Yael Landman, “The Biblical Law of Bailment in Its Ancient Near Eastern Contexts,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Yeshiva University, 2017
A bailment is an arrangement wherein one person gives property to another person to keep safe or to use for a temporary period and then to return in kind. My 2017 dissertation examined the biblical laws of bailment, reconstructing functions of bailment in the societies of ancient Israel and Judah through exegesis of primary sources and consideration of the socio-economic legal background to the laws. Though less headline-grabbing a legal topic than homicide or adultery, bailments were deeply embedded in the socio-economic fabric of the biblical world. Study of the sources pertaining to these transactions offers a previously untapped window into both the conceptual underpinnings of biblical law and everyday life in ancient Israel and Judah.
Beyond the Bible, I also investigated bailment in the cuneiform sources – both in law collections (including the Laws of Eshnunna, the Laws of Hammurabi, and the Hittite Laws) and in documents pertaining to legal practice – as a lens through which to elucidate the biblical material. In addition to adopting a comparative approach to the biblical and cuneiform material, I questioned the traditions to which the rabbis were heir and examined the relationship between biblical, cuneiform, and early Jewish law. I argued that the biblical law is not just a law about bailment, but also a law of fact-finding that advances a conception of divine justice. Specifically, I explored the range of methods the law invokes (e.g., testimony, physical evidence, cultic procedures) for reconstructing the facts of the case and for assigning blame and liability. The law creates a hierarchy of these fact-finding methods based on concerns such as protecting the vulnerable (as defined by the law) and the degree of certitude with which each method is thought to convince the wronged party of the innocence of the accused. I further argued for continuity between the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) bailment laws and post-biblical Jewish law, demonstrating that the rabbis’ distinction between paid and unpaid bailees finds precedent in the Laws of Hammurabi and Mesopotamian practice documents.
Following an introductory chapter, Chapter 2 features exegetical analysis of Exodus 22:6-14 and Leviticus 5:20-26, addressing concerns including whether the law of the Covenant Code (CC) envisions three or four kinds of bailments; how the law assigns different degrees of liability to different offenders; the efficacy of a synchronic approach in accounting for difficulties in the text compared to a diachronically-oriented methodology; and the relationship between the bailment-related law of the Priestly Laws (PL) and CC. Through analysis of individual exegetical problems and the law’s overarching structure, this chapter unpacks Exodus 22:6-14’s concern with fact-finding procedures and the primacy of negligence in the law beyond its central theme of bailment.
Chapter 3 examines sections from the cuneiform law collections that treat the same topics as Exodus 22:6-14: the deposit of goods and grains, herding, and animal rental. At its focus are features of evidentiary criteria, judicial procedures, and liability; the organizing principles of each law collection, including CC and how each collection’s bailment laws fit within its structure; the conceptual groundwork emerging from these laws; and finally, how the ANE and biblical laws share some facets of a distinct ANE legal tradition, while diverging from one another in ways that highlight their unique primary concerns and motivations.
Chapter 4 enters the realm of law and literature, examining biblical narrative and prophetic texts as exegetical aids for the laws in CC and as wells of data about legal practice in ancient Israel. They further serve as sources for uncovering perspectives about the law of bailment and of an ideal standard of justice. In particular, this chapter points to a range of scenarios in commercial, military, and other contexts in which bailments played a role in the economic processes of ancient Israel and Judah, filling in blanks such as where these arrangements might have taken place and between whom. It likewise draws comparisons between bailment as depicted by CC and in other biblical texts.
Chapter 5 considers aspects of bailment that emerge from Mesopotamian documents of legal practice, including records of deposit, letters, and trial records. It reads these sources in light of the law collections and extralegal texts treated in previous chapters and examines early Jewish texts relating to these topics, especially from the Elephantine papyri and the Mishnah. This chapter treats topics such as the range of functions bailments could serve, social backgrounds and kinds of bailees in various arrangements, bailments and legal fictions, and penalties for wrongdoing. It identifies points of contact between Mesopotamian legal documents, biblical and cuneiform law collections, and biblical narrative and prophetic texts relating to bailment, and finally posits relationships between biblical, ANE, and early Jewish law.
Chapter 6 draws on the analyses of primary sources in Chapters 2-5 and considers the institution emerging from these sources from a legal perspective. Legal concerns include the epistemological focus of Exodus 22:6-14, the law’s treatment of fact-finding methods, and gradations of fault and liability. This chapter also attends to questions from the legal discourse surrounding bailment in the modern period, such as whether one ought to consider bailment a matter of contract, tort, or property.
Through its study of a multifaceted legal institution thickly embedded in the socio-economic fabric of ancient Israel and the ANE, this dissertation offers a window into models of jurisprudence in the biblical world. When viewed in conjunction with the wealth of pertinent biblical and ANE sources, the biblical law of bailment can tell us about a law in its many contexts, about divine justice and compassion, about the interactions of law with literature, about everyday life in ancient societies, and about the earliest articulations of a legal topic whose relevance has persisted into the modern era.
Dr. Yael Landman is an Acquisitions Editor (Hebrew Bible, Ancient Near East, & Jewish Studies) at Gorgias Press.