What's Divine about Divine Law?

Early Perspectives

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Christine Hayes
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , July
     432 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The plan for Christine Hayes’s book—What’s Divine About Divine Law?—is a simple one, comparative in nature. Namely, Hayes seeks to compare the ancient Israelite and subsequent rabbinic perspectives on “divine” law with those of the ancient Greeks. Attempting to construct nuanced definitions of each community’s definition and understanding of what “divine law” means, Hayes traces the underlying assumptions and beliefs in the Hebrew Bible, and the more explicit notions written in Greek philosophical works. She establishes a surprisingly inverse understanding of divine law between these two intellectual communities: the Israelite notion of divine law as God’s dynamic, and sometimes irrational or inexplicable, relationship to human life, always changing and adapting to new circumstances; and, the Greek notion that divine law must be completely unchanging, as well as completely rational and comprehensible in all circumstances. Ultimately, Hayes employs Hellenistic legal philosophy as a measure of comparison, a lens through which to better understand the nuances of divine law in Judaism.

After tracing divine law in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple writings, Hayes launches into what is arguably the most exciting part of the book: rabbinic conceptions of divine law. Hayes traces the way in which the Talmud negotiates its concept of divine law, including those cases in which the Talmud (1) outlines a divine law which it proceeds to make inapplicable, in order to avoid what it sees as ethically troublesome elements to the divine edict; and those cases in which the Talmud (2) establishes what the divine law is, but goes on to simply dismiss it and unapologetically “rule differently.” In making her argument, she gives the well-known example of the ben sorer u’moreh, the wicked son who disobeys his parents. While the Bible explicitly says his parents should take him to the city gates for death by stoning, the Talmud creates so many additional criteria for determining their son’s wickedness in order to—ultimately—make it impossible to ever have a real case against ben sorer u’moreh. In this way, the Talmud does not deny divine law, but rather does something arguably more radical: it refuses to apply it, using the manmade legal loopholes at its disposal. Even more boldly, certain passages bring God to task for His unethical edicts. For example, Hayes discusses a midrashic, or narrative/exegetical passage in Numbers Rabbah 19:33, commenting on the biblical passage in which God declares, “the sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons.” In the midrash, Moses declares that this is unethical, and that people should not have to bear the punishments of their parents. Ultimately, God declares, “You have taught me something. By your life, I will nullify my decree and establish your word.”

Hayes calls this phenomenon in rabbinic literature one of “conscious ethical modification of divine law,” something the rabbis often thought to be based on “values internal to the halakhic system,” thereby working within a broader notion of “divine law” (324).

While What’s Divine About Divine Law? may seem pedantic and tedious at its start, it is entirely worthwhile to push through to the book’s end—as Hayes is at her best when discussing rabbinic discourse. Hers is a model for how one might best analyze rabbinic passages, both methodologically and theologically.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rachel Slutsky is a doctoral student in Jewish studies at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christine Hayes is the Robert F. and Patricia R. Weis Professor of Religious Studies in Classical Judaica at Yale University. Her books include Introduction to the BibleThe Emergence of Judaism: Classical Traditions in Contemporary Perspective, and Gentile Impurities and Jewish Identities: Intermarriage and Conversion from the Bible to the Talmud.


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