The Code of Hammurabi: a Babylonian Code of Law of Ancient Mesopotamia

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The Code of Hammurabi is a well-preserved Babylonian code of law of ancient Mesopotamia, dated to about 1754 BC (Middle Chronology). It is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world. The sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi, enacted the code. A partial copy exists on a 2.25-meter-tall (7.5 ft) stone stele. It consists of 282 laws, with scaled punishments, adjusting “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (lex talionis)[1] as graded based on social stratification depending on social status and gender, of slave versus free, man versus woman.[2]

Nearly half of the code deals with matters of contract, establishing the wages to be paid to an ox driver or a surgeon for example. Other provisions set the terms of a transaction, the liability of a builder for a house that collapses, or property that is damaged while left in the care of another. A third of the code addresses issues concerning household and family relationships such as inheritance, divorce, paternity, and reproductive behavior. Only one provision appears to impose obligations on a government official; this provision establishes that a judge who alters his decision after it is written down is to be fined and removed from the bench permanently.[3] A few provisions address issues related to military service.

Prologue_Hammurabi_Code_Louvre_AO10237-The code on clay tablets
Prologue_Hammurabi_Code_Louvre_AO10237-The code on clay tablets

Code_of_Hammurabi - The code on a diorite stele
The code on a diorite stele

The code was discovered by modern archaeologists in 1901, and its editio princeps translation published in 1902 by Jean-Vincent Scheil. This nearly complete example of the code is carved into a diorite stele[4] in the shape of a huge index finger,[5] 2.25 m (7.4 ft) tall. The code is inscribed in the Akkadian language, using cuneiform script carved into the stele. The material was imported into Sumeria from Magan – today the area covered by the United Arab Emirates and Oman.[6]

stele Hammurabis code of laws
Figures at the top of the stele “fingernail”, above Hammurabi’s code of laws.

It is currently on display in the Louvre, with replicas in numerous institutions, including the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago, the Clendening History of Medicine Library & Museum at the University of Kansas Medical Center, the library of the Theological University of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, the Pergamon Museum of Berlin, the Arts Faculty of the University of Leuven in Belgium, the National Museum of Iran in Tehran, the Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, the University Museum at the University of Pennsylvania, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Russia, the Prewitt-Allen Archaeological Museum at Corban University, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.

History

Hammurabi ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC according to the Middle chronology. In the preface to the law, he states, “Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.”[7] On the stone slab are 44 columns and 28 paragraphs that contained 282 laws. Some of these laws follow along the rules of “an eye for an eye.”[8]

It was taken as plunder by the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte in the 12th century BC and was taken to Susa in Elam (located in the present-day Khuzestan Province of Iran), where it was no longer available to the Babylonian people. However, when Cyrus the Great brought both Babylon and Susa under the rule of his Persian Empire and placed copies of the document in the Library of Sippar, the text became available for all the peoples of the vast Persian Empire to view.[9]

In 1901, Egyptologist Gustave Jéquier, a member of an expedition headed by Jacques de Morgan, found the stele containing the Code of Hammurabi during archaeological excavations at the ancient site of Susa in Khuzestan.[10]

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Laws of Hammurabi’s Code

The Code of Hammurabi was one of the only sets of laws in the ancient Near East and also one of the first forms of law.[11] The code of laws was arranged in orderly groups so that all who read the laws would know what was required of them.[12] Earlier collections of laws include the Code of Ur-Nammu, king of Ur (c.  2050 BC), the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 1930 BC) and the codex of Lipit-Ishtar of Isin (c. 1870 BC), while later ones include the Hittite laws, the Assyrian laws, and Mosaic Law.[13] These codes come from similar cultures in a relatively small geographical area, and they have passages that resemble each other.[14]

The Code of Hammurabi is the longest surviving text from the Old Babylonian period.[15] The code has been seen as an early example of a fundamental law, regulating a government – i.e., a primitive constitution.[16] The code is also one of the earliest examples of the idea of presumption of innocence, and it also suggests that both the accused and accuser have the opportunity to provide evidence.[17] The occasional nature of many provisions suggests that the code may be better understood as a codification of Hammurabi’s supplementary judicial decisions, and that, by memorializing his wisdom and justice, its purpose may have been the self-glorification of Hammurabi rather than a modern legal code or constitution. However, its being copied in subsequent generations indicates that it was used as a model of legal and judicial reasoning.[18]

While the Code of Hammurabi was trying to achieve equality, biases still existed against those categorized in the lower end of the social spectrum and some of the punishments and justice could be gruesome. The magnitude of criminal penalties often was based on the identity and gender of both the person committing the crime and the victim. The Code issues justice following the three classes of Babylonian society: property owners, freedmen, and slaves.[19]

Punishments for someone assaulting someone from a lower class were far lighter than if they had assaulted someone of equal or higher status.[20] For example, if a doctor killed a rich patient, he would have his hands cut off, but if he killed a slave, only financial restitution was required.[21] Women could also receive punishments that their male counterparts would not, as men were permitted to have affairs with their servants and slaves, whereas married women would be harshly punished for committing adultery.[22]

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Laws of Hammurabi’s Code and the Mosaic Law

The Bible, the Word of God, given to us by men who were moved along by the Holy Spirit is the torch of civilization and of liberty. When we think of the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the many speeches of the apostle Paul, the book of Psalms and Proverbs, there is no other book that can be likened to it. Nevertheless, this has not stopped secular scholars from comparing the Code of Hammurabi to the Ten Commandments, implying that Moses took the Ten Commandments from the Code of  Hammurabi instead of them being given directly from God. This is hardly the truth and is an insult to every Bible-believing Christian and Jew. The Ten Commandments focus on the worship of Jehovah God; while the Hammurabi Code emphasizes the secular matters. Even when we look to secular matters we still find a major difference. The Ten Commandments not only forbid murder, but the Mosaic Law as a whole only gives the punishment of death for the willful murder of another and makes a distinction between murder and manslaughter. (Num. 35:9-34; Ex 21:12-14) On the other hand, in the Code of Hammurabi, as the Encyclopædia Britannica shows us, “a strange omission from the code is that of willful murder, and there is uncertainty as to how it was punished or by whom the retribution was inflicted.” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Vol. 11, page 43)

Under the Mosaic Law, premeditated murder was met with the death penalty, while the unintentional manslaughter received confinement at one of the seven cities of refuge, until the death of the high priest. In other parts of the Near East, the victim’s family member was expected to repay death regardless of whether it was intentional murder or unintentional manslaughter. In this connection, a statement by Philip Biberfeld, a rabbi, in his Universal Jewish History, is of interest,

The Code of Hammurabi, the Hittite Laws, and the Biblical Laws contained in the Book of the Covenant and other parts of the Bible go back to a common source which is best preserved in the Bible where it has retained its original simplicity . . . The common source that can be traced in all these codes is identical with the Noahidic Laws which, according to the tradition, were the inheritance of all mankind. In the Book of the Covenant this original divine law was promulgated again with the modifications of Biblical legislation . . . All this establishes beyond any doubt the conviction that the simple and lucid formulations of the Bible were not the product of an artificial process of elimination but those of the original version in all their purity and simplicity. This conclusion has implications which extend far beyond the realm of these ancient legislations. It has a decisive bearing on all those instances where the pure and beautiful Biblical traditions are confronted by mythological parallels with all their ugly distortions.  (Biberfeld 1948, 153-154)

It should also be pointed out as well that the last of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall not covet.” (Ex. 20:17, UASV) That Mosaic Law is unparalleled in the historical records of jurisprudence. It is a law burrows down into the very heart of crime, and yet its implementation is dependent in large measure on the individual person himself.

Says a leading archaeologist G. A Barton: “A comparison of the code of Hammurabi as a whole with the Pentateuchal laws as a whole, while it reveals certain similarities, convinces the student that the laws of the Old Testament are in no essential way dependent upon the Babylonian laws. Such resemblances as there are arose, it seems clear, from a similarity of antecedents and of general intellectual outlook; the striking differences show that there was no direct borrowing.”—Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (1916), 406.

The Mesopotamian people believed the god Shamash gave their law code to Hammurabi so that the people could have a better relationship with one another. The Mosaic Law was given first and foremost to the Israelite people so they could have a good relationship with their God Jehovah. Another difference between the two is that the Mosaic Law was equally applied to all, as there was no class distinction. The Babylonian law code was handed out according to social status, the more harsh punishments going to those, who had no social standing. For example, adultery under the Mosaic Law required that both participants be put to death, whereas the Babylonian law only required that the woman be put to death.

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Other Copies

Various copies of portions of the Code of Hammurabi have been found on baked clay tablets, some possibly older than the celebrated basalt stele now in the Louvre. The Prologue of the Code of Hammurabi (the first 305 inscribed squares on the stele) is on such a tablet, also at the Louvre (Inv #AO 10237). Some gaps in the list of benefits bestowed on cities recently annexed by Hammurabi may imply that it is older than the famous stele (currently dated to the early 18th century BC).[23] Likewise, the Museum of the Ancient Orient, part of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, also has a “Code of Hammurabi” clay tablet, dated to 1790 BC (in Room 5, Inv # Ni 2358).[24]

In July 2010, archaeologists reported that a fragmentary Akkadian cuneiform tablet was discovered at Tel Hazor, Israel, containing a c. 1700 BC text that was said to be partly parallel to portions of the Hammurabi code. The Hazor law code fragments are currently being prepared for publication by a team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.[25]

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Laws Covered

One of the best known laws from Hammurabi’s code was:

Ex. Law #196: “If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man’s bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroy the eye of a man’s slave or break a bone of a man’s slave he shall pay one-half his price.”[26]

Hammurabi had many other punishments, as well. If a son strikes his father, his hands shall be hewn off. Translations vary.[27]

The laws covered such subjects as:

Slander

Ex. Law #127: “If any one ‘point the finger’ at a sister of a god or the wife of any one, and cannot prove it, this man shall be taken before the judges and his brow shall be marked (by cutting the skin, or perhaps hair).”[28]

Fraud

Ex. Law #265: “If a herdsman, to whose care cattle or sheep have been entrusted, be guilty of fraud and make false returns of the natural increase, or sell them for money, then shall he be convicted and pay the owner ten times the loss.”[29]

Slavery and status of slaves as property

Ex. Law #15: “If anyone take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.”[30]

The duties of workers

Ex. Law #42: “If anyone take over a field to till it, and obtain no harvest therefrom, it must be proved that he did no work on the field, and he must deliver grain, just as his neighbor raised, to the owner of the field.”[31]

Theft

Ex. Law #22: “If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.”[32]

Trade

Ex. Law #104: “If a merchant give an agent grain, wool, oil, or any other goods to transport, the agent shall give a receipt for the amount, and compensate the merchant therefore, he shall obtain a receipt from the merchant for the money that he gives the merchant.”[33]

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Liability

Ex. Law #53: “If any one be too apathetic to keep his dam in primly condition, and does not so keep it; if then the dam break and all the fields be flooded, then shall he in whose dam the break occurred be sold for money, and the money shall replace the crops which he has caused to be ruined.”[34]

Divorce

Ex. Law #142: “If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: “You are not congenial to me,” the reasons for her prejudice must be presented. If she is guiltless, and there is no fault on her part, but he leaves and neglects her, then no guilt attaches to this woman, she shall take her dowry and go back to her father’s house.”[35]

Adultery

Ex. Law #129: “If the wife of a man has been caught lying with another man, they shall bind them and throw them into the waters. If the owner of the wife would save his wife then in turn the king could save his servant.”[36]

Perjury

Ex. Law #3: “If a man has borne false witness in a trial or has not established the statement that he has made if that case be a capital trial, that man shall be put to death.”[37]

by Wikipedia and Edward D. Andrews

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[1] Prince, J. Dyneley (July 1904). “The Code of Hammurabi”. The American Journal of Theology. The University of Chicago Press. 8 (3): 601–609.

[2] Gabriele Bartz & Eberhard König, Arts and Architecture—Louvre, (Köln: Könemann, 2005). The laws were based with scaled punishments, adjusting “an eye for an eye” depending on social status and gender.

[3] Code of Hammurabi Archived 21 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine at commonlaw.com Code of Hammarubi at Commonlaw, 22 May 2017

[4] Moorey, P. R. S. (Peter Roger Stuart), 1937- (1999). Ancient mesopotamian materials and industries: the archaeological evidence. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns. p. 29.

[5] Iconographic Evidence for Some Mesopotamian Cult Statues, Dominique Collon, Die Welt der Götterbilder, Edited by Groneberg, Brigitte; Spieckermann, Hermann, and Weiershäuser, Frauke, Berlin, New York (Walter de Gruyter) 2007, pp. 57–84

[6] RAGOZIN, ZENAIDE A. (2017). STORY OF CHALDEA FROM THE EARLIEST TIMES TO THE RISE OF ASSYRIA: treated as a general … introduction to the study of ancient history. [Place of publication not identified]: FORGOTTEN Books. p. 209.

[7] Edited by Richard Hooker; Translated by L.W King (1996). “Mesopotamia: The Code of Hammurabi”. Washington State University. Archived from the original on 9 September 2007. Retrieved 14 September 2007.

[8] “Hammurabi’s Code” “Archived copy”. Archived from the original on 1 November 2011. Retrieved 11 November 2011., Think Quest, retrieved on 2 Nov 2011.

[9] Marc Van De Mieroop: A History of the Ancient Near East, second edition p. 296

[10] Cultures in Contact: From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2013.

[11] L.W. King (2005). “The Code of Hammurabi: Translated by L.W. King”. Yale University. Archived from the original on 16 September 2007. Retrieved 14 September 2007.

[12] “The Code of Hammurabi: Introduction,” [1], Ancient History Sourcebook, March 1998, retrieved on Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[13] Barton, G.A: Archaeology and the Bible. University of Michigan Library, 2009, (originally published in 1916 by American Sunday-School Union) p. 406.

[14] Barton 2009, p. 406. Barton, a scientist of Semitic languages at the University of Pennsylvania from 1922 to 1931, stated that while there are similarities between the Mosaic Law and the Code of Hammurabi, a study of the entirety of both laws “convinces the student that the laws of the Old Testament are in no essential way dependent upon the Babylonian laws.” He states that “such resemblances” arose from “a similarity of antecedents and of general intellectual outlook” between the two cultures, but that “the striking differences show that there was no direct borrowing.”

[15] “The Code of Hammurabi,” [2], The History Guide, 3 August 2009, Retrieved on Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[16] What is a Constitution? William David Thomas, Gareth Stevens (2008) p. 8; Flach, Jacques. Le Code de Hammourabi et la constitution originaire de la propriete dans l’ancienne Chaldee. (Revue historique. Paris, 1907. 8. v. 94, pp. 272–289.

[17] Victimology: Theories and Applications, Ann Wolbert Burgess, Albert R. Roberts, Cheryl Regehr, Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2009, p. 103

[18] Victimology: Theories and Applications, Ann Wolbert Burgess, Albert R. Roberts, Cheryl Regehr, Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2009, p. 103

[19] “8 Things You May Not Know About Hammurabi’s Code”. History.com. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[20] “8 Things You May Not Know About Hammurabi’s Code”. History.com. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[21] “What was Babylon?”. History Extra. Archived from the original on 29 January 2016. Retrieved 16 February 2016.

[22] “8 Things You May Not Know About Hammurabi’s Code”. History.com. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[23] Fant, Clyde E. and Mitchell G. Reddish (2008), Lost Treasures of the Bible: Understanding the Bible Through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 62

[24] Freely, John, Blue Guide Istanbul (5th ed., 2000), London: A&C Black, New York: WW Norton, p. 121. (“The most historic of the inscriptions here [i.e., Room 5, Museum of the Ancient Orient, Istanbul] is the famous Code of Hammurabi (#Ni 2358) dated 1750 BC, the world’s oldest recorded set of laws.”)

 Museum of the Ancient Orient website Archived 3 May 2012 at the Wayback Machine (“This museum contains a rich collection of ancient … archaeological finds, including … seals from Nippur and a copy of the Code of Hammurabi.”)

[25] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[26] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[27] Translated by L.W. King, Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, Hammurabi’s Code of Laws Archived 9 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine

Translated by L.W. King, Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, The Code of Hammurabi King of Babylon by Robert Francis Harper (PDF)

[28] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[29] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[30] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[31] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[32] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[33] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[34] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[35] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

[36] C. Sax, Benjamin (2001). Western Civilization Volume 1: From the Origins of Civilization to the Age of Absolutism. San Diego: Greenhaven Press. p. 35.

[37] “The Code of Hammurabi”. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Evinity Publishing. 2011. Retrieved Sunday, February 2, 2020.

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