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the topic of Motive Clauses in Hebrew Law (Scholars Press, 45, 1975).
What are, in fact, “motive clauses”? Instead of giving a technical analysis of my doctoral dissertation, here is a popularized version of my thesis: “Motive clauses” are statements attached to laws, which justify or clarify a legal norm. “Do this, do that, because….” In reality, laws do not need a clause of this kind. They simply state, “The speed limit is 30 miles an hour,” or, “Do not murder” and then they identify the penalty in case of transgression. Yet, in the Bible, many laws are accompanied by motivational clauses. Why?
I was drawn to study this phenomenon more than 40 years ago, while I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania (1969-75), when I read an article by two biblical scholars claiming that these clauses are unique to the Bible. Yet, being familiar with other ancient Near Eastern texts, I knew that this was not correct. Even though Babylonian or Assyrian laws are not usually accompanied by such clauses, many indeed are. So, I decided to study in greater detail this literary phenomenon.
Motivational clauses appear in different forms. Some biblical laws are accompanied by explanatory statements, appealing to the common sense of its time, such as: When a master hits a slave and the slave survives, “he [the master] is not to be avenged, since he [the slave] is the man’s property” (Ex. 21: 21). In other texts, the clause justifies the law by appealing to God’s authority, like, “You shall be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev. 19: 2). Others, instill a fear of punishment. For example, priests are prohibited from drinking liquor when entering a tent of Meeting, “lest they die” (Lev. 10:9). Yet, others promise well-being after the law is implemented: honor your parents, “so that you may long endure on the land that the Lord your God is assigning you” (Ex. 20: 12). Here are two examples from the ancient Near Eastern texts: According to the Laws of Hammurabi the builder, who sets up a shaky structure that collapses, is responsible for the damage, “because he did not make strong the house he built and it fell down” (LH 232). According to Middle Assyrian laws, in case of divorce, the husband can take back his gifts but not what she brought into the marriage, “it being reserved for the woman” (MAL A 38).
Where does the literary influence come from to provide legal statements with motivational clauses? I argue that the source is the wisdom literature. An analysis of proverbs, maxims or words of the sages in the ancient Near East, including the Bible, shows that laws and proverbs are very often formulated with motivational clauses. Examples: “Keep your feet from their (the sinners) path, for their feet run to evil” (Prov. 1: 16); or, “Do not crush the needy in the public court, for the Lord will take up their cause” (Prov. 22:22-23). Or, in extra biblical wisdom texts: a popular saying in Byblos, “My field is like a woman without a husband, because it lacks a cultivator”. Or, “Do not reproach someone older than you, for he has seen the Sun before you” (Proverbs of Amenemope, Ch. 27:1, Egypt).
If motivational clauses are found both in sapiental literature and laws, it is very tempting to argue that biblical laws were not laws per se, carried out by the courts, but wisdom sayings that encouraged people to do the right thing. That changes the entire perspective of the way in which we read and study the so-called biblical laws, which, I maintain, are only guiding principles, recommendations, encouraging statements or customary practices, but not laws.
It is also important to note that of the thousands of legal cases we have available in the Babylonian literature, not a single case has been resolved by saying that it was “according to the laws in Hammurabi.” Similarly, we do not have any court case in the Bible that was clearly adjudicated according to a prescribed law. Indeed, the shoftim (“officials,” in biblical Hebrew this word does not mean “judges”) who functioned as leaders in ancient Israel (e.g., Deut. 16: 18) were most likely guided by customary practices of their time. Law emerged later on in Jewish history, when Rabbis began to codify the teachings of the Bible (e.g. the Mishnah and Talmud) and transformed them into norms that could be enforced by religious courts.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Framingham State University
Books by Rifat Sonsino:
FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)
DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)
SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)
VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)
MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)
MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)