J. Reuben Clark Law Society

Fourth Annual Biblical and Ancient Law Section Meeting

The J. Reuben Clark Law Society’s Section of Biblical and Ancient Law held its fourth annual section meeting at the Annual Conference in Tempe, AZ.  Despite being scheduled first thing in the morning after a night of big band dancing and Valentine’s Day celebrations, the Section was nevertheless able to get an enthusiastic turnout.
As always, the meeting generated vibrant discussion. After attending to some Section house-keeping, section co-chairs John Welch and Cliff Parkinson conducted a discussion on the topic of Biblical law in light of contemporary legal and societal challenges. Welch and Parkinson suggested that the Bible is an underutilized source in political and legal dialogue. All too often Biblical law is used (and often abused) by one side of the aisle, while it is completely dismissed by the other side. Welch and Parkinson argued that this need not be the case, and that if Biblical law were better understood by all sides, it could be a more effective springboard for thoughtful and responsible policy and law making.
The discussion largely focused on a book by British scholar Jonathan Burnside entitled God, Justice, and Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (Oxford University Press: 2010).  Professor Welch is currently using this book as one of the primary texts in his course at the J. Reuben Clark Law School on law in the Bible and the ancient Near East.  Professor Welch described Burnside’s background as a student of Bernard Jackson, a well-respected pioneer in the field of Biblical legal studies. Welch also gave a general introduction to God, Justice, and
Society, describing it as a book that effectively makes Biblical laws (and policies underlying
them) relevant to contemporary problems.
To highlight Burnside’s ability to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of Biblical Law, Parkinson gave a synopsis of Burnside’s chapter on Biblical laws concerning social welfare.  The chapter deals, in significant part, with the Sabbatical Laws as social welfare laws. For instance, Burnside identifies the prohibition against work on the Sabbath Day as the modern equivalent of a labor law to protect workers from exploitation. Burnside’s position that the laws against usury were a legal method for avoiding an interest-based economy was also briefly discussed.  In Burnside’s view, the prohibition against usury created an economy in which lender’s interests were inextricably bound with borrowers. Should the borrower’s venture fail, the lender’s money would be lost. Burnside argues that such a policy engenders more responsible lending.  Burnside goes so far as to argue that the irresponsible lending practices of an interest-based economy, which led to the recent subprime mortgage crisis, could have been avoided by adhering to the policy of responsible lending which underlies the Biblical laws against usury.
Professor Welch discussed the relevance of Biblical law in areas such as family law and immigration. On the latter topic, Professor Welch noted the special place of the immigrant in
Biblical law, and pointed out the immigrant (often appearing in translation as the “alien”) was afforded special protections by Biblical law.
Professor Welch closed the discussion by encouraging the Section to become more familiar with Biblical Law not only to use it as a source for common ground when discussing it in contemporary problems, but as a way to show fellow Bible believers and enthusiasts that Latter-day Saints know the Bible and can converse intelligently on its intricacies.
In the course of the meeting, Section members were directed to a number of sources they could use to enhance their study of Biblical Law.  Professor Welch introduced the Section meeting attendees to several books that he uses, along with Burnside’s God, Justice, and Society, to teach his course on Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Law.  These include Ze’ev Falk’s Hebrew Law in Biblical Times (BYU Press and Eisenbrauns: 2001), Raymond Westbrook’s and Bruce Wells’ Everyday Law in Biblical Israel (Westminster John Knox: 2009), and Professor Welch’s own The Legal Cases in the Book of Mormon (FARMS and Maxwell Institute: 2008). 
The Section’s blog was also identified as a good source for studying Biblical Law. The blog is currently found at www.sobaal.wordpress.com. The blog contains reviews of books and articles.  In the coming months it will feature chapter reviews from Burnside’s God, Justice, and Society.  Section members, and those simply interested in Biblical Law, are encouraged to check the blog often for discussion of new sources for the Study of Biblical law. The Section is also currently soliciting requests for topics to be discussed on the blog and ways in which the Section can better provide information to its members and foster online and offline discussion of Biblical and Ancient Law. Any suggestions should be left in the comment section of the blog. 
The steady interest in this relatively new Section of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society has been exciting to experience. The Section leaders are looking forward to continued growth in the Section and increased interest in Biblical and Ancient Law.
By Clifford Parkinson

Posted: March 10, 2015