Along with literary writings, many of the political writings uncovered from the ancient world have proven relevant to our understanding of the Old Testament. Among these, law codes in particular have provided links between the Bible and the ancient Near Eastern world. Two of the more well-known examples are the Nuzi texts and the Code of Hammurabi which bear special relevance to the Patriarchal and Mosaic periods of Israelite history respectively.
The Nuzi texts consist of about 20,000 clay tablets inscribed by a people called the Hurrians who lived in the Zagros mountains around the 15th century BC. The texts consist primarily of private and public legal documents which, while not particularly interesting to read, are very helpful for understanding the social customs of the period. In many cases, the social conditions and customs described in the Nuzi tablets parallel those described in the Patriarchal period of the Old Testament (i.e., the period of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). For example, the laws of inheritance at Nuzi held that a double-portion of a father’s estate was to be given to the eldest son. In addition, the eldest son held the right to sell his double-portion if he so chose (cf. Jacob and Esau, Gen. 25:29-34). The laws of inheritance at Nuzi also indicate that if a man had no son to be his heir he could adopt an heir of his choice (cf. Abraham and Eliezer, Gen. 15:1-3) or produce an heir through his wife’s maidservant (cf. Abraham and Hagar, Gen:16:1-4). The Nuzi texts also contain regulations concerning the possession of household gods (Gen. 31:19) as well as the practice of conferring oral blessings on others (cf. the blessing of Isaac, Gen. 27:1-40; the blessing of Jacob, Gen. 49:1-28). Parallels such as these have provoked a good deal of speculation and debate among scholars with regard to the historical setting of the Patriarchal narratives.
Another ancient Near Eastern law code called the Code of Hammurabi was inscribed on a pillar by the great Babylonian king Hammurabi sometime around the 18th century BC. As with the Nuzi texts, there are various parallels between the Code of Hammurabi and the Old Testament. The first and, perhaps, most striking of these is Hammurabi’s claim to have been given the code by Shamash (i.e. the sun-god) on a mountaintop (cf. Exodus 19:20). The Code of Hammurabi also contains various structural similarities to the Law of Moses as contained in Exodus 20-23, although nothing resembling the Ten Commandments is found in either the Code of Hammurabi or any other ancient Near Eastern law code for that matter. In both codes, the principle of Lex Talionis (i.e. “an eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth”, cf. Ex. 21:24; Lv. 24:20; Dt. 19:21) provides the basic framework for the concept of justice and, in addition, many of the specific case laws are remarkably similar. These include punishments for striking one’s parents (cf. Exodus 21:15), assaulting a pregnant woman (Exodus 21:22), failing to restrain a goring ox (Exodus 21:28-32), theft (Exodus 22:1), and adultery (Exodus 22:16). As with other ancient Near Eastern texts, the significance of these similarities is debated among scholars who arrive at different conclusions.
While this brief introduction to ancient Near Eastern texts is far from exhaustive, it does provide a taste of what scholars are doing when comparing the Bible to other ancient Near Eastern texts. The four texts dealt with above constitute only a small portion of what ancient Near Eastern literature has to offer the field of Biblical studies, but they are certainly among the most complete and relevant in the field. Some other texts frequently addressed in relation to the Bible include: the Sumerian King List (describes ten rulers from before the flood with reigns lasting from 18,000-40,000 years), the Legend of Adapa (Mesopotamian legend mentioning the tree of life), the Amarna Letters (letters written from Palestine requesting Egypt’s aid against a group of people called the Hapiru—possibly Hebrews), the Baal Cycle of Myths (Canaanite mythology about the god Baal), the Ur-Nammu Law Code, the Lipit-Ishtar Law Code, the Hittite Law Code, and the Eshnunna Law Code.
The relationship between these ancient Near Eastern texts and the text of the Bible have intrigued scholars for many years. One thing generally agreed upon is that of these ancient texts, the biblical texts were composed later than the Mesopotamian texts by even the earliest possible date for the exodus. Hence, one cannot argue that the Mesopotamians borrowed from the Bible. The inverse is possible, of course. The authors of the Bible may have borrowed ideas from the Mesopotamian texts, and in fact, most historical-critical scholars arrive at such a conclusion. Still, at least two other reasonable possibilities exist. One is that there was a common stock of ancient oral tradition that was older than and lay behind both the biblical and Mesopotamian materials. The other is that the Genesis accounts of the creation and flood may be apologetic material aimed at correcting the false cosmogonies of Mesopotamia. Either of these hypotheses would account for the linguistic links and literary parallels between the various texts.