Shechem and Consideration
posted by Nate Oman
I have been thinking about the value of the Bible as a pedagogical tool. I am not much of a fan of the notion that the common law somehow rests on the Judeo-Christian tradition or that the Ten Commandments are the basis of our modern legal system. To be sure, I do think that the Bible has had its influence on our law, but if one is seeking for origins of the common law, I think that feuding norms among the pagan barbarians of northern Europe is a better bet. Still, the Bible is full of law, and I think that this law is useful for its very strangeness. (Also, as a Mormon, I labor under some religious guilt due to the fact that Brigham Young and other early Mormon authorities taught repeatedly that lawyers were the spawn of Satan and essentially on the road to hell. I take comfort in the fact that God is clearly a lawyer.)
For example, a few days ago I gave a brief lecture on the history of contract to my students. One of the points I wanted to make is that contract law is a relatively late development. Early legal systems seem to go to work immediately on issues like ownership of land, inheritance, and crime. Contract comes only later. I illustrated the point by noting that there is an enormous amount of law in the Pentateuch governing everything from ritual purity to what oxen may or may not eat while plowing the fields. There is not much in there, however, on contracts. To be sure there are rules about debt, and covenant, which is a vaguely contract-y idea, figures prominently in Biblical stories. Still, you’ll search Exodus to Deuteronomy in vain for anything like a general theory of contract.
Here is another possible example: Understanding the usefulness of consideration as a formality can be tricky. Fuller argued that forms serve an evidentiary function, but what exactly do we mean by an evidentiary function? Consider the following story from the Book of Joshua. At the end of his life, Joshua gathers the Children of Israel together at Shechem and offers them a choice: Will they promise to serve the God of Israel or not? The Children of Israel insist that they want to covenant to follow Yahweh, and Joshua then leads them through various formalities to make the commitment binding. The text says:
So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. . . . And he took a great stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord which he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” (Joshua 24:25-27 (RSV))
Why the rock? It is a formality that Joshua goes through to make the promise binding, and its purpose is to provide future evidence of the covenant. Should any Israelite in the future try to serve other gods, then Yahweh can insist that he or she has promised to serve only him. Should the erring Israelite have a convenient lapse of memory, then God can point to the rock. “Look,” he can say, “that rock stands there under the oak tree because you made the promise at Shechem with Joshua.” The formality reduces the problem of proving the contract ex post.
I love this story because of its strangeness. (I always imagine Dell and Microsoft entering into a licensing agreement and setting up a sacred rock someplace in Seattle to memorialize the deal.) Furthermore, it is precisely the strangeness of the story that makes it useful for thinking about the law. Our problem is that we forget how weird our own laws are and therefore can have a hard time seeing clearly what they are doing. In this sense, the Bible is pedagogically useful precisely because it has lost most of its salience in our culture. Most students (even in southern Virginia) are unlike to have the story of the Shechem Covenant at their fingertips. It sounds wierd to them, and that is useful.
Or it may simply be my perverse love of legal anachronism.