Covenant Code

Covenant Code

The Covenant Code, or alternatively Book of the Covenant, is the name given by academics to a text appearing in the Torah at Exodus 20:19 - 23:33. Biblically, the text is the second of the law codes given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. This legal text provides a small, but substantive proportion of the mitzvot within the torah, and hence is a source of Jewish Law.


Academic context

According to the modern documentary hypothesis, the text was originally independent, but later embedded by the Elohist ("E") in their writings. In biblical criticism, the code is understood to be the Elohist's version of the legal code which the Jahwist ("J") presents as the Ritual Decalogue. In the combined JE source, supposed by such critical scholarship, these two texts appear together, with the Ritual Decalogue appearing to be a summary version. Such academic study also supposes that the Elohist version had the Covenant Code being written on the two tablets of the law, whereas in JE, it is only the Ritual Decalogue which has this feature.

The original Priestly Source, according to the documentary hypothesis, then rewrote this to support their own ideas of law, replacing the Ritual Decalogue with the Ethical Decalogue (or the Ten Commandments), and the Covenant Code with the Holiness Code. After accretion of much extra legal material over a course of time, the resulting version of the Priestly source was combined with the JE source, its law code consequently appearing, in the torah, to be God's replacement, and expansion, of the earlier two codes after the incident of the Golden Calf, in which the first pair of the tablets of law were destroyed.

The form and content of the code is similar to many of the other codes from the near east of the early first millennium BC, in particular the Hammurabi code of Babylon. According to many scholars, such as Martin Noth and Albrecht Alt, the covenant code probably originated as a civil code with the Canaanites, and was altered to add Hebrew religious practices. Other scholars such as Michael Coogan see a noticeable difference between the Covenant Code and the non-biblical codes like the Code of Hammurabi. The Covenant Code consists largely of case or Casuistic Law (case law, often in the form of a conditional sentence, which specific situations are addressed)[1] which deals with particularly with Exodus 21:33-36. The Apodictic laws (a type of law characterized by absolute or general commands or prohibitions, as in the Ten Commandments)[2] on the other hand are more general and the Covenant Code contains some of these as well, for example in Exodus 21:17.[3] The Covenant Code, like other biblical codes, differs from these by including among the laws dealing with criminal and civil matters various regulations concerning worship. Both, however, set the laws in an explicitly religious context.[4]


It is much debated within academic circles whether the Ritual Decalogue, or the Covenant Code, was the original form, as they have a strong resemblance to one another. It is certainly the case that the Covenant Code resembles an expansion of the Ritual Decalogue, but conversely, the Ritual Decalogue resembles a summarizing of the Covenant Code. Nevertheless, it is equally possible that both of these codes were independently constructed, based on shared, or at least similar, underlying actual laws, or religious ideals.

Evident Values

The Covenant Code portrays the values of the society in which it was produced, some of which are different from Western twentieth-century values.

With the ancient cultural view of women as property of men, the casuistic law regarding the seduced virgin in Exodus 22:16-17 portrays a woman who, as the property of her father, has had her value diminished by the loss of her virginity. However, this law still calls for restitution to be paid by the man who seduced her. A second example comes from Exodus 21:20-21, which describes the punishment required for a slave owner who strikes his slave with a rod. If the slave survives his or her injuries there is no punishment required because he or she does not have the same rights as Israelite males.[5]

In some instances, the values represented in the Covenant Code are more similar to present-day, Western values. Two examples include the placing of mothers on the same level as fathers in Exodus 21:15,17, and providing for special care of members of lesser social classes, including aliens, widows and orphans (Exodus 22:21-22).[6]


  1. ^ Coogan, Michael D., "A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament, Oxford University Press, 2009, pg. 424
  2. ^ Coogan, Michael D., Oxford, pg. 424
  3. ^ Coogan, Michael D., Oxford, pgs. 109-110
  4. ^ Coogan, Michael D., "A Brief Introduction To The Old Testament, Oxford University Press, 2009, pg 110
  5. ^ Coogan, Michael D., "A Brief Introduction To The Old Testament, Oxford University Press, 2009, pg 110
  6. ^ Coogan, Michael D., "A Brief Introduction To The Old Testament, Oxford University Press, 2009, pg 110-111

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